The Rolleiflex Original (simply Rolleiflex those days, or 'the little sister' of the rolleidoscop) was the first model of the commercial line of Franke & Heidecke’s Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) introduced in January 1929 and produced until early 1932. This brief text does not intend to provide any comprehensive account of the TLR, nor a history of the Frank & Heidecke’s firm. For that a number of authoritative works fulfill the job. This page intends to provide the Rolleiflex Original enthusiast an additional source for the much-scattered information of this historical and very interesting camera.
If you are reading this page, most probably you read Ian Parker's Rollei TLR - The History, a fantastic account of the history of Rolleiflex camera development, and you are familiar with the Rollei Report 1 by Claus Prochnow, the major source of details on technical and historical factory facts, and the beautiful and comprehensive book of John Phillips The Classic Rollei - A definitive Guide, showing all Rolleiflex and Rolleicord models and their features. My own experience is limited and derives from a small collection of this model gathered in the past few years, however when analyzing in detail a number of cameras I found that the information given by Ian Parker, Claus Prochnow and John Phillips, albeit authoritative and rich in historical and technical details, has some inconsistencies. I have no access to official Rollei archives or any priviledged sources, but cameras don't lie.
Cross-section of the Rolleiflex Original from a 1930 brochure. (1) Focusing loupe, (2) mirror for eye level view, (3) focusing screen, (4) reflex mirror, (5) viewing lens Anastigmat f3.1, (6) Compur shutter to 1/300s, (7) taking lens, Zeiss Tessar 7.5cm f4.5 or f3.8, (8) up-taking reel, (9) bolt for closing the backdoor, (10) tripod thread, (11) lever to open the viewfinder, (12) mount of the backdoor, (13) exposed film reel, (14) red window, (15) film pressure plate.
The basic structure
The structure of the first Rolleiflex is fairly simple. Franke & Heidecke did not invent the Twin Lens Reflex system, but certainly made the first compact, high quality TLR for use with roll film, and that could be marketed as a consumer product.
The details on the development of the final prototypes and the description of their basic structure can be found in Claus Prochnow (Rollei Report 1) and Ian Parker (Rollei TLR - The history). The viewing hood is very similar to that of the Heidoscop/Rolleidoscop, and in fact the first Rolleiflex model looks like a Rolleidoscop that was cut to exclude one of the stereoscopic lenses and where the viewing hood was positioned on the lateral side. The position of the film chambers was optimized in such a way that the film would travel vertically without protruding from the width of the larger taking chamber.
The four views of the camera.
An early 611 camera (#22006), with mirror dated from April 1929. Note on the left of the camera the upper large film advance knob and the focusing knob. The pins for strap attachment were asymmetrical at this stage (to become symmetrical later). The red window for B1 (117) film on the middle back. Some cameras were later fit with a window at the bottom for B2 (620) film.
The viewing hood.
(A-D) View of the four sides of the viewing hood in position for waiste level view. The back panel can be put at the top to use the magnifier lens for better focusing.
(E-F) The viewing hood in position for eye level view, with the back viewfinder panel at the top. Note the position of the pin that actions the lateral lever and mirror position.
The outer elements of the 7.5cm Tessar lens. (left) 1:4.5. (right) 1:3.8.
The four-element Tessar lens, designed in 1902 by Paul Rudolph at the Carl Zeiss ''Glastechnisches Laboratorium'', was the main lens used in the early Rolleiflexes until the 50s, and in the advanced Rolleicords. This successeful design is still used today in many cameras and was copied by many other lens makers.
The main and upper film chambers. Note the black painted rollers. In the first cameras the focusing mechanism was exposed (see below).
The lower uptake film chamber
The back door. Note the smooth black painting, later substituted. In this example the pressure plate is also painted (later not), and very early cameras lack the transversal pressure bar near the tripod socket (see below).
The upper viewing chamber and the reflex mirror. (A) The original mirror showing common degradation and associated loss of quality of image at the focusing screen. (B) Empty chamber. (C) A substituted mirror and clarity of image.
An original reflex mirror. Exactly 0.98mm thick, otherwise the viewing lens must be adjusted for focus at infinity.
Date writen on the back of the mirror. Could refer to the date of final assembly, but most probably mirror make (4/29, #18692 with internal body #284).
Image on the focusing screen. Note the weak light leaks at the hinges of the lateral viewing hood panels, and the leveling bubble.
