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Focusing screens (for Rolleiflex TLR)

Colin O

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I'm interested in a screen (yet another) for my Rolleiflex 3.5F to hopefully make focusing easier - especially for portraits. I also have the 0.7x Mutar, and I'd be hoping a new screen would make it nice and easy to work with the Mutar too.

I've actually already gone through a few screens, but haven't been completely satisfied. When I bought my camera, it had the factory screen installed, and I replaced that one with a Maxwell screen, which was definitely an improvement, but I still didn't think it was amazing to tell the truth. I tried again with a screen from Rick Oleson, and I actually felt that I preferred the Oleson screen over the Maxwell one, but still, I just feel like it could be even better.

I'm interested in trying one of the screens from magicflexcamera.com, particularly the "PRO ultra bright" screen - but they are out of stock currently. I've sent a request through the site there a few days ago, but am yet to receive any acknowledgement/reply.

What I'd like to understand is...

What exactly makes a good focusing screen? Of course I'd like it as bright as possible and as easy to manual focus as possible (as mentioned, particularly for portraits).

Does anyone know - are the screens from magicflexcamera.com custom-made new ones, or new-old-stock, or repurposed from other cameras, or just plain second-hand, or what? It's not clear to me.

Is there something particularly difficult/expensive/secretive about the production of focusing screens? I mean, why is not straightforward for some supplier to come along and produce really good ones? Is it just that there isn't the market to make it worthwhile manufacturing them these days? Or maybe it's personal preference and there's no clear "best" focusing screen? Or maybe it's the laws of physics limiting what's possible?

I've read positive opinions about Hasselblad's screens, and here's a description direct from Hasselblad...


The Acute-Matte D-type focusing screens combine extreme brightness and clearness with even illumination, which remarkably facilitates quick and precise focusing. The Fresnel lens is cut with such high precision that the rings cannot be seen through the viewfinder.

Are these the pinnacle of focusing screen technology? Is the same available for Rolleiflex? What exactly is the Fresnel lens for and why is it important that it is cut with high precision?

Sorry for all the vague, uneducated questions - I'm really just trying to understand what I'm looking for and how easy/viable it is to find it.

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Had no idea another aftermarket focus screen specialist had entered the scene: its been a closed circle of Oleson and Maxwell for at least the past 20 years. Upon checking this new "magicflex" website, I have a strong suspicion you would not find a significant difference between his screen performance and your Maxwell, but if you can afford the risk to experiment it may be worth a try.

How long have you been using a Rolleiflex, or any other vintage medium format reflex camera? If you are relatively new to them, it can take quite awhile to develop an instinct for focusing them quickly and/or accurately. Especially if you were previously using an AF camera or a 35mm SLR with reasonably modern screen: the magnified shielded eyelevel prism experience (and faster f/1.4 - f/1.8 - f/2.0  standard lens) can be quite a bit easier to manage.

Since you have been somewhat disappointed with each of the screen alternatives you have tried, be aware you might be chasing a unicorn that does not exist. All medium format focus screens entail a compromise or tradeoff, which interacts with the visual sense parameters of each  individual photographer's eyes. If you are hoping for a screen that is bright to the corners but also has a definitive, predictable "snap into focus" performance: you may never find one. If you do, you may discover performance annoyingly variable depending on the subject and environmental lighting.

Back in the heyday of film when Rolleis, Mamiyas, Bronicas and Hasselblads were in wide professional use, there was one primary aftermarket screen vendor: BriteScreen. This company would purchase the camera maker screens in bulk, polish and coat them via proprietary means, and resell them at a premium. The screens were very bright indeed, but often harder to focus than the standard dimmer ground glass. This disparity between increased brightness vs ability to decisively "snap into focus" persisted thru several generations of screen technology and continues today: you cannot have your cake (brightness) and eat it too (snap).

After a period of years, business for BriteScreen began to wane. Hasselblad owners migrated in droves to the new Hasselblad-branded Acute Matte screens, no longer interested in third-party alternatives. Mamiya and Bronica upgraded their standard screens to a brighter contrastier version: not as bright as Acute Matte or BriteScreen, but a good enough compromise that most owners did not feel an urgent need to replace. Ditto 35mm SLR mfrs, who had also stepped up with significantly better standard screens (i.e. Nikon K3 and the custom version of Acute Matte fitted to Minolta 35mm cameras)

Bill Maxwell then appeared and almost immediately cornered the market for premium Rolleiflex TLR screen upgrades. BriteScreen eventually folded, and its owner unfortunately died some time afterward. During most of this era, Rick Oleson became the default budget or midrange alternative for those seeking a nicer screen that cost less than their entire camera. For many years, he sold a decent screen roughly comparable to the newer native screens sold with later-model cameras. These screens evolved over time depending on supply chain shifts: when Oleson could source improved plastics, his screens got incrementally better (and somewhat more expensive).

