The classic prewar Plaubel Roll-op
Good things come in small packages
The classic Plaubel Roll-Op is a vintage camera produced in Germany in the 1930’s just prior to WWII. It’s a medium format, coupled rangefinder camera and it was an expensive high end camera. It was introduced by Plaubel in 1933 and was produced in Germany until 1939. Though many people aren’t aware of it, there were two versions. One was version was a 6x4.5 cm format and the other was 6x6. Other than that they looked identical and both used standard 120 rollfilm. They packed a lot of features into a small package. They featured a fast sharp lens, a quality Compur shutter, a film exposure counter and was equipped with a coupled rangefinder. In fact it utilized the same accurate wide base rangefinder that was fitted to the larger Plaubel Makina.
Another advanced feature of the Plaubel Roll-op was that the lens and shutter moves together as a unit when focusing. This provides better lens performance (especially up close) than the more common “front cell focus” in which only the front element is turned in or out. This feature allows this camera to close focus down to a meter.
The Plaubel Roll-Op’s rangefinder is unusual compared to modern rangefinders, in that compositions are split into two separate images which are stacked one on top of the other (rather than superimposed as for example in a Super Ikonta). This type of rangefinder was quite popular in the 1930’s and this type of design was also used in the prewar Voigtlander Bessa range finder. Eye placement in relationship to the eyepiece is important with these rangefinders because you need to place your eye to that you can see both of the images. This can be odd at first, especially if you’re not used to this type of vintage rangefinder and don’t know where to look. However once you’re used to it, it’s a quick, reliable way to focus a camera.
To give you an example, imagine you’re looking at a landscape with grass and trees and phone poles. The upper image will contain primarily sky and the upper halves of trees and phone poles. The lower image below it will contain the lower half of the landscape. If you line up both images on a vertical object (such as a nearby tree) that object will be in focus.
The Roll-Op is a fairly compact camera especially considering all the features it offers the owner. Plaubel wanted to squeeze a lot of features into the smallest possible package and it is literally a squeeze. This is particularly noticeable when closing the camera. You literally have to squeeze the lens door down a bit in order to close a Roll-Op. I should also mention that the camera can only be closed when the lens is set to infinity. This is very important and I can’t stress it enough. If you have one of these cameras, NEVER attempt to close the camera if the focus is not set to INFINITY. There simply is no room under the lens door for any other setting. If you attempt to close the camera, you will damage it.
It’s also a noticeably snug package when opening these cameras but then it’s often been said that good things come in small packages. Fortunately the lens stand is self-erecting and despite the close tolerances it generally does a good job of unfolding and locking into place. Which leads me to a quirk of this camera...
Plaubel in its infinite wisdom decided that because of the small size of the camera, there was no room left for additional springs and levers. So the design depends on the leather bellows to hold the lens stand in the correct orientation (parallel to the film plane) until everything is locked into place. This solution was fine in the 1930’s when the camera was brand new and the leather was good and stiff. However after 80 years, many surviving cameras have leather bellows that are much softer than when they were new and correct lens alignment isn’t always assured. Because of this, many Roll-Op cameras tend to lock the lens & shutter tipped in a slight downward angle when opened. Naturally this isn’t desirable... fortunately it’s easy to avoid this from happening, if your camera has this tendency. When you begin to open a Plaubel Roll-Op, the first thing to appear as you begin to open the lens door is the focus lever. Pause for a moment before opening it fully and simply set the focus lever to a middle distance on the scale, then continue opening the camera. It will now fold open and lock as it should.
I could give you a lengthy explanation of why this works but it’s a lengthy, unnecessary exercise. Suffice it to say this simple trick works like a charm and you’ll find that it aligns correctly every time. (I should mention that you don’t need to do this when you close the camera. Simply set the focus to infinity and gently close it.)
The Roll-Op's unique auto-stop winding system.
The auto-stop system allows the photographer to advance the film advance knob until it stops, which signals that you’re ready to shoot again. This means you won’t be slowed down, searching for numbers through a red counter window. Auto-stop winding is quite unusual for folding cameras. Only a small number of designs featured it and whenever it was available it could only be found on expensive, high end cameras.
