Camera Reviews

Rollei A110

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.

Rollei A110

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.

Rollei A110

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 A110

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.

I’ve owned but two other 110 cameras, and have reviewed only one of them: the Minolta Autopak 470 (here). The other was a crappy Keystone camera I bought new in 1984; I documented East Berlin with it that summer (some photos here). But I’ve reviewed dozens of other cameras; see all of my reviews here.

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.

My first film through the A110 was 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.

Reflected Monon

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 Vogue

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.

Brugge Jeep

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.

West Park Christian Church

On another outing I loaded some Lomography Color Tiger film. I forgot that the backing paper leaks light; that’s what the red splotches are.

Home

There’s nothing to using this camera. I adapted to its controls readily. When it hits, it hits big.

Sunburst

The A110 was in my pocket on a sunny-afternoon walk through a big city park. It was the perfect companion — until I needed it, I forgot it was there.

Park road

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 on this one. I kept forgetting to make sure it hadn’t slid out to cover the lens before I took a shot, and I have 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. You’ll be hard pressed to find a 110 camera at any size that delivers results this good.

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Camera Reviews

Minolta 110 Zoom SLR

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Unbelievably, when Kodak introduced the tiny 110 film cartridge in 1972 a few camera makers said, “Hey, I know! Let’s make a super high-quality camera for this film!” Never mind that Kodak intended this film to be used for family snapshots. Never mind that Kodak had to invent a whole new film technology so that the super-narrow 16 mm negatives could yield a print with merely heavy, rather than unacceptable, noise and grain. Makers as lofty as Voigtländer, Rollei, Pentax, and Minolta quickly issued 110 cameras with fine multi-element lenses and automatic exposure control. Pentax and Minolta even went as far as creating single-lens reflex cameras for 110 film. This is Minolta’s: the 110 Zoom SLR.

Minolta 110 Zoom SLR

This camera is an odd duck because it doesn’t have that classic SLR look. Yet an SLR it is, with a fixed f/4.5 lens that zooms from 25 to 50 mm and includes a macro mode that focuses to 11 inches, a shutter that operates from 1/1000 to 10 sec., and aperture-priority autoexposure that uses a CdS-based light meter. Strangely, the light meter and the aperture selection dial are next to the lens on the camera’s front. But zooming and focusing are on the lens barrel where they belong.

Minolta 110 Zoom SLR

Every 110 Zoom SLR came with that rubber lens hood. When you’re not using it, push it toward the lens and it collapses cleanly and cleverly. It screws in, so you can remove it. When you attach a flash to the hot shoe, move the dial to the left to X so it will sync properly. The other choices on that dial are A for autoexposure and B for bulb (the shutter stays open as long as you hold the shutter button down). The switch next to the shutter button locks and unlocks the button. The switch north of the shutter button lets you adjust exposure up or down up to two stops. The little red button checks the batteries – two SR44 button cells you can buy at the drugstore.

Film isn’t available at the drugstore anymore, though. Kodak and Fuji gave up on the format a few years ago. The Lomography folks offer new 110 films in color and black and white if you’re curious. Or you can find expired 110 film on eBay, which is what I did. Three rolls of expired Fujicolor Superia 200 came with this camera for under $20 shipped.

Straightaway I dropped in a film cartridge and some batteries and got to shooting. My favorite shot is of these flowers from my next-door neighbor’s extensive hosta gardens. I used macro mode for this shot.

Hosta flower

I had trouble focusing this camera. The manual says that the focus patch shimmers when a subject is out of focus. Thanks to age, my eyes are starting to decline and I have to work harder now to see fine things. Given how many of my shots were out of focus, clearly I sometimes failed to see that fine shimmer. Here, my subject the traffic barrel is only slightly out of focus.

Merryman

I took my dog Gracie over to Holliday Park for a walk with the 110 Zoom SLR in my hand. One of these days I’ll figure out a more interesting way to frame The Ruins, although I do like the color I got. I cropped this a little but shot it zoomed all the way out, at 25 mm, which felt to me like 50 mm on a 35 mm camera.

Ruins

I am impressed with this camera’s metering, which got good exposure under pretty much any circumstances I threw at it. The camera lets you know when there’s too much or too little light – when you press the shutter button halfway, a red triangle appears inside the viewfinder when the shot will be overexposed, and a yellow triangle appears when the shutter speed is slower than 1/50 sec and shake will be a problem. No triangle means the camera will return a good exposure.

Headless

But true to 110 form, these images are grainy and noisy. Macro shots such as this one suffer worst, and can show appreciable loss of detail.

Macro flower

I found focusing to be so unsatisfying that I’m unlikely to put any more film through this camera. I got about a dozen usable images from this 24-exposure cartridge. You can see them all in my  Minolta 110 Zoom SLR gallery.


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