The other Billy

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.

BillyRecord_klein 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…

F50N3_Luther_bearbSoft Luther

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”.

Light & Grain – the first year!

It’s unbelievable. I launched Light & Grain exactly one year ago with my first blog post New “kid” on the blog. And it feels as if it had been last week. The year has just passed in a rush with many professional and personal obligations leaving not much room for photography. Nevertheless, I managed to start with three so-called projects B/W, Color and Pinhole which quickly developed into small collections of 35mm and medium format photographs. Being rather unspecific, the project names had to be changed around summer, because I wanted to include genres like street or nature containing both color and b/w photography. By the end of 2018 two new projects, The last day and Dresden Bahn materialized and they had to find a home as well. In the end I decided to turn the old website a little upside down with the portfolio now displayed on the landing page and the real projects anchored in the menu bar. Since the portfolio didn’t match the original intro image, the fallen birch tree, this had to go as well. I think now the page looks much more professional, but see for yourself!

Producing a constant stream of content is a tricky one and well-illustrated by the frequency with which I was (un)able to publish my blog posts during the last year. In the beginning I had the naïve idea that writing a blog post every month would be an easy task. Being enthusiastic about the fact that I had managed to publish Light & Grain in the first place I thought that the writing part was the least difficult in terms of both topics and time. While I was correct topic-wise, time was a different issue. Same as now I used the commuting hours in the train to conceptualize the posts, but oftentimes I got stuck half way and ended up with bits and pieces of potential posts covering such different topics as gear, photo walks, history of photography, camera collections etc. Accumulating these texts on my computer did not help either with obeying to my self-set rule of publishing one post a month. On the contrary, there had been several months without any new online material, be it posts or photographs. On the other hand I sometimes managed to publish images and texts twice a week. Miraculously, at the end of the first year I had accumulated some 14 posts – more than the proposed 12 pieces of photography-related content I was dreaming of in the beginning. But now comes the interesting part: Is anyone reading it? Not very often to say the least. I must admit that I did not spend much energy advertising the page, yet…filling it was more of a priority for me. But attracting an audience is certainly something on my to-do list for the near future. As said in one of my earlier posts, even if the number of visits stays low, the webpage is still a very useful online dashboard for me to create and store content, which at some point in the future may serve a different purpose.

So, you ask, what did I learn from setting up my own photography page? Why didn’t I use Flickr or Instagram to expose my images and thoughts to a much larger community? Good question! To be honest: I am not overly enthusiastic about social media. And what you immediately learn is that no one’s waiting for you being present online. If you’re not actively advertising your content or use the different tools to get caught by the Google algorithms, no one stumbles upon your content. And even if someone landed on your page, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they come back. Why? The old Cartier-Bresson rule of thumb that your first 10.000 images are basically for the waste bin still holds and for me to pass that number is still some way ahead. If you are one of the few people who have visited Light & Grain in the past, please stay tuned as my website will continuously grow and its content will (hopefully!) mature over time. So, thanks for visiting my website during its first year of existence, and I am looking forward to meeting you here every now and then until the second anniversary of Light & Grain‘s online presence!

1 hour – 36 frames

Have you ever tried to shoot 36 frames in a single hour? I know… with a modern digital camera you can shoot them in seconds, but using a fully mechanical film camera from the 1970’s this is a true challenge. Why would I do this, you ask? And wouldn’t it be a waste of film not taking your time to carefully compose and frame your shots? Yes, maybe, but beginning of December I did shoot 36 analog photos in one hour, and here is why:

I have never owned a decent rangefinder camera nor did I ever have the chance to use one. My step into photography was a Fuji SLR and after that it had been different SLRs ever since. Two of my Agfa Isolettes have uncoupled rangefinders, but they don’t count. And the rangefinder of my inherited Voigtländer Vitomatic is so foggy that I used it only once and half of the expired Agfa APX 100 from the late ‘90s still sits in this camera unused. Talking rangefinders in most cases means talking Leicas and these cameras even when they are heavily used and beaten up are still so expensive that I always avoided to test one – simply not to get tempted.

