- Tom Mills
Quirky, fun, cool and not like other cameras
Updated: Nov 3, 2020
I wrote about how much I love medium format in a previous post; my opinion hasn't changed, the images I get from 120 film are fantastic, it is easier to load onto reels for developing, and I feel that a roll gives me just enough exposures for a single photo outing, no added pressure to capture images for the sake of using up film before mixed chemicals expire.
My experience with medium format has been limited to the 645 format. I like the 645 format for many reasons; the primary one being cost... the cameras are cheaper and I get more value from a roll of film with 15 shots per roll. The images from 645 also come right out of the box in a 4:3 aspect ratio, consistent with "native" format of most smartphones and Micro Four Third digital cameras, meaning they display nicely on tablets and phones... but the beautiful thing about medium format is that there are cameras that capture images in different aspect ratios for the same film.
I've always wanted to shoot images in 6x6, a format made famous by Ansel Adams, the iconic Hasselblad 500C, and most recently, Instagram. I started a my search for a cheaper 6x6 camera by looking at older Hasselblad's like a 500C but the price point was just insane; a full Hasselblad rig with 80mm lens and 120 back was $1600 in "good" condition; well over 2K in "excellent" or "near mint" condition, easily 2-3x what I paid for my 645 rig. Sure, they're widely supported, and built like a tank, but I just wasn't ready to shell out that kind of money.
The sticker shock from my Hasselblad searches drove me look at other alternatives for 6x6 cameras but even classic Twin Lens Reflex cameras from Rolleiflex and Mamiya commanded ridiculous premiums. I started honing in on an obscure, lesser known (I had no idea they existed) 6x6 camera made by Rollei; a camera that was so advanced for it's time but never got the traction that Hasselblad did... the Rolleiflex SLX.
The SLX debuted at Photokina in 1974 but wasn't put into production and made available to the public until 1976. The camera was revolutionary for the time period, the world's first microprocessor controlled medium format camera. The shutter and aperture were controlled electronically via motors in the lens which allowed the camera to shoot automatically in shutter priority mode. All you had to do was set a shutter speed and the camera would adjust aperture automatically or give you indication via LED's to alter shutter speed in cases where aperture couldn't compensate (like lowering shutter speed in low light situations). Wow, completely unheard of with medium format cameras until now; in fact, I didn't think it really become a mainstream thing until the mid 80's (the Mamiya 645 Super does this.... but only with an AE finder). The direct drive system used in the SLX is also not very different from modern cameras today. I was completely intrigued... so I kept digging.
Based on some cursory searches online, SLX's in "near mint" condition were being sold at easily half the price of a comparable Hasselblad rig (meaning body, 80mm lens, finder, and back... yes, I know the SLX doesn't have a back). Let's see, a technological marvel of a camera, one that shoots in 6x6 format, an amazing 80mm f/2.8 lens, and most importantly HALF the cost... what's not to love? There had to be a catch... and alas, there was, sort of. Because it's entirely electronic, the camera won't operate without a battery, no "mechanical only" mode like the Mamiya 645 Super (mid 80's) or Leica M7 (2000's). Sure the whole battery thing is pretty much a given in this day and age, but remember... these batteries are no longer made, for a LONG time now. I knew it was highly unlikely I would find a rechargeable battery in good enough shape to actually use. The good news is that I wasn't the only one thinking about the battery problem; some enterprising Rolleiflex fans online sold modified battery packs using modern Li-ion batteries and even offered services to completely rebuild existing batteries with newer NiMH cells... battery problem solved! Soooo... I went ahead and accepted the risk of purchasing a near mint SLX and a "converted" battery on eBay; the price was just way too good to pass up for a camera of this quality, easily half the price of the cheapest Hasselblad rig online. Good news is that the great gamble turned out much better than expected, couldn't be any happier.
I'll share a couple of my thoughts about this cool camera... things I love and things I don't love. Let's start with the things I love. The SLX is a very solid camera, quirky as hell, and I think the images I captured with it are amazing. The design of the film insert is brilliant, it doesn't require moving an empty film reel to load new film, just install the film on the empty side and flip it around and you're good to go, easy! I also love the shutter priority autoexposure mode, metering is dead on based on the 4 rolls of film I've already shot with the camera in less than a week. The controls are well laid out and as an added bonus, you get two shutter release buttons on the front of the camera (shout to to lefties... I'm not a leftie, but cool to have two buttons). The film is advanced with an electric motor and there are tons of options for the camera, including a variety of prisms (45 and 90 degree), a wide selection of lenses, and even a 645 insert. So cool! The camera also meters with the waist level finder, something the Mamiya 645 Super, developed a decade later, doesn't do.
Now onto the things I don't love. The camera is fully electronic; it won't operate without a battery, not cool if you're in the middle of a photo trip and run out of juice. I bought several rechargeable Li-ion batteries as backup for my converted battery, but it's still a bit annoying, and perhaps a bit of an oxymoron, to rely entirely on batteries with an analog camera. I have personally experienced this problem; I got the dreaded "bc" indicator while shooting my M7 during a recent photo outing but I was able to continue to shooting at the 1/125 mechanical shutter speed since the camera meter already had me at there before it died, very suddenly, I might add. No go with the SLX though... I'm also not a big fan of the waist level viewfinder on the SLX, it isn't very bright, making it hard to compose an image and focus in low light. The camera is also VERY loud; not necessarily a detractor for me since none of my other cameras, with the exception of the Leica, are very quiet but the SLX is REALLY loud. It'll definitely draw attention to anyone using it in a public setting... not the best for discreet street photography.
At the current moment, as I write this post, I'm extremely happy with the decision to go with the SLX. It's quirky, it's big, and even though the controls seem odd at first glance, it really didn't take me long to figure them out. Everything about the camera just makes sense, the LED indicators for shutter speed variations were easy to understand, setting ISO was easy, shutter speed is easy to control with the big knob, metering button is right next to the shutter... easy peasy. The only LED indicator I had to double check in the manual was the low battery indicator it's just a red light, no "bc" like the M7... have to remind myself that it is a 1970's era camera, which is still hard to believe. I find myself looking for reasons to take the camera out on photo expeditions. I even started biking with the camera and look forward to many more expeditions with this quirky, amazing, fun camera. More images posted in my Flickr SLX Album.