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Using the Digital Rolleiflex For Street Photography

by Chris Gampat on 09/08/2011

We tend to talk about lots of cameras for street photography; but none are as unique as the Rollei Rolleiflex MiniDigi. As a pint sized camera with a pint sized sensor, and stunningly retro good looks, what else makes this little cam so special?

Tech Specs

These specs are borrowed from B&H Photo’s listing of the camera.

Imaging
Resolution 3 Megapixel
Sensor CMOS
File Formats Still Images: JPEG
Max Resolution

5MP: 2304 x 2304 @ 1:1
Other Resolutions 3MP: 1536 x 1536 @ 1:1
1MP: 768 x 768 @ 1:1
Aspect Ratio 1:1
Image Stabilization None
Color Spaces None
Optics
Lens EFL: 4.9mm
Aperture: f/2.8
Zoom None
Focus Range Normal: 4″ (10.16 cm) – Infinity
Exposure Control
ISO Sensitivity Not Specified By Manufacturer
Shutter Not Specified By Manufacturer
Exposure Metering Not Specified By Manufacturer
Exposure Modes Modes: Auto
White Balance Modes Auto
Burst Rate None
Self Timer None
Interval Recording None
Remote Control None
Flash
Built-in Flash None
External Flash Connection None
Memory
Built-in Memory None
Memory Card Type miniSD
Recording
Video Recording None
Viewfinder/Display
Viewfinder Type

Optical
Screen 1.1″ LCD
Connectivity/System Requirements
Connectivity USB 1.1
Power
Battery CR2 Lithium Battery
Physical
Dimensions (WxHxD) 2.9 x 1.8 x 1.8″ / 73.66 x 45.72 x 45.72 mm
Weight 3.5 oz / 99 g

Ergonomics

This is perhaps the smallest camera I’ve ever shot with. However, it isn’t uncomfortable to use due to the unique design. With that said, it isn’t exactly intuitive if you haven’t used one before.

First off: you look through the top at a very small LCD screen to compose. To turn it on, you need to press the button above the crank on the left. The button on the front at the bottom left will focus for you. When you release the button, it takes the photo. In order to recock the shutter, you’ll need to turn the winding crank at the side. If you want to review the images, you need to press the button on the bottom right of the front of the camera.

And that’ it. That’s all there is to this camera. There are no manual settings at all.

Sling it around your neck and you’ll get looks and lots of people curious about the camera.

Video Demo

Focusing

To focus, you’ll need to press in the shutter button and release it to fire the shutter. Focusing is slow, no matter what. The quickest I’ve seen it focus throughout my journeys with the camera is about 1 second. It’s best if your subjects are stagnant. There is no continuous autofocusing method of any sort built into the camera.

Because of the slow autofocus, you’ll need to take advantage of the camera’s size and portability.

In Use

To use the camera, you’ll need to keep it at hip or chest level and then look down into the LCD screen and fire. Due to the design and nature of the camera, your body automatically makes you hold it close against your body—which compensates for any image stabilization issues. Additionally, you’ll need to make sure that your body stays as still as possible and that you won’t shake the camera. So when you need to get lower down for a different perspective, be sure to hold as still as you can.

As stated in the last section, you’ll need to use the slower autofocusing to you advantage. On the NYC subway, many people thought that the camera was indeed just a special toy necklace—though still quite a nice one. The smarter ones thought and knew it was a camera, and they were ecstatic about it. Those subjects will gladly let you take your picture without you even having to ask.

Wow, how about that. :)

In contrast, don’t expect to capture tack sharp photos of moving objects all the time. Instead, embrace the old Cartier-Bresson adage that, “Sharpness is overrated.”

Because of the totally unorthodox design and size, most people won’t be scared of you taking their photos either.

In lower light situations, the camera tends to slow down the shutter speeds to the point where you’ll even see lag in the LCD screen.

Image Quality

There is something extremely lo-fi about photos that come out of the Rolleiflex. By that, I mean that they’re very low tech, and remind me a bit of something that a Lomography camera would give me if they ever made a digital camera.

These characteristics have to do with some of the softness in the images, focusing issues that were stated earlier on, and the overall color rendering. The colors are very muted and sometimes there are these weird color shifts.

Sometimes, you can get very sharp images, but I often feel that in order to do this you’ll need to get up close and personal to your subject and hold super still. Maybe a gorillapod could help?

Despite the weird color shifts, that isn’t to say that you can’t get nice images out of the camera. They’re just often a bit harder to get. On the LCD screen, they look amazing, but that screen is about the size of a fingernail.

The small square images have an interesting charm to them though. That will make most medium format shooter feel right at home, but with a bite-sized camera.

Here is some more of that sharpness I was talking about in the foreground. Do note though that the bokeh isn’t that smooth at all due to the smaller sensor.

And here are more of those weird color shifts combined with some weird white balancing. With a camera like this, don’t expect an amazing color depth or dynamic range as you can tell from this image.

Once again though, that still doesn’t mean that you can’t take a great shot. I’m actually very glad that I captured this moment. It can easily be made into a better image by raising the black levels to turn them into a silhouette.

Something like this instead. That’s right, this camera doesn’t have a black and white option that I could find.

The overall colors remind me of an ancient digital camera, but it seems like the extra charm of this camera comes from the fact that you’re going to have to spend time in the post-production process trying to make them better, even if they are just JPEG files.

Here’s a dump of other images from the camera in all their flawed goodness!

Conclusions

To be brief but frank, this camera is very cool to use, if not a bit expensive with some seemingly ancient and mystical technology inside. I’d only recommend it for the artist looking for something totally different to try out.

You can get it from B&H.

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