The Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex camera

Classic Projects: Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera

In 1914 the outbreak of the First World War was to usher in technological breakthroughs that changed the face of weaponry, transport, medicine and communications forever. This influence was also felt in the area of camera design.

The way photographs were now being taken meant that new machinery was needed to cope with the upsurge in demand for reportage and reconnaissance. The basic blueprint of the large format plate camera that had been around for decades was finally going to be seriously challenged.

The demands of the war meant that cameras needed to be lighter and more reliable. Indeed, the origins of the twin lens reflex (TLR) camera go back to the German trenches, when camera designer Reinhold Heidecke realised that the safest way to take photos was to stay out of the line of fire. To avoid snipers he came up with a design based on the periscope: a viewfinder safely below the parapet, while the lens took its chances 'over the top'.

Heidecke did not invent TLR technology, which had first seen the light of day commercially back in the 1880s, when the London Stereoscopic Company brought its Carlton model to the market. But it was Heidecke who saw the potential for a camera that was stunningly simple in design and well within the technological grasp of most photographers. TLRs have always been cheaper than single lens reflex (SLR) cameras of comparable image quality, and with the Rolleiflex there was the added advantage of being a medium format camera, producing negatives or transparencies of a sumptuous 6x6cm (more than twice the size of the later industry standard 35mm.)

As the name suggests TLR cameras have two objective lenses (the 'reflex' bit refers to the mirror in the viewfinder): one serving the viewfinder, allowing the photographer to focus, the other for allowing light onto the film (or 'taking the picture') when the shutter is released. The lenses are mechanically linked and so adjustments to the focal length of the viewfinder are replicated on the taking lens. The main benefit of the system was that professional standard cameras could be produced at an entry-level price. Their simplicity also meant that they were less prone to mechanical failure.

The camera was first produced by a company owned by Heidecke and his partner Paul Franke who were principally in the business of making stereo cameras. This partnership quickly grew into the Rollei Company and then the Rollei Optische Werke. Despite countless imitators, the name Rolleiflex quickly became generic for the photographer's camera of choice. It also had the advantage of ushering in the era of candid photography. Because of its inverted periscope design, the photographer looked down into the viewfinder on the camera that was either handheld or tripod-mounted at waist height. This innovation allowed for creative changes in the way photographers saw the world, while its enduring popularity (you'll see them at virtually every wedding and graduation you'll ever attend) means that they are still in production, with the Rolleiflex 2.8 GX the latest model.

If you want to buy a vintage Rolleiflex, beware. Due to the enormous popularity of early versions, hundreds of thousands were made in the 1930s and 40s, which means that there are plenty on the market. Depending on condition and model you should see them on eBay for as little as £10, although don't be surprised to see a good one going for a four-figure sum.

Date: 1929

Designer: Franke & Heidecke

Today's unit cost: £150-250

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