Internal body numbers. Location of body number is different on early (left) and late (right) cameras.
The Rolleiflex Original models and variations
The names of models and types of Rolleiflexes and Rolleicords are subject to some debate, and the Rolleiflex Original is no exception. The simplest scheme is that of Ian Parker (Collector’s Guide to the Rollei TLR, 1993), which simply defines two models – K1 611 and K1 612, based on the taking lens, respectively Zeiss Tessar f4.5 and f3.8. Parker considers all variations as improvements within these initial models, including the hinged back used by other authors to define models K1 613 and K1 614.
Claus Prochnow, stating that no author had systematized adequately the whole Rolleiflex products (Rollei Report 1, 1993), created is own classification scheme (‘PR’ stating for Prochnow Registers). He separates models K1 611 and 612 (respectively PR 051 and PR 052) from models K1 613 and 614 (respectively PR 053 and PR 054) based on the hinged back and a few other features. He further considers PR 051 and PR 052 cameras with alterations as constituting the Transitional Models (PR 051/01 and PR 052/01). However, there is no single transitional model, as these changes were implemented gradually, as Prochnow himself states, and it cannot be perceived which exact alteration defines the transitional models. Some of the alterations were made at very early stages of production, which would place nearly all non-hinged cameras as transitional models.
John Phillips follows a mixed path (The Classic Rollei: a Definitive Guide, 2010) by considering the internal factory names as models (K1 611/612/613/614), adopts the backdoor hinge to separate models 611/612 from 613/614, and puts a number of question marks regarding timing of appearance of structural changes. Phillips states in his initial explanatory notes that ‘I see no point confusing the situation by adopting some idiosyncratic approach of my own’, not referring specifically to the Rolleiflex Original. I totally agree and as an amateur would never attempt to stand on my tiptoes here, but must declare that however sterile the discussion may seem, the classification of models has implications for dates of production, timing of their production and numbers of cameras produced by model, and some inconsistencies appear. It seems that none of these authors has looked carefully into the characteristics of a number of cameras within the range of serial numbers (nameplate and internal) and dates based on mirrors.
The original 611/612 models would have as original transitional characteristics (in order of disappearance, see table):
Small focusing knob without screws (611)
No roller on inner bottom of backdoor (611)
Old aperture settings (611)
Leatherette covering sides of backdoor (611)
Viewing hood opening lever lateral pointing (611)
Exposed focusing mechanism in the taking chamber (611)
Shutter speed wheel decorated (611/612)
Cast metal strap lugs (611/612)
Black painted pressure plate, rollers and smooth internal backdoor surface (611/612)
Focus knob without scale (611/612)
No cable release holder near the viewing lens (611/612)
Very few 611/612 cameras with this full combination of characteristics exist nowadays. Camera #18692 (internal body #284) has, but camera #19xxx (internal body #47x) has already the pressure bar – both are dated from April 1929 in the back of the mirror. Did the cameras piled up from January 1929 waiting for subcontractors to deliver materials, such as mirrors? But all this means that most of the specimens of the 611 and 612 models were transitional models at varying degrees, and that evolution of the camera was introduced right from near the start of the production line. Being a manual manufacturing process the introduction of changes is easier than in modern mechanized/computerized production lines. The time was of rapid evolution, and no other Rolleiflex model/type underwent such a degree of change along production.
Around August/September 1930 (August 1929 according to Prochnow) some changes were introduced in the camera structure, and that would remain nearly stable until the end of production in 1932. All these cameras have virtually no alterations until the end of production, firstly because probably they had been now optimized to an acceptable level for the basic design, but secondly because the engineers at that time should have been more concentrated on the next step of Rolleiflex evolution, with the follow-up models that would further project the brand: Rolleiflex 4x4 (1931) and Rolleiflex Standard (1932), with more drastic changes and revolutionary characteristics, such as the crank for advancing film with automatic stops. The major change introduced at a point (in August 1929 according to Prochnow but already questioned by John Phillips, and evidence shows clearly that this date is wrong) in the original models was the hinged camera backdoor that obliged to change again the strap guides. The remaining characteristics were already present in the final production stage of the 611 and 612 lines, except for the symmetrical position of the lateral anchors for attaching the neck strap and the lever for opening the viewing hood that returned to its lateral pointing position. The only change throughout production in the hinged models is the redesign of the pressure plate, present in very late models.
