Good bye Rolli?

by Holger Merlitz, May 2006

For sure, I am not a serious photographer. A casual shooter, rather, who carries a camera around for those moments when opportunity is there and the feeling is right. As such, I have never been keen on hunting for latest technological achievements, and particularly the digital revolution of the past 10 years has left me cold. I had some good reasons for that:

  1. Digital cameras were power eating monsters, and many interesting sites are far away from the power plugs.
  2. To me, a camera has to be compact. Otherwise, I won't carry it around and no shots were taken at all.
  3. Compact digital cameras, however, were grossly limited in their functionality. I like taking pictures, but I want to take them myself. I want to operate the camera, not to be operated by the camera.
  4. Compact digital cameras were weak under low light, and I always disliked the unnatural look of flash-light photos.
  5. My camera has to be rugged and insensitive to humidity. It is bumping around inside my day-pack for months without being used at all, and has to be ready whenever I pull it out. Modern compact cameras do not seem to be designed for such a treatment.
  6. To me, taking pictures is an outdoor activity, and I tend to avoid additional hours of Photoshop/Gimp sessions in front of the computer (where I have to sit during the rest of the day).

Left: Rollei 35 S with UV filter. Right: Fuji FinePix F30 (Photo by Fujifilm)

When considering these requirements, it is quite obvious why the Rollei 35 has been my number one companion for many years (I further own a Leica M3 with a few non-Leica lenses): It is small, reliable, and it is inviting to play around with the settings. Despite of being a very small camera, these wheels are actually not quirky and easy to operate. The light meter needs a battery, which, however, lasts for many years so one can practically forget about. The multi-coated 40mm F 2.8 Sonnar lens, specially designed for this camera by Zeiss Oberkochen and produced by Rollei under license, is of legendary performance. Not that it were of any relevance for the quality of my photos; but it is always good to know that the pictures are spoiled by the camera holder rather than the camera itself. This lens even takes little (30.5mm) filters, and the choice of 40mm as a single focal length seems quite reasonable to me, since it delivers a very natural image of the world, whereas the 'normal' 50mm already appears a bit narrow to me.

Last not least, the Rollei 35 is a cool camera. Quite frankly, I regard this machine as a piece of art. Whoever is able to design a fully mechanical device of such a functionality and compactness (Heinz Waaske has done that during the 1960s, without support of computer aided design, after work, making drawings at home on his living room table), is proving a high degree of creativity. This camera has got a spirit which is missing in modern products with their 2-year life cycles. Loaded with high sensitivity 400 or 800 ISO film, the Rollei 35 has always been an excellent piece of equipment for my travels.

Nonetheless, the recent announcement of the Fuji FinePix F30 has triggered my interest. This camera appears to have answers to most of the items as listed above:

  1. The battery allows to take more than 500 shots without recharge.
  2. The camera is very compact.
  3. It comes with both aperture and shutter priority manual modes - not fully manual, indeed, but something to play with.
  4. The new generation CCD chip allows ISO settings of 3200 at full resolution (6.3 Mpix), and ISO 800 is claimed to be of pretty low noise. At this point, perhaps, the traditional film technique is outperformed, and the use of flash becomes almost obsolete.
  5. The big question-mark: Does it survive rugged handling? Future will tell. The body is made of metal, that's something at least.
  6. I hope, with a little experience, I might be able to produce shots that do not need any significant modifications via software. Again, future will tell.

The Fuji F30 also looks marginally like a real camera, not as cool as a Rolli, of course, but also not quite as ridiculous and toy-like as many other compact digitals. The main reason for me, however, to consider this camera as a successor to the Rollei, is caused by something completely unrelated: In recent years, the film processing at the camera stores was gradually losing quality. What I sometimes received back was so poor in processing and printing that it began to spoil the fun with photography as such. The alternative were to carry out my own film processing, but then, I do not really like wet laboratories. The situation is especially tense here in China, where film-based photography is close to non existent. Many students at Xiamen University have never seen any film camera in real life. When I am roaming around the campus with my Rollei, some are actually interested to see this unusual piece of technique. Their first question: How many mega-pixels? (Hello, camera designers: What about creating a digital Rollei 35 S? My suggestion: leave everything as is, just replace the film with a sensor :-)

Anyway, I shall get this F30 once it is out and give it a chance. Could it ever compete with a Rollei 35? After some time, I shall come back to this site and report about my experience.

November 2006: Half a year later

After a couple of months playing around with the F30, my impressions are mixed. First of all, I appreciate some of the benefits that come along with digital photography: Most of all the freedom to change the ISO setting from one picture to the next, without wasting huge amounts of film material. One can freely shoot around and just select the best shots afterwards without extra costs - this is the way to save money.

Left, center: Photos taken with Fuji Finepix F30. Right: A reader sent me that photo: Same place (Madivala, Bangalore, India), 2008. Another sad example for environmental destruction in the name of progress ...

The F30 has turned out to be a handy camera with an endless amount of battery power and some amazing performance features: One may take a look at the picture to the left. It contains areas both in bright sunlight and shadow, and they do neither appear over- nor underexposed, both display a similarly rich amount of fine details (pictures are shown in their original form, without any post-processing, just reduced in size). This comes quite close to the natural view perceived with the bare eye. Not surprisingly, this camera also performed very well under dim light, up to ISO 1600 (the 3200 setting is useless, however).

Unfortunately, there are drawbacks. To the right the photo displays a major amount of chromatic aberration (one may observe especially the rampant color in the upper left area of the image, which is not zoomed!), and I have taken and later on discarded many similar examples with this camera. It appears that the optical performance of the Fujinon lens is less than state of the art.

Another annoyance is the semi-manual mode, which is simply too cumbersome to use. You want to shoot inside a gloomy bar? Such a place is gloomy and smoky, so the picture should reflect this environment, but the camera will always try to make it a brightly illuminated place, choosing ridiculously long exposure times and extreme ISO settings. So one has to move into shutter priority mode. The camera will now choose the maximum aperture for sure. Maybe, this is still tolerable. But one has to set the ISO as well, which is done in an entirely different menu. I always mess it up and find myself searching around through the menus until at last everything is set. Finally, not to forget switching off the flash. Very cumbersome and tedious!

Could this camera replace the Rollei 35? Not really. The Fuji F30 has got a sensor of tremendous performance, but the machine as a whole is not sound. It seems that much effort has been dumped into electronics, and thereby the lens design been neglected. Its optical performance is definitely no match with the Sonnar of my Rollei 35. Also, I am a rather simply minded character: To me, photography is very straight forward, it requires just three parameters, namely exposure time, aperture, and ISO. I would like to have three wheels were I can set these parameters manually. I don't mind if the camera has got hundreds of additional menus with special features, as long as they remain well hidden so they won't bother me. What I want is to simply set these three wheels, shoot, check the result, and, if necessary, correct a little bit and shoot once more. That's all I would like to see on a digital camera, and it appears that I am not alone, and a recent article by Erwin Puts is arguing in the same direction. The Fuji F30 is fine for party shots, and as a backup for low light conditions, but most of my photos are still being taken, with lots of fun, using the Rolli or Leica.

September 2010: Did they read my article?

It appears that the camera I was looking for is now going to be made: The Fuji Finepix X100 is precisely what I was looking for - congratulations, Fuji! Obviously, we will have to wait and see whether it turns out as good as it looks like, but I am already saving money, let the March 2011 come swiftly!

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