Topic: Camera (8 posts) Page 2 of 2

Rollei SL66 Part 1

I don't usually write about equipment but the Rollei SL66 was such an important camera for me and many others I think it is appropriate. Plus, I just gave one of my two Sl66's away. 

This from the site Rolleiflex SL66

First single lens 6x6 camera by Rolleiflex: the SL66
They conceived a camera based on the construction elements of a studio camera, with the focusing rail on the left side. This was done so photographers accustomed to Rollei Twin Lens Reflex cameras would feel comfortable to find all operating elements in the same places: focusing on the left side, film advance and shutter release on the right side. Weiss and Prochnow had the camera ready, in time for the 1966 Photokina photographic fair in Cologne. Hence the name of the camera, SL66 for 1966 and 6x6, the size of the negatives.
At the time, development of the camera had cost Rollei about 3.5 million German Marks, which, at today's value, would be more than $ 10 million. A very large amount of money for a small company like Rollei this is, and shows how dedicated Rollei was to this new 'super Rolleiflex'.
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).

The Rollei SL 66 with the 40 mm Distagon lens and the grip which helped in hand holding

I bought mine in 1971. In those days, photographers wanting to step up in format from 35mm and still be able to hand hold would look to 2 1/4 (120mm) for higher quality due to the larger negative. Twin lens reflex cameras were made by Yashica, Rollei, and Mamiya. Single lens reflex cameras were made by Hasselblad, Bronica, Mamiya and Pentax. Photographers' highest quality choice was Hasselblad. With Carl Zeiss lenses, superb build quality and a reasonable size the Blad was expensive and a system camera. You could work with different models, format backs, reflex finders, add on meters and a long list of lenses, all at high cost. It was used on space missions by NASA, microscopy, National Geographic and countless studio photographers all over the world. You get the picture: Hasselblad was the Leica of 2 1/4 cameras. Many people think Hasselblad is a German camera. But it's not. The lenses are of German design but the camera is made in Sweden.

The original Hasselblad space camera: the 500 ELM

But the Rollei represented another step up in the line of available 2 1/4 SLR's for it was designed to do many more things than the Hasselblad. 

In the spring of 1971 I had just been accepted to the RI School of Design for study in the graduate photography MFA program. Harry Callahan had been my teacher for the junior and senior years at RISD and had a Rollei. (If you don't know about Callahan and his photography I recommend searching for it on line.) He was making wonderful prints off of negatives shot with the camera and I was looking at buying one, with an 80mm Zeiss Planar, a right angle prism finder and the grip. But I was concerned about the cost. If I remember right this was adding up to about $2000 that I didn't have. I went to Harry and explained I'd bought whole cars for a lot less than that. He asked me if I was serious about making pictures over my career. No one had ever asked me this in such a straight forward way. I answered, "yes." He said $2000 was very little to pay for something that could serve a lifetime, for a tool that I would make my pictures with, pictures that had a place in my heart for me and perhaps others as well. I decided on the spot. I ordered one, had it shipped to a friend's parents in Worcester to avoid the sales tax and waited for what seemed like forever. As soon as they called I jumped in the car and drove right up there from Providence. When I got it I was in heaven, reading the manual, dismantling it, playing with focus and it's tilt function.

The Rollei SL 66  showing the camera's tilt function

Yes, it could tilt its lens 6 degrees up and 6 degrees down. Big difference from the Hasselblad which was always fixed in parallel to its lenses. As I was working on a senior thesis project I began running film through it and making prints for class. But I couldn't get a sharp picture out of it. My classmates thought it was a bad lens so I sent it off to Rollei in New Jersey. It took about a month to get it back and Rollei said all was well. More tests and the same problem. This went on for a while, with me feeling like I'd spent way too much money for something that wasn't any good. No way was I doing the thesis with this camera as the pressure was on to make the final prints. So I shot it with one of the school's 4 x 5's.

Finally we shook loose what was going on. The focusing screen, which is removable on the SL66, was in its housing upside down. Lots of people were handling this camera when I received it as I was the first in school to own one and we never did know if it came that way,  or if someone mistakenly reversed it or if I did. This meant I was focusing on a different plane than where the film resided in the film back therefore guaranteeing blurry results.  All became right with the world when I turned the screen over and shot and processed film. Bingo! I can still remember what that was like. I was in the word of clarity, transparency, depth and sharpness. Life became really really good again.