A few years back, Rick Oleson acquired the rights to the final BriteScreen tech from the estate of its inventor, and began supplying his current screens which most people seem to feel offer the ideal compromise of brightness, snap, durability and affordability. These are less bright than the pricey Maxwells, but certainly bright enough for almost any normal use case, with reasonably good contrast/snap. So if you were disappointed by the Maxwell, and only liked the Oleson slightly better, I'm afraid you're out of options.

My suggestion would be stay on the Oleson screen and learn to like it: chances that the new MagicFlex will be any better are fairly slim. At the prices asked, it appears MagicFlex is aiming for the Maxwell market and probably offers similar performance. I'm highly dubious of MagicFlex claim to have achieved the holy grail of blinding brightness AND high contrast snap. Perhaps search other photo forums and Reddit to see if anyone has purchased a MagicFlex and can personally rate it vs Oleson and Maxwell.

Re Acute Matte: this is not an option for Rolleiflex or any other medium format camera. The AM screens are sized specifically for the drop-in screen compartment of Hasselblad bodies, which is barely the size of a 6x6 film frame. Most other brand cameras require a larger screen size to mechanically fit, Rolleiflex TLRs even larger due to their parallax correction feature. Fun fact: the Rolleiflex screen size is so large that it was trendy to buy and cut down the huge Mamiya RB/RZ67 screens as a budget alternative (this was such a popular idea that it wiped out the worldwide supply of modern Mamiya screens, leaving many Mamiya users stranded and furious).

In any case, the Acute Matte is not a miracle cure: it is super bright, but displays odd viewing artifacts (rainbows, blobs, patterns) depending on eye position at the finder. Its also much harder and slower to focus than standard screens, even the ones with a split image aid. When using the slower wide angles like 40mm or 50mm f/4 Distagon, the Acute Matte becomes near useless for focus and is merely a bright framing device.

The standard issue screen that came in the final run of Mamiya TLRs and RB/RZ runs rings around the Acute Matte: not quite as bright, but much better contrast and no artifacts. My understanding is the most current Oleson screen is somewhat improved above that standard: if you found that unsuitable, that leaves only the MagicFlex to audition. If that doesn't make you happy, you'll have to choose the best compromise among available screen types.

Edited by orsetto
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4 hours ago, Colin O said:

Does anyone know - are the screens from magicflexcamera.com custom-made new ones, or new-old-stock, or repurposed from other cameras, or just plain second-hand, or what? It's not clear to me.

Those appear to be custom made from raw materials, similar to what Rick Oleson currently does but apparently employing a more labor intensive process resulting in more brightness. The website confusion stems from a combination of language translation and MagicFlex trying to obscure the fact that they do sometimes accept returns/refunds if the customer is sufficiently strong willed (hence the offerings of "slightly used or B-stock" screens).

As I noted previously, decades ago during the original BriteScreen era a couple of vendors did commonly recycle the original camera maker screens for their product: they would modify existing screens to be brighter but did not usually fabricate their own screens from raw materials.

The option of buying raw materials from China to establish a custom independent focus screen business was a fairly late development, which came toward the end of BriteScreen dominance and made Rick Olesons first and second generation of screens possible. His later and current screens involve a secret sauce of custom mfrd raw materials enhanced by proprietary patents he licensed from the estate of the BriteScreen founder.

Bill Maxwell screens are highly unusual made-from-scratch items, which partly explains their extraordinary high price. Unless his production process changed recently, AFAIK each Maxwell screen is individually crafted to order from fairly fragile materials, not the usual mass produced China-sourced fresnel sheets that form the basis for all other camera-brand and independent screens.

Acute Matte is the random outlier in the mix, developed in the mid-1970s by Minolta as a selling point for their then-new XD-11 luxury 35mm SLR. AM is radically different from any other screen concept: instead of a textured surface capturing a viewing image, the entire AM screen is composed of tiny cones or microprisms that funnel a type of aerial image directly to the eye. This is notably brighter, and wonderful when implemented in 35mm SLR eyelevel prism finders.

When used in larger cruder medium format waist level viewing systems, problems arise. it can be difficult to consistently identify the correct focus plane vs what seems to be the focus plane. Many Hasselblad photographers soon complained of more frequent missed focus with the Acute Matte, prompting Hasselblad to install split image focus aid versions as standard in their newer cameras (vs plain Acute Matte). They also developed the Acute Matte D update to dampen the aerial image issues, but it isn't dramatically more successful than the older Acute Matte in this regard. Both D and non-D have a tendency to trap moisture from the air between their thin layers, causing characteristic cloudiness or fresnel stain rings: not a fun discovery in your $500 screen when it happens. 

