The Isolette and I

IsoletteII_6_kleinAgfa Isolette II with 85mm/f4.5 Apotar lens, Pronto shutter and clip-on yellow filter

When browsing through Flickr about 8 months ago I kind of stumbled upon imagery shot with the once famous Agfa Isolette folder cameras. These are rather light-weight and very compact medium format cameras originally designed to fit into the pocket of a man’s jacket. Produced between the late 1930s and about 1960 they came in many different models and functional layouts. Fascinated by their simple design combined with good glass quality I started looking for them and finally purchased two models, an Isolette II with an 85/f4.5 Apotar lens and Pronto shutter (photo), and an Isolette III with the more elaborate 85/f4.5 Solinar lens and Compur-Synchro shutter.

The Isolette II was basically in working condition except that the focus ring was stuck. This was easily fixed by unscrewing the first lens element to get rid of Agfa’s original green lubricant, which had hardened over time. The second thing to check was the bellows as these usually have developed light leaks due to the low quality paper Agfa used for manufacturing them. Instead of replacing the bellows with a new one, I gave it a try with black latex milk to cover the tiny holes in the corners of the folded paper. Satisfied with my maintenance I loaded an Ilford Delta 100 into the camera and was ready for test shooting…but the weather was not. And then I made a mistake. Instead of putting the camera back into the cabinet unfolded, I collapsed the optics into the camera body and stowed the Isolette away. Two to three weeks later I finally grabbed it and went out to shoot my first film on a folder camera. The handling of the Isolette turned out to be dead easy and I was very happy with the whole experience – until I lifted the freshly developed film from its final water bath. A dark fuzzy spot in the very same corner of almost every negative showed that light was still leaking into the camera. How could it be? After applying the latex I tested the repaired bellows with a torch in a dark room and it was tight. But when repeating this test now the very same holes which I previously covered with the latex milk were shining brightly when illuminated from inside the bellows. The latex must have been sticking adjacent corners of the bellows together while the neatly folded camera was waiting for its first mission. When unfolding it again for the first shot the latex-covered holes were torn open again.

F27_N10_tree_and_poles_2The leak in the bellows produced a fuzzy light spot in the upper right corner and affected the upper third and the right margin of the whole negative. The fluff is basically a pinhole image of the disrupted paper the bellows is made of.

Looking at the whole series of negatives it’s obvious that the intensity of the fuzzy spot increases with the time interval between two shots. I advanced the film after each shot and then searched for the next possible composition with the unfolded camera mounted on a tripod. Thus, the more time the sun had to leak through the holes in the bellows the bigger the effect on the negative.

But despite this dubious experience, I’m surprised about the quality of the glass and shutter. The images are sharp and the exposure is spot on. I can’t wait to have the bellows repaired again – this time I will use some silicon oil to prevent the latex from sticking together – and have another go with my Isolette II.

But wait…didn’t I say that I also purchased an Isolette III with the even better Solinar optics? Yes that’s right. I gave it the same maintenance as the other Isolette, but here I ran into a different problem related to the more complicated shutter construction of this camera. The Compur-Synchro shutter is the most elaborate one Agfa built into the Isolettes. After some 60 years its complicated mechanics had lost accuracy mainly affecting long exposure times. In order to tackle this one has to unscrew the first and also the second lens element from the shutter to expose its inners. And the second lens element of my camera so far refuses to turn in any direction, despite large amounts of lighter fluid applied to the thread. So that’s a job still to be done.

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