Rolleiflex 2.8F Planar – The “One” Medium Format Camera

Rolleiflex 2.8F Planar - The "One" Medium Format Camera

Camera Review

Rolleiflex 2.8F Planar – The “One” Medium Format Camera

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Rolleiflex 2.8F Planar
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Rollei logo on the viewing hood

Rolleiflex 2.8F

My interest in the Rolleiflex 2.8F was sparked when I began searching for a medium format camera. Although I had previously owned a Hasselblad 500CM and 503CX, which are excellent for studio work, I found them difficult to carry around. I appreciated the modular system of the Hasselblad but was drawn to the Rolleiflex when I saw some captivating portraits on Flickr showcasing the creaminess of the Planar lens. 

The unique oil painting-like quality of the 6×6 images produced by the Rolleiflex was unparalleled. Around this time, Vivian Maier was discovered, and her mysterious persona coupled with her stunning images captured using a Rolleiflex piqued my curiosity. I even watched two documentaries about her work and discovered that the Rolleiflex could be a fantastic selfie camera too! Fan Ho’s work is truly breathtaking, and he skillfully utilised the high resolution of the Rolleiflex camera to create his stunning images. In the darkroom, he carefully cropped, dodged, and burned his photos to achieve the desired results. One of his most famous photographs, ‘Approaching Shadow’ (Hong Kong, 1954), was actually taken just outside my secondary school, further showcasing his incredible talent and the remarkable capabilities of the Rolleiflex camera.

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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Ilford HP5+, Hong Kong

Initially, I owned a Rolleiflex 2.8E, but later sold it to my brother-in-law in pursuit of a version with the Rolleiflex badge on the viewfinder for aesthetic reasons, and one with the ability to change to a brighter focusing screen. I eventually purchased my 2.8F from a Hong Kong collector who had dozens of Rolleiflex cameras. I opted for a less pristine model, knowing that I would carry it around without worrying about scratches or marks. I believe that the Rolleiflex camera deserves more attention and love, as it is often underrated. Its simple design, ease of use, and well-engineered ergonomics make it a timeless classic worth exploring.

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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Kodak Portra 400, Hong Kong
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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Kodak Gold 200, Hong Kong

The Twin-Lens Reflex Experience: A Unique Appeal

Unlike single-lens reflex (SLR) or rangefinder cameras, TLRs like the Rolleiflex 2.8F feature two lenses: one for focusing (upper lens) and another for taking photos (lower lens). This innovative design simplifies the shooting process without sacrificing image quality. Moreover, the 6×6 square format and medium-format film (120) give the images a unique aesthetic that’s hard to replicate with digital cameras.

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Planar taking lens and viewing lens
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Rolleiflex 2.8F Planar
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Reflx Lab 50D (120)
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Reflx Lab 250D (120)
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Reflx Lab 500T (120)

A Brief History: Rolleiflex and its Founders

Rolleiflex was the brainchild of two German entrepreneurs, Reinhold Heidecke and Paul Franke. The duo teamed up to create one of the most prestigious camera companies in the world, starting with the original Rolleiflex in the mid-1920s. Although they didn’t invent TLR cameras, they certainly popularised the system, especially among photojournalists.

Rolleiflex's Journey to Success

After several attempts to find funding, Heidecke and Franke established their company in 1920. Despite the economic challenges of the Weimar Republic, they successfully launched the original Rolleiflex in 1928. The camera’s twin-lens design and Zeiss optics set it apart from competitors and laid the foundation for future innovations.

Key Features and Innovations

Throughout the years, Rolleiflex cameras have been known for their durability, build quality, and reliability. They stood out in the market by using metal leaf shutters, avoiding fabric shutters or bellows. Shutter speeds range from 1/500s to 1s with Bulb mode, self timer.These design choices ensured a long-lasting camera that could withstand adverse conditions.

The Evolution of Rolleiflex Models: From 2.8A to 2.8F

The Rollei twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera system is complex and extensive, with a long history, so we won’t go into too much detail here. In general, it can be divided into Rolleicord and Rolleiflex, with the former being a lower-end option and the latter being the true top-of-the-line TLR. Rolleiflex is further divided into 3.5 and 2.8 series based on aperture, and as production years and technology progressed, models such as e, t, and f have been derived. Among these, the most sought-after is the later-produced Rolleiflex 2.8f (later versions with electronic exposure metering are not considered in this article). In other words, the pinnacle of Rollei’s all-mechanical TLRs is the Rolleiflex 2.8f.