Hasselblad enthusiasts have developed a near-comical cult for the D version in recent years, but few photographers can truly verify the D as significantly reducing their missed focus issues. Acute Matte "is what it is" and a tad overrated: bright as the sun, but a pain to focus accurately/quickly. Many of us 'blad users take advantage of the easily interchangeable screen feature to swap back to the old type screen in good outdoor light: its more instinctive and quicker. Acute Matte (D or non-D alike) can give you a headache when you're in a hurry to nail precise focus. Minolta cut a deal in 1988 to give Hasselblad the medium format exclusive on Acute Matte, so it was never available in sizes for other camera brands: only Minolta 35mm SLRs and Hasselblads. So Acute Matte is irrelevant if you don't own a 'blad.

Vintage customized BriteScreens, current Maxwells and perhaps the MagicFlex fall somewhere between standard construction matte screens and Acute Matte high tech: they can be super bright, don't have aerial parallax issues, but can still stumble a bit in focus ease. You really do need to try different screen techs and settle on the one most suitable for your eye/brain coordination. None is perfect in every aspect. 

Edited by orsetto
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16 hours ago, Colin O said:

What exactly makes a good focusing screen? Of course I'd like it as bright as possible and as easy to manual focus as possible (as mentioned, particularly for portraits).

Some photographers preferred plain ground glass screens for precise focusing. Some Fresnel screens have a plain area at the centre for this reason.

I've got a 3.5F fitted with what I think is the original Fresnel, I find it bright enough. It just has a horizontally split image focusing aid, which I tend to rely on.

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Thanks both, especially orsetto, for the very helpful replies. I have a better understanding now - especially around the trade-off between brightness and ease of focusing. I also found another useful thread here on Photo.net:


There's some explanation there about the purpose of the Fresnel lens. One thing I'm not sure about... From my reading, it seems that a split-image rangefinder works better at larger apertures than at smaller ones, and a microprism grid/ring works better at smaller apertures than at larger ones. Is that correct? In that case, it seems that a microprism grid/ring would not really function effectively in a Rolleiflex TLR where the viewing lens is always at a constant f/2.8. Indeed, my Oleson screen has the split-image surrounded by a microprism ring, and when I'm relying on the microprism ring, despite the fact that the image is supposed to pop from shimmering unsharpness into sharp focus, this is not always easily clear to me.

I still have my Maxwell screen - I'd intended on reselling it, but never got around to it, so some day shortly I'll get all 3 screens out - F&H, Maxwell, Oleson - and have a bit of a shootout. As wisely suggested, maybe the key is to just choose one and "learn to like it".

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I've found there is a bit of a "getting used to it". I went thru a similar process as you with my Ricoh Diacord (I hated my Rolleiflex viewing screen). I cleaned the mirror, rear of the viewing lens, and the focusing screen. Tried a Maxwell and wasn't really impressed. Got an Oleson, shimmed it, and changed the viewing magnifier and all was copasetic. Discovered that I ALWAYS needed to use the magnifier, which initially was annoying, but I eventually got used to it. Once you get everything in place and learn to feel comfortable with it, you'll have a blast.

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2 hours ago, Colin O said:

One thing I'm not sure about... From my reading, it seems that a split-image rangefinder works better at larger apertures than at smaller ones, and a microprism grid/ring works better at smaller apertures than at larger ones. Is that correct? In that case, it seems that a microprism grid/ring would not really function effectively in a Rolleiflex TLR where the viewing lens is always at a constant f/2.8. Indeed, my Oleson screen has the split-image surrounded by a microprism ring, and when I'm relying on the microprism ring, despite the fact that the image is supposed to pop from shimmering unsharpness into sharp focus, this is not always easily clear to me.

This is another aspect of focus screens for medium format reflex cameras that can be very confusing to those who did not come of age back when they were in common daily use. While most of the focus screen chatter archived in discussion forums revolves around replacing the often dim dull standard screens of typical Hasselblad and Rolleiflex cameras, specific info re focusing aids like split image and microprism usually pertains to 35mm SLRs. These focus aids tend to perform noticeably better in 35mm SLRs, with their eyelevel prisms and wider-aperture lenses. Nikon, the leader in focus screen options, offered a staggering array of microprism and split image configurations optimized for different focal lengths, maximum apertures, and specialized photography tasks.

When implemented in medium format 6x6 etc reflex TLR and SLR, focusing aids that were reliable wonders in 35mm SLRs fall somewhat short. Microprism spots, on average, are much harder to interpret. This is specially so in the Japanese camera brands that offered it for their systems: Mamiya, Bronica, etc seemed to just recycle the focus spots from 35mm format screens. The split image or microprism aren't usually scaled up to be proportionate to the larger format screen, resulting in small hard to interpret splits or micro-shimmer, both of which are also muddied by the slower f/2.8 or f/3.5 lenses. AFAIK, only Mamiya offered split and micro variations optimized for different lens apertures or focal lengths for their TLRs and SLRs: these are now super rare and hard to find.

