In Part 1 of my quest, I started to identify what I was looking for in a classic compact film camera: small, not-too-heavy, full-frame 35mm, classic (as in, not a point-and-shoot), but also convenient and easy to shoot (not 100% manual). Spelling that out, it does sound a bit like I’m looking for the impossible – or at least, that some of my requirements are at odds — not too manual but not too automatic? WTF?
Part 1 also looked at my first compact 35mm camera, the Rollei B35. A solid, well-built compact manual camera. But a little too heavy, a little too manual, and it didn’t have any built-in protection for the lens or viewfinder.
Before long, I came across another intriguing compact camera – coincidentally, another Rollei too. This time, it was the Rollei A26…
The A26 is just as solidly built as the B35. However, instead of only the lens collapsing, the whole camera slides together. When closed, the size is about the same as the B35. The A26 has an advantage though: when closed, the lens and both sides of the viewfinder are protected, along with the shutter release.
When open, the camera is a bit wider, the lens pops out into position, and the viewfinder and shutter release button are exposed. The camera is heavy like the B35, and unlike the B35, it is built like a box – literally, it’s like a little metal box. So it’s not exactly comfy in the pocket.
The A26 has fully automatic exposure, which relies on a battery. It uses a CdS cell to measure available light, and sets the aperture and shutter speed automatically. Focusing is a “zone-focus” system, meaning there are symbols on the lens for close-up, group shot, and landscape, and you pick what’s most appropriate. There is also a distance scale on the underside of the lens, if you prefer to estimate distance.
The automatic exposure gives no indication of what settings it is using, but it does give you an indication of whether there is enough light or not – when there is sufficient light, a green indicator is visible in the viewfinder. The battery reliance is a downside, but when the camera is closed it is fully ‘off’ – closing the camera physically isolates the battery from the electronics so there is no drain at all while the camera is not being used.
The camera can also be used without a battery, however it is not optimum. Without the battery, the camera functions at full aperture and full speed – 1/250th & f/3.5.
Unlike the other cameras we’ll look at in this quest, the A26 is not a “full frame 35mm” – it uses the 126 cartridge, which produces square images of about 26 x 26mm. (Full frame 35mm creates rectangular images 36mm x 24mm.) Some folks don’t like the 126 format, but this camera is miles better than most 126 units, which were admittedly junk.
One quirk of this camera was the flash – there is no standard hotshoe. Instead, Rollei sold a matching flash unit designated C26. The flash screwed into the side of the camera. It didn’t take normal batteries, it came with an AC adaptor to recharge a built-in, non-replacable rechargable unit.
This would actually have been a real candidate despite the weight and boxiness, because it is an easy camera to use, is well protected when not in use, and takes decent shots too. However, there are two big drawbacks to this camera, which unfortunately knock it right out of contention.
The first is the batteries it uses – this camera was designed for the now-banned PX625 mercury cell. While you can use a modern alkaline replacement, this isn’t a perfect solution as the alkaline cells have different voltage levels and different discharge curves. Having said that, I have used the camera with the alkaline cell, and it is “acceptable”.
The real killer is the film – the Rollei A26 uses Instamatic 126 cartridges, a format which Kodak officially discontinued in December 1999. The last 126 film to be produced anywhere was made in 2007, now the only stock available is expired film one might find at auction sites or second-hand stores. So without a ready supply of film, unfortunately this camera can’t be counted on as a take-anywhere camera.
(In fact one can ‘reload’ 35mm film into a 126 cartridge, I have done this a couple times, but it is awkward and imperfect, as the 126 format relies on one perforation per frame, whereas the 35mm format has perforations every few mm. So you end up with shots doubled up or missed shots wasting film.)
Details: Sonnar 1:3.5 f=40mm lens. Battery: PX625 mercury cell. Shutter, 1/30 to 1/250. Aperture: f/3.5 to f/22. No tripod socket, no cable release socket.
Pros: Small size. Automatic exposure. Solid. Protection for lens & viewfinder when closed.
Cons: Film unavailable. Battery unavailable. Heavy. Boxy. Proprietary flash unit.
Summary: 3 out of 5. Another nice camera from Rollei. If not for the film and battery issues, this would be a real contender. Still, without film, there’s no point. Sigh.
I do have a small cache of unused (expired) 126 film, some black&white and now some colour too, so I will take my A26 out now and then and use it. However, it is not the perfect compact film camera.
Stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon!