10 October 2020

My grandfather’s Rolleiflex 2.8D twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera

A family heirloom that was passed on to me by my father.

By In Gear, Photography 3 min read

One of the first vintage cameras I ever got was my dad’s old Polaroid SX-70. Like so many family cameras it had disappeared into a closet decades ago and was only found again recently. When he gave it to me, he told me there was another classic camera he wanted to give me – if he could find it again. Somewhere in my parent’s house, last used many decades ago, was a Rolleiflex 2.8D camera.

Rolleiflex 2.8D camera

Rollei was a German manufacturer of cameras founded in 1920 by Paul Franke and Reinhold Heidecke. Their most famous series of cameras was the Rolleiflex, a series of high-end TLR (Twin-Lens Reflex) cameras that popularized the TLR design for the mass-market. This camera design has 2 lenses on the front, the upper one being the viewing lens and the lower one being the taking lens.

Rolleiflex camera close-up

The top of the camera flips open to reveal a waist-level finder, which uses a mirror to show you the scene through the viewing lens. This viewing lens matches the taking lens, so what you see in the finder will be a fairly realistic view of the image that you will capture. I already had a TLR, a Yashica-A camera I thrifted years ago, but that was a low-priced budget model. Fun, but not nearly comparable to a proper Rolleiflex.

The first Rolleiflex was introduced in 1929, but the model my dad had was from the 2.8 line that they introduced in 1949. It was, to be specific, a Rolleiflex 2.8D – the fourth revision of the line, made in 1955. The 2.8 series was named after the very fast f/2.8 lenses that they used, premium technology at the time. The lenses came in 2 varieties: the extremely expensive 80mm Carl Zeiss Planar f/2.8, and the slightly less expensive 80mm Schneider-Kreuznach Xenotar f/2.8. This camera is the Xenotar-equipped version, so it’s ‘cheaper’ but still provides amazing results.

Rolleiflex 2.8D camera

Now, this particular Rolleiflex was my dad’s but he was not the one who originally bought it. It was his father’s camera, my grandfather’s, bought in 1955 in Hong Kong. My grandfather was an ophthalmologist – an eye doctor – and was asked to come to visit China and lecture at schools there in the ’50s. On the layover in Hong Kong, he bought this camera to document life in China.

Rolleiflex manual (source: Butkus)
Rolleiflex 2.8D manual (source: Butkus)

I don’t think we ever found the negatives from his time in China. It would’ve been amazing to see what he captured during his time there, in an age so far removed from ours. Over time my dad got this camera and started using it himself until he later progressed to other film formats.

Rolleiflex 2.8D camera shutter dial close-up

A while back, my dad called me and told me he’d been cleaning out some closets and had found the missing Rolleiflex! It was in great shape after such a long time in the dark, but it was immediately apparent that this camera was not ready to use. The control dials were stiff, the lubricants gunked up after decades of disuse. After a lengthy trip to Van Manen Kamera-service for a CLA, the camera is back in my care and is now ready to be used.

I’m super excited to have my hands on this family heirloom and don’t think it will ever leave my possession. Maybe at some point, I’ll get to pass it on to the next generation. But until that happens, I’ll happily be taking pictures with this little beast myself!

What do you think?