Petteri's Pontifications
My musings about photography, mostly.
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Little Glass Eye: Rollei AFM 35

Little Glass Eye: Rollei AFM 35

It's often said that everyone who's serious about photography should have a point-and-shoot, and keep it in their pocket at all times. I decided that it was time I finally got serious, but for a number of reasons felt that the PowerShot S40 wasn't ideal for the mission. After reading some review, I went for a second-hand Rollei 35 AFM. These are my early impressions of it.

I knew pretty well what my requirements were: no-compromises optical quality, f/2.8 or brighter, between 35 and 50 mm focal length, an adequately good viewfinder, fast and straightforward operation, manual control over flash, not much bigger than a cellular phone, aperture-priority AE with AE compensation (or possibility for workaround, such as spot metering), and reasonably priced.

Unfortunately, at this writing there's no digital camera that quite fits these requirements. We have a PowerShot S40, which takes very nice pictures -- but it's slow and fussy to operate, rather bigger than I'd like, the optics are good but not stellar, the viewfinder is terrible, and besides my wife Joanna has pretty much monopolized it. Also, the problem with digital is power: rechargeables leak charge even if the camera isn't in use, so I can't just stick it in my pocket and forget about it.

So, it had to be film.

Fortunately, my first requirement (no-compromises optics) cut the number of contenders to a fairly small number. After a little bit of research, I had my short list down to:

Yashica T4 or T5
Pros: Excellent Zeiss T* lens, compact, clean design, good metering.
Cons: Limited manual control. Apparently somewhat slow to operate. Viewfinder not great.
Contax T2 or T3
Pros: Excellent Zeiss T* lens, compact, good metering, great build, good viewfinder, good manual controls.
Cons: Price. No way I was going to drop 900 Euro on a film point-and-shoot, however nice. Also, the T3 is apparently a bit fussy to use.
Leica Minilux
Pros: Excellent Leica 40/2.4 lens, compact, good metering, good manual controls, superb build, good viewfinder.
Cons: Again, price. I could find this for 510 Euros new, but it's still more than I wanted to pay. Besides, it's a bit too yuppie for my taste.
Olympus Mju 2
Pros: Highly affordable, weatherproof, very compact, very clean design, decent viewfinder, excellent optics.
Cons: Limited manual controls (although I think it would've been enough in the end), not great tactile feel (e.g. hard to tell by touch or hearing when it's focused right).
Rollei 35 AFM
Pros: Excellent optics, reasonably clean design, good metering, good manual controls, good build, decent viewfinder.
Cons: None that I could think of... at the time.

Let's Roll-ei!

My choice for getting serious: the Rollei AFM 35.

Crossing the Leica and the Contax off the list was easy: they cost way more than I was willing to pay. The Yashica was pretty easy too: despite the great optics, I wasn't thrilled by the limited manual controls and what I read about it being slow to operate. So, I was left with the Olympus and the Rollei. I ended up with the Rollei half by accident: a used one came my way, and I went for it. I'm still not sure whether the Mju 2 wouldn't have been a better buy in the end -- the clean design and light weight are major advantages, and it's really excellent bang for the buck. But the Rollei it was, and it was time to get pointing and shooting.

Build and design

The camera wasn't quite as well built as I had expected from the reviews. While the body feels solid, the controls fit well, and overall finish is good, it was let down by some details: the plastic "iris" that covers the lens looks sloppily put together, and the tripod socket is plastic (and, incidentally, way off center). That said, it's certainly not cheap-feeling or badly put together -- it's just not as tight as I had hoped.

However, these two points don't have much practical importance, and the Rollei is well-built where it counts. The dials that control aperture and focus distance (and focus mode) fit very well and are easy to use even with gloves on. The hand grip is covered by chunky soft rubber and affords a very good grip.

The shutter release is especially good -- it's big, easy to reach, and there's a fairly long motion and clear halfway retent. In combination with the quiet but precise-sounding "zzt" the camera makes when it focuses, it's very easy to tell when the camera has focused, and it's even easy to drop the camera off the face while keeping it focused, in order to bring it back up and take a quick snap at the right moment -- for example, when in conversation. In fact, this feature alone might be worth the extra price over the Olympus -- the shutter response on the Oly is very un-tactile.

Aesthetics is a matter of preference, I suppose, but I find the Rollei neither pretty nor ugly. Utilitarian with a slightly retro feel might describe it well; it's a shame about the "High Speed Lens" text in red on the top panel, though, and the LCD isn't exactly decorative either.

Caught in conversation. This kind of shot is hard to get with a big camera, or one that you can't "set up" so that you can snap the shot the instant you want.