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Film advance lever
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Film counter

Even when it comes to the Rolleiflex 2.8f, there are distinctions between the white face and non-white face versions, as well as Zeiss and Schneider versions. The white face refers to the nameplate ring around the primary lens at the bottom, with the later white face version having a white background with black text, and the early non-white face version featuring a white background with black decorative stripes. Nowadays, people generally prefer the white face version, although there isn’t much reason for this preference, as aside from minor production year differences, there is no mechanical difference between the white face and non-white face versions. The debate between Zeiss and Schneider lenses is much more intense, as the 2.8f features two main lens models: the Zeiss Planar and the Schneider Xenotar. The debate over these two lenses is the ultimate controversy of the Rolleiflex.

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Focusing wheel and light meter
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ISO setting side

The 2.8F model, considered the pinnacle of Rolleiflex quality, was preceded by the 2.8A, 2.8B, 2.8C, 2.8D, and 2.8E models. Each iteration improved upon its predecessor, and the 2.8F remained in constant production for 20 years. Rolleiflex also produced secondary lines, like the 75mm 3.5 aperture line and the famed Rolleicord, catering to advanced and amateur photographers.

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Planar vs Xenotar: The Lens Debate

The 2.8F is available with either a Carl Zeiss Planar or Schneider Xenotar lens. Both are renowned for their quality, but the Planar is said to be more fragile, with coatings that can deteriorate over time. The Xenotar is often recommended for landscape photography.

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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Kodak Portra 400, Hong Kong
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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Kodak Portra 400, Hong Kong

The Rolleiflex Experience: A Game Changer for My Photography

Using the Rolleiflex 2.8F has transformed my photography in ways I didn’t expect. The waist-level viewfinder creates a mesmerising 3D pop effect, making it hard to put the camera down. The square format required me to adjust my usual 3:2 or 4:3 composition, but I learned to appreciate the beauty of the square format.

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Camera setting
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Focusing screen

Hasselblad vs Rolleiflex: A Personal Preference

I found the Rolleiflex easier to handle than the Hasselblad, especially during my wedding engagement in the UK. Even without a tripod, the simple, light, and quiet shutter made it a joy to carry around and shoot with.

Street Portraiture: A Rolleiflex Advantage

The waist-level viewfinder and subtle shutter sound make the Rolleiflex perfect for street portraits. In Hong Kong, where such photography can be challenging, I found people more comfortable with the Rolleiflex than a traditional SLR camera. It is much easy to carry around then other medium format cameras such as the Hasselblad and Pentax 67.

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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Kodak Tri-X 400, Hong Kong
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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Kodak Tri-X 400, Hong Kong

Cons

Despite its many advantages, the Rolleiflex has a few drawbacks:

  • The viewfinder is horizontally flipped, requiring some adjustment

  • The fixed lens limits versatility

  • The taking lens and viewing lens may differ, especially at close range

  • The original screen is dimmer compared to competitors like the Mamiya C330

  • The strap requires a specific design

  • Loading film requires careful attention to avoid wasting rolls

  • The paint on the camera is thin, which makes it susceptible to scratches. 

  • Additionally, the lens is prone to strong flare, so it’s recommended to use a lens hood for better image quality.

  • Filter size is fixed in Bay3, need an adapter

Rolleiflex 2.8F: Design and Lenses

The 2.8F model has a Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8 fixed lens with 5 elements in 4 groups (late type 2) and a Synchro-Compur in-lens leaf shutter. The minimum focusing distance is 1m. With its multi coated lens and distortion correction, it produces sharp, high-contrast images without vignetting. The front of the camera houses focus and shutter speed knobs,while the aperture setting is adjusted via the EV scale. The camera’s top features a winding crank and a film counter, adding to its vintage charm.

