I’ll let the cat out of the bag for dedicated film photographers from the start: folding cameras such as the Agfa Isolette, Voigtlander Perkeo, Zeiss Ikonta, Certo Six etc from the pre-slr era of 1950’s are simply perfect as carry-round cameras. Find one with a clear lens, a correctly functioning shutter, accurate rangefinder and sound bellows and you have an amazingly compact and pocketable medium format marvel that, with a good overhaul by a competent technician, will go on and on producing good quality images for at least another six decades. There, I’ve said it, the secret is out. If you are a film photographer who wants a medium format camera that is unobtrusive and durable with all the basic functions you need to create fine images, then start looking for a good old 1950’s folder now. All you need then is some rolls of 120 film, an exposure metering app for your smartphone and you’re done, you’re a medium format film photographer with a bazooka in your coat pocket!
I’ve been using an Agfa Isolette iii for a few years and it has been a revelation to me. The 6×6 format negatives I have made are impressively sharp with good contrast and colour. My camera was overhauled and fitted with new black leather bellows by Jurgen Kreckel (Certo6) and he made a good job of it. No complaints here, I’ve taken my Isolette with me on my Wild Light Photography Workshops and it has travelled extensively with me. This exquisite camera is good for another 60-odd years at least and I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in using it.
The Agfa 75mm f3.5 Solinar lens was considered superior to the cheaper Apotar and Agnar options for colour film back in the day and the lens on my camera seems to have survived the years well. There are no cleaning marks, fungus, seperation or haze and the coating is free of scratches. The Prontor SV shutter runs true at all speeds and the original bellows have been replaced with a new black leather bellows. This is important with all models of Agfa Isolettes, the original bellows were made of a plastic material. They are virtually guaranteed to leak light by now and will, at the very least, make long exposure photography difficult. If you have managed to find a good, clean Isolette then bite the bullet and spend a bit more on a full service and bellows replacement. The chances are the internal lubricants will have dried out and hardened and adjusting the rangefinder and focus rings will be impossible until the old lubricants have been cleaned out and replaced. Once all that has been done and the rangefinder cleaned and calibrated, all things being equal, the camera will function perfectly.
Standing stone, Isle of Lewis. Fuji Acros 100 in RO9
Birmingham. Agfa Isolette iii, Rollei RPX 25 in RO9
Sessile oak and pre cambrian granite, Charnwood Forest. Agfa Isolette iii, Solinar f3.5 at maximum aperture, Kodak Portra 400
Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire. Fuji Acros 100 in RO9.
Edale, Peak District. Kodak Portra 400.
Agfa Isloette iii folding camera.
Everything is built around the lens, which is set within the leaf shutter: shutter cocking lever, lens focus ring, shutter and aperture selectors, X & M fash synch and a clockwork shutter delay timer are all grouped around the lens as you would find with most large format lenses. Shutter speeds are identified as the ‘old’ scale of Bulb, 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 300th second and some folders such as those fitted with Synchro-Compur shutters will go to 1/500th second. As this is a lens shutter with X synch, flash will fire and synchronise at all speeds.
The shutter release on the top plate is threaded for a standard cable release and there is a 1/4″ tripod socket on the base, so long exposures are possible.
There is also a threaded cable release built into the shutter .
From the back of the camera, the film is wound on by turning the right hand wheel until the frame number appears on the red window. The window is fitted with a sliding metal cover to prevent fogging. Most 120 films have indicator symbols printed on the backing paper to let you know you are approaching the next frame number. Once you have learnt the knack of centering the frame number within the red window, frame spacing is consistent.
The top plate from the left:
film type selector (lift the outer knurled ring and set it to colour/panchromatic and speed, etc), lens extending button . Press this when the camera is closed and the front trapdoor will drop down and the lens will extend on the bellows to the shooting position (tip: don’t let the trapdoor fly open without controlling it as the suction effect can pull film away from the film pressure plate in the back of the camera!). In the centre is the ‘cold’ shoe for mounting accessories such as a light meter or rangefinder. The small knurled wheel is for focusing with the built-in non-coupled rangefinder. Once the two rangefinder images are aligned, the indicated camera to subject distance can be set on lens focus ring on the front of the lens. The threaded shutter release has a nice positive progression as it operates a series of linked rods to trip the shutter. The film winding wheel is on the far right and turns in the direction of the arrow (anti-clockwise).