oly35sp_b-w_bearbOlympus 35 SP rangefinder with 42mm f/1.7 lens

A couple of weeks ago I watched a video portraying a rangefinder camera often tagged as the “poor man’s Leica”, the Canon Canonet. Digging deeper into the specifications of these sharp-lensed bricks from the 1970s, a whole world of poor men’s Leicas sporting more or less the same design and lens quality unfolded on my computer screen. Olympus, Canon, Minolta and many other brands were competing in this market and successfully produced and sold millions of high-quality consumer rangefinder cameras. The good ergonomics, the small size, the often superb performance of the fixed lenses and the affordable price of these cameras made them very popular during the 1960’s and ‘70s, hence their availability on today’s second hand market. However, several models are highly sought after and I was lucky to find one of these for a reasonable amount of money – an Olympus 35 SP, the largest among a whole series of rather similar Olympus 35 rangefinder models. It has a 7-element 42mm f/1.7 lens, which produces pin-sharp images. After cleaning out the disintegrated light seals and replacing them with felt and black cotton wool, I inserted a WeinCell battery and was good to go for my first rangefinder test. The goal was primarily to check the tightness of the new light seals.

That’s why I used Kodak Gold 200, a cheap consumer color negative film from the drugstore. Ruining this film with a malfunctioning camera would have been annoying, but not a big deal moneywise.  I wanted to have the film ready for development in the late afternoon on my way back home. So I decided to use my lunch break to shoot the whole film during a short photowalk downtown Berlin. As said it was challenging to step out of the slow motion mode I am usually in when shooting film cameras, but the camera felt so comfortable and was so easy to use that the whole experience was pure fun and the 36 frames were in camera when my lunch break was over.

f46_n20_graffititür_oranienb_bearb          Doors & Colors (frame 20/36)

The Olympus 35 SP has an inbuilt light meter (with optional spot mode) which together with the auto function of both shutter speed and aperture makes it a manual focus point-and-shoot camera – exactly what I needed to test the light seals and the performance of the meter. A week later, when nervously picking up the developed negatives and prints I was quite surprised how well the camera had performed. Every single shot was perfectly metered and most shots were pin sharp underlining the quality of the G-Zuiko lens. Only some of the short-distance images were out of focus – probably a result of a slightly misaligned rangefinder.

Overall this “one film in one hour”-experience was interesting – and exhausting, because you’re highly concentrated for 60 min without any break and in constant alert to find the next composition worth shooting. It is a very good training to be repeated, especially if I abandon the lazy path next time and switch from auto mode to fully manual. I am already thinking about using this approach for a project, so watch out for this when visiting my website in the future.

f46_n5_spiegelung_monbijou_bearbAutumn sky (frame 5/36)


Isolette news

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.



Color photography – on film?

When color film was becoming more and more popular during the 1950s it was dismissed by many professionals of the time. Color was something for the amateur’s holiday shot, whereas serious photography had to be black and white. Several of today’s highly esteemed photographers, who took the chrome path like Saul Leiter or Fred Herzog were flying under the radar for a long time not only because of their belittled choice of color but also because putting their transparencies on display was not so easy. Sure, you could put them in a projector and get blown away by their vibrant colors, but printing them for exhibitions or producing books was difficult for a long time without losing a lot of their color palette. When magazines started printing color Kodachrome became the synonym of professional color photography. Even the classic magazine reportage, which was the fortress of black and white, eventually became colorful strikingly demonstrated by the iconic National Geographic cover image  The Afghan girl by Steve McCurry.

Due to an ever growing popularity of digital cameras and the subsequent death of Kodachrome and many other film stock color photography on film almost vanished during the last two decades leaving only a small market mainly based on professionals shooting medium and large format film and transparencies. However, there were still enough people using their old equipment or simple point-and-shoot toys that even the cheap drugstore brands such as Kodacolor and (re-branded) Agfacolor survived in the shelves. When Polaroid went bust and after some time instant film re-appeared through the Impossible project (now Polaroid Professionals) film photography became more and more popular again. What was the ordinary photographic process for ages, suddenly developed into a life style object for the urban hipster and the lomography community started its famous growth. Along these lines, film photography for some people became an expression of a mindset sometimes haplessly used to argue against the digital mainstream – a totally misleading debate. There is definitely enough room for both digital and analog techniques with pros and cons on both sides. The speed with which news are spread through digital media today requires equally fast equipment for capturing images and footage. Analog gear simply cannot deliver this. On the other hand the ultra-sharp high resolution images of modern digital cameras with 40+ megapixel sensors at least to my eye sometimes look too clean, almost artificial – an effect well-known from watching older movies on a modern HD flat screen television.