The original 613/614 models would have as original new characteristics:
Extended formed brass strap lugs securing the hinge
Lateral viewing hood lever
Symmetrical strap anchors
The only feature that underwent change during production was the redesigned pressure plate.
The evolving features of the Rolleiflex Original
The main chamber. (A) Initial model 611 (#18692) - note the exposed focusing mechanism and black rollers. (B) Early model 611 (#22006). (C) Late model 611 - note the unpainted rollers.
The focusing knob.
(A) No scale.
(B) With scale from unclear date.
The lateral strap lugs.
(A) Cast metal lugs from initial model 611/612 - this design disappeared around April 1929. (B) Formed brass lugs from that date until the appearance of hinged models around August/September 1930. (C) Extended formed brass lugs of hinged models 613/614.
The lever of the viewing hood and backdoor cover finish. (A) Initial model 611 (#18692) - lateral lever with no pin - this design disappeared very early, around April 1929. Note the leather covering the sides of the backdoor. (B) Backwards lever with pin, a simple bended form of the previous lever, from that date until the appearance of hinged models around August/September 1930. Note the painted sides of the backdoor. (C) Lateral lever with pin of hinged models. Note the leather not reaching the hinged part of the backdoor.
The taking lens and the F. Deckel COMPUR shutter. (A) Initial model 611 (#18692) - note the early aperture settings and DRP/APA on the sides of Compur name and the decorated speed selector wheel - this design disappeared very early, around April 1929 within the first 1,000 cameras made. (B) Definitive design of model 611/613. (C) Model 612/614 which did not change from the start.
The inside of the backdoor. (A) Initial model 611 (#18692) - note the absence of roller and smooth painting including the pressure plate. (B) Early model 611 (#22006) with roller. (C) Late model 611 non-smooth surface and unpainted pressure plate. (D) Late model 614 with modified pressure plate.
Table I. The evolution of Rolleiflex Original features, showing nameplate and internal serial numbers and dates on mirror. The exercise analyses 99 cameras, from a variety of sources (my own cameras and internet searches). Thanks to Jan Böttcher (http://www.janboettcher.de/MuseumEng.html) for providing details on his cameras and Rolleiflex Original database. Very few data on mirror dates are available, as it requires extracting the mirror. Nevertheless, data show consistent trends. Note that when anomalies occur, the features follow internal numbers (in bold) rather than nameplate numbers.
Symmetrical strap anchors related to posterior modifications of the lower film chamber (extra knob - see below).
Camera modified with no strap anchors.
Posterior modification of the pressure plate.
Modified focusing knob.
Smooth interior, unpainted rollers and plate.
Smooth interior, rollers black but plate unpainted.
Serial numbers, dates and production numbers
According to Prochnow the model 611 was made between January and July 1929, whereas model 612 arrived later and was produced between April and July 1929. The nameplate serial numbers of model 611 thus start earlier – the lowest number I have observed is 18xxx, and for model 612 is 22xxx.
The order of internal numbers also does not match exactly that of the camera serial numbers, at least for some examples observed. This may show that the production of bodies was somewhat independent of final camera production and attribution of nameplate numbers. Another confounding issue is that these cameras allow for interchange of many of their parts, and most probably many of the individual discrepancies are due to substitution of parts (including nameplates and external lens components) due to damage or other causes.
Internal numbers are more likely to reflect the actual production. According to Ian Parker the nameplate serial numbers were attributed in excess in order to artificially pass the idea of higher sales than reality. While Claus Prochnow refers nameplate numbers between 1-199,999 the cameras showed in batches between 18xxx and 128xxx (according to John Philips).
The stated low number of 612 cameras produced and the fact that they are relatively easy to find currently seems to be a contradiction. Could Prochnow be wrong in camera produced numbers? The late internal production numbers are around 3xxxx (the latest camera I observed is 3499x), which is not too different from the sum of the numbers of cameras made referred by Prochnow (2500+820+10850+21000=35170). So this seems to be OK. But cameras from the model 611 and also 612 are currently relatively common, which is strange in view of the low production number referred in the Rollei Report, especially for the model 612 (820). Models 613 and 614 are in fact, in my experience of course, harder to find. Of course that current availability of cameras may reflect a number of different factors, thus I guess we cannot question the information gathered by Claus Prochnow. But the latest non-hinged (611/612) camera I observed has an internal number of 18xxx (dated from August 1930), contradicting the numbers of these particular models produced referred by Prochnow.
