Gear review: Rollei 35S

The incredibly small and mighty Rollei 35 S fits in your coat pocket and is capable of some truly great shots. This quirky camera is equipped with a fantastic lens and has a place in the history books as one of the smallest 35mm cameras ever produced. Here are my impressions of this little gem.

I decided to pick up this tiny camera a while ago as I wanted something small enough to fit in my coat pocket or bag to have with me all the time. They say the best camera is the one with you, which I agree with, but I also like it when it is a film camera!

A bit more about the camera

The Rollei 35 camera comes in many forms (usually with the abbreviations S, SE, etc), and it was first launched in 1966 as the world’s smallest 35mm camera. Mine has the abbreviation S to indicate it has a Sonnar lens (it was also made in Singapore). For a longer history on the different models please go here.

Other competitors for the world’s smallest 35mm include the Minox 35 and the Minolta TC-1, but what really sets the Rollei 35 apart is its build quality. This thing is built like a tank, it is a similar feeling when you pick up a Leica, just much smaller (c.385 grams for the Rollei and over 600 grams for my Leica M6 TTL, the Minox 35 by comparison weighs just 200 grams). It is actually relatively heavy for its small size.

My camera sports a 40mm f2.8 Carl Zeiss Sonnar lens. The lens is not coupled to the viewfinder, meaning you have to use the lens’ hyperfocal distance to guess the focus. A long and great overview of hyperfocal distance in photography here. In practice, this means you have to get good at estimating distances, knowing how far away your subject is from you and then using the focusing ring of the lens to select the right position. What aperture you use will also influence how much is in focus, for example shooting at f8 you could get anything from 3-10metres in focus. This all depends where you set the focus ring at on the lens. It is not as complicated as it sounds, but takes a bit of practice, especially if you are used to automatic focusing or a rangefinder. The Rollei’s viewfinder is very bright, but serves only as a composition aid.

The lens fully extended. You select the aperture and the shutter speed on either side of the lens. The lens also takes really tiny filters.

A quirky camera

The Rollei is well known for being a quirky camera, and for good reason. The way you shoot with this camera is quite counterintuitive compared to other similar 35mm cameras. Starting with the film wind on knob, this is on the wrong side of the camera! It is a bit strange at first, but you get used to it quite quickly. Another interesting function is the flash hot shoe, this is underneath the camera…certainly a first for me! The flash is also really small and you have this funny situation of turning the camera upside down to take a photo with flash (so the final photo is not upside down). The mechanism for revolving the film is also underneath the camera. I suppose the designers wanted to make this camera as small as possible so experimented with putting different functions is new places.

The unusual looking bottom of the camera (apologies for the out of focus shot!).

To give you an idea of the size of this camera, here it is next to my Leica M6.

Sometimes it is hard to believe a 35mm roll of film actually fits in this camera, it is so small! But at closer inspection of the back of the camera you can see how it all fits very nicely. The entire back plate slides off and you are left with a small area to load the film into manually.

Enough about the camera already, show me some shots!

Here is a small selection of some of my favourite shots so far with the Rollei 35 S….

Overall observations

As quirky as the camera is, it is easy to see why there is a real cult surrounding it, even to this day. I really enjoy shooting this camera, it has a very particular feel to it, especially its build quality. I have noticed that the Carl Zeiss lens really excels with professional grade film (whether colour or black and white), less so with cheaper film. As with all cameras of this age, they do need a checkup every now and then and mine is probably overdue one. I know this because sometimes the film roll gets a bit stuck towards the end of the roll and you can get a jamming of the negative. I will take it in for a clean and checkup sometime soon.

Here are some overall pros and cons:

The pros

  • Superb build quality

  • Pocketable (we are talking a jacket or coat here not jeans)

  • A lens that will really surprise you for how fantastic it can be

  • The viewfinder is very bright with clear framelines, it is very easy to compose with

  • Great for street photography due to its small size and quiet shutter

  • Hyperfocal distance focusing helps for undercover type shots

The cons

  • Not many, really…but for the sake of a review here are some:

  • Its quirkiness may put you off (for me it is a masterful piece of design though)

  • The light meter may not work due to age (but I wouldn’t really use it anyways)

  • The position of the flash may annoy you (it is a great conversation starter I have to say!)

As you can see I have very little to complain about with this camera. I like the simplicity of having a fixed 40mm lens, a couple of filters for black & white photography, and a tiny flash if I really need it. The hyperfocal distance focusing takes a while to get used to, but I already use this with my Leica lenses. It is a great skill to have for fast and accurate focusing. I also think being aware of distances in this regard also improves your general awareness and photography skills.

What stands out for me with this camera is its overall build quality and design. It is really quite amazing that something so small takes a roll of 35mm film and is able to take such great shots.

If you have never used one before I would highly recommend trying one out, you may end up keeping it!

I hope you enjoyed this review as much as I enjoy using this camera!

Thanks for stopping by,