Pocket 35mm cameras

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

Small Is Beautiful

There are times and places where even as small and unobtrusive a camera as an M series Leica is still too much to carry. For some people this might be when hiking, trekking or mountain climbing. For others it’s a day at the beach, a canoe trip, walking the streets of a strange city or when jogging or running. Any time and any place you may find yourself which might have photographic potential but where the weight or bulk of camera equipment is a limiting factor.

Another good reason to carry a pocket 35mm is because knowing that you have one with you enhances your ability to "see" at times and in places that you otherwise might not. And,seeingis what being a photographer is all about.

There are a great many Point and Shoot (P&S) cameras available at moderate prices. But as a serious photographer you likely will want to use a serious camera. If you’re like me, just because you’re using a pocketable camera doesn’t mean that you’re willing to relinquish image quality, since taking photographs with a pocket-sized camera doesn’t necessarily mean taking snapshots and having them printed at the drug store. 

This then is a brief look at two such cameras that I’ve been using, one for many years, the other only more recently.  (Yes, I know that there are others — but these are two that I’m intimately familiar with).


Rollei 35SE

This is one quirky yet lovable camera. The first of a long line of different versions of this classic first appeared in 1966. The last model, the35 SE,outlined here, disappeared from stores in 1982. Why discuss a camera that has been around for more than 35 years and which has been off the market for at least 20 years? Because in its day it was the smallest highest-quality 35mm camera made, and in terms of image quality has had few if any competitors — especially today.

Quirky is not an exaggeration. It’s as if Rollei’s designers threw away the rule book and started with a clean piece of paper when this camera was first designed. The first time you take it to hand you’ll be all thumbs, but after a while the logic of the design begins to make sense. The SE model, the last to be manufactured, is to be preferred if you’re looking for a "shooter". It has a built-in meter powered by a contemporary battery. Earlier metered Rollei 35s used mercury cell batteries which are no longer available. (Check withcriscamfor non-mercury cell replacements).

The SE also featured this camera’s finest lens, the40mm f/2.8 Sonnar. This Zeiss designed, Rollei-built lens is one of the finest ever built into a pocket camera. Shutter speeds range from 1/2 second to 1/500 second, and B, and are set on the left-hand front wheel, while the aperture is set on the opposite front wheel. Film speed settings are manual (no DX sensing), and the shutter release is threaded for a cable release. Red and green LEDs in the viewfinder are used for exposure setting.

The viewfinder is bright but there is no rangefinder or focusing aid. Guess-focusing is the name of the game, but there is a traditional DOF scale on the lens. Speaking of which, the lens is a retracting design that must be pulled out and locked into position before use, and film must be wound on and the shutter cocked before the lens can be collapsed. 

The manual film advance works with a lever that winds from right to left, the opposite of virtually every camera ever made except theAlpa. Rewind is manual, and as a final quirky touch the standard flash hot shoe is located on the bottom of the camera rather than the top.

Quality of construction and materials is first-rate. With the possible exception of the currentContax T3there simply aren’t any pocket cameras made any longer with this level of build and material quality. Using one is a tactile joy.

Childs Play — Florida, 2002
Photographed with a Rollei 35SE with 40mm f/2.8 Sonnar on Ilford XP2

The images that the Rollei 35SE can produce are also a pleasure. Mix transparencies from the Rollei 35SE with those from a Leica on a light box and you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart, even under a loupe. But, there is a fly in the ointment, and that’s the non-assisted focusing.

If you shoot with fast film in bright light, or mainly with distant subjects, then this isn’t an issue. But when shooting a variety of subjects, near and far, in variable and low light conditions, depth of field often isn’t enough to cover guess-focusing errors. This is the camera’sAchilles Heeland one of the reasons why after years of use I recently retired it for theRicoh GR1s.

Ps: Though its retired, you’ll only be able to wrest the Rollei 35 from my cold dead hand. This is a camera to be used from time to time simply for the pleasure of it.


Ricoh GR1s

Today my favourite pocket camera is theRicoh GR1s. Technology marches on, and in a body that’s slightly shorter, considerably thinner and only a half inch wider than the Rollei, the Ricoh manages to add features that the Rollei could only dream of, including autoexposure, autofocus, motorized wind and rewind, and an electronic flash with daylight fill-flash capability.

Built around a die-cast magnesium body the Rich features a superbRicoh 28mm f/2.8lens. A Ricoh lens? Indeed. This is a 7 element, 4 group design that uses two molded glass aspheric elements;glass, not plastic. State of the art, and it shows. Image quality is very good indeed, as can be seen from the MTF chart below. Few lenses measure this good, and even fewer are found in a camera that fits comfortably in a shirt pocket — a light-weight summer shirt at that.

While the GR1s at first appears to be just another small pocket camera, it’s anything but, either in terms of construction or features. Pick it up, and though you’ll be pleased with the light weight you’ll quickly realize that the body isn’t plastic either, but instead made of die-cast magnesium. Not only does it feel wonderful but it is amazingly rugged. This is a camera that can take hard knocks and keep on ticking.