By the time I started graduate study the next fall I was making pictures that were right up there with my classmates and my expectations for the camera were fulfilled. Odd to think that the tool we use holds such significance in the manner of the work we make but it does. Photography has always been reliant on its tools, its technology. For some the camera is everything. But Harry Callahan taught me that it was important to use the best device you could afford, that this after all, was your work and that the tools we use needed to be bought in awareness to their intended purpose. The best paint brushes, the best and most permanent oils.  An enlarger that is rigid and stable. An enlarging lens that is faithful to the clarity and sharpness of the negative.These days the computer and storage that are up the task of handling files of large size, the display that depicts your work with clarity and depth, the printer that conveys your work in a full range of colors and prints a deep black, and so on. His advice has served me well over now a long career of making pictures. 

Thanks Harry for that.

My friend Gail now has a second Rollei SL66. I was honored to part with it as the Rollei is the primary tool she uses to make her art. And her first Rollei is showing signs of being very tired. 

Funny, I have often sold cameras to buy new or different ones. In 1984 I sold a Hasselblad Superwide that was about as important to me as my right eye to buy the one and only 8 x 10 camera I ever used: the 8 x 10 Toyo Field. 

But I still have my Rollei.

Neal Rantoul, 1972, made with the Rollei and 80mm f2.8 Carl Zeiss Planar lens

Coming up: Part 2 of the Rollei SL66 experience. And some insight into who photographed with one.  Hint: think Aaron Siskind, Ansel Adams, etc.

Note: you can read about more of my early work here.

Topics: Black and White,Camera,Analog,early work

Permalink | Posted October 31, 2015

View Camera

Forgive the digression  to something technical, but it is often said that working within different formats in photography is like working in different disciplines. I have a hunch this is far more important within photography than outside of it. By this I mean that the tools we use to make our pictures carries great importance to us. We covet the good ones and swear at the bad. We also like to think that the pictures the camera makes affect the outcome tremendously. While that may true, to the non photographic world out there it probably matters far less.

From the years 1984 to 2006 my main photographic tool was the 8 x 10 view camera.

This above is me from a February 1986 Polaroid SX-70 in the rocky area outside Prescott, Arizona.

For 22 years I carried that heavy, cumbersome, bulky, expensive, high maintenance camera, with an incumbent load of labor attached every time I'd prepare to use it, make a picture, process the film and make a print from the developed negative. A flexible kind of camera? Hardly. Hand hold it? Not so much. Use long lenses in 8 x 10? Nope. 300 mm is the standard lens for the format. Wide angle? Yes, but limited, about 210mm being as wide as most people go. Fast shutter speeds? Almost never and fast in the format is most likely around 1/125. Fast lenses? No, most lenses are f5.6 at wide open aperture and my long lens, at 360 mm, is wide open at f9!

Why would anyone put themselves through that to make their pictures? Quality, pure and simple. A big negative means less enlargement and that means better sharpness, very clear rendition of details even at large magnification and the ability for the picture to have great depth of field with fewer penalties as in smaller formats. If that sentence confuses you, look up "diffraction." Most 8 x 10 inch lenses stop down to f64 and some go to f90. 

Working with only one camera brings simplicity to the discipline. I didn't need to  question what I would bring when teaching in Italy in the summers: the 8 x 10. While on sabbatical leave, driving through the American Southwest: the 8 x 10. Countless day trips photographing projects near my home in Cambridge, MA: the 8 x 10. Skeletons and deformed body parts in glass jars at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia: the 8 x 10. PWA's (People with Aids) in the studio in the late 80's: the 8 x 10. That simplicity combined with the very large negative made for pictures that just were, meaning that the foundation laid by this very large beast of a camera insured, that, while there were many things I could not do with it, what I did with it was of the very highest quality. Not a bad benchmark to have.

Would I go back to shooting this way? I don't think so and that is why I am thinking of letting it go. And finally, how does what it does compare to the way I  now work with a digital slr camera? Within certain limitations (size of print) digital is now so good and so incredibly flexible (I use Aperture, Photoshop, Nik software and the Image Print RIP) I see no reason and have no desire to go back to a camera format that was the prevailing image-making tool in the 1860's. 