Then we have the ubiquitous gimmick of "split image surrounded by microprism donut collar" popularized in late '70s cameras, which enabled Nikon/Canon/Minolta/Pentax to pretend they offered "the best of both worlds" without the mfrg expense of a true interchangeable focus screen feature in their midrange 35mm SLRs (so users could choose what worked best for them: pure split image, pure microprism, or pure ground glass matte). This usually resulted in compromised, near-useless microprism functionality, where the microprism ring ended up just being an ugly distraction cluttering up the screen. When this dubious design is carried over to medium format cameras, its even more ugly and compromised (why on earth Hasselblad users compete on eBay to pay upwards of $500 for the split/micro Acute Matte D screen is beyond me: I tried one several times over several years and found the micro collar hopelessly unusable).

The single most useful focus aid ever offered for any camera was exclusive to the Miranda DX3 35mm SLR: this was composed of a microprism dot surrounded by a microprism collar. Together, they could be used as one huge bright microprism aid, as you might expect. But in a novel twist, the center dot and ring also worked together to form a huge extra-bright split image that worked at any 360 degree angle! Wonderful concept that unfortunately died with the DX3 camera, Miranda's last ditch attempt to remain viable after the Olympus OM-1 upended the entire 35mm SLR field.

The only medium format microprism focus aid I've ever seen that was truly helpful is the one built in to the old optional Hasselblad "bubble" screens. These were standard Rolleiflex-style dim ground glass matte, with or without a checker grid, which had an enormous microprism spot taking up the central one-third of the screen. Since it was so large, it often brightens the entire center subject enough to make focusing a breeze, and the built-in bubble magnifier makes the shimmering microprisms clearly reveal the exact point of focus. Oddly underrated today, they are probably the fastest easiest to focus screens available for 6x6 Hasselblads, aside from the recent Rick Oleson adaptions. Unfortunately nothing similar was or is available in Rolleiflex TLR size.

All of this is subjective, of course: each photographer will prefer a different compromise. Broadly speaking, the most useful quality in a medium format focus screen is the "snap" or contrast in the overall plain matte portion of the screen. This is often more quick and easy to focus than the split image in the center, and crucial during the many occasions the split blacks out in low light. Compared to other currently available new options, the recent Oleson screens seem to offer the best plain matte contrast, so unless one absolutely needs the utmost blindingly bright screen I would probably default to the Oleson. For the longest time, he did not offer these for Hasselblad because Hasselblad requires a tricky metal frame, but 3D printing has now allowed Hasselblad owners to easily accurately reframe the Oleson screen. I'm going to try this alternative soon, hoping to dispense with my bright but funky Acute Mattes.

Re fresnels: today this is a bit of a red herring, often irrelevant when replacing old screens with new tech screens. Separate fresnel plates came about during the original frosted ground glass era, as an add-on to reduce central hot spots and even out screen brightness to the corners. The fresnel does nothing to increase brightness, it just spreads it out more evenly across the screen. Up until roughly the late 1950s, most camera reflex screens were a sandwich composed of actual glass matte plate and a glass or plastic fresnel plate (and sometimes a third condenser plate added for Nikon, Canon, etc).

By the late 1960s, advances in plastic molding led to the now standard single-piece focus screen with matte top surface and the fresnel pattern embossed on the bottom (any focus aids or grid lines are also molded in). The modern replacement upgrades sold today for Rolleiflex etc typically replace the entire original ground glass sandwich in the camera with a single plastic screen. The fresnel is embedded and finely etched in all of them, so there isn't really a "choice" of fresnels to concern yourself with (Hasselblad's nonsensical marketing blather about "superfine" fresnels in their Acute Matte notwithstanding).

Aside from choosing your preferred brightness, contrast and focus aid compromise, the only screen "gotcha" you need to look out for is installation variations between various cameras. Most of the time, a new screen will replace the entire vintage screen system in your camera, but there are a few exceptions where you might need to retain a top cover glass or the original fresnel plate. You might also need to recycle exiting shims or add some that come with the new screen. Dedicated vendors like Maxwell or Oleson will supply this alert and special instructions when you order a screen for a camera model with such requirements.

Edited by orsetto
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  • 1 month later...

Followup to above, I just came across a 1975 ad for the Miranda DX3 promoting its unique oversized concentric-microprism focus aid that simultaneously functions as a huge multi-angle split image aid. For decades since the demise of Miranda with this ill-fated final camera,  I've wondered why no one has ever offered that focus aid concept again. Once you've experienced it, going back to dinky traditional split image circles is very disappointing. It would be especially helpful in a medium format camera screen: if only Rick Oleson could find a way to offer it!



Miranda DX3 CB Promo 1976.jpg

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