In the end – as often in photography and other creative endeavours – the whole discussion boils down to personal taste. Do I prefer the technical possibilities of modern digital cameras and the zillion creative options of post processing or am I going for the restricted options of a certain film stock in combination with older often mechanical cameras and the haptic experience of film handling, development and printing? Does it make sense to buy a cheap analog camera and spend the money on film and paper or is it better to spend a fortune for a new DSLR (or mirrorless) and shoot thousands of images for nothing? I could go on with this … you get the message. The new popularity of analog photography is definitely something no one would have expected a decade ago. And it already had effects on the film industry: currently available film stock seems protected from mass extinction (fingers crossed that Fuji keeps Velvia alive – I am not 100% sure about it!) and even discontinued film such as Ektachrome starts a second life on the consumer market. My first rolls of this re-invented all-time favourite transparency film are still in refrigerated sleep mode – I simply did not have the time to test them since their delivery in early December.

To wrap this up, I come back to my initial question. Color photography on film? Yes, sure! I will certainly shoot color film in the future, but this may not have anything to do with your preferences. You will have to decide for yourself.

Note added in proof: If you’re interested in a very thoughtful hands-on comparison between digital and analog color photography using Leica’s M8 and M6 (with the new Ektachrome) visit Paul C. Smith’s Youtube channel here.

Blogging about photography – outdated?

I started writing about my humble first steps in re-establishing film photography as a hobby in February this year. As mentioned in an earlier blog post I kind of underestimated the time and efforts necessary to stay tuned on a regular basis and produce some content at least every month. As a consequence posts did not appear regularly since, with the latest being already published in August. While thinking about potential topics to write about (…and there are many!) and at the same time not knowing when to sit down and actually hack content into the computer I started wondering whether short stories like blog posts may possibly be outdated altogether when we’re talking photography? Just go to Youtube and have a look at the plethora of professional and semi-professional vlogs cruising around camera gear, landscape, street, wildlife, portrait and all other possible genres of photography. It’s overwhelming: gear talk, drone flights, music, philosophical statements, you name it – a vlogger’s “arm’s race” garnished with great imagery which let the simple text of a blog post seem rather static, old-fashioned and a bit dull. So should one stop writing and enter the video path as well? Not necessarily. Although I am fascinated by the capabilities of some vloggers and the high quality content they are producing, I think that writing blog posts about photography still has its merits. It’s like going to the movies versus reading a book. Nobody in one’s right mind would argue that the former should replace the latter. It’s simply a different way of presenting content and expressing your thoughts about it. And writing a blog post is a rather simple task compared to producing video content. Video requires extra (digital) gear, a good script and – most important – a lot more time. So, for obvious reasons I will stick with writing blog posts about my personal photography experience hoping that at least some people will get something out of it. And if not, I can still use my blog as a kind of public dashboard covered with numerous sticky notes which at some point may be rich enough to provide a sufficient basis for writing a photography book… yet another scaring challenge.



I was always fascinated by pinhole photographs. The idea of forcing the light through a tiny hole into a black box and, thereby, producing a real image has something magic to it – despite the simple physics explaining the effect. Especially those images showing long time intervals like e.g. the eclipse of the sun over weeks to months have an “out-of-this-world” touch. Usually, the cameras used to shoot – or better: collect – these images are simple self-made devices upcycled from metal cans, cardboard boxes or left-over pieces of wood. The light sensitive material used in these cameras is usually photographic paper. It’s cheap in large format and easy to work with.

What all pinhole images have in common, irrespectively of whether photographic paper or film is used to capture the light, is an ethereal appearance due to their softness. No sharp edges. Instead a slight blur, sometimes a vignette reminiscent of a painting in grey tones (if you shoot b/w) or an old postcard photograph from a hundred years ago. Especially in overcast weather conditions, when the average photographer thinks that there is no light at all, the pinhole image with its long exposure is perfectly able to transport the mood of the situation. So, there is an emotional component added to the image by its very imperfection, caused by the simple construction of the camera.

