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The Rollei 35 story

The incredible story of the famous Rollei 35 series.

In 1966, Rollei presented two very important new cameras at the International Photokina in Cologne, Germany.Queen Elisabeth II and her Rollei 35 The Rollei 35, Rollei's first view-finder 35mm camera. And the Rolleiflex SL66, the first Rollei medium format SLR.

From the very first day, the Rollei 35 developed into an unprecedented success in camera history: In total, about 2 million of all Rollei 35 models have been sold world-wide and most of them are still cherished and used by their owners today.
Queen Elizabeth II of England is one of those (here she is photographed with her golden Rollei 35S). But before she could enjoy this little marvel of technology, much clever thinking and design had to be done first :

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Rollei 35S - The S designates it has a Sonnar 2,8/40mm lens - Ilford 35 mm film cartridge for scale.The Rollei 35, when presented to the public at the photokina in 1966, was the smallest 135 film - full frame - camera ever. Even at the present day the cameras of the Rollei 35 series remains the smallest ever built fully mechanical 35 mm camera. During a time span of 30 years in production, the total number of cameras of the Rollei 35 series made, reached about 2 million pieces.

The spiritual father: Heinz Waaske Heinz Waaske, who constructed lots of photographical equipment. He is best known for creating the Rollei 35 camera. This picture was taken about six weeks before his death in july 1995.

Around 1960, when the first subminiature cameras for 16 mm film found their place on the market, Heinz Waaske the chief engineer of German camera maker Wirgin reasoned, that the customers of the 16 mm subminiature cameras, or even the half-frame Olympus Pen 35 mm cameras, did not want to buy them so much for the tiny film format, but more for their pocket size. After having engineered and designed a 16 mm film subminiature, the Wirgin Edixa 16, and some full-frame 35 mm single-lens-reflex cameras, he now imagined building a full-frame 35 mm camera, in a housing as small as only one third of the volume of contemporary viewfinder cameras.

Design of the Prototype

In his spare time, at home in his own living room, Waaske made the first technical drawings of the parts of the anticipated camera in 1962, these drawings were later used for the prototypes being made in the workshop of Wirgin.

Heinz Waaske designed the lens to be collapsable into the camera body utilizing a sliding tube. In order to get a thinner camera body he selected a focal length of 40 mm for the lens, thus deviating from the common 50 mm used for 35 mm cameras since the first Leica. This was 'a wide angle standard lens', up to then quite uncommon. After the successful introduction of the Rollei 35, many more viewfinder cameras of other camera makers appeared with a 40 mm lens.

As Waaske did not have the personal financial headroom for ordering a fully customized optical lens to be computed for his private construction, he selected an already existing triplet from the optical lens maker Steinheil from Munich, the Cassar f3,5/40mm. At that time, this was the only available lens for the 24 x 36 mm frame with sufficiently small dimensions. Since Steinheil was a lens supplier of Wirgin, Waaske could easily obtain samples of that lens.

Right: a copy of an original construction drawing for the Rollei 35 by Waaske. Left: The prototype as made by Heinz Waaske.


Due to the limited radius of available space around the fully insertable lens, the use of a common central shutter was impossible. Therefore Waaske simply invented a new type of shutter, which was separated into two functional parts: The shutter controlling clockwork was mounted unmovable in the camera body, while the shutter lamellas were mounted in the sliding tube. The separate parts were mechanically coupled by shafts. Only, when the shutter was cocked and therefore the lamellas were uncoupled, the sliding tube could be inserted into the housing.

Film Compartment

Not only for the shutter construction did Waaske file a patent. He re-invented the whole camera body concept as well: the space-saving film guidance deviated from the usual constructions by advancing the film with a 5-sprocket-wheel instead of the usual 6 sprockets. Another deviation from conventional design: he placed the cocking lever of the Rollei 35 at the top left and the film rewinding crank at the bottom right of the camera body (instead of the cocking lever being at the top right and the rewind crank at the top left). For changing the film cartridge, the camera back cover has to be completely slid downwards from the body, instead of opening a hinged door.

Light Meter

For the shutter-coupled exposure meter of the prototype camera, Waaske selected a selenium cell powered meter made by Metrawatt, another Wirgin supplier. The manually adjusted exposure control was not even changed for the later improved models of the Rollei 35.

On the way to mass production

When Heinz Waaske finally presented the fully functional new camera prototype to his employer, Heinrich Wirgin said: Therefore you have spent my time for your constructions in my design workshop?!. It was only then, that Wirgin told his chief engineer, that he had already made up his mind to retire and quit with the whole camera production and photo equipment business.

Looking for new employment in the German camera industry, Waaske presented his compact camera to Dr. Ludwig Leitz and to Kodak, but to no avail. In January 1965 Waaske started working for Rollei in Braunschweig (Brunswick). After Waaske's bad experiences with showing his new camera in his initial interview with potential employers, it was not before March 1965, that Rollei's managing director Dr. Peesel accidentally got a first glimpse of his new employee's tiny prototype camera. Filled with enthusiasm, Dr. Peesel decided that the camera should immediately be developed further by Waaske for mass production, but using parts only from Rollei's suppliers. At last the world would see Waaske's tiny camera! It was proudly presented at the Photokina in 1966 named as Rollei 35 with a better lens, the Zeiss Tessar 3,5/40mm lens, a state-of-the-art Gossen CdS-exposure meter and a precision-made diaphragm shutter made by Compur, using Waaske's patented shutter design.

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