The wizardry of the Rollei Magic
Jayden is back with another camera review for us. This time a bit of an obscure one, the Rollei Magic. I have never seen one of these, so thanks to Jayden for sharing his experiences.
Once again, I have found myself some obscure camera gear of interest, that has limited coverage online. It seems it is now my quest to share such things with you all!
This (apparent) ugly duckling is the Rollei Magic II, the second, and last Auto exposure TLR made by the late and great minds of Rolleiflex.
Produced from 1962-1968, it had a relatively short life, with only approximately 12,000 units produced. This particular line of cameras was born from the apparent need for an automatic exposure TLR, a gap that it seems Rollei felt the need to fill.
What resulted, was quite a clever bit of industrial design, and a sadly short-lived departure from the standard formula for Rollei TLR’s.
What makes this funky little gadget differ from its brethren is, aside from the obvious metering mode, was the focusing method. Both the original Magic, and the second model, used what is apparently called “Front cell focusing”. This means, instead of the lensboard being moved via a rack/pinion side wheel, it is done by using one of the control dials usually reserved for shutterspeed selection.
This in turn uses a method similar to a helicoid lens, where the entire lens group (viewing & taking lenses) spin on a threaded section to achieve focus.
It isn’t fully understood why the powers that be in Germany felt the need to use this method, But I for one am certainly not complaining. It makes focusing quick, just like changing your shutter/aperture on a normal camera, but has its limitations.
As the wheel is quite small in diameter, you don’t have a whole lot of fine control when going for critical focus, as it is more suited to quick, large throw movements.
While we’re on the subject of focusing, I’ll also add that an upgraded viewing screen would certainly go a long way in helping mitigate this issue- my current screen is the standard matte ‘crosshatched ‘ pattern, but without the central magnified bubble.
I have found that in bright afternoon sun, focus on a close, small sized fore-ground subject can be quite challenging. A good example of this is the image of the crushed can, on the bright tidal flats.
However, for the general wandering around, and medium to long range landscape types that I gravitate to, this method is great. I’m sure that with further use, I will get the hang of this interesting focus method.
Why the hell not
Moving on, we can get tuck into the true Wizardry of this camera.
The meter is the Selenium type, made by Gossen, and is significantly larger than what is usually found on a Rollei. This is most likely to give the metering circuits more juice, as this also controls what shutter speed is selected.
How this works, I do not know, but I am smart enough to know that I should stay clear away from poking/and or prodding at this no doubt delicate mechanism! This particular shutter mechanism is a Prontor-S unit. It’s creation alollowed for the Rollei Magic to be possible, and apparently spurring the minds in Germany to have a “Why the hell not!” moment.
On a related note, My original 1967 Minolta Hi-Matic uses a similar metering method, with a large selenium meter that regulates both shutter and aperture. It could well be that both shutter units are the same, owing to their similar release time.
Film speed is set on top of the meter unit, via the standard knurled thumbwheel arrangement found on other Rolleiflexes. This also would allow exposure compensation. It has a range of ISO 12-1600, so quite flexible, even by today’s standards. What differentiates the model II from the I, is the ability to operate all functions manually.
On release, the Magic I was fully automatic, with no option for manual override. This immediately caused problems, as selenium meters are inherently fragile, and even in the years of release, users sometimes found this out the hard way. When the meter died on the model I, you were sh*t out of luck- the selenium meter was the only way of operation. This was soon rectified on the model II, with the inclusion of a manual mode.
This mode uses the readout on the “top deck” of the meter, where light information is displayed as E.V numbers via a needle system.
Setting manual speeds/apertures is done on the lower right side, next to the shutter lever. Did I mention that this is the trigger method? Another interesting change in the classic formula. Using either the on-camera meter, or a handheld meter, you punch in the E.V number into the dial, giving you the related settings. I find this quite handy, as I am used to the similar metering method used by Hasselblad.
As the selenium meter has its limits in low light use, a red section is used to denote the “Danger Will Robinson, Danger!” low limit of sensitivity. To combat this lack of sensitivity, the minds at Rollei decided they would just chuck the slow shutter speeds! This means that your slowest speed is 1/30th, making this a camera for bright, sunny days.
This is where I have found it’s predominant niche- wandering around at the beach, snapping photos of interesting scenery, quick happy snaps of family, and worry-free shooting with the auto exposure mode.
So far, I’ve only used B&W film, with good results. One note to make however, is that I was using Orthochromatic film (Foma’s new emulsion, Ortho 400, to be exact) and this lead to some interesting results. I think I’ll avoid this combination in future, as Ortho 400 has crushing blacks, that require metering for the shadows. Panchromatic film however, has netted me great results with fairly even metering. I think a diffusing panel for the selenium cell would go a long way to help with exposure.
An important note about Selenium meters- if they are left exposed to a light source for long periods of time (sitting in a camera shop window/display shelf), the Selenium cells will slowly fry, losing their sensitivity.
The reason I felt comfortable going ahead with this camera was that it came with its full original “Never-ready” case, that kept it completely covered. If you are going to go on the hunt for one of these, keep this in mind. That being said, the Model II is still perfectly usable even with a dead meter.
As for the taking lens, it is a ripper. A Xenar 75mm 3.5, that has nice character, and interesting subject separation when shot wide open. No complaints there. I have yet to use the other variants in the Rollei line-up, only having experience with the Planar 80 on my Hasselblad.
I have always had issues with TLR’s- What I have tried has either been too clumsy, had no lightmeter, or was destined for the parts bin. The Rollei Magic seems to have these woes pretty covered, with some interesting features that make it well worth a look even today. It is well built, functions as well as the day it left the factory, and is a curiosity in the camera world, that regularly gets inquisitive looks and questions from passers-by.
A medium format TLR with an automatic exposure mode powered by a glorified solar panel. How novel!
So if you are in the market for a Rolleiflex, but don’t want to splash the cash, or want something different to what is usually out there, Give one of these a crack. You could certainly do worse! Using this Rolleiflex has made me start looking at those lovely 3.5F’s, and I think the rot has set in.
As always, Cheers for the read, and I’m sure I’ll be back soon enough with another knick-knack of interest…
Until then, Have a good one.
Thanks to Jayden for sharing this fascinating little camera with us. Do you have a camera story you want to share with us? Drop us a line and we can get it on the site.