Rolleiflex MiniDigi AF 5.0: A TLR for the Digital Age?
I have to state my bias up front here: one of the more esoteric enthusiasms of my life is a passion for twin-lens reflex cameras, and I consider the venerable and near-extinct TLR to be the ne plus ultra of camera design configuration. For me, the combination of whisper-quiet operation, low vibration thanks to a minimum of moving parts, and the facility to compose one's shot on a two-dimensional groundglass screen's full negative-sized preview of the photograph (albeit reversed) rather than peering through a viewfinder or single lens reflex pentaprism made and still makes the TLR a pleasure to use.
Of course, the SLR, both in medium-format and 35mm (and more recently digital photography) has eclipsed the TLR for nearly a half-century now, but there are still a remnant of die-hard TLR fans like myself, and the TLR - particularly the legendary Rolleiflex - has acquired a sort of nostalgic mystique.
From its introduction in 1928, the Rolleiflex was the camera of choice for professionals, and for many advanced amateur photographers as well, for over 30 years.
However, the skill required to cope with the reversed focusing image, plus parallax errors in close-up work caused by the viewing and taking lenses being physically separated, and the fact that the TLR Rolleiflex did not offer interchangeable lenses, caused it to lose ground to the heavier, noisier, more expensive, much more mechanically complex, single lens reflex Hasselblads, Bronicas, Mamiyas, and ultimately Rollei's own medium format Rolleiflex SL 66 and SLX SLRs in the 1960s and 70s, not to mention the shift of 35mm from being regarded as a "minicam" format to the de facto mainstream standard.
The Rolleiflex TLR has never really gone out of production, and you can still buy one new today, albeit at an astronomical price. It's now more or less a special interest collector's item, although a highly functional one still capable of taking superb photographs.
The current line of Rolleiflex 2.8FX and 4.0FW (wide angle) cameras are classical twin-lens reflex cameras with the advanced exposure-control options of a modern Rolleiflex. State-of-the-art TTL metering and autoflash control are a combination of tradition and progress. In all other respects, the classic Rollei's time-tested features have been preserved, such as the folding crank advancing the film with a rapid back-and-forth movement, at the same time setting the shutter and stepping the frame counter without making multiple exposures impossible.
When I made part of my living as a wedding and portrait photographer back in the 70s, my workhorse camera was a Rolleicord Vb twin-lens reflex , the no-frills, entry-level version of the Rolleiflex. With its razor-sharp Schneider Xenar lens and 2-1/4" square (6x6cm) negative format, that old Rollei recorded many superb images.
I even have an optional conversion kit that allows the big Rollei to take 15 35mm-sized, or square "Superslide" exposures on 120 roll film rather than the standard 12, a wide angle adapter, two diopters of parallax-corrected close-up lenses, and a few filters.
Speaking of square formats, which were necessary for the TLR's waist-level groundglass focusing screen, some folks considered them a compromise, but in actual practice the square format only required a modest amount of cropping to reach the standard 4" x 5" and 8" x 10" print formats. Taking square negatives leaves your options open for sectional enlarging to obtain horizontal or vertical pictures without determining composition right from the beginning, and with a negative area almost four times that of the 35 mm format, you have plenty of cropping latitude without compromising image quality.
A TLR camera, held at waist level, never stares the subject in the eye. People tend to go on looking and acting naturally instead of posing for the camera - grown-ups as well as small children and even animals. With this type of viewfinder, you can also hold the camera very low or even place it on the ground when the shot requires that. And you don't have to lie flat on your belly yourself, or in "spycam" mode, even shoot around corners or in "periscope" mode without revealing yourself. Because you look down into the ground glass hood, you can stand facing one direction with the camera pointing elsewhere - great for candid work!
I like square-formatted compositions anyway. It's what I grew up with. My first camera used 127 roll film (a 1-5/8" x 1-5/8" or 4cm x 4cm square negative format), as did the ubiquitous Kodak Instamatic 100 series snapshot cameras of my youth in the 1960s that used 126 size drop-in film cartridges. (BTW, there were a few professional grade 127 cameras, including the Baby Rolleiflex).
Back from the Brink
Just when I had sadly resigned myself to the TLR being a relic of a bygone age, the concept got rescued, sort of, by the ascendancy of digital photography. Back in 2006, Rollei's US distributor (Rollei is still very much in business making both high-end professional SLRs, film and digital, as well as consumer point and shoot cameras, and yes, they will even sell you a real TLR Rolleiflex 2.8 or 4.0 wide-angle) Direct Source Marketing released a new twin-lens reflex camera built by Komamura Corporation (originally introduced in Japan in 2004) that was the spitting image of the Classic Rolleiflex, with two lenses, one above the other. a hand crank lever, a hooded viewfinder, a bright metal accented coal-black casing, and the Rolleiflex logo. What was different is that the Rollei MiniDigi was much smaller and digital, retaining the look and feel of the original, but fitting in the palm of your hand or pocket.
The hand crank is functional, but instead of advancing film (which it doesn't use), the Rollei MiniDigi's crank prepares the camera for the next shot. The classic popup hood and viewfinder also provided the original's "Sportsfinder" function for quick framing of action shots, However, the viewfinder screen used a color LCD instead of the original ground glass, and the image is not reversed, which would eliminate one of the major objections to TLRs from amateurs.
And happily, the Rolleiflex MiniDigi maintained a square picture format just like the film Rollei TLRs do. The square format means no shutter opportunities or valuable seconds are lost choosing between horizontal or vertical composition. Just look down into the viewfinder at waist level, aim, and shoot.
Very cool, but there were some disappointing aspects as well. While the MiniDigi incorporated digital camera technology, including SD memory cards, white balance, and fast shutter speeds, but had a very pedestrian (even by 2004/2006 standards) 3-megapixel sensor offering only modest resolutions of 1760 x 1760, 1280 x 1280, or 640 x 640 pixels, and the manufacturer conceded that it was really more of a toy and conversation piece or collector's item and not really intended to be a full-featured digital camera.
Megapixels are not the only factor in rendering high digital image quality: The lens is probably of greater practical importance. The MiniDigi had a five element lens, but it was fixed-focus, which definitely didn't speak "serious camera", even at the hefty $350 price. Nevertheless, it quickly sold out.
Fast forward to 2008. Last week Direct Source Marketing announced the upgraded MiniDigi AF 5.0, which now comes in red as well as the traditional black.
The new MiniDigi AF (auto focus) 5.0 incorporates some significant performance upgrades, including a 5 MP image file from a 3 MP CMOS sensor; autofocus (between 10cm/4" and infinity); and a 1.1" TFT display (up from the previous 0.9" unit), which allows you to preview and review images on a very clear monitor located at the top of the camera (as it is on the full-sized Rolleiflex TLR).
MiniDigi AF 5.0 will be available through specialty retailers. Pricing is expected to be $399 MSRP.
Besides the features unique to Rolleiflex, the MiniDigi incorporates digital camera technology - Mini SD memory cards w/SD card adapter, white balance, fast shutter speeds, 5 MP sensor (which is still modest by current standards, but should be adequate for general photography, LCD monitor, etc., and as noted is also available in a limited-production "Italian Red" version as well as the original black.
Personally, I still prefer the classic black & chrome.
So, is the MiniDigi AF 5.0 now a serious camera? Well, it's more serious than the original model, but no, not really. Still, I sure would love to have one!
Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.
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