Rolleiflex MX

I’ve been trying to come to grips with how I ended up owning a 60-plus year old machine as a daily-and-only camera, after a truncated career with the latest and greatest at the time. I’m not sure if this will be a camera review or another personal journey into the philosophy of my own craft, but we’ll see what happens. This is a review of my Rolleiflex MX.

I was swept up in the beginning with photography as a sort of notebook. A way to prove I was at a place, to justify my attendance. I started out without any intention to photograph anyone else, certainly not to make a living from it.

At 18, I traveled to England for seven weeks and bought my first camera from a pawn shop before leaving. It was a Canon T50 with a 50mm and an off-brand zoom. It might have been two-hundred dollars including the ubiquitous Sunpak and a shoulder bag. I shot a load of Kodak 200, came away with few decent shots but the hit-rate was embarrassingly low.

I’m a technical person by nature, I like working out systems and manipulating them to get a result. Soon I was able to tweak the controls to see better images, though I couldn’t tell you what they were called or why. The actions I could understand, but the science behind the controls were still a mystery. I enjoyed shooting for myself, and hung some pictures on my wall. After I got paid to shoot a wedding, I realized how far out of my depth I was and looked into some education.

I stepped up to Canon EF upon entering college, quickly outgrowing the plastic Rebel and going for a thrashed ex-press 1N, then a Hasselblad. Just as medium format was sinking its teeth into me, I made the business decision to jump on the digital bandwagon, selling both systems for a Canon 10D. I know, but that 10D (and later the 5D Classic) and I made a bundle of money together.

Once the digital tide had come all the way in, everyone and their sister was shooting DSLR for peanuts and bookings started to drop off. I considered doing video, or learning web design to augment my digital photography business. I still do some graphic design and layout from time-to-time. But as digital matured the upgrade cycle got shorter and shorter. Photographers were needing to upgrade computer hardware more often to keep up. My mobile 3-light studio was sitting idle, old clients weren’t doing any new commercial work. The game had changed. I was miserable.

I’m a pragmatist, and I knew that it wasn’t sustainable to stay in the business with billables dropping and expenses increasing. I hate chasing trends, and I’m not a fan of how wedding and portrait photography has gone to magazine-style flare-and-saturation shooting. Get off my lawn.

So I sold everything.


Having time to reflect on things as the dust settled, I got a handle on what had gone wrong. I had taken a love and sold it for money. I felt like a pimp. My most profitable years with a camera are also the years that I have the fewest family photos. The spark wasn’t there to make images of things I thought were important since I had started putting a price tag on my time and skill. Now that I’ve purged all the paid work from my archives, I realize I had been neglecting what was truly important to me.

Christmas Lego
Christmas Lego
Dad '16
Dad ’16

I won’t be in the twilight years of my life leafing through commercial headshots, strangers’ weddings or annual reports. I’ll be reliving memories from my daughter’s childhood, our family travel. Friends and relatives no longer with us. The many happy years of our marriage. Everything else is just noise. Filler.

So I came full-circle to the camera-as-notebook again.

Process of Elimination

Like a divorcee, it was time to play the field. After dabbling with the Olympus RC, Yashica GTN, Mju-ii among others, I ended up at the Fuji GA645. With it’s untimely demise, I stumbled onto the Contax G2. I’m not going to sink to the film/digital debate, but during this time a digital camera only occurred to me once, and that was the introduction of the Fuji XPRO1. I came close to replacing the G2 with an XPRO, but I consider that a dodged bullet. I’ve narrowly avoided a Hexar AF, RF and another Hasselblad V setup. But remember how I had already owned a Hasselblad? Remember how manic and bouncy I got about the GA645? Medium format is my thing, and it took going through a dozen great cameras to get there.

Taking stock, I settled on a shopping list.

  1. No electronic cameras.
  2. No 135 cameras.
  3. No system cameras.

This narrows down the field quite a bit, and as the Contax sat in its bag I started searching online for what would be my ultimate compromise goal. I was all-in for a TLR, having a passing interest since college. I’d never handled one, never shot one. A TLR seemed like it would satisfy my list easily. So let’s shop.

Ads
Ads

I ruled out the Japanese and Soviet cameras right away. The Mamiya struck me as flexible but inelegant. Plus it’s a system camera, and I didn’t want to waste any more time pining after whichever lens I did’t already have. The Ricoh and Minolta fragile and scarce. The Yashica was closer to what I was after, but not close enough. And if I wanted a camera like a Lubitel I’d build it myself from used lumber and soup cans. Ikoflex was just too kooky. Too Zeiss.

My TLR was going to be a Rolleiflex.

