Brighten up your Rolleiflex (or any TLR camera) with a new Rick Oleson Brightscreen
EDIT: An update from Rick follows.
I turned my order page off but when I turned it back on Saturday night, it looks like the PayPal code isn’t working right. I’m not sure if the problem is the code on my site or at PayPal, but I’ll reload a new order button in case it’s at my end.
I had 16 orders on Friday, it took all day yesterday with the page shut down to catch up. I can comfortably make 4 or 5 a day. Please tell folks to be patient, I have a very full day today so it might take me some time to get it fixed!
For a photographer, there is nothing quite like the experience of looking onto the focus screen of a TLR or other medium format, primarily waist-level viewfinder cameras such as Hasselblads, Bronicas or Mamiya RB67s. For some reason, a scene presented on a large focus screen draws attention to lines, forms, shapes, the elements of design, in a way that a viewfinder held up to the eye or an LCD live-screen does not.
Unfortunately, using vintage cameras half a century old can often fall short of our expectations because either the original ground-glass focus screen lacks a fresnel lens to spread the light evenly into the corners, or if it is made of plastic, it will have yellowed and faded with the time.
Either way it’s more like gaping into a pit than composing a picture.
Twenty-five years ago I part exchanged my Rolleiflex 2.8GX for a crappy plastic 3MP SLR digital thingy, which produced files so large (at least 5MB!) that my Tiny computer took a full 20 minutes to open each image. On reflection, getting rid of the Rolleiflex might have been one of the sillier decisions I made because if you sold a GX today you’d be able to purchase a low-mileage Mazda MX5, tax and insure it, put on four new tyres and have enough change to tour Scotland for a fortnight.
As usual, I digress.
In a sense, the choice to switch to digital was forced upon me. As a lecturer in photography at a Further Education College I was supposed to be at least a couple of paragraphs of ‘Photoshop for Dummies’ ahead of my students although I have to admit sometimes it didn’t work out that way. “Yes Rachel in the front row, thank you for asking that . . . I’d actually planned this topic in the next lesson so we’ll leave it ’til this afternoon”, scurry back to the staff room at lunchtime and look up ‘file formats and compression’ or whatever. Why couldn’t they ask me something I actually knew??
I digress. Again.
As soon as I was old enough and no longer had to work to live or learn anything else about digital imaging, I gravitated back to proper photography. I began collecting a few old and interesting roll film cameras. And, as I’ve always regretted selling my GX, I recently bought another. This time, a grey Rolleiflex T, which had just been serviced and is in good working condition. The only problem is that the 60-year-old bit of plastic that was supposed to be a focus screen was yellowing with age and had gone quite dark along one edge.
Note the photo below: the Rick Oleson Brightscreen is already installed but you can clearly see how bad discolouration on the old screen was.
Unfortunately replacement Rolleiflex focus screens are rarer than a win on the lottery, especially if like me you don’t buy a ticket. The last one I’ve seen advertised on eBay was badly scratched (described as in excellent condition, it pays to look at the pictures at their full enlargement) and the price being asked was £55 + P&P.
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Until a few years ago there was a choice of replacement focus screens but the two major players have both long ceased manufacture. Even ten years ago, a replacement Maxwell screen for a Rolleiflex was priced at $350 and the Beattie Intenscreen $200 so certainly not cheap and today not even an option.
However, Rick Oleson, who trades under the name Brightscreen continues to manufacture replacement screens, offering a choice of focus aids and grid patterns and at a very reasonable price. I paid £60 ($80) including postage and packing to ship a custom screen for my Rolleiflex T from the US to the UK, which arrived after exactly one week. I chose a design with two parallel horizontal and vertical grid lines to aid composition. I compose for the full focus screen frame and can’t abide a sloping horizon in beach scenes!) and a rangefinder set in a microprism collar for precise focusing.
The grid design and focus aid are very personal and one can choose from a variety of grid patterns or a plain screen, and just a microprism on its own. I have poor eyesight so need all the help I can get, and I’m used to using a rangefinder.
The Brightscreen is a well-engineered, quality product. It comes with full instructions. All one needs is a small screwdriver to ease up the two retaining clips to remove the original screen, and a pair of rubber gloves to ensure the new screen goes in clean. The photos below were taken after installation, hence the lack of latex!
The gridlines and microprism/rangefinder of the Brightscreen go face down towards the mirror, and the fresnel ring surface is uppermost. In use it’s much easier to achieve precise focus and is probably a stop or more brighter than the old screen it replaced.
Before I changed the screens I took the camera into the garden and focused on a variety of subjects, repeating the exercise ten minutes later when I’d fitted the new screen. The difference was immediately noticeable, especially in how quickly I could achieve focus and be certain of the accuracy. It makes using the Rollei T an absolute joy and I can now fully exploit this lovely old camera for the purpose it was intended. The side-by-side below was put together in Photoshop after the fact but describes the ~1-2-stop difference in brightness between the new (left) and old (right) screen.
The side-by-side above was put together in Photoshop after the fact but describes the ~1-2-stop difference in brightness between the new (left) and old (right) screen.
Rick Oleson offers replacement screens for most of the popular medium format cameras available today. Fitting the Brightscreen to my Rolleiflex T has transformed it into a modern, practical camera for everyday use. Jobs a good ‘un.
NB: Hi everyone, EM here. Nigel is not affiliated with Rick Oleson, nor was he compensated for this review. He got in touch asking me if it was ok to write about it on EMULSIVE, to which I resoundingly agreed. As a customer of Rick’s for a decade now, I can’t shout enough about how well-engineered and transformative his screens are for older cameras. If you’re reading this, Rick, bravo, and please keep at it!
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