And there is another effect. Because pinhole cameras do not contain any optical lenses, depth of field is not an issue. Images shot with a pinhole are in focus over the entire range of the scene, from the nearest to the most distant object in the image. This kind of counterbalances the softness of the images and provokes a slight irritation in the viewer, who has to spend a little longer to understand what’s going on. Whatever the composition, this odd combination of “in focus softness” alone draws your eye into the image and this is what fascinates me most with pinhole photographs.

In order to get myself a pinhole camera I went the easy way and modified an old box camera from the 1960s, an Agfa Clack, following one of the numerous self-help videos on Youtube. The Clack was a 9×6 medium format bestseller some 50 years ago and plenty of them are still available second hand for very little money. It’s easy to remove the 90mm meniscus lens and the shutter mechanics. I used the bottom of a tea candle’s Aluminum container to produce the pinhole. After bulging its centre with the tip of a ball pen, I used superfine-grained sand paper to grind the metal to the thinnest possible dimension. With a sewing needle I pierced a hole of about 0.3 mm in diameter into the metal. The ideal size of the hole depends on the distance between the hole and the film plane which in a lens-less camera equals the focal distance. In case of the Agfa Clack this is about 70mm. When re-assembling the camera the pinhole can be fixed between a plastic cone inside the camera construction and the plate holding the shutter. Since the Clack also has a thread to fix a cable release, one simply has to switch the shutter to “bulb”, mount the Clack on a tripod and is able to perform long exposures without camera shake.

Clack_pinhole_2_kleinThe Agfa Clack with the lens removed. Note the aluminum pinhole in  the centre of the original aperture for cloudy conditions. With its view finder on top it’s kind of a poor folk’s version of a Hasselblad SWC (just kidding!).

From the very first role of film I shot with my converted box camera it was pure fun. Almost like using a point and shoot, though on a tripod. I calculated average exposure times for three different weather conditions (sunny, overcast and heavy clouds) for Kodak TriX 400, glued them on the back of the camera (hence the shiny sticky tape on its left side on the photo!), and just started shooting. So far, exposure was always spot on. No measuring. No distractions. Only composition. The rest is on full auto…with curious spectators always guaranteed. Like moths attracted to a light bulb people immediately realize that something is at odds when you’re using an old style camera in public and approach you.  And the first sentence you always hear is: “Shooting film…aha…I thought film is not available anymore!”  I couldn’t be happier that it still is.

Procrastinator’s corner

Do you know that? Your work schedule is always full of exclusively important tasks, several deadlines pop up in your online calendar, colleagues are standing in your doorstep asking questions to be answered asap and today was meant to be the day to finalize your latest project application. The load seems overwhelming and instead of prioritizing and executing one task after the other you are browsing Youtube for the latest gear talk or you start in-silico scouting of your next possible photo location in Google Maps. Alternatively, your email inbox needs urgent maintenance and …wasn’t it already 10 minutes ago, that you checked your email account and social media canals for news? You know what I mean. Making yourself busy with this kind of supplementary ‘jobs’ only feels as if you’re concentrating on important tasks whilst the pile of real work grows bigger and bigger. Welcome to the magic world of procrastination!

Working full time as a researcher in evolutionary biology and curator of a Museum collection, photography for me is a hobby. It feels like the ideal thing to balance the day-to-day duties at work. But even when it comes to executing my latest ideas for photographic projects, procrastinator’s corner is never far away. Watching Youtube videos of others making photos is so much easier than going out and chase your next series of images. There are several reasons for this: Sometimes your day-to-day business sucks so much energy that at the end of the day or during the weekend there is just not enough power left to enter the creative path.  Even worse, using photography as a re-creative [sic!] hobby, there are always daily routines and private duties which need urgent attention during your free time and do not allow for leisure activities. A nice set of images as rewarding as it might be does not really counterbalance heaps of dirty dishes, piles of forgotten laundry and serious droughts in your garden. I know, it’s all a matter of organizing your day properly, but to cite a famous John Lennon quote: Life is what happens while you are making other plans!