Because the Roll-Op was intended to be used by professionals, the camera also featured counter windows on the rear of the camera. This is simple back-up insured that even if the film counter system failed out in the field because of dirt or damage, a photo-journalist could still continue to wind and shoot.
During WWII many war correspondents on all sides of the conflict used the Plaubel Roll-Op because of its compact size and quality images. These photographers often reached for the Plaubel whenever they needed a larger format and a higher resolution than even a Contax or Leica could manage to produce on the grainy films of the period. As a result it was in high demand and in short supply. Plaubels were used intensively and many were subsequently lost in action, damaged or simply worn out. Because of this, good, clean, usable examples they will always be desirable and hard to find.
The auto stop system works with a clever spring loaded hook that slides into notches cut under a rotating exposure counter dial. The hook is attached to a control lever which enables it to be raised. A single push on the lever is all it takes. It lifts and holds the hook and allows film to be wound until the hook slides into the next following notch. There are 16 notches, one notch for each exposure for the 6x4.5 model. On the 6x6 model there are 12 notches.
In use, film is loaded into the camera and carefully wound (be sure to raise the hook that locks the counter dial when needed!) until the number “1” printed on the films’ backing paper shows up in the first red counter window if your camera has two of them (or the single centrally located window if you have a 6x6 model). After this you need to check that the exposure counter dial is also at number “1”. If it isn’t, the spring loaded counter dial can be pulled away from the camera, turned manually and lowered onto the correct setting. The "pointer" is the pivot point of the locking hook (it often has a red dot of paint on it). Once everything is properly set, you’re good to go.
With the camera properly loaded and the counter dial set, all you need to do to advance film is thumb the hook lever once, release it and wind. The hook eventually drops down into the following notch and stops the dial from rotating. The increased resistance in the wind knob lets the photographer know that it’s time to stop winding. NEVER continue winding the camera once it locks and you feel this resistance to turning!!! If you continue to wind with the counter-dial locked, you’ll seriously damage the gears. In fact, stripped or broken counter gears are a common problem with the Roll-Op. So be gentle with it, especially of you are wearing gloves in inclement weather. Gloves make it difficult to feel the knob’s signal to stop winding. This is also a good moment to mention that prior to purchasing one at a camera fair or antique camera shop, it’s a good idea to check that a Roll-Op’s counter mechanism is functioning correctly prior to buying it. (This also applies to the Plaubel 120 roll film backs for the larger Plaubel Makina, which uses an identical counter.)
However, if your Roll-Op does have bad gears, all is not lost. Fortunately it has a backup system and that’s the red exposure counter window(s) on the rear of the camera. It tends to confuse some owners. So I thought I’d pass on some information on how to use them:
Using the red counter windows on the 6x4.5 model (if the auto stop system on your camera doesn't work)
Originally 120 film was intended to be used only for the 6x9 format. Because of this, the film backing paper was only numbered 1 through 8. One digit for each of the eight 6x9 exposures which fit on a roll of 120 film. It didn’t have numbering on the film backing paper for the various other formats such as 6x6 and 6x4.5 as we do today. So when manufacturers started using 120 film for 6x4.5 format camera in the early 1930’s, they solved this problem by introducing TWO red counter windows. With these cameras BOTH windows must be used in a sequential order.
In order to use the two counter windows version of the Roll-Op, load the film and carefully wind the film until number one (#1) appears centered in the very first red counter window. It is now ready for the first exposure. After the first shot has been exposed, carefully advance the film until the very same number (#1) appears in the second counter window. Now take a second shot. Repeat this sequence for # 2 and all following numbers.
By using the numbers twice, what you are actually doing is recording two 6x4.5 (two half frame) exposures on a space originally intended for a single 6x9 exposure. Since 2x8=16 you will end up with sixteen 6x4.5 exposures on a single roll of 120 film.
Using the red counter windows on the 6x6 model (if auto stop system on your camera doesn't work).
With the 6x6 version things are quite a bit simpler. The back only has a single window, so just wind the film until you see the number “1” appear in it. After your first exposure, advance the film until you see "2" and you’re ready to go.
Well that’s it. I hope this helps everyone enjoy these unique, historic little rangefinder cameras. If you have any comments or tips about the Roll-Op, please feel free to mention them to us and we’ll consider passing it on to everyone.