The Agfa Isolette – A medium format camera that you can stick in your back pocket.
It was early Summer, and something shiny caught my eye in the charity shop, my heart skipped a beat as I stared longingly at an Agfa Isolette III. At £10.00 it was worth the purchase even though the lady in the shop had no idea if it was working, and to be fair neither did I.
I took it home and did the Google Search ‘How do you work an Agfa Isolette’. Sadly for me the shutter was jammed and I couldn’t get it to work, so it was put on a shelf in my studio to use as a prop until the time comes when I can afford to refurbish it. Then another chance buy came my way, this time an Agfa Isolette II, I took the risk and this time I was lucky. It was in great working order but needed a little cleaning. The bellows looked a bit tired but there were no pinholes that would potentially let in light and ruin the film. You can buy replacement bellows from a bespoke manufacturer so I am thinking of putting one on my Christmas list.
So what is the Agfa Isolette? If I told you I had a folding medium format camera, that could fit in my jeans pocket, you would think it was the latest digital gadget. But no, this is a 67-year old film camera. There’s no point, click, and see your results instantly here. You will need a light meter, or these days you can use a light meter app on your smart phone that works just as well, (more on this later). You will need to purchase some 120 films, and there’s a challenge in itself; if like me you live in the sticks you have got a fat chance of buying any film in a shop for a 50-mile radius!
For my first shots shown here I used a pack of Lomography branded colour negative film, which is available direct from www.lomography.com or through large online retailers such as Wex Photographic.
The Agfa Isolette takes 12 6x6cm pictures on a 120 film. Several models were released, the original Isolette was developed in 1938 and the series finally finished with the Isolette L, which was manufactured between 1957-60.
The Agfa Isolette 2 was sold along side the ‘I’ as a higher spec version. It was produced with either an 85mm f/4.5 Agnar or Apotar lens or a 75mm f/3.5mm Solinar lens, (my model has an Apotar lens). It was produced with different shutters and my camera has a ‘Pronto’ shutter. The shutter speeds vary depending upon the type of shutter your Isolette has. The shutter speeds on my lens are 25th , 50th, 100th and 200th of a second. There is also a ‘B’ bulb setting and the option to use a cable release that screws directly into the shutter release button.
The f/stops range from 4.5 to 32 and you focus the camera by guessing the distance between the subject and the lens (focusing is different on the later models). Once you have all your settings ready, you move across a lever on the lens to cock the shutter and press the shutter release button. There is a self-timer for taking shots at a slow shutter speed with a tripod or you can use a cable release.
You will notice that there is a viewing window at the back of the camera that needs to remain closed while you take a shot, you can then open it when you need to wind on to the next frame.
There is so much to like about this camera; at the press of a button the bellows and lens gently fold out of the camera body and you really do have to marvel at its design and it takes some seriously good pictures too. If you are in to vintage film cameras and don’t own an Agfa Isolette yet, I would highly recommend adding one to your collection. Prices vary from £10.00 from a charity shop to £30-40 from market places like Ebay. You can also pick up refurbished ones for around £250.00.
A Note On Light Meters
I rarely need to use a separate light meter but I dug mine out of a box of old analogue gear and stuck a battery in; to my surprise it was still working. I like to travel light whenever possible so I decided to compare a traditional light meter with a phone app. After reading a few reviews and seeking advice from fellow photographers on Twitter I settled on My Light Meter Pro. You can download a lite version to try but I decided to opt for the full version. Big thumbs up to its developer, David Quiles, for creating such an accurate meter. All of the images I shot with the Agfa Isolette were taken with light measurements from the phone app. I compared it’s readings to those from my traditional light meter and those from the meter in my digital SLR and My Light Meter Pro was really accurate. You can use the app in a classic mode or contemporary. Being an analogue dinosaur I opted for the classic look. What’s great about this app is that you can also save presets for different lenses. I did try another app called Lux Professional and it was not accurate at all so I quickly hit the ‘delete app’ button. If you don’t have a light meter and don’t particularly want to invest in one then a light meter on your phone is a cheaper alternative. However I would recommend trying free ‘lite’ versions first until you find one you like.