Compact Camera Quest (Part 1)

Posted 2011.07.14 16.14 in Photography by Stephanie

“The best camera in your collection is the one you have with you when you need it.”

I don’t know who originally said that, but they were right. The fanciest gear and finest lenses in the world won’t do you any good if you’ve left them at home because they’re too big / heavy / bulky.

Granted, every cellphone now has a “camera” in it. Or the latest Canon or Nikon digital P&S is about the size and weight of a deck of cards… but that’s not what I like. I like film. I like old-school. I like classic cameras. I do like convenience though, and I don’t always want to have to stop to tinker with my camera before taking the shot.

At one point, I had thought my Canonet GIII QL17 was the perfect 35mm camera. And my Zeiss Ikon Nettar is a nearly-perfect medium-format. Problem is, I don’t carry them around everywhere. The Canonette isn’t all that bulky but it is a bit heavy, and doesn’t fit in a small purse or jacket pocket. And the Nettar is a fantastic folding camera, but it’s an antique in great condition, so just a bit too dear for me to lug around everywhere day after day.

Then I learned about the Rollei 35 – a full-frame 35mm camera that some referred to as “sub-compact”. Intrigued, I soon found one available online at a good price, and took the plunge…

Rollei B35

Until you’ve held one of these in your hand, you just don’t realize how small they actually are. This thing is tiny! Yet still very solid – solid like if you slipped it in a sock, you’d have a deadly weapon on your hands. Equally amazing to me was that the designer managed to fit all the functions of a classic manual camera right into such a small design!

The Rollei 35 was actually a whole line of cameras. The version I have, the B35, dates from about 1971 and one of my favorite features is that it does not use a battery! It is 100% manual. There is a lightmeter but even this is batteryless – it uses a selenium cell to convert light directly into electricity, to move a needle. And after 40 years it still works!

The camera even features a normal hot-shoe so you can connect any standard flash to it. The only funky thing is due to the tiny size and limited space, they put the hot-shoe on the bottom. So if you want the flash shadows to look natural you have to turn the camera upside-down for flash shots. Not a big deal though, really.

Park, Path, Pond

As amazing as this little camera is, there are still some issues, unfortunately. While being so solidly built has some benefits, it also has some drawbacks: this camera is heavy. It will stretch out your pocket and weigh down your purse. When not in use, the lens collapses into the camera, but there is no protection for the lens itself, or for the viewfinder – so if you do just drop it in a pocket or purse, it is going to collect dust, lint, and perhaps even scratches.

Finally, although the fully-manual no-battery functionality is a big plus, it can also be a bit of a minus. You have to stop and think before you shoot, you have to ensure the aperture, shutter, and focus are correct. This is a good compact camera for serious photography, but not as great as a carry-everywhere-snapshot camera.

One other thing which is a problem for me is the focusing. There is no focus aid, just a distance scale on the lens. I’m terrible at estimating distance, so I have a very hard time getting the focus correct.

Work Crew

Details: Triotar 1:3.5 f=40mm lens. Battery, none. Shutter, 1/15 to 1/500 plus B. Aperture, f/3.5 to f/22. Standard tripod socket and standard cable-release socket.

Pros: Fully manual control. No battery needed. Hot shoe. Built-in (uncoupled) light meter. Small. Solid.

Cons: Heavy! No protection for lens or viewfinder. No focus aid. Fully manual exposure.

Summary: 3 out of 5. The Rollei B35 is a nice camera – compact, classic, manual. I’ll never sell mine. But it’s not going to be the camera I carry with me everywhere I go…


Part 2 will be coming shortly, so stay tuned!

I will note here that I did not originally set out on a quest for the perfect compact (full frame 35mm) camera. It didn’t become a quest until some time after Part 3 — or rather, I did not realize it was a quest until then.


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