Rollei 35TE review – my favourite compact film camera
The Rollei 35TE is arguably one of the most timeless and interesting vintage cameras you can find out there. The camera does not only captivate with its unusual design features but also by its quality built and lens characteristics. Being of compact shape and having a retractable lens, this camera isn’t upfront about what it brings to the table, keeping expectations low. Even though it looks like a knock-off Leica that met an unfortunate fate by being shrunken down, the Rollei 35TE is still one of the best compact film viewfinder cameras out there. In the following review, I will state my case and explain which qualities make the Rollei 35TE a truly great camera for everyday use.
How I came to using the Rollei 35TE
I primarily got this camera as I had missed a great bargain at a flea market in Vienna in late autumn of 2020. Frustrated for having passed on the opportunity of acquiring a Rollei 35SE with Sonnar lens for 25 euros, I had to buy one online instead. It was more of an impulsive purchase that I legitimised at the time with my dire need to own a compact camera. I don’t regret buying it. This camera has so far been among my top-used photo gear, and I have grown very fond of it. At one time, it became my daily camera just because of its intuitive feel.
Zone focusing beauty
While zone-focusing might not be for everybody, I do enjoy it. This is mainly because I am used to it from shooting with the Leica M2 as well as Leica lenses for street photography. The Rollei 35 really fits my needs as I do sometimes prefer to go out with a smaller camera or just with a backup camera in case any interesting story could be framed. However, I can’t deny that some people just don´t really seem to like zone focusing or just need some time to learn it, meaning that they need to solely rely on zone focusing to be able to use the camera can be a dealbreaker.
The lens is very straightforward for zone focusing and the distance markings and different f-stops are easily readable. The lens also benefits from being a 40mm focal length making it easier to get a deeper focus field. Compared to other lenses I use on my rangefinders; the lens and its use are just as intuitive and easy. Every time I use the Rollei 35TE I’m surprised at how capable and versatile this small setup is and as the camera didn’t fail me (yet), I put great trust in it. This makes it possible for me to just forget about the gear and simply trust it to do its job. Also, as zone focusing is arguably the fastest way of focusing, it´s perfect for my shooting style.
Given the absence of a rangefinder patch in the camera’s viewfinder, it obviously is very much only a small cutout with some frame lines that allow you to see what is in the frame and what is not. However, this being said, the frame lines of my camera are probably the best ones I have seen in a rangefinder or a rangefinder-like camera to this date. The lines are just very clear and don’t really leave any room for speculation, which cannot be said about the frame lines on my M2 or my Canon Model 7, which are in no way bad but just not as upfront.
Another useful feature of this model series is the three integrated led lights that provide you with a guide for exposure. The top led indicates that your frame will be overexposed, while the green led in the middle informs you that your exposure is on point and the lower led indicates underexposure. I haven’t had any problems with the meter yet, so I’m confident in saying that it works like a charm (on my camera at least).
While the meter isn’t TTL and simply one that is placed in between the lettering at the front of the camera, it does work well (at the moment). But given the age of the camera and the fact that it can also be used without the meter that is powered by a battery, I think that you don´t really have to rely on it. After all, the camera is perfectly usable in a fully manual way with the aid of a handheld light meter.
Moving on to probably the most important part of this camera, the lens, I can only say that I am not disappointed. While I might not be too qualified to judge the quality of a lens given my notorious use of soft vintage glass and cameras with cheap plastic lenses from the 90s, I do still think that I should state my case as the lens does really work well for me and suits my style.
The lens just offers enough sharpness to make frames look crisp and clear, while also leaving a vintage lens touch on the pictures. This is quite important to me as I do look for character in lenses and not mere sharpness. The lens furthermore offers great contrast which makes it perfect for street photography as well as for shooting landscapes. In this point, the lens does provide a classic signature that most of us expect from a Zeiss lens copy. The only problem I could see is the high f-stop of 3.5, which makes the lens less suitable for portraits and its use in dimmer lighting conditions. But to be honest, I doubt that anybody in their right mind would get this camera to shoot portraits and that shooting at f/3.5 isn´t really a common occurrence in street photography, at least in daylight.
(Also note that the aperture on the Rollei 35 series cameras is set by choosing your f-stop on a wheel that is at the front of the camera. While your shutter speed is adjusted on another wheel under the viewfinder at the front of the camera.)
The beauty of shooting a fully manual camera
For those who haven’t realised just yet: I have a soft spot for fully manual cameras. This is mainly because most cameras I own with electronic components will probably stop working soon. It may mainly be due to my utter ignorance because I usually don’t shield them from rain or any other environmental influences.
Nevertheless, the very idea of picking up one of my cameras one day just to realise that it stopped working frightens me. Especially, due to the financial misery, it might put me through or simply because most of them will just become irreparable bricks of cheap metal and plastic. Arguably, this could also one day happen to my Rollei but I highly doubt it as many camera technicians in my area do offer to CLA these cameras. This makes the camera more dependable than most of the other cameras I use. All in all, with its setup, style and lens I do think that the Rollei 35TE is one of the most underrated cameras on the vintage camera market. So, I would suggest that you pick one up before prices skyrocket as they did with every other hype camera.
The downsides of Rollei 35TE
Having said all of this, I do think that the Rollei 35TE also has its weaknesses. One of them – its unfortunate setup for the wrist strap and therefore its proneness to getting dented on the corners. This is mainly due to the way the camera is being carried and probably because I’m just clumsy. Nevertheless, it does hurt the experience of using the camera as I want to cry every single time when I put a new dent in my precious camera. Besides that, I don’t really feel like there are any other downsides. Except for the way film is loaded into the camera, which is more painful than loading the Leica M2 as a newbie. (See the step-by-step process in the pictures below).
Loading Rollei 35TE
It’s not too bad of a process to go through when you are sitting down. It can be horrible to load the camera when you are on the go and need to extract a film and load it again. But also, for me, those points wouldn’t really speak against getting the camera.
The final verdict
All in all, I can only end this review by asking: What are you waiting for? This camera offers you a unique and great experience. If you can live with the idea of getting used to zone focusing and are willing to put yourself through the pain of loading this camera then you should consider buying it. It has everything that makes a great camera – a reliable body over a great lens, its own character and great ergonomics.
Arguably, even the downsides can be an advantage as we all recon that creativity flourishes under limitations. Using and getting this camera might even have a sustainable impact on you as a photographer. Meaning that it could change your style of shooting and your understanding of photography completely. So just give it a shot after all if you have come to this part, you probably are already entertaining the idea of getting this camera or are already the proud owner of a Rollei 35.
I hope that you found this review helpful, and I would love to see you in another review or blog of mine! If you haven’t checked out my blog posts with @victoshot yet, click here to learn more about shooting film in Vienna.