Folding cameras from this era were built to last and as long as there have been no ham-fisted amateur attempts to repair them or force the focusing and rangefinder mechanisms because of hardened lubricants, most can be cleaned up and restored to full working condition relatively easily. They are a perfectly viable medium format option and can pack a very powerful punch with surprisingly great image quality from those 6x6cm frames. These cameras are light enough in weight to carry all day on the hill or around town and they are unobtrusive. Above all they are very satisfying to use.
The Isolettte is very compact when folded. The 75mm f3.5 Solinar has good contrast, is sharp enough and resolves well, perfectly good enough for most purposes as a reliable carry around camera.
Many folders seem to be available with the original leather case. It’s certainly worth having if still in good condition. I gave mine a good soaking in Neatsfoot oil and the leather is supple again. I’m not small (46″ chest) and the strap is long enough to carry the camera across the shoulder, as I prefer to do.
When the leather case closed, it is a very svelte package.
The camera also fits very well in a modern belt-mounted compact camera pouch such as this CCS Freespirit #3 FS06. This is an ideal carrying solution for hiking and the front zipped pocket will hold five 120 rolls of film.
Whitby Harbour. Fuji Acros 100 in RO9.
Bluebells, Charnwood Forest. Agfa Isolette iii with Kodak Portra 400.
Kinder Downfall, Peak District. Kodak Portra 400.
Callanish, Isle of Lewis. Fuji Acros 100 in RO9.
To say I’m pleased with this camera is an understatement and I’m sure many other models from other iconic manufacturers of that era as mentioned above are equally as viable and enjoyable to use. Many of those advertised seem to come with the original leather case, as mine did. The case itself is also good quality and obviously craftsman made to last. I gave it a good soaking in Neatsfoot Oil and the leather is supple and shiny again. These are cameras for collectors who want to use them as they were intended to be used. To me, it would seem almost criminal if cameras such as this were to languish in cabinets and on shelves. The real bonus is that they are still relatively cheap, although prices are climbing for good, clean examples. Even when the cost of a service and refurbishment is budgeted for, they still represent remarkable value for the image quality they are capable of.
Buy a folder and enjoy using it!
- compact and very easy to carry
- very durable
- can be capable of excellent image quality
- totally manual operation, no batteries
- all the basic functions are easily accessed
- non-coupled rangefinder focusing (not all models have this!)
- medium format (6x6cm)
- Solinar lens on my camera seems to be very flare resistant
- lens is sharp and has good contrast
- many different types of folder from many iconic manufacturers are readily available
- fun to use
- still relatively cheap
- no longer available new (the ‘youngest’ models are now 50-60+ years old!)
- will need a complete clean, overhaul and lubrication. The rangefinder will need calibrating and and bellows replacement will be required unless already done
- most old folders have no double exposure prevention
- viewfinder eyepiece is very small
- accurate framing can be hit and miss
- 32mm push-on lens hoods and filters are available but need to be removed before closing the camera
- old cameras are prone to being ‘cla’d’ (ie, ruined) by ham-fisted amateur repairers and may be beyond economical repair. Walk away from anything that shows signs of being brutalised, there are plenty more around!
Six steps to making an image with the Agfa Isolette iii
- Load film and wind on until frame number is centered within the red window on the back of the camera. Slide the window cover blind upwards.
- Meter with Smartphone app (my LightMeter is one app that I use and gives good enough readings), or use a hand held meter and set the exposure values.
- Focus by either ‘guesstimate’ or via the non-coupled rangefinder, depending on the camera model. Either method requires the subject distance to be set on the front knurled ring of the lens.
- Cock the shutter.
- Peer through the tiny viewfinder to compose the image and press the shutter button
- Slide the red window cover blind down and wind the film on until the next frame number is centered within the red window.
- Slide the red window blind up.