It all ends in the separation criteria of models (non-hinged backs). Models 611 and 612 are non-hinged, and following Prochnow these models INCLUDE the transitional PR51/01 and PR52/02. He refers that all these cameras were produced until August 1929. But the transitional models extend in fact into August 1930, which is the date on the back of mirrors of #67xxx cameras – these have internal production serials of 18xxx.
On the other hand, Prochnow refers that models 613/614 appeared in August 1929. These are hinged models. The earliest 613 I could see the date on the mirror dates from October 1930. So, not only the dates are wrong but also apparently the numbers produced by model. It seems that while he included the transitional (non-hinged) cameras in the 611/612 models, he set the start of the 613/614, dates and quantities, at a point of initial development of the cameras, well before the appearance of the hinge at the back. In this case, if we keep the hinge as the separation line between the models, the initial date will be around August/September 1930, and numbers of cameras produced until that date (c. 18,000) are in fact all from 611/612 models (including transitional).
Another difficulty is setting where 611(PR51)/612(PR52) end and transitional 611(PR51/01)/612(PR52/02) begin. The changing characteristics start immediately with the loss of leather at the sides of the back and other features apparently in early April 1929 (at that stage less than 500 cameras should have been made), but in order to match Prochnow’s numbers (2500 + 820) it seems to have been considered the loss of cast strap guides and black pressure plates somewhere later. But as can be seen in Table 1, the changing features are gradual and there is no sense in separating at any point except at the first change, or more logically when it got the hinged back in August/September 1930 (with an accumulated production of c. 18,000 cameras)!
The serial numbers for both taking and viewing lenses give a rough indication of date and order of production, however one must take into account that the lenses were provided in batches, and could remain in factory for a while and not necessarily used by order in the camera production line. So the sequence of serial numbers for lenses does not follow exactly the sequence of camera serial numbers. Interesting a batch of cameras (with camera serials 20xxx) which taking lenses have the earliest serial numbers I have seen (857xxx) – while the earliest camera serials have these lenses in the series 925xxx, including the 1928 prototypes!
The internal body serial numbers mean actual production numbers. The range of internal numbers (c. 35,000) is very close to the total production of the camera stated by Claus Prochnow (35,170 for the combined four Rolleiflex Original models). Ian Parker refers c. 28,000 Original Rolleiflexes sold between 1929 and 1932. So it looks obvious that internal numbers are real production.
The dates on the back of the mirror mean mirror manufacture with varying advance from camera assembly date. These dates follow the sequence of internal numbers. There is a long sequence of internal body numbers with the same date (April 1929), spanning from at least #18692 (internal #284) to #398xx (internal #682x). This may mean that the partially assembled cameras kept waiting for subcontractors to deliver components (Parker refers the difficulties in getting components on time), which would then obliged to deliver simultaneously batches composed by cameras in varying stages of evolution. But by the last camera with such a date observed it means that the production until April 1929 (c. 6,800) would be the double of the total production for 1929 stated by Ian Parker! Most probably the date means something else, such as manufacture or delivery of mirrors, and cameras would be completed later when remaining components were available. In any case the final assembly has to be after mirror date, never before.
WHAT I FIND HARD TO BELIEVE BASED ON EVIDENCE:
That hinged models 613/614 appeared in August 1929. It seems that a year later is more correct.
That Claus Prochnow has set a precise definition of Transitional Models, as it seems rather a vague non-concrete concept.
That the number of produced cameras of the different models are those referred by Claus Prochnow. Apparently he excludes from the count the transitional character models out of the 611/612, and merges them in the hinged 613/614, although transitional models are non-hinged.
Diagrammatical view of the evolution of the Rolleiflex Original, showing key turning points in relation to dates and serial numbering. The dates mean the earliest possible time for such changes based on dated mirrors delivered to Franke & Heidecke. The inconsistency of Prochnow’s definition of the various models can be seen, and the matching with the classification provided by major authors. Date/numbers bar is not to scale.
The research above was published at Photographica World, the journal of the Photographic Collector's Club of Great Britain (PCCGB).
