No, I’m not talking about the bargain book shelf made by IKEA here (it’s a photography blog after all!), but about a much older top seller with the same name, the Agfa Billy Record. Collapsible to pocket format this folding camera shoots giant 6×9 medium format negatives and first appeared on the German market in the late 1920s. Before WWII Agfa produced several different versions of Billy Record cameras, equipped with lenses of varying quality. Discovering a well preserved model on ebay the other day, I could not resist and bought it for very little money. It is one of the better versions sporting a Prontor II shutter with self timer and Agfa’s 105mm f/4.5 Apotar lens. Its metal body had the same Art Deco finish as the later Billy Compur and in contrast to the post-war Billys and Isolettes the bellows was made of soft and durable leather.
The Billy Record
Apart from a few scratches on the body it was in perfect condition except one serious problem: the front element of the lens system – the focusing lens – was stuck. This is a common problem in old Agfa cameras (I talked about it in my older posts The Isolette and I and Isolette news). The lubricant used by Agfa had an oxidizing effect on the brass of the lens frame and thereby hardened to some sort of cement. Since I had experienced this during previous CLA work on different Agfa Isolettes I thought that getting the Billy up and running again would be an easy task, especially because the shutter was in a very good condition with all speeds firing correctly… alas, I couldn’t be more wrong! The front lens refused to react to any treatment whatsoever: ethanol, lighter fluid, heat from a hair dryer, acetone (only a few drops) didn’t have the slightest effect! The two lenses of the front element were still firmly attached to each other. Finally, mechanical force applied by a pro in a workshop did the job. After cleaning the lenses and putting it all back together again I took the chance to shoot a roll of TriX 400 a few weeks ago with surprising results. It’s pure fun to shoot this oldtimer, especially when using the collapsible, two-element “sports finder” on top of the camera. It’s basically a glass-less metal window, which gives you a surprisingly exact idea of your frame. Metering with Sunny 16 was easy, but focusing was obviously more of a problem. All objects I intended to put in focus weren’t, but things in the background like trees and houses were sharp. So what happened? The Billy Record has no range finder. To focus you have to estimate the distance between the camera and your object of interest and accordingly turn the front lens, which has an attached ring with an imprinted scale from 1m to infinity. It is attached with three tiny screws and I had to take it off before lens repair. When putting it back on again I was pretty sure that I remembered the position it was in when I unscrewed it. Obviously, I only thought I knew…
The Luther statue at Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof in Berlin-Mitte is one of the 8 objects of interest on this film. Luther is completely out of focus, but the background is sharp – kind of an “inverted portrait”. The image was shot at f/16, but the front lens was so far off, that even the large focus range at this aperture didn’t help. On the other hand, for a 3-lens system from the 1930s the quality of the images wasn’t bad at all. Even in the corners of the large negatives the branches of the trees seem to be sharp, more so at the bottom of the frame, though. If you zoom into the Luther image you will see that there are two longitudinal scratches which I found running along all the negatives. Unfortunately, the two metal rollers in the film chamber are obviously not as smooth as they should be and need to be replaced.
Meanwhile, I have calibrated the front lens and will shoot another test film with my Billy as soon as possible. So, please, stay tuned as I will report on the new results here in a few weeks time.
P.S.: Historical information about the Billy Record is taken from Günther Kadlubek’s “Agfa: Geschichte eines deutschen Weltunternehmens von 1867-1997”.