The user interface is generally pretty straightforward: one dial sets the aperture (P or 2.6 to 16 in 1-stop increments), another at the front sets the focus mode (AF or 0.4 m to infinity in seven steps). Flash mode is set by repeatedly pressing the flash mode button -- Off, Fill-in, Red-eye, Slow, Red-eye Slow. This button somewhat puzzlingly also sets backlight compensation (+2 stops): it took me a while to figure out what the "sun and no flash" symbol meant, not having the instruction manual to consult. Another little button sets AE bracketing, 0.5 or 1.0 Ev: this causes "AEB" to show in the viewfinder, and when you shoot the next three frames, they'll be bracketed. Neat for slides, I suppose, but a bit of an odd feature to find on a PnS, I think. The camera "forgets" all settings when it's switched off: I suppose it's good in that you won't be able to do something dumb like leave +2 AE compensation on by mistake, but for someone who's used to restoring the far more complex defaults on the 10D and who wants to leave the flash OFF at all times except when he specifically wants it ON, it's slightly annoying.

The Rollei also has a "quartz date" feature which I won't go into, as only an idiot would burn ugly orange digits onto their pictures.

Viewfinder

Another little disappointment here. I was really expecting something better than the adequate but unspectacular viewfinder on the Olympus Mju 2. I'm sure there's one somewhere, but it isn't on the Rollei. The viewfinder is OK, but nothing special -- there are framelines for close-up focus, there's a lot of barrel distortion, and coverage is well under 90%. There's an indicator reading "AEB" if I'm in bracketing mode, and green and red LEDs next to it: green if everything's OK, blinking red if the camera can't meter for hand-held (e.g., too wide an aperture or too slow a shutter). You can get the picture even if the light is flashing, which is nice. All in all, the viewfinder is OK but not great -- way better than the symbolic viewfinders on most digicams, but far, far away from the ones on real rangefinder cameras.

Metering

I loaded up with ISO400 color neg (Kodak Portra NC) for my preliminary trial -- largely because ISO400 is what I'm planning to use most of the time, and also because I wanted to see exactly how bad the grain really is. Therefore, it's a bit tricky to judge metering -- neg has a lot of latitude. I'll put a roll of slide film through it at some point to really see what it can or can't do. In any case, metering was more than good enough for neg -- I didn't have a single badly exposed frame in the roll of 36 that I shot, and I shot them under highly varying conditions -- from bright sunlight to night street scenes, plus a couple of flash shots, and some overcast. At this point, metering seems really excellent... but we'll have to wait for the slide for the real torture test.

The Rollei doesn't appear to have AE lock, though: half-pressing the shutter locks AF, but the camera appears to meter continuously. This could be a downside, but since the metering appears to have done an excellent job so far, I can't really complain.

The Rollei metered this scene right on the money -- better than my SLR's in fact.

Focusing

The Rollei uses a passive AF system (whatever that means in a PnS -- phase detection?) and has an AF illuminator for low light. AF is uncomplicated and appears at least adequately precise -- I had only two frames with missed focus on my roll: one attempt at "drunk idiot self-portrait" and another a shot of my dog. It could be that the camera actually has some taste... The camera focuses pretty fast for a PnS, there's a positive but not distracting "zzt" when it does it, and the green light comes on. I like the way it does it, a lot -- there's no doubt that it has in fact locked on and is ready to shoot, and it's easy to keep it that way to get the right moment. The manual option is nice, too, although it's definitely something of a stopgap. I did use it on one frame and got the result I wanted.

Escheresque, again -- hard to find anything at hyperfocal distance to lock on, so the MF option came in handy.

Flash metering

I did shoot a couple of frames with flash, just to see if it works. It does. It metered quite accurately, both for fill-in and as the main light. Flash coverage was more even than I'd expected for a little camera like this. The results were harsh, as was to be expected -- flash is definitely a last resort on a camera like this, even as fill-in.

Direct flash. Note the surprisingly even coverage. Can't help the caught-in-the-headlights look, though...

Fill-in flash. Correctly metered, to be sure, but to my eye it looks flat and unnatural.

Here's the same scene with no flash for comparison, only a little Photoshop manipulation to even out the contrast a bit.

Flash performance is near the top of its class -- well metered and evenly lit. Unfortunately, this is still pretty miserable -- with no way of bouncing the flash, the photos look harsh and unnatural, even as fill-in. Improvised diffusers are highly recommended.

Optics

The 38 mm f/2.6 "S-Apogon" lens on the Rollei is supposed to be optically very good, up there with the best PnS's, which is saying something. It's a bit hard to make any firm conclusions after one roll of grainy ISO400 film, but so far it appears that yes, indeed, it is. A fuller evaluation of the optics will have to wait for a roll of slower, higher-resolution film. At this time, I won't include a great many close crops either -- the film grain really does make accurate judgments difficult.