Operationally, as well as the requisite automatic features already mentioned there are some important controls. The autofocus is virtually stepless, and uses three focus points with the one selected by the camera displayed in the viewfinder. Distance focused on is also indicated on a scale in the viewfinder. Focus may be locked in any position by a half-press of the shutter release and also semi-permanently locked for multiple shots. Still on the subject of focus, there is an infinity lock setting and a setting called SNAP. This locks the focus point at the lens’ Hyperfocal distance —  just right for street shooting.

In addition to autoexposure theGR1soperates in aperture priority mode. As well as full autoexposure the user can set the F stop using a top-mounted wheel and the camera sets the shutter speed, between 2 seconds and 1/500 second. Automatic or user-set aperture is displayed in the viewfinder as well.

There is a small flash tube built in, with a Guide Number of 7 — modest but handy. Flash can be set to be permanently off, automatic or always on. The Automatic mode is not to be sneered at. It produces excellent daylight balanced fill-flash results; as good as those from some SLR systems. There is also a top-mounted exposure compensation dial, allowing +/- 2 stops of correction. 

What I particularly like about this camera is that virtually every important control; manual aperture setting, flash mode setting and exposure compensation are set using mechanical dials rather than through the more common — though much less intuitive — modal button presses on an LCD screen. This makes setting them quick and unambiguous.

At The Mall — Florida, 2002
Photographed with a Ricoh GR1s with 28mm f/2.8 lens on Fuji Provia 100F
Crop of approximately 1/3rd of the original full frame

Speaking of fast — there is little shutter lag due to autofocusing delay, and what little there is can be completely eliminated by shooting in the SNAP Hyperfocal mode. Once again, great for capturing the precise moment when street shooting.

Is there a downside? Yesa couple. This isn’t a quiet camera. Focusing noise is noticeable in quiet environs, and the automatic film winding when film is first loaded is anything but silent. If auditory stealth is a factor, then theGR1sisn’t the best choice around. And the camera is, of course, totally battery dependant so keep a spare on hand. It uses a single CR2 lithium battery, which is good for between 5 and 10 rolls of film with some flash use.

As for price and availability, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is thatRicohhas withdrawn from selling its cameras in the U.S. market, so unless you find a dealer with one left in stock it’s game over. Well, not quite. Dealers in Canada still stock them, andRobert White, a very reputable U.K. based online dealer sells the newGR1v, a slightly updated model, for U.S. $370 — about $400 with shipping and duty.Here is a linkto the appropriate page on their site. 



What about APS? When it was first introduced APS looked like a winner in the point-and-shoot market. But it grew slowly, and by the late 90’s was quickly overrun by digital. Camera sizes were not all that much smaller than a P&S 35mm, and digital began to offer greater consumer appeal.

The nicest APS pocket camera in my opinion was (and still is) theCanon ELF II. I used one on a trip toRumaniafor the total solar eclipse in 1999. Locals were stillverysuspicious of tourists with camera, but I managed to do some street shooting with theElfthat produced very acceptable quality prints.

Street Workers, Bucharest, 1999
Photographed with a Canon Ixus II – ELF II on Kodak Advantix 200 APS film.

The frame above was scanned with anAPS adaptorfor thePolaroid 4000scanner. Have a look at the enlarged detail below. The street sign is from the upper left hand corner of the frame. The image quality is remarkable.

But, ultimately, working with APS film is nowhere near as convenient as 35mm, and the quality is still somewhat less than 35mm can provide.


If you accept my premise that a pocket 35mm camera for the serious photographer must include image quality as a primary requirement, then digital isn’t quite there yet. Some of the 4MP and 5MP cameras now available (early 2002) are small enough, but very few combine their small size with wide-aperture high-quality lenses. Quality from the tiny imaging chips is good for snapshots, but not yet on a par with a high-quality scan from film shot with aGRS1or comparable camera. (Have a look at my recent article onCounting Megapixelsfor more on this topic).

Also, because of the use of very small imaging chips in all of these cameras, depth of field is an issue. That is, when using the 6mm to 15mm "normal" lenses on these cameras depth of field is often just too big. Everything isalwaysin focus. Not ideal for many shooting situations.

My other reservations concern shooting lag and batteries. While digital SLRs now have quick turn-on times and minimal shutter lag, consumer P&S digitals are still slow in both areas. Also, dependence on rechargeable batteries is an impediment. It means having to carry a charger when traveling and, of course, remembering to keep self-discharging batteries topped up between uses. Sorry kids — just not there yet, at least formyneeds.

In Your Pocket

TheRollei 35SEand theRicoh GR1sare but two of the possibilities available to anyone wanting a high-quality pocket camera. TheContax T3is certainly another one, and as one moves down in price lots of other options open up. But, don’t forget that you want a high quality lens above all else.

School Boys — London, 2002

Photographed with a Ricoh GR1s28mm f/2.8 lenson Fuji Sensia 400

If you don’t already have a pocket 35mm camera, maybe now is the time to consider getting one. In a few years digital will have filled every nook and cranny of the photographic world. Who knows, your film-based cameras may end up becoming heirlooms. May as well leave your heirs a few good ones.

Street Photography

Of course the ownership and use of a high quality pocket camera needs a purpose. These can naturally be used for family snapshots and travel photos. But classicstreet photographyis their forte, and if an M-series Leica is beyond you means then one of these can nicely fill the bill.

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Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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