Rolleicord 101: Re-learning Photography in the 21st Century

Thursday, March 7, 2013 | Washington, DC, USA

The original Instagram
A few years ago, I was poking around my family's attic in Baltimore and came across my dad's old Rolleicord camera. Clueless as to how to produce a picture with it, I let it sit—until recently.

Back home for Christmas, I was chatting about photography with my friend Jordan, who encouraged me to dust the camera off, find some film, and start experimenting. Suddenly curious, I browsed some online hobbyist sites and learned that the camera was made between 1950 and 1952 in Germany. (The letters DRP and DRGM on the body apparently indicate that, even at that date, it was manufactured under the pre-WWII patents.) I also found a user's manual whose hokey mid-century style, if not its advice, was priceless. (When photographing children, "Never use force"!)

Rolleicords and their cousins, the higher-end Rolleiflexes, were once ubiquitous, I am told. But several technological generations later, a Rollei makes for a fairly unusual sight. In New York around New Year's, I wandered into a photo shop and pulled out the camera to ask for the medium-format film it required. The technician's eyes lit up with excitement, and he immediately set about not only selling me the film but showing me how to load it and how to use all the camera's functions.

Released onto the streets, I began shooting, not knowing whether the photos would turn out or whether the camera had been too long neglected to yield decent images. It turns out there is no substitute for quality German engineering; when I opened my first pack of prints a day later, giddy with anticipation, I found that the camera still worked perfectly.

The cameraman, however, was a different story.

Having come of age in The Digital Era, I have a lot to learn about how to use a fully manual film camera. Complicating matters, the Rollei's viewfinder is on the top of its body (requiring that I hold it at chest level and peer down when shooting) and reverses the image, making orienting shots a challenge. But my most common mistake is a simple one—failing to advance the film. This error produces lots of double exposures that can sometimes appear artful but more often just ruin two otherwise perfectly good images. And at an average cost of $2 per photo (factoring in film, processing, and scanning costs) mistakes with this camera are pricey.

The high cost, plus the fact that each roll only holds 12 photos, has encouraged me to accelerate the mental rewiring that is necessary to transition from digital to film. Suddenly I can no longer snap away with wild abandon; once afterthoughts, factors like lighting, positioning, and composition are now obsessions.

I feel that this shift is already making me a more conscious photographer, and that my "new" equipment is pushing me to view the world in new ways. Here are some of my early efforts—you be the judge!

Big thanks to Jordan M for getting me started and to Rebecca F for patiently modeling in the cold!

1 comment:

PiEp said...

Thanks for your story. I am glad I continued to page 9 of the Google results for "Rolleicord blog". It is very nice to read about how analog photography forces people to think before they shoot. It did the same for me. Enjoy your great TLR camera!

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