In the realm of Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) cameras, many people chase the Rolleiflex, the shining light at the top of the mountain. This is in a landscape of TLRs of which there are more brands and types than I could possibly list. The Rolleicord is its smaller brother. While understandably a lower spec and not many people would argue it is better than its bigger sibling, it can in its own right produce stunning results. In-fact, the Rolleicords are very collectable themselves now.
This specific model, the Rolleicord Va Type 1, is a bit of an odd duck in the line as it has placement of some controls on opposite sides to the other models. This does polarise some photographers who feel this interferes with their muscle memory in operating the camera.
There are many reports on how the Xenar lens performs, with people stating that you need to stop it down to f/8 or f/11 for best quality. Following that line of thought, many believe it rivals the quality of some the Rolleiflexes once stopped down, especially as a number of the f/3.5 models actually use the Xenar lens. While this would be the case, it also does not mean that it is a slouch wider open, just not as good as what is considered the best TLR ever made with a very expensive Planar lens. It should be kept in context that the Flex was aimed at professionals and the Cord is amateur model, so this is very unfair comparison.
Other comparisons of the Rolleicord are against competing models, like the Yashica Mat, the Minolta Autocord and the Mamiya C range. It seems to hold itself against these, with a common thread that the quality of the workmanship keeps it in very high regard.
Regardless of the technical comparisons, one thing that nearly everyone agrees on is that even though being the amateur version of the iconic TLR, the Rolleicord exudes the feeling that comes with using a high-end TLR. It is something that comes out of the satisfaction that the tool enables a standard of quality the discerning photographer seeks. The limitations are not anything that will get in the way.
One other TLR which has been reviewed here which may be of interest, is the Pigeonflex, which was a predecessor to the Yashicaflex.
Why call it out to being the “middle twin”? Because there is also a Baby Rollei which shoots 127 film, so you could say this sits in the middle. Before finding out more about the Rolleicord Va Type 1, we’ll have a look at some information about where it came from and camera details.
In 1920 Paul Franke and Reinhold Heidecke established an optical company in Braunschweig, Germany called Werkstatt für Feinmechanik und Optik, Franke & Heidecke. The company kept that name until 1972 when it became Rollei-Werke Franke & Heidecke GmbH. Quite a few name changes followed until 2009 showing how difficult survival of the company became after the decline in popularity of TLRs. This included the company changing hands, owned by Samsung for half a decade in the ‘90s, a management buy back, and then an investment group who finally renamed it just Rollei GmbH.
While the primary focus of the company through its history was mainly on medium format TLRs, it also produced the world’s smallest 35mm camera, 35mm SLRs, sub miniature cameras and the very sought after medium format SL studio camera. Other than film cameras it produced optical products including projectors, surveying equipment and eventually some digital cameras. The last one being a long way from the initial stereo cameras the company was created in 1920 to manufacture.
In 2009 Rollei went into insolvency ending a long history for one of the finest photographic companies in history. In 2015, Rollei as we knew it, closed manufacturing completely. Today the Rollei name is used for many products including dash cams, action cams, tripods, photo filters and film.
In 1929, after three years of development, the Rolleiflex was first introduced to the world. Interestingly it used a very unpopular film type, 117. Soon afterwards in 1932, the Rolleiflex Standard (later to be known as the Old Standard) was released which was in production until 1939. This model first introduced the hinged back. In 1938 the New Standard was produced for three years until 1941.
In parallel, the Rolleiflex Automat was introduced in 1937 and with various models continuing this line until 1956 where the final one was the Automat B. The Automat is important in context of this Rolleicord review as one of its models first introduced the Schneider Kreuznach Xenar lens which became a common lens on the various models of Rolleicords.
The Rolleicord 1 Model 1, also dubbed the “Art Deco Rollei” was released in 1933. This model is very collectable now, as it had the option of a very decorative metal faceplate with an elaborate pattern etched onto it. The Rolleicord 1 was based on the Rolleiflex Standard and was introduced for the more advanced photographer that required a high standard of quality but did not want or could afford the high price of a Rolleiflex.
The major differences in that initial model is that a cheaper Carl Zeiss Triotar 75mm lens was installed and the film wind crank was replaced with a winding knob. One other main differentiator is that the largest aperture offered for the Rolleicord has been f/3.5 while the Rolleiflex has had options up to f/2.8.
Many new versions of the Rolleicord were offered through its lifespan, from the initial 1933 model until the final Vb model which was discontinued in 1976. During that time, the Rolleicord brought on its own cult following which continues to this day.
The Rolleicord Va Type 1 was released in 1957. As mentioned earlier, this model introduced a change in controls which still polarise the user community. The main change was that the focus knob was moved from the right side to the left side. This is a significant change for a user who has trained their hands to automatically focus on the right side. It also has meant that the film transport knob was moved to the right side from the left. This was to allow for a new film counter mechanism.
In terms of position of controls, the Va Type 1 was the last of the Rolleicords to have the exposure scale and aperture setting on the left side and the shutter speed setting on the right side. The Type 2 which followed, changed these around. This change was within the same model effectively, the Va!
The Rolleicord Va Type 1 was in production until 1958, when replaced by the Type 2. Roughly 21,000 copies were manufactured and sold.
The Rolleicord Va Type 1 is a 6×6 medium format TLR. It has a fixed focusing screen, which is not interchangeable and has some parallax compensation. It features a Schneider Heidosmat 75mm, fixed f/3.2 viewing lens. The taking lens is a Schneider Kreuznach Xenar 75mm, f/3.5. The Xenar is a Tessar design lens, which comprises four elements in three groups. These lenses are known to be very sharp from f/8 onwards but can have some softness in the corners wide open.