Wading through the lore and specifics of the Rolleiflex family of cameras is surprisingly complex. Add in the vehement opinions found at every turn online and it’s easy to get discouraged. The boutique-priced 2.8F seems to be the only choice the Internet will universally endorse. A Rolleicord is a stepping stone, any 3.5 is a compromise. Nothing less than a coated Planar will do if you even suspect you might shoot colour film. Bullshit.

Family Tree
Family Tree

OK, but what about my list? I don’t want an electric camera. And many of the $1500+ E and F series cameras had inoperative light meters! That’s just madness. Again, the pragmatist in me wanted practicality, simplicity. I wanted a manual camera with high-quality optics and good pedigree. I wanted to avoid the linked exposure cameras like the MX-EVS, but remain post-war for the advanced lens coatings (and I wasn’t messing around with any Ruby Windows). So, by process of elimination, an MX it was.

Come to papa
As Received
As Received

The Rolleiflex MX, 3.5A or K4A is the goldilocks camera I was after. And I waited 6 months for a perfect example at a decent price.

When I received the camera, I was impressed instantly. I had always imagined a Rolleiflex to be a fragile piece of kit, especially one that was this old. Even some 65 years later, my MX is solid and operates with a buttery smoothness that really rewards even casual use. The sort of thing that you buy with your grandkids in mind.

Sugarbush '14
Sugarbush ’14

Starting at the top, there’s a fixed waist level finder with an old-school ground glass screen. It’s dimmer than an acute-matte screen, dimmer than a fresnel screen. The advantage is that you know when you’re in focus due to the magnificent level of contrast present. It’s easy to nail focus even with the camera at the end of the strap, hanging at navel level. Downside is that there are no super-bright through-the-viewfinder humblebrag shots of what I’m shooting to share on social media.

Plaidbelly
Plaidbelly

As the hood flips up, there’s a magnifier for critical focus thats especially handy when using the Rolleinar close-up lenses. I thought the sports finder would be a bit of a joke, but it’s very usable and quick to learn. The lower window is a reflected, magnified view of the ground glass for critical focus while the upper is a representation of what you can expect to get framed on your film. It’s surprisingly accurate and useful for moving subjects since you don’t have to take into account the reversed viewfinder image.

Sporty
Sporty

Moving down, there’s a self-timer on the lens-board that runs for about 8 seconds. The exposure information faces the shooter, and is fairly legible. Time is in red, aperture in black, both on a burnished steel field. On the right-hand side of the camera body we find an exposure count and the advance/cock lever with a delicious knurled spinning handle. On the left-hand side of the body one can find the focus control and two knobs that keep the film spools in place, again with satisfying machine-age knurling.

Digits
Digits
Left
Left

Exposure controls on the front of the lens board are courtesy of two shallow thumb-operated dials. There is a little positive feedback, but no detents. Step-less timing and aperture are possible, if that’s your thing.  With black and white or C41 films, as long as you’re in the zip-code you’re close enough. The upper viewing lens is a Heidosmat f2.8/75mm. Both taking and viewing lenses are ringed with a Bay1 collar to attach accessories like close-up Rolleinars or the impressive looking RolleiFlash.

Nevada '16
Nevada ’16

My camera features a Xenar 75mm f3.5 taking lens, a Tessar formula produced under license from the good people at Schneider. There’s money to be saved if your camera doesn’t have the Carl Zeiss name on it. Lots of sources say the Schneider lenses were held to higher quality control standards as a lower-volume secondary provider, with fewer (better) lenses making it to assembly as a result. It works very well.

Right/Front
Right/Front

At the bottom of the lens board, there is a Sync speed lever on the shooter’s left, and the shutter release and lock on the right. The Sync lever points now to X, but M is for bulb-flashes that were in fashion when this Rolleiflex was new. The release is step-less and smooth, augmented by a TomA convex soft release. It is easy to attain sharp exposures at very low speeds if one tensions the neck strap by lightly pulling toward the floor with the camera and masters a smooth release.

Latch and Back
Latch and Back

The film-back hinges up and away, revealing the bottom and rear of the camera to ease loading. The MX uses quick release levers to completely remove the back if the owner wishes to shoot small plates (with an optional kit) instead of roll film. This camera is referred to as the Automat, since it uses a film sensor to set the film counter at the first exposure eliminating the Ruby Window. When loading, the paper goes under the first roller and over the second, when the thicker film gets to the first roller, the film counter is engaged and the advance stops ready for the first frame to be taken. The film back closes with a double-latch.


Bay of Fundy '15
Bay of Fundy ’15

In use the Rolleiflex rewards careful composition, but it’s a much quicker shooter than I expected. This was THE news camera of its day, and that legacy still shines through reliability, ease of use and image quality. Sure, this isn’t the golden-child 2.8 Planar. I’m OK with that since it’s lighter, just as good past F5.6 and sells for 1/10 the price. The Bay1 accessories are affordable and plentiful. The release and wind are nearly silent.

