Remember my first steps into the world of folding cameras more than half a year ago? It was bag of mixed feelings. After purchasing two Agfa Isolettes with different lenses and getting enthusiastic about their performance and glass quality I realized that despite some maintenance work on their mechanics and repairing the bellows with latex light was still entering the bodies darkening the negatives here and there. My proposed quick fix of this was using silicon oil to prevent the to-be renewed latex drops from sticking together. But to be honest, I soon realised that changing the bellows was the only way to get these light-weight medium format gems back into working condition. For several reasons this project ended simmering on the backburner with the Isolettes left in my camera cabinet as useless beauties…until a few weeks ago.
So, what happened? Nothing but the obvious: I took the bait of purchasing a third Isolette, this time equipped with the supreme 75mm f/3.5 solinar optics which was offered for a reasonable price on ebay.
Once the camera sat on my desk it became clear that despite its near mint condition from the outside, the mechanics were in desperate need for a full CLA. Astonishingly enough, the Compur Synchro shutter was fully functional. Even the slow shutter speeds were nearly accurate. But – as in many Isolettes – the focus ring was stuck and the uncoupled range finder knob also did not move a micron. Having been through this with the other Isolette III model in my collection, I thought this would be an easy task…alas, I could not have been more wrong!
Loosening the focus ring turned out to be a MacGyver-esk experience. After failing to move it with my hands or with thoroughly padded pliers I used Q-tips to add a substantial amount of lighter fluid to the thread, but the green Agfa grease didn’t let go. Instead of separating the first lens element from the second both lens elements came off the shutter body still firmly fixed to each other. Reading several related forum threads I learned that the green lubricating grease obviously turns into some kind of plastic through a polymerization process catalyzed by the brass of the lens frame. Some people talked about using acetone to dissolve that plastic – too harsh a method to my taste. Others recommended hot air from a hair dryer as the only method to soften the grease. This sounded reasonable, but after about 1 hour of heating and cooling (and burning my finger tips!) I realized that this was not going to work either. Desperate already, I filled a plastic container of a 35mm film canister with pure ethanol and soaked the optics for about 12 hrs. And…tadaaaa…on the next day I could move the lens elements with my fingers and separate them. The only disadvantage of this method was that the black paint applied to the lens framing brass came partly off as well, especially on the rear end of the second lens element. But this hopefully won’t do any harm to the image quality the optics are capable of producing.
And what about the bellows? Tight at first glance – obviously the camera wasn’t used much during the last 60 or so years. The positive effect of this is the superb preservation of the camera body, but the downside is obviously an infrequent movement of the turning elements such as the focus lens ring and the range finder, hence the extra effort needed to get them going again. Unfortunately, the test of the bellows with a torch hold insight told me that this seemingly functional part of the new Isolette had to go as well.
And this was the moment when I decided that all three Isolettes should get repIacement bellows. I remembered my correspondence with Sandeha Lynch, who sells handmade bellows for the Agfa folders. Not cheap, but of excellent quality and so accurately made that replacing an old for a new one is not complicated at all. I finally ordered two bellows to start with and a couple of days later I picked the cheapest Isolette – the one with the Apotar lens – as my first test object. Following Sandeha’s little instruction leaflet which came with the bellows it took me two evenings to finish the task. Same as half a year ago, the first Isolette is now (really!) ready for shooting, but the weather again is not. The last weeks gave us temperatures of around 0° C, dark and heavy clouds all day, the first snow flakes and almost no light to be caught on film. So, until the weather improves there is nothing else for it but to enjoying the looks of my first fully refurbished folder beauty…and the prospect of repairing the other two when I find some spare time to do it.