Leave it to the Germans to build the ultimate over-engineered camera for the world’s crappiest film format.
And good heavens, is 110 film ever crappy. Kodak had to develop an entirely new film technology just so that the tiny 13mm x 17mm frames on the negatives could yield usable images. And then camera companies worldwide puked forth legions of plastic 110 cameras with plastic lenses that rendered Kodak’s good work moot.
Part of what makes the Rollei A110 brilliant is that it packs a mighty fine lens – a Tessar. It’s hard to beat a Tessar; it brings out any film’s best performance. But then Rollei upped the ante, wrapping that lens in a wickedly delightful little package.
The Rollei A110 cribbed its design from tiny spy cameras of the 1960s, such as the Minox and the Minolta 16. It’s a shade under 3½ inches long; it weighs just 6½ ounces. It’s made of steel (though I gather some of the internal bits are plastic) and its finish is velvety. Grasp it at both ends and pull, and the camera not only opens to reveal a viewfinder, but winds the film, too.
The A110 is simple to use: frame the photo, slide the orange lever under the lens to focus, and give the orange button a light press. The A110 focuses from 3.5 feet to infinity; as you slide the lever, a green line moves across a scale within the viewfinder. The 23mm f/2.8 lens gives a slightly wide view, at least to my eye. From here on out, everything about the A110 is automatic. Its onboard light meter drives the aperture and shutter speed, from f/2.8 to f/16 and from 4 sec. to 1/400 sec., respectively.
Rollei introduced the A110 in 1975 and issued about 200,000 of them before production ended in 1981. Rollei’s German factory built them until 1978, when production was moved to Singapore. My A110’s film door says “Made in Germany.”
The A110 came in a velour-lined clamshell box with a flashcube attachment and a little leather case that fits the camera like a glove. (Mine was missing the box and the flashcube attachment.) If all of this sounds expensive, it was – the A110 retailed for around $300. That’s almost $1,300 in 2013 dollars.
The A110 takes an odd battery, the 5.6-volt PX 27. That’s a banned mercury battery, so I bought a same-size 6-volt silver S27PX at Amazon and hoped for the best. I also loaded some Fujicolor Superia 200, expired since 1996 – problematic because the A110 “reads” a little tab on the film cartridge to set ASA in one of two ranges, 64-100 ASA and 320-500 ASA. I had no idea how it would handle this ISO 200 film.
Sure enough, all of the photos were overexposed. I used a little Photoshop trickery to rescue them. I got good color and decent sharpness (for the format), though. Here’s my favorite photo from the roll, of the Monon Trail bridge in Broad Ripple.
I walked around Broad Ripple for an hour, my dog, Gracie, on the leash, looking for things to shoot. The A110 was easy enough to shoot one-handed, though a few times when I squeezed the shutter button the shutter wouldn’t fire. I found that it always worked when I backed off and tried again.
The A110 did its best work in evenly lit situations, unlike those of the photos above and below. That’s an old Willys Jeep parked there. I should have photographed it more extensively and written it up for Curbside Classic, the old-car blog to which I contribute.
Here’s Gracie happy in the wayback of my little blue wagon. We’d stopped for ice cream. I’m giving the car to my son if he ever gets his driver’s license; the license plate is after his online persona.
The A110 was easy enough to take everywhere. I loaded film into a late-60s Canon SLR before I loaded the A110, but I finished shooting the A110 first because it slips into my pocket and the SLR doesn’t. This is my church on a Sunday morning.
I met someone for dinner in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood, on the same block as Kincaid’s.
See more photos in my Rollei A110 gallery.
I have two complaints about my A110. First, the focusing scale inside the camera reads 1.5 ft, “person,” 6 ft., “group,” “mountain.” I figured “person” must be about three feet and “mountain” must be infinity, but I wasn’t sure how far out “group” was. I guessed right every time I used it, though, because all of my images came back crisp. My other complaint is probably just a quirk of my camera. A little metal lens cover hides behind the front panel, and it’s loose. I kept forgetting to make sure it hadn’t slid out to cover the lens before I took a shot, and I have six blank frames on my negatives as a reward. D’oh!
I was incredibly lucky to pick up this little gem for $10; they usually go for $50 and up on eBay. If you’re fortunate enough to find an A110 for a good price, you don’t have to rely on expired film as I did (unless that’s your thing). The Lomography people sell four fresh, new 110 film varieties in their store.
Do you like old cameras? Then check out my entire collection!