Seattle '15
Seattle ’15
Comparisons

So, how is this machine compared to the Contax G2 that it replaced? It’s really a chalk-and-cheese comparison. They’re two completely different animals with the exception of marvellous image quality. I admit to being a massive fan of the automated Japanese masterpiece, with all its whirring, buzzing precision. The Rollei feels more secure to me, a more solid investment as a tool. I’m not constantly worried that the set of CR2 in the camera will be its last.

Saint John '16
Saint John ’16

And what of the GA645, sir? Again, there’s a certain calmness than comes from mastering a fully mechanical camera. With a minimum of maintenance this machine will be with me for as long as I choose to renew its contract. My GA645, though a near-perfect travel and snapshot camera, is bricked because the electronics let both of us down. The Rolleiflex is a machine that exchanges automation for longevity. I value reliability, I value craftsmanship, I value quality. There’s no downside to the Rollei MX for me.

Nauwigewauk '16
Nauwigewauk ’16

It’s a friendly camera to walk with, I’ve never had a stranger refuse a portrait with the TLR. I feel more approachable when I’m out; I’ve heard many more stories from old codgers since buying it. And that’s a bonus to me. I’m able to maintain eye-contact with a subject, not hide behind a whirring plastic monster with a 77mm eye. I feel as though my shooting style has changed as a result, I’m certainly more engaged with my subject than I ever was as a pro. More to the point, I’m making work that I feel is important again. That’s as much attitude as equipment, but I’m very content that the Rolleiflex will accompany me on this journey.

I'm Ready
I’m Ready

In fact, this is the first camera I’ve owned where I haven’t been looking around the bend for my next purchase. If anything, I’d consider buying a second mint MX as a backup. Should you have one?

Sure, why not? I can’t guarantee you’ll have the same story since my expectations from a camera are anything but modern. But if you’re after a reliable, affordable, mechanical companion that will help you connect with people in a way other cameras won’t then it might be worth a swing.


Monotone images are all from Ilford films.

27 Replies to “Rolleiflex MX”

  1. Great review. In a moment of weakness (well, I actually needed the money) I sold my Rolleiflex. I’m sure I’ll end up with one some day again. And you’re right, not being able to change the lens is actually an advantage!

      1. It’s inevitable! The Yashica Mat was my only medium format camera for a long time, then I tried a lot of different cameras and now I mostly use a Bronica SQ-Ai with a WLF and a 80mm lens. I could have the same thing in a smaller package with a Rolleiflex. 🙂

  2. I feel similarly affected! I shot film as a child, loved the excitement of getting my photos.. but I never got to shoot black and white, as my family had given up their darkroom by the time I was born. I moved to digital compacts as a teen, then fell in love with photography after university and bought a DSLR. Barely employed, I couldn’t afford fancy lenses; so my crop-sensor nikon ended up with a 50mm and a 24mm both from the seventies. This disabled metering, so I was full manual all the way. After about five years, I had a moment of spontaneous curiosity while out shooting some candid portraiture. I found a Trip in an antique store for €15, bought a few rolls of film and… fell in love. But like you, I was wary of chasing ‘the new upgrade in digital terms’ and like you this translated onto film as a disinterest in the latest and the modern, and a distaste for fragile electronic components.

    My cameras are 135 system cameras, and they’re from the 1980’s. But I use them with little more than two lenses from the 50’s (a 35mm and a 50mm) and occasionally a modern 15mm for when I’m in the middle of a protest march with barely room to breathe. That 15mm normally lives as a 21mm effective – on my X-Pro 1, which I bought solely for video.

    I also now shoot black and white, and develop it by hand. I even roll it by hand! It makes the process much more real to me when I make work in every step of it.

    So it’s nice to read about another lover of clockwork, and of black-and-white and of square lens hoods. I love your Rollei, and I’m sure it’ll be with you forever!

    1. Thanks for sharing your story! A lot of people see the world through a camera’s finder, and it doesn’t matter which finder you choose. Keep making photos in your own way, and share.

  3. Oh dear, I’m turning into one of those people who questions minute details in camera reviews. I don’t think the Fuji GS645 has an electronic shutter. I lusted after a GA645 but decided I couldn’t afford it and instead opted for a GS645s. The batteries for the meter died after the first roll, so I took them out – and never put new ones back in. I’ve done a lot of travel with that battery-less camera and it has given me some beautiful shots. The only weak point for me is its tiny, dim rangefinder spot. I’ll never get rid of it. A fixed-lens, mechanical, lightweight, under-the-radar medium format camera – what could be better?