No equivocation in that last sentence, was there?                                                      

Topics: Camera

Permalink | Posted October 25, 2013

Camera Craft

I have tried to keep this post away from tech talk and will continue to practice this rule but felt it appropriate to delve into what I call " camera craft" in this post, meaning the use of the tool that is our camera.

Starting to write on this topic reminds me the post on the studio (Studio Move) where I found myself saying that at some point it becomes an issue of commitment to your art. The camera is like that. In order to get the best output it is necessary to make a commitment to the gear we use.

I have always been pretty much a "one camera" photographer, with a couple of notable exceptions. What that means is that I am not usually someone who has many cameras and pulls them out to get different results. I have always just wanted the best results possible. So, I have bought the best camera I can afford.

Harry Callahan, one of my teachers way back in graduate school, was simple but eloquent on the topic. I was trying to rationalize the purchase of a Rollei SL66 in 1971. Rollei was the "other" German company making a 2 1/4 SLR camera (compared to Hasselblad). It cost new what a good VW Beetle would cost used. Harry said that cameras were cheap and by that he meant that here was this tool that would be the crucial device that made your pictures and, if you were committed (there's that word again) to being a photographer for your career, then the camera was inexpensive when factoring in how long it would last and how much you would get out of it. I bought the Rollei and it was my primary tool for many years. I still have it today.

Once you've made the decision to buy a good camera (and not succumbed to the hype about these things) and have a lens or two in hand, next up is to learn its settings and how to get the best out of it. New cameras take time to learn and, I think, are a pain. I never would advise anyone to buy a new camera then go on a big trip and try to do well with it. How can you make good pictures with something you don't know? So, it is important to spend time with it, learn its menus and what it does and configure it the way you want. Also learn the lenses you have. Each lens is a trade off: sharpest here, best at this aperture, prone to diffraction there, bad in the corners here, poor zoomed out (if a zoom) all the way, and so on.

I never cared much for 35mm cameras. I owned them and did get serious for awhile shooting with a Leica M3 in infrared, but for the most part the negative was too small for the results I wanted. For over twenty years I shot almost exclusively with an 8 x 10 inch view camera. 

This became the benchmark for me as I judged other, smaller cameras. Of course, nothing lived up to this high bar in image quality but it served me well as a standard by which other cameras could be compared. But now that I photograph using a digital camera, I make some series of pictures that use it like a view camera, putting it on a tripod, stopping the lens down to its best aperture, even tilting or shifting one of the lenses (a 24 mm tilt shift lens) occasionally. Ironic that my present camera is about the same size and weight as a 35mm SLR was. To convey just how far technology has come: Are the pictures it makes so very different than what the 8 x 10 produced at regular print sizes? Not so much. 

Last point. Don't use a good camera in a less than best way and expect it to give you "best"results. Hand holding the camera at a marginal shutter speed with the lens wide open and the ISO set too high does not a good picture make. The tripod (yes, a good one, usually meaning expensive) is your friend. When in any doubt, use it.

Good photography, as I try to practice it, is always working at the limit of how good the camera, the user, the lenses, the printing is at a certain period of time and in my lifetime this has always been improving. What a wonderful thing! But this also implies a certain trust that the technology is always going to improve the medium. Of course, some would disagree and say that since the world has embraced  digital, photography has been hurt and the old silver gelatin technology is somehow, "real photography". This is analogous to those claiming that vinyl is a far better vehicle and more realistic to the actual performance than digital for recorded music.  I don't believe this.

I digress. Back to "Camera Craft". It is important that you know your camera, its controls, its assets and limitations well. You should also know what given apertures look like with your lenses at given settings and focal lengths. How much depth of field you need at the print size you work at, how your camera can handle a dynamic range that is wide or modest, and so on.

I remember Dianne Arbus talking to us in a class at the RI School of Design when I was a student and saying that in the early days of being a photographer she denied the equipment she was using, meaning that she didn't think that the camera and its use was important. But Lisette Model, who had been an important mentor to Arbus, convinced her that it was important to be careful, to learn exposure, the camera and making good prints. The premise, of course, is that if you wish to make a statement, tell a story, drive a point home or show something beautiful you can't if you aren't using the tools of your chosen discipline well.

Once again, you can subscribe to these blogs. I urge you to do so. It is easy and reversible every time you get an email notice that I've put out a new blog.

Please email me with your comments.

Topics: Camera

Permalink | Posted January 24, 2013