I used the Rolleiflex SL66 to to shoot approximately 50 rolls of 120 film on the streets of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in the mid-1970s. The camera is a descendant of the Rollei twin lens camera introduced in 1929. Twins lens cameras like the Rollei dominated the market for photography outside the studio into the 1960s. The cameras had two lenses: a viewing lens and a “taking” lens. Because of this, they also had a parallax problem, especially for close up work.
To understand the parallax problem, hold a finger in front of your nose. Then look at it through your left eye. Now look at it through your right. Notice how you see different parts of the finger and how the background changes. This is the problem that twin lens cameras had. When focusing on a flower through the viewing lens, it might be out of the field of view of the taking lens.
Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) like this one were invented to eliminate this problem. SLRs have mirrors built in. In this camera, you looked down through the viewfinder mounted on top of the camera. The image you saw was reflected onto a ground glass by a mirror behind the lens. The mirror flipped up when you pressed the shutter to expose the film.
The lens was bellows mounted and could be revered for extreme closeups. This was a unique feature that made the camera very popular for close-up work. The entire bellows assembly also tilted to increase depth of field slightly for close up work. However, when extending the bellows, one had to compensate the exposure, usually by increasing the shutter speed because the depth of field was so narrow.
The camera did not have automatic exposure, nor did it have a meter built in. Therefore, the photographer had to use a hand-held meter and guess at the exposure compensation for bellows extension.
The camera was made from 1966 until 1982 and competed with the Hasselblad. It had five interchangeable Zeiss lenses: 40, 50, 80, 150 and 250mm focal lengths. The lenses were razor sharp and still compete with today’s lenses.
The Rolleiflex SL66 also had interchangeable film backs that accepted 120 or 220 film. 120 film took 12 2.25×2.25 inch exposures per roll and 220 took 24. The negative is about 4x larger than 35mm. That meant enlargements contained much more detail and looked much less grainy.
The bulk and weight of the camera made it difficult to carry for long periods on the streets of Uptown. The lens on this camera all by itself weighed more than the Nikon 35mm F2 camera with two lenses that I also used to shoot the Uptown series.
35mm cameras were just becoming a viable professional format in the early 1970s. Most professionals disliked the smaller film size but liked the portability, wide lens selection and especially the built in exposure meters of the 35mm cameras.
Professionals still use cameras like the Rolleiflex SL66 today. They offer an acceptable balance between portability and image size – especially if you have an assistant to carry the gear for you.
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