  4. I own and MX that I bought when I was about 17 (too many years ago). Have used it infrequently after the 60s. (My go-to film camera for years was a Canon EF-the fixed view finder version of the F1). The MX still works perfectly. Bough a roll od B+W and will see how it looks. I will likely be buried with it. :))

  5. This is great! I can relate to the thougts in this post, whether it be about cameras, formats or film vs digital. I have a Rolleflex too, but I have not bothered to find out what model. It has the same lens as yours, but not as good looking. It still works though. Here is a piture of it: https://flic.kr/p/27V9Db2

  6. Great post. I read it about a year ago and just picked up my first Rolleiflex. I’m really looking forward to getting out shooting. The camera has been sitting for awhile so I’m getting a CLA done. I’m curious if you have a Maxwell Screen or considered it. The user forums are somewhat mixed. Like the brightness of the screen but potentially not as easy to focus as original screen.

    1. I’ve made out fine without a brighter screen, in fact there is more arguably local contrast with the original even if it’s not quite as bright. Having a sparkling clean mirror goes a long way. Enjoy your camera!

  7. Hello Matthew, great story and images! Before having read your post, I came to the same conclusion – Rolleiflex MX. It has everything you need and nothing you don’t. I believe mine is a later model with 1.423 SN (early 1954?). It has a Tessar with Carl Zeiss inscribed and not Opton. So, it must have been after the trade-name dispute was settled. It’s in beautiful condition and after a CLA I feel like I have an almost new camera. Thank you, your story reaffirmed my decision. 🙂 Question: I believe I’ve lost the inner threaded tripod mount ring – for lack of the proper term. I’ve used my tripod on numerous occasions before, but just recently found that the female mount on the camera is too big. I assume they did this to make it adaptable for different sized mounting threads. Any idea where to pick something like this up? I have no idea where it could have been lost. Thanks again for the informative post!

    1. Hi Rod, thanks for the note.

      You’ll find an accessory called a ‘Rolleifix” that steps takes care of this problem for you, as well as effectively reinforcing the bottom of the camera.

  8. Hey there – just read this entry again (it’s worth re-reading!) as I was searching for straps for my MX. Honestly, a Domke Gripper on a Rolleiflex works very well (hence my search is half-hearted, fueld somewhat by GAS,), at least for me, but then there’s always the lure of something more “authentic” or “period”. Not that an original strap, unless NOS, would be wise … and even then dried out leather isn’t a good bet.

    But the bigger reason for posting a comment is that my MX came back from Harry Fleenor a week ago, after a complete CLA. And wow. The only thing I didn’t have done was a Maxwell screen installed; even without that option the total cost was painful. But as I said, wow, what a great job Harry did, including refreshing the worn leather which I did not expect. I had anticipated applying new dye once it returned, but I didn’t have to.

    The cost was over 3x the “value” of the MX, at least based on what I paid by trading a friend my Fujinon 90/8 (4×5 coverage) which just didn’t get used often.

    But I’m glad I made the investment, because it IS an investment. With care this Rollei can live at least another 50 years, far after I am once again stardust. Aside from the technical advantages of the Rolleiflex, which you have described here much better than I, this is a camera that actually encourages, even inspires me to use. It is just so *comfortable* and seems to be that old but never tiring or boring friend that you can just be with. There are no worries, no expectations, but there is a quiet reassurance that things are OK.

    Now the MX (I really should have a name for it!) will accompany me on an upcoming trip to Paris for two weeks, with side excursions to Normandy and Brittany.

    1. Thanks for checking in, and good luck in Paris! I know you’ve been looking forward to this journey for a long time. The camera will be all the more ‘priceless’ for accompanying you on this milestone visit.

  9. Hi Matthew,
    I have the exact same model and I’ve been collecting the accessories over the years.
    Have you ever used the flash with your Rolleiflex?
    I have two Rollei flashes (Beta 4 & 121BC)in their working condition but it does not work with my Rolleiflex. I am not even sure what is the problem. They work with my other camera. I could be using the wrong cord or my flash feature is broken. I CLA’d it before, but I never happened to check my flash.
    If you don’t mind, and if you are using flash feature of your camera, would you guide me about the flash?

    1. Hi Ken, thanks for your note.

      I’m afraid I’ve never had the pleasure of using a flash with the Rolleiflex. I’ve always been interested in using a Rolleiflash unit, but it’s always been second (or third) on the list of things to buy.

  10. Thanks for this Matthew,

    It’s great to read an article which resonates and is about not buying more stuff.

    After years of searching for my own Goldilocks, by buying and trying far too many medium and 35mm format film cameras, I ended up back where I started, with the little Rollei 35 I inherited and through which I found film was still a thing. A Rolleiflex has now joined its little sibling, and I think that may finally be me done.

    It’s time to sell…..

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