Camera Geekery: Rolleiflex SL66 Review

Remember the good ol’ days when manufacturers had the ambition to just make the best damn product possible without prioritizing supreme the bottom line? Such a mentality brought us the Leica M3, the timeless, gorgeously over-engineered icon that needs no introduction. The medium format equivalent? I bring you the Rolleiflex SL66. (Please note, some images may be NSFW).

I consider the SL66 quite the hidden gem of the medium format world and it’s unpopularity is a blessing in disguise for me. Most studio and portrait photographers opted for the ever so popular Hasselblad 500cm due to it’s wide lens selection, additional motor winder/grips, optional finders, as well as various Polaroid back options. Street and travel photographers went for a Mamiya 6/7 or Plaubel Makina for their superb balance of sharpness and portability. But in terms of pure engineering marvel, the Rolleiflex SL66 arguably had no peer and it’s development has an interesting back story.

Way back in 1955, Rollei started developing their first 6×6 single lens reflex camera and finished in 1957 but the camera was not marketed due to two reasons:

1. The Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras were more successful than ever

2. Dr. Reinhold Heidecke and Victor Hasselblad agreed in 1957 to not tread on each other’s market space; meaning Rollei would not build SLR medium format cameras and Hasselblad would not sell twin lens reflex cameras.

This turned out to be a rather poor decision as Rollei left open the 6×6 SLR market open to Hasselblad and Japanese competitors but Heidecke passed away in 1960, which in effect terminated the gentleman’s agreement. With TLRs eventually succumbing to the popularity tsunami waves of SLRs in the mid-60’s, Rollei decided that if they were going to join the battle, might as well go all out.

Development of the design from a decade ago thus resumed, one they considered to be technologically superior to Hasselblad and other medium format SLR cameras then on the market. Rollei referred to it as a “Medium Format Single Lens Reflex UNIVERSAL SYSTEM” camera.

Rollei conceived a camera based on the construction elements of a studio camera with the focusing rail on the left side so photographers accustomed to the Rolleiflex TLR cameras would feel right at home: focusing on the left side, film advance and shutter release on the right side. The SL66 was and still is the only medium format camera combining five unique features:

  • Built in bellows (5cm or 2″)
  • Reverse(retro) mounting of the lens
  • Tilting of the lens up and down 8 degrees
  • Completely mechanical design
  • TTL metering with special hood SL66 (SL66 E and SL66SE have built in TTL metering)

Richard Weiss and Claus Prochnow, chief engineers behind this masterpiece, had the camera ready in time for the 1966 Photokina in Cologne where it debuted. Hence the name of the camera, SL66 for 1966 and 6×6, the size of the negatives.

The SL 66 consists of almost 1,000 single parts, all metal with the exception of only about 10 plastic parts (apart from the leatherette covers) and at the time, development of the camera had cost Rollei about 3.5 million German Marks, which in 1966 was a hugantic amount of money for a small company like Rollei. In addition, considering that the Rollei was significantly more expensive ($1350) than the Hasselblad ($750) and is an untried camera, it fared poorly in sales. While it did have a minor cult following, it eventually slid on the wayside and faded into relative camera obscurity.

Let’s take a closer look at this technical beast. The camera is completely mechanical and does not depend on a battery. Shutter times run from B, 1 second to 1/1000 second. Flash synchronization is 1/30 second. The integrated bellows design did lead to a few limitations; to have a dependable combined film advance and shutter cocking in a single stroke, it was easiest to go with a focal plane shutter. While this had the advantage of a shutter that went to 1/1000 sec., it had the decided disadvantage, for many professionals, that the flash synch had to be 1/30 sec or less. So for studio use, leaf shutter lenses with 1/500 synchronization time are available in 80 and 150mm focal lengths.

The focusing knob and the Scheimpflug tilt release knob are located on the left side of the camera. The focusing knob has built in scales for 50-250mm lenses. Camera with lens in normal position can focus as close as:

  • 50mm lens: 5 cm (2″)
  • 80mm lens: 16 cm (6″)
  • 150mm lens: 60cm (2′)
  • 250mm lens: 153cm (5′)

In normal position, the standard 80mm lens will focus as close as 16cm ( 6″) from the front lens element at a magnification of 0.6x. Retro mounting of the standard lens enables the camera to picture objects up to 1.5x enlarged without the need to use any accessories. Retro mounting is great with lenses from 50mm to 150mm and ensures a much better picture quality. Retro also increases object to lens distance.

The integrated bellows indeed did expand the range of the Universal camera a great deal and was properly advertised as a “Universal System” camera that was appropriate for portraiture, medical, industrial, scientific, architectural, and archaeological uses. However you can imagine how fragile bellows can be over time and its placement in a precarious position for photographic hands doesn’t help. Add to that the fact that the in-and-out movement of the integrated bellows is a constant cause for wear since this feature has to be used to focus the lens as there is no helicoid of its own for focusing. Fascinating design but yes, the utmost care is necessary in usage.

Aside from the quirks, the resulting images are surreal and dreamy.

Zeiss 80mm Planar at min. distance ~6 in.

Zeiss 80mm Planar at min. distance ~6 in.

Zeiss 80mm Planar retrofitted at min. distance ~6 in.

The SL66’s most unique feature: lens tilting up and down 8 degrees. This makes it possible to enlarge depth of field dramatically without using a smaller diaphragm, useful for table top items, architecture (walls, ceilings) and landscape (flower beds). I like to use it for focus plane shifts that are subtle enough to add a distinct look without being overbearing in portraits.

The SL66 is a literal neck breaker, weighing in at just under 2kg and intended for tripod use but you certainly can use it handheld with some little extra attention. I like to have a wide, robust neck strap and keep it taught when shooting and use a short shutter release cable handheld, especially in slower shutter/ lower light situations.

Another caveat is it’s quite loud and not too suitable for sniping candids. I haven’t compared it empirically but i’d say it’s about as loud as a Mamiya RB67. Aside from the weight issue the shutter, while sounding pleasant, has a decibel rate that renders it not ideal for stealth.

Mechanically it’s a joy to feel over a Hassy albeit I admit it’s all up to personal preference. Its feeling is precise yet clunky; to put it in cycling terms, a Hassy feels like Shimano and the Rollei feels like Campagnolo. The clicks and churns aren’t as light and smooth but they feel harder and more stable. Like I said, all a matter of preference, as some prefer the clunkier precision to the buttery slickness.

A sometimes overlooked detail that I love about the SL66 is the design of the shutter release button. While Hassies have a separate ring or lever to lock the shutter button, the SL66’s shutter button locks itself with just a twist. Combining the two functions into one piece is subtle design choice that I certainly appreciate.

The 80mm Zeiss Planar is a legend in itself and pretty much identical to the one on Hasselblads and it’s one of the reasons to shoot medium format. There’s not much to gripe about this lens; balanced sharpness, beautiful bokeh, wonderful colors in diffused light, creamy skin textures…I guess, prone to flair? A lens hood solves that and the later versions of the lens has an HFT multi-coating.

The Rollei SL66 had a slow conception and quick death and the story of the SL66’s development is a sad tale of a proud and honest company struggling to compete. Marketing misjudgment and management errors aside, their ambition and innovation in the fight to the death deserves some respect in my eyes. Not merely just an appeal to emotion, the resulting product is indeed an engineering marvel that can yield wonderfully unique results. Convenient it is not, but since when has convenience ever equated to quality. A question many a manufacturer has forgotten.