The shutter button is on the front at the bottom left. It is pushed upwards to fire the shutter, after the lever next to it, under the taking lens, is pulled to the right to cock the shutter. The shutter button unscrews so that the button can be replaced with a remote cord of standard size. The shutter itself is a Synchro Compur MXV, which allows for shutter speeds between 1 second to 1/500 second and Bulb.
Shutter speed is selected with a lever on the right side of the camera taking lens and displayed in a little cut-out window at the 11 o’clock position when facing the camera. It is mechanically linked to the aperture control which is handled by a lever on the left of the camera taking lens, featuring apertures from f/3.5 to f/22. The EV scale is also displayed with the aperture setting in a longer cut-out window at the 1 o’clock position facing the camera. While the aperture changes will not affect the shutter speed setting, changing the shutter speed will move the aperture setting to ensure corresponding EV values.
Also on the front of the camera is a lever for the double exposure control, the port for plugging in a flash light source and the X, V, M flash sync controls with a lever on the right of the camera. The M is for the old style flashbulbs which are not used very much at all now, X is for electronic flash and generally most people will leave it set to this. V is a timer setting that works with X synch flashes.
On the left side of the camera is the focus knob. The distance on this copy is in feet but there are metric versions as well. Turning the focus knob moves the whole lens board in and out, which through the mirror is shown in the ground glass. Above the focus knob is depth of focus scale. Inside the knob is a film speed reminder setting which can be adjusted by rotating a thumb on it. Also on the left is the pull knobs for releasing the film spools when the back is opened for a film change.
The right side has the film advance knob, which rotates forward. Next to it is a counter which automatically resets to zero when the film is changed which also has a frame number reminder of 12 etched in.
A recommendation on exposure settings is attached to the back. It uses pictures of mountains, skiing etc. to demonstrate the different conditions and what to do in different lighting conditions. It’s a simplified sunny-sixteen exposure calculation. The back opens with a lever on the bottom to unlock a rotating switch. This opens the back from bottom to top, allowing access to load the film. When the back is closed, the counter is reset to zero. The photographer must then advance the film which will then stop at frame 1.
Framing and focusing is achieved through the ground glass screen on top of the camera, which is viewable when the top of the waist level finder is flipped upwards. The screen is not considered the most user friendly of the options and there are replacement screens available using the bright glass. The framed view is reversed. A detail focus aid is also available in the form of a magnifier which can be flipped up by pressing from the front. There is also the option of using a sports finder for framing by pressing the front panel down and viewing from the back where a square hole can be aligned with the front frame.
Accessories are also available with lens hoods, meter attachments, leather cases and options to shoot other formats including 35mm with back replacements.
I searched for a good Rolleicord for quite a while a couple of years ago. I came across this copy available from a seller in Wales. I did consider not buying it as it uses imperial distances, but in the end, it was a very good price for a camera in quite good condition. When it arrived, I opened the package like it was Christmas.
It is a camera that is beautiful, something to look at as well as to use. As I got familiar with it I started to understand why the Rollei is considered the ultimate TLR, and the Rolleicord is the lower spec version! The build quality is superb, everything is fitted very well, there is no play, and just plain solid.
While I have read that the ground glass screen is not the greatest, when I have used this camera I have never found it to be a problem. I know you can get brighter versions, but it does the job. The detail focus aid is very helpful though. When framing for a shot I really felt like I am in the picture itself. It is a very different feeling to using an eye view finder.
I have found that when I am out using the Rolleicord that I am actually less noticeable than when I use a rangefinder or a SLR. I am not holding anything up to my eye, so the lack of this physical movement does not attract attention. When it is noticed though, the attention that people give it is really amazing. Just goes to prove quality is very recognisable.
The focusing knob on the left side has not affected me at all, nowhere near as bad as some people have written about. It did take a little to get used to it, but after a while it becomes quite automatic. In fact, it makes some sense in that you focus and then fire the shutter with the same hand and this while I am right handed.
The one thing that I did find that got in the way was the linked EV exposure mechanism. I like to set my aperture and then adjust the shutter speed. Unfortunately, this would change my aperture settings and be a bit annoying, but even this I got used to.
I have taken the Rolleicord with me for eighteen months now, so I have had quite a few chances to enjoy the quality of the results. It really has not disappointed. The negatives look great each time I get them back from the lab. They jump out at you.
Something I did notice was that the frames got progressively less evenly spaced later in the roll. I suspect this is worse than it was when new, with the only thing it really affected was some of the scanning alignment.
Sharpness, as advertised, was edge to edge sharp at anything smaller than f/8. The detail and contrast is remarkable and gives it a 3D type look. At f/5.6 and wider, the centre is still really sharp and it is does lose some sharpness the closer the edge you go, especially fully wide open at f/3.5. This is the case I see in most lenses except the really expensive top level ones. I personally do not believe that the results from Xenar lens have excessive sharpness loss, definitely not anything unexpected from a Tesser lens. The problem I think is that a lot of reviewers compare the results to the Rolleiflex with the f/2.8 Planar which at times is worth four Rolleicords.
Exposure is even across the frame with only a hint of vignetting at f/3.5. There is a reason this lens design has lasted so long, and has been adopted by so many manufacturers. I looked closely for chromatic aberration and there was none that was evident. When I scan the negatives I am constantly in awe of the colours, the definition and the details captured by this camera.
The Rolleicord Va Type 1 is a beautiful camera, small, light and produces top quality 6×6 negatives and slides. It costs significantly less money than the Rolleiflex but can achieve results which are not what you would call less value. If you are looking for a TLR with a reasonable price tag but would still like the Rollei quality, you cannot go wrong with this Rolleicord.