Resolution and contrast

The lens is more than sharp enough for the film I used, and contrast appears to be excellent. I think I saw some corner softening on a few frames, but I didn't do any systematic aperture tests, so I don't know under what conditions it appears and whether or not it could be a depth of field issue. In any case, it's not distractingly bad, whatever it is. I hope the higher-resolution film will clear up this question.

Aberrations

I looked hard for CA, but couldn't find a single clear instance of either type (sagittal or axial) in any of my frames, and I believe it should have shown up on some of them if it were an issue.

I think that CA should have shown up in the branches in this frame, but there was none to be seen.

Here's a crop from the above frame, scanned at 2820 ppi and resized to about 6 MP. It looks pretty sharp, too, though the grain makes it a bit difficult to tell.

Flare

The lens is among the best I've seen in the way it handles flare. I purposely shot an "impossible" frame, without even trying to shade the lens with my hand, or apply backlight compensation. This is what I got:

The sun's at top left, within the frame (although it was just outside the viewfinder). The camera exposed the scene more or less correctly, despite having the sun actually in the frame -- a very impressive feat. What's more, I can't see any significant flare spots, and there was enough contrast retained to make a very nice print. I'm very impressed: this is what "point and shoot" at its best means!

Bokeh

The lens appears excellent for bokeh, what little of it there is -- better than my beloved 35/2, as a matter of fact.

A crop from another frame of the "Caught in conversation" series. Nice bokeh. Pity there's so little of it...

Preliminary conclusion

I like it. The build and viewfinder aren't quite what I expected, and I thought the AE compensation would work a bit more flexibly (instead of the bracketing, maybe, which is frankly a bit silly on a PnS like this). However, the camera does seem to perform where it counts: so far, it meters really, really well, the optics appear as good as any I've seen, and I especially like the tactile design -- the easy-to-operate main controls, the positive AF sound, and the excellent shutter release. They could've left off some of the frills like the stupid quartz date and AE bracketing and maybe invested the money saved into a better-built lens cover and metal tripod mount: come on, Rollei -- this isn't a $50 toy camera!

I'm not quite sure whether the Olympus Mju 2 wouldn't have been the better choice, though. The cleaner design, weather sealing, and no need for a case are major pluses. If the Mju 2 had a shutter release as good as the one on the Rollei, there'd be little question of it, limited manual controls notwithstanding. On the other hand, that shutter release really is nice, and does improve the usability of the camera a great deal. I don't think I could've had the "caught in conversation" shots with the Olympus. I'd like to get my hands on one to see how it meters -- the Rollei's metering appears to be exceptionally good; if the Olympus does as well, it has earned its reputation as a modern classic.

Value for money-wise, the Rollei would be superb... if the Olympus Mju 2 didn't exist. It does everything the way more expensive Leica and Contax do, and it costs a third of the price. It's still not too pricey, though: I paid less for mine than I paid for my EF 35/2, and it appears that the lens is just about as good. So, in a way, it's "buy a very good 38/2.6 lens, get a camera for free."

Postscript: Portra 400 NC

Oh, the film? Well, it isn't bad. It has very good, natural color, scans well, and has a pretty nice grain structure. Like all ISO400 color neg, though, it is very grainy. However, ISO100 film is pretty much out of the question for a PnS: I want to be able to shoot night street scenes like the one above, and I don't want to have to deal with the delicate exposure of slides. I'll probably be shooting ISO400 B/W neg, and maybe settle for ISO200 color neg as a compromise. Trade-offs, trade-offs...

Portra 400 NC converted to B/W in Photoshop with a canned "Tri-X" action.

As an aside, I had my first experience at "digital minilab" quality: I made the prints at a local minilab that was recently voted "Best in town." They use a Fuji Frontier, and apparently even understand about color management. The quality is clearly way better than standard minilab stuff -- nice, crisp, and contrasty, with vibrant color and pleasing tonal balance. However, being the nitpicker that I am, I have to find some nits to pick: in my opinion, these prints suffer from the same problems as many digicam pictures out of camera. It looks like the printer whams them with something like a sophisticated auto-levels. The upside is that skin tones come out pretty nice even when I shot them in the shade and I'd have expected them to look grayish and flat, but the downside is that color occasionally goes over the top and shadows often get blocked to buy midtone contrast. For example, "Eschersque" above got a really icky, supersaturated cyan-blue color in the reflected sky, and the "Conversation" series was rendered in such a way that the background came out very dark. Also, when I looked really closely, there were digital artifacts like moiré visible in very fine detail. In other words, it's a big step forward from standard minilab prints, but still pretty far from good pro lab chemical prints or even carefully done home scanning and printing.

This is why I'd like to use ISO400 color neg.