And there is another pitfall. In contrast to most professionals hobby photographers  –– and other hobbyists of whatever ‘profession’ –– tend to become obsessed with gear, whether it is collecting old film cameras as in my case or being always up to date with the latest camera releases, lenses, tripods, you name it.  This not only leads to cluttering your home with a lot of tech stuff, but also keeps you busy with browsing through catalogues, buying the newest gadgets, watching how-to or test videos on Youtube and re-selling unused, old equipment, which was recently outperformed by your latest purchase. It feels like a growing and successful business to increase and permanently upgrade your “fleet” to the highest possible performance level, but the downside of it is obvious: while keeping yourself busy with all this watching and testing and trading you are not shooting a single image!

And then there is the accumulated equipment itself. Whenever you walk pass your gear cabinet, shelf or whatever you use to store all that stuff, the cameras and lenses stare at you, desperately waiting to be used. And because you did not even found the time and energy to use your favourite camera with a normal 50mm prime lens for a small project, you end up sitting in front of all your precious optics unable to make the first step. So, what’s the solution to it, if there is any? At least for the hobbyist, who is not shooting photos for a living, there is one. Keep calm and relax. You are not depending on a constant stream of high quality photo projects to pay your rent. Don’t put too much pressure on you. Neither try to live up to your most adored photographers just because you own the same equipment s/he was using (this would be nonsense anyway, because it’s always the head behind the camera and not the equipment itself, which makes the difference!), nor feel bad about the lack of time for photography due to your daily obligations. Try to steal an hour or two to think about the content of a possible future project, then choose the best gear for it from your equipment and go for it. And if you can stand it think about selling some items from your collection. Optical equipment does not get better when it’s accumulating dust, and experience shows that cameras and lenses, which always stay home when you go out shooting, won’t get used in any of your future projects. Same as with clothes hanging in your closet for a year or two without being used…you can unceremoniously throw them out, as you will almost certainly never ever wear them again.

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.

Does gear matter? My two cents to this everlasting debate

A recent vlog by Ted Forbes starts with a quote saying that every famous image taken in the past was shot with a less advanced camera than we have today. Although this is definitely true I wonder whether this has any relevance for the notorious gear matters versus gear doesn’t matter discussions?

I think it is important to distinguish between two different levels of argumentation here. One level deals with the most suitable tool one needs to get a certain image, be it a macro shot of a tiny object, a portrait of an animal in the distance or a long exposure in bright sunlight, to name only a few. Without special gear like a macro lens, a telephoto lens or a neutral density filter you won’t be able to do it. The same applies to the highly acclaimed photographers who produced the famous images quoted above. They were often using the latest gear of their time and e.g. a Cartier-Bresson would not have been able to produce some of his most famous images without his 35mm rangefinder Leica, which was so much faster to use than any other contemporary camera. But all this has nothing to do with the resulting photographs. You can easily use the right equipment for your purpose, but still shoot crappy images. And here we’re coming to the second level of argumentation. If the photographer knows his/her equipment, can “read” the ambient light and has a feel for image composition and the subject of interest s/he can produce great images irrespectively of whether s/he is using a self-made pinhole, a point-and-shoot or an expensive DSLR camera. The “gear” which in this case matters is the ability of the person using the camera to its best performance and not the quality of the equipment s/he is holding in front of his/her eyes.

I recently watched a documentary on dying trades in Germany featuring the last person to master a special technique to grind knife blades made of carbon steel to their greatest possible sharpness and durability. The processes involved were invented more than a hundred years ago and so were some of the tools he was using. The consistency with which he was producing one high quality knife after the other was amazing. Despite being used for ages, his tools were the best – if not the only – fit for the purpose. No modern machine-based workflow is able to deliver comparable results. But still – the perfectly suited equipment in the wrong hands and a day’s production would go down the drain. I thought that this story had a lot in common with photography and how the combination of the best tool for the job plus the highest possible knowledge and craftmanship leads to famous results.

In the end it all depends on the job itself, i.e. what you are going to express or say with your images and what you think is the best tool or gear or material to transport this. Here, and probably only here, gear matters as it is part of your creative process. However, mastering your craft may provide some independence of the latest gadget in the field. And what’s definitely true is that the most sophisticated development on the camera market in the hands of a photography fool won’t turn him into a candidate for Magnum.