In my last essay I discussed the Mamiya RB67 cameras and in particular the different film backs available for them. As I stated then, the RB67, apart from a light-metering prism and some film backs that utilised small motors to advance the film after exposures, it is at heart a fully mechanical 120 rollfilm camera. (And what a beautiful beast it is too!)
What I will discuss now is a 120 rollfilm camera that had advanced electronics when first introduced to the market and was totally dependant on battery power.
That camera is the Rollei 6006.
The 6006 I own was purchased 2nd-hand from Photographic Wholesalers as excess to their camera rentals for professionals. That was back when Photographic Wholesalers was located in Hutt Street and was still owned by John Mack.
It’s evident that Rollei set out to produce a 120 rollfilm camera that would offer serious competition to the Hasselblads for commercial and professional use, and in the opinion of many users it was a better camera than the electronic Hasselblad. I don’t want to argue this point – it’s included merely as an aside. I’ve never owned or used a Hasselblad so I’m not well-enough informed to make a serious conclusion.
Like most 120 rollfilm hard-body cameras, the main body is a simple box. Maybe “simple” isn’t the best adjective to use; what I mean to convey is that it is roughly a slightly elongated cube-shape. The film holder, viewfinder and lens are attached to this body and this allows for different holders, viewfinders and lenses to be used. It is therefore a system camera.
What is contained within the 6006 body is probably some of the most advanced electronics of its time. There is not even a mechanical shutter that can be used if the battery becomes discharged. Flat battery = no photos!
To demonstrate that point I’ll recount an episode that nearly gave me a heart attack.
I’d owned the 6006 for several years and it had performed flawlessly. I was engaged to shoot a wedding at Stirling. Check: Camera, lenses, more than enough rollfilm for the shoot, tripod, fully charged camera battery, film backs and separate film cartridges already loaded, flash, remote release, spare fully-charged flash batteries, photo run-sheet – all set! Throw in the Rollei battery charger just in case. All OK and with Julie as my assistant off we went. We were living at Bellevue Heights at that time so Stirling was an easy 20 kilometres drive. Major error: full trust in the 6006 so no emergency back-up such as a 35mm camera etc.
We arrived at Stirling and all was going well. I’d taken nearly a roll leading up to the exchanging of the rings then, when I went to take a shot of the couple standing there going through their vows, nothing happened when I pressed the shutter. Try again. Nothing. Try again. Nothing. Panic! The battery had been fully charged! I can only say it was fortunate, or something related to premonition, that I’d packed the battery charger. I rushed into the restaurant where the reception was to be held, pulled the battery out of the camera, and got it into the charger faster than Superman could have done it. It was then an anxious few minutes watching the proceedings outside in the garden, then, when the exchanging of rings was about to happen, grabbing the battery, shoving it into the camera, rush outside and press the shutter for the first ring exchange. Shutter triggered, exposure made, film auto-wind to next frame. That was one frame. Will it fail again? Hopefully evrything will go well for the next exchange of wedding ring. Compose (the frame and me), and press the shutter. Exposure! Phew!
In the meantime, Julie had been able to ring Mark Pedlar (no mobiles back then) and asked if he could help out with a camera etc. In true intrepid style, Mark grabbed his Canon and lenses, jumped into his car along with Jenny, and drove as fast as he could legally go to get up to Stirling.
In the meantime, I’d pressed the pre-exposure button after I’d got the second shot, and again nothing. Groan. Get the battery back to the charger and get enough charge in it to use for another shot. It’s fortunate that, once the couple are presented as man and wife, all the guests vie to get to the bride and groom to offer congratulations and so on, so that gave me some breathing space and more time to get charge into the battery. What had happened was that one of the Ni-cad cells in the battery had failed so it became the weakest link no matter how good the rest of the cells were. I was able to get the rest of the formal shots I needed by putting the battery in the charger then putting it back into the camera just before taking subsequent shots, and as it happened not needing to use Mark’s Canon – a camera I’d never used before. I’ve been indebted to Mark ever since for the time and effort he put in to get his camera to me and I’d learned a valuable lesson the hard way! Never again have I shot a wedding without a back-up camera – not even if using my trusty Nikon F2. Since purchasing the Nikon D300 I’ve used it for weddings but in the bag is the F2 loaded with film – just in case.
But I digress; so back to the actual camera.
Here it is sans lens, with one of the film holders fitted to the rear:
The right-hand side is where the majority of the controls are located.
The small dial to the rear indicating ISO in red and DIN in white is part of the film holder and its function is simply to indicate the speed of the loaded film. There is no impact on the electronics. Film speed for the electronics, also indicated by both ISO and DIN, is set using the centre section of the large dial on the camera body. The shutter speed is set using the outer section of the dial so it is a shutter-priority camera. This also impacts the electronics. The dial to the bottom turns the system on. The selection is either S (single exposure) or C (continuous exposure). A DIN socket just to the rear of the on-off switch is used for triggering via a remote infra-red trigger. Just to the front of the shutter-speed dial is a small button denoted “mirr”. This is used to lift the mirror, prior to releasing the shutter, to avoid mirror shake for critical sharpness.
The button immediately in front of the on-off switch is for depth-of-field preview.
The viewfinder lid on top of the camera is lifted to display the ground glass screen. Incorporated into this is a magnifying lens for critical focus.