Link here to PCCGB website
The operation of the camera is illustrated in these early instructions
Many cameras have been modified, mostly by third parties, such as Walter Talbot of Berlin (according to Ian Parker). These mainly relate to the conversion of the camera from the already obsolete 117 film (B1) to 620 film (B2), the installation of internal or external frame counters and synchronization sockets. Below a description of some of these changes.
Large counter with internal mechanism. (A) Left side of the camera showing the frame counter. (B) Frame counter, note the lever to reset frame 1. (C) Internal mechanism that acts by film pressure.
Simple counter on the film advance knob axis. There are several types, all set by rotating the counter so that a mark in knob points to frame 1, when this number is seen in the red window.
Conversion from 117 film (B1) to 620 film (B2)
Modified keys for film advance. (A) Hybrid 117/620 key. (B) 620 key. (C) Hybrid 117/620 key on a camera with extra knob at the lower chamber - note the modified film advance knob and axis.
Extra knob on left side of lower film chamber. Rarely the extra knob can be located at the right side. Note the now symmetrical strap pins and their initial position (arrows).
Modified film advance knob. This change was done together with the modification of the lower film chamber.
Modified lower chamber. Note the extra knob on the left side of the chamber and the absence of pressure mechanism and lever.
Extra red window. Camera with extra red window at the bottom to read frames in 620 film.
As any other camera, the Rolleiflex Original had a number of accessories to fully exploit its photographic potential. Below find a brief account of these. John Phillips and Claus Prochnow also systematize accessories, but I felt this page would be incomplete without them.
Caps, Yellow filter and Proxar lenses
Lens caps. It seems that initially Franke & Heidecke did not supply any lens caps, but later made a slip-on metal cap, black, unmarked, that could be tied with a cord to the camera. It often looses the inner surface tissue that allows its retention and becomes loose (below).
According to Jan Böttcher the original caps could be these pictured on the right. They look like Heidoscops' caps and as these were often lost it was assumed they never existed. In any case it would be strange not to provide lens caps right from the start!
Photo with permission from Jan Böttcher
Yellow filter (medium yellow shown). Two filters only were available for the Rolleiflex Original: Light and Medium Yellow. These filters were 24mm slip-on for use in the taking lens. The fixing was not a metal-sutured rim, as all the later 28.5mm, but instead a helicoid metal chain that made the pressure. They are rare to find.
Proxar (close-up lenses). Franke & Heidecke supplied from January 1929 to January 1930 Proxar 1 and Proxar 2 with 24mm, thus only for the taking lenses. From February 1929 to June 1932 they supplied two pairs of Proxar 1 and Proxar 2 for both taking and viewing lenses. All these lenses were made by Carl Zeiss. These were for two different distances: set D.1 for 100-50 cm, and set D.2 for 50-33 cm. All these Proxar with 24mm are very difficult to find.
There is some debate on which hood existed for the Rolleiflex Original. Rolleiflex clearly did not produce any, but information on brochures and pricelists (including Prochnow’s Report 1 and John Phillips) refers a metal, black slip-on 24mm hood supplied by Carl Zeiss, manufactured from 1929. I have never seen one, or even its picture, although 24mm slip-on hoods are often found from Ilford, Kodak or independent British makers such as Actina or Lifa. Many accessories of this type are found unmarked, and the one supplied by Zeiss could well be one of those.
Rolleiflex 28.5mm hood fit on the Rolleiflex 24mm yellow filter
Actina 24mm hood fit on a 24mm Pan-Ortho yellow filter
Red window cap
All cameras were delivered with a cover for the red window at the back, so that light is prevented to enter the chamber. The cover is metal, slip-on, and the outer surface is covered by leather matching the camera surface. Almost all of the cameras nowadays have lost their red window caps.
The most common cases supplied by Rolleiflex for the Original are non-everready cases, that are easily recognised by having 24mm filter holders on the inner top. The first one has only one attachment, as can be seen on the left in the larger picture and on the lower left detail. The second would fit the 24mm yellow filter and a pair of Proxar (24mm and 28.5), as seen on the right in the larger picture and on the lower right detail
In England cameras were supplied also with locally produced coffin type cases, such as the one pictured, made for James Sinclair & Co. from London. Note the 'English make' inscription on the lock.
Also available an everready case. It is not clear if this case was supplied during the production of the camera, or if it was made after. Both the Rolleiflex 4x4 Original (1931) and the Standard (1932) were initially supplied with non-everready cases.