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Rolleinar 1
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Focusing screen

The Waist-Level Viewfinder: A Different Perspective

The Rolleiflex 2.8F’s waist-level viewfinder is one of its most distinguishing features. Composing images through the ground-glass screen presents a new perspective on the world, as it showcases a flipped, “mirror-image” view. This can be disorienting at first, but with practice, it becomes second nature. The viewfinder’s unique design encourages photographers to slow down and carefully compose their shots, leading to more thoughtful and deliberate images.

The 2.8F’s viewfinder offers 100% coverage, with its bright upper lens making focusing easy. A selenium light metre on the front of the camera provides exposure readings, displayed on an easy-to-read panel next to the focus knob. However, depending on the camera’s condition, the light metre may not be entirely accurate.

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Viewfinder
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Magnifier

Build Quality and Handling

The build quality of the Rolleiflex 2.8F is truly impressive. The camera body is made of durable metal, and the leatherette covering provides a comfortable grip. Despite its solid construction, the 2.8F remains relatively lightweight and compact, making it an excellent choice for travel and on-the-go photography.

Film Loading

Loading film into the Rolleiflex 2.8F is a straightforward process, but it does demand some attention to detail. The camera uses 120 medium-format film, which provides 12 square (6×6) exposures per roll. The film spool is inserted into the camera’s bottom, and the paper backing is threaded through the rollers and onto the take-up spool. Careful alignment is crucial, as improper loading can result in wasted film or overlapping exposures.

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Film compartment
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Bottom tripod mount

Image Quality

The Rolleiflex 2.8F, a medium format camera, boasts exceptional resolution that captures intricate details in images. Although it doesn’t utilise the latest modern coating, it still achieves a remarkable amount of contrast, which I would describe as moderate. The camera’s colour rendering creates a pleasing and harmonious arrangement, ensuring smooth transitions between various hues.

When shooting portraits at f/2.8, the Rolleiflex 2.8F imparts a subtle glazing softness to the subject, enhancing the presentation of skin tones and creating a more natural, flattering appearance. The Zeiss Planar lens, often associated with the 2.8F model, is known for its warm tones, evoking a sense of warmth and richness in the captured images. This camera is particularly adept at capturing the deep intensity and vibrancy of colours on film, making it a popular choice among photographers who appreciate its timeless image quality.

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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Kodak Portra 400, York
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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Kodak Gold 200, Hong Kong

Composing in Square Format

At first, I found composing in a square format challenging. My initial experience with a 6×6 camera was using a Hasselblad paired with a prism to display the corrected image. However, when I switched to the Rolleiflex, I found it easier to capture portraits but still needed time to adjust to framing the shot – determining the left side, deciding the amount of space to leave, and figuring out the headroom from the subject to the top of the photograph. One reason for this learning curve was the fact that I couldn’t preview the final image, as it’s a film camera. Moreover, I couldn’t see the exact photo before taking it. As a result, when I received the scanned images, they always surprised me, but in a good way. The equal sides of the square format create a perfectly balanced shape, which is ideal for symmetrical and harmonious compositions. Additionally, the lack of a dominant axis (horizontal or vertical) encourages the viewer’s eye to move in a circular motion, creating a dynamic visual flow.

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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Fujifilm Provia RDPIII, Hong Kong
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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Fujifilm Provia RDPIII, Hong Kong
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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Fujifilm Provia RDPIII, Hong Kong

Final Thoughts: The “One” Medium Format Camera?

The Rolleiflex 2.8F offers a fantastic shooting experience that photographers of all levels should try. Its unique design, timeless charm, and outstanding performance make it an excellent addition to any photographer’s collection. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, the Rolleiflex 2.8F will surely leave a lasting impression, as it transports you to a bygone era of photography. Just be prepared to fall in love with the viewfinder and the enchanting world it reveals. If you’re seeking a more budget-friendly option, consider exploring the Rolleiflex 3.5F, 3.5E, or Mamiya C330. To learn more about street photography using TLR cameras, take a look at the work of renowned photographers like Vivian Maier, Richard Avedon, Bill Brandt, and Fan Ho. I believe it’s worth trying a medium format camera like the Rolleiflex, even if you don’t necessarily need the 2.8F model. If the extra ⅔ stop isn’t crucial for your photography, the Rolleiflex 3.5 series offers a more cost-effective and lighter alternative!

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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Ilford HP5+, Hong Kong
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Rolleiflex 2.8F, Ilford HP5+, Hong Kong

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