Two buttons to the bottom of the front panel are for triggering the shutter with the right or left hand. A cable release socket is located mid-way between the two manual shutter buttons. I always found the controls for this camera easy to use.
The lens is fitted by removing the front protection plate then aligning dots on the body and the lens, inserting the lens into the body and twisting until the lens clicks into place. A red button on the left-hand side of the camera is depressed to remove the lens. This system is similar to the majority of interchangeable-lens cameras although different to the Mamiya RB67 which requires a ring at the rear of the lens to be rotated in order to remove the lens.
Here is an image of the unit with lens fitted:
The battery is inserted on the left-hand side of the camera, which is also where the hot shoe is located.
The lenses are actually the heart of this camera. The main circuit board is set inside the front section of the body, with each lens having its own shutter built in along with the aperture. The electronic circuitry in the camera body communicates with the lens via 10 gold-plated contacts and pins.
The lenses I have are a Distagon f/4 50mm and Planar f/2.8 80mm – very similar to the lenses used on Hasselblads. They are exceptionally good “fast” lenses and incredibly sharp. They are also, like the Mamiya RB67 lenses, relatively heavy weighing in at about a kilogram each, the 50mm being the heavier of the two. This is understandable considering each lens incorporates a unique electronic servo motor (actually a linear-action coil) for the shutter and another for the aperture.
Once the shutter speed is selected the f-stop can quickly be checked by pressing the depth-of-field preview button and reading the scale in a window at the top of the lens. A red-coloured indicator, easily seen in the following photo, shows the area within the focus range.
Like other 120 rollfilm camera systems, the Rollei 6006 employs film holders that are interchangeable at any time during a shoot, thus allowing quick changes between colour negative, monochrome, transparency etc. The film is loaded onto cartridges that are then inserted into the film holder. These cartridges can be kept pre-loaded until needed, by loading the film far enough for the tongue to be taken up on the take-up spool (See next image). When the film has been fully exposed it is automatically advanced onto the take-up spool and a sprung blade (indicated by red) is pulled out to release the spool. Unlike other systems, the Rollei 6006 film cartridges work in both directions, so the empty spool is left in place and the fresh roll is loaded into the end where the fully exposed reel was removed. There’s provision for the film type to be slid into the carriage ends, as shown in the following image.
The next image shows one of the film holders partially opened. Buttons on each side of the holder allow the rear gate to open so the cartridge can be placed inside. These buttons are located at the opening end, and another two buttons located at the hinge end are for removing the holder from the camera. Both buttons have to be pressed simultaneously in order to open the gate to insert the film cartridge or to remove the holder from the camera.
A unique method for the dark slide is used by the Rollei 6006, in that a flexible metal plate is slid away from the film plane when the holder is fitted to the camera. It’s located in tracks built into the holder. A locking device prevents the holder from being removed from the camera unless the dark slide is back in place. It’s a good system that, unlike the Mamiya RB67 film backs, doesn’t mean the photographer has to completely remove the dark slide from the holder. It is possible, though, to slide the dark slide open when the holder is off the camera and I don’t consider that to be good design.
There is another flaw in the film holder design, in that it’s possible to accidentally open the film holder gate during use if the two buttons used to remove the film carriage are accidentally pressed. I’ve done this when hand-holding the camera and fogged film as a result. The counter also returns to 0. A simple means of preventing this when the camera is in use is to have a bracket that covers the gate buttons when the dark slide is slid down to allow film exposures to take place. I fashioned such a preventative measure for the 4.5cm x 6cm holder. (Standard holder is square 6cm x 6cm format). The following image shows my fix to this problem. The reason I have this on the 4.5cm x 6cm holder is that the buttons on this holder don’t require as much pressure to release the loading gate. It might look a little crude but it is very effective.
Another foible is that, when using the 4.5cm x 6cm holder, small masking inserts have to be placed in the back of the camera to reduce the exposure dimension to 4.5cm x 6cm, otherwise there’d be overlapping double exposure on each frame. These inserts are fiddly to get in and there’s always the risk of losing one or both due to their small size. A better system would have been to have an inbuilt sliding masking system. Whilst this would have added to the cost of the camera when it came on the market, it would have been far more user-friendly and would have allowed faster changing between the 6cm x 6cm format to the 4.5cm x 6cm format on a shoot.
I haven’t used this camera for quite some time as I need to get the battery pack refilled with modern Lithium-ion cells, but I have to say it always produced beautifully exposed frames, especially useful when using slide film. Failures occurred very rarely. I’ve been looking on the Internet for a replacement battery or a battery cell replacement service and they are out there. I will definitely use this camera again, notwithstanding it’s little quirks. It is easy to use, reasonably compact for a 120 rollfilm camera, and the square format when using the 6cm x 6cm film holder means no need to rotate the camera on the tripod, but necessary to do so if using the 4.5cm x 6cm film holder in portrait mode. Although it’s a shutter-priority camera, changing the shutter speed to get the desired depth-of-field is easy and quick. Naturally if that means a slow shutter speed for maximum sharpness over a long distance range in low light, then a tripod is necessary – but you should carry a tripod anyway!
To finish, here’s two photos:
The first is the camera with the remote infra-red triggering device fitted.
The second shows the battery partially inserted and the viewfinder hood raised. The battery is nearly as long as the camera is wide, so it gives some idea of the size.