I've owned the Rolleiflex Automat-4 for six weeks, and have put 3 rolls of film through it. Hopefully now I'm past the camera trial phase, and can start making some seriously good art with it, because that is what this camera is intended for, especially in today's context. It is truly a camera that has to be experienced, and you would probably love it or hate it, with no middle ground.
The Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) design was originated by Franke & Heidecke, the founders of the Rollei company, to solve a photographic problem that existed in the early days of compact cameras - to enable the photographer to see the same focus and composition that was being seen by the camera. No big deal in today's world, since the invention of the Single Lens Reflex (SLR), but prior to the 1950's, the camera's viewfinder did not bear any relation to the actual taking-lens. Even the popular Rangefinder design didn't show the actual focus of the lens, but rather a split-image alignment taking place, so that when the two images were merged into one, you had to trust that the picture is in focus. Rollei's TLR design changed all that, by adding a "second camera" right above the first camera that held the film. The viewing lens and the taking lens were very similar, and moved together on a common focus block. The taking-lens simply focused the image onto the film in the usual manner, while the viewing-lens focuses the image onto a ground glass viewing screen.
The design of course is antiquated by the SLR design which accomplished the same thing. The main difference between the two is that with an SLR, the viewing-mirror has to flip up out of the way when the shutter opens, and with a TLR, the mirror stays put, making the TLR a far simpler and longer lasting mechanism, which can also use a leaf shutter built into the lens, while the SLR design requires a focal-plane curtain shutter. So, the TLR design has one major advantage - longevity, thanks to a far simpler mechanical construction.
So onto my review.
The Rolleiflex cameras all use 120 Roll Film, which is still being made, as known as Medium Format, which is still very popular because of it's exceptional image quality. I find loading film into the Automat-4 to be exceptionally easy - everything is so big inside the camera when compared to 35mm film, there is far less "fumbling" when compared to loading an early 35mm camera. The "Automat" part of this camera is, as I'd mentioned before, a mechanism that recognizes when the film has rolled through to it's first exposure, so all you need to do is put the end of the film into the take-up spool, close the back, and then turn the crank until it stops - which means everything is ready to take shot #1. Then the crank becomes a shot-to-shot winder, much like a film advance lever, until all 12 shots are taken. After shot #12 is finished, the crank is once again unlocked, and all you have to do is roll it through three turns, open the back and remove the film. The empty spool which the film was on now becomes the new take-up spool for the next new roll of film.
I found the whole mechanical "feel" of this process of loading, shooting and unloading to be exceptionally precise - something that maybe a true gear-head would appreciate. In the absence of any electrical sensors - this is an entirely mechanical camera, it is an amazingly precise design.
The best part is the way the image looks in the waist-level viewfinder screen. It is incredibly bright, almost "electric" looking, like an old colour tube television picture. Strong sunlight does not wash out this image, unlike with today's electronic LCD's on the back of Digital Cameras. Again, this is extreme precision at work. It is very easy to see the focus of the image, and as with most TLR cameras, there is also a magnifying loupe which flips down over the screen to assist with precision focusing. I did not have to make use of this feature yet. The real downside here, if there is one, is that the viewfinder image is reversed left to right, which is disorientating at first, but you soon get used to it. The screen has grid lines marked on it which really helps with the tilt of the camera, which also behaves in reversed fashion.
The other part of photography, getting the right exposure, is theoretically not so easy as getting the right focus. As there is no built in light meter, you have to use an external light meter. I use the 'beeCam" App on my Samsung Smartphone - it is truly excellent, and as I got my exposure's consistently right through three rolls of film, I'd have to say the beeCam is accurate. You set the film ISO, then either the shutter speed or aperture you plan to use, press "Start", and the beeCam figures it all out for you. Then you rotate the shutter and aperture dials on the camera to match the results given to you by the meter. Now you're ready to press the shutter. Couldn't be easier.
I was literally stunned at the results - this is my first adventure with Medium Format film and I can easily say that it wins hands down versus my DSLR. This is the true reward of MF film - it cannot be had with Digital, nor can it be had with 35mm film from what I've seen. The sense of presence is incredible, the concentration of colours is exactly what I strive for but have never quite achieved with digital - others may know how to do it with software, but I can never quite get it. Now, with the Rolleiflex and the right film, I have this, simply by taking the picture! No Photoshop necessary.
The maximum shutter speed is 1/500, and so using a film speed greater than ISO 200 makes little sense, except for night shooting. I have yet to try it, but I expect it would perform admirably at night on a Tripod, with ISO 400, and a shutter speed of 1/25 or lower. This is definitely not a sport camera, it is an artist camera, also good, but not great for portraits, given it's 45mm equivalent lens. Portraiture is best done with a 85mm or more lens. It is also a great street camera, especially due to it's waist-level viewfinder, and a greater "approval factor" that you would be out and about using such a unique old camera. It is also rather strange to hold onto and use - a neck strap is an essential part of the experience. The control layout is very peculiar fro those of us accustomed to SLR's, but again, once you're used to it, it becomes almost likeable.
No conclusion - this is a "rolling review" so there will be more to come. Stay tuned!