Cameras, Photography

Agfa Optima

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Agfa OptimaSetting your own aperture and shutter speed is such a draaaaag, man. Only hardcore photographers dig doing it. Therefore, every camera manufacturer on Earth has tried to simplify exposure for the casual photographer. The simplest consumer cameras (such as Kodak’s Brownie) fixed the aperture and shutter speed so the photographer needed only to frame the shot and press the button. Eureka! But unless you were taking family snapshots or landscapes in bright sunlight, the results could be disappointing. The casual photographer sometimes needs a little more flexibility from his camera. Even the hardcore photographer sometimes wants a little help with exposure – some shots just won’t wait while he fiddles with the settings. So camera manufacturers added various exposure-simplifying apparatus. The earliest were simple extinction meters, but soon they moved on to selenium (and later battery-powered cadmium sulfide) light meters that either adjusted aperture against a set shutter speed or adjusted shutter speed against a set aperture. But it wasn’t until 1959 that a manufacturer delivered a system that set exposure fully automatically, adjusting both aperture and shutter speed. That manufacturer was Agfa, and the camera was called Optima.

Agfa Optima

The Optima’s 39mm (I think)  f/3.9 Color-Apotar S lens could stop down to f/22, and its Compur shutter operated from 1/30 to 1/250 second. Its selenium light meter is coupled to a mechanical autoexposure system that sets shutter speed first and aperture second, leading always to the shortest possible exposure time. This allows for unusual combinations, such as f/12.6 at 1/95 sec. It also reduces the risk of camera shake ruining photos, and ought to allow for that pleasant blurred-background effect when there’s enough light. The Optima is, um, optimized for films up to 200 ASA, but setting film speed is frustrating. There’s a dial atop the camera that looks for all the world like you twist it, which you do, but only after you slide the little button next to it to the right. It’s hard to hold the camera, slide the button, and dig your fingernails into the tiny dial’s grooves and twist, all at the same time.

Agfa Optima

The Optima could be used with various flashes. Afga recommended its own, of course; my Optima came with the collapsible Agfalux flash. When used with a flash, shutter speed is fixed at 1/30 sec and you have to set your own aperture. So much for convenience.

Agfa Optima

Focusing the Optima isn’t automatic, but it is easy enough – twist the ring around the lens to the close-up (5-7½ feet), group (7½-15 feet), or landscape (15+ feet) symbol. Next, bring the camera to the eye and frame the shot. But then operation becomes cumbersome, as you have to press and hold down the giant “magic button” (as Agfa called it) on the camera’s front. It takes some effort and it has a long travel. Then you look top center in the viewfinder. If a green dot appears, there’s enough light for a good exposure. A red dot means there isn’t enough light. The Optima surprised me by how readily its green dot lit, even inside without flash. Then you press the shutter button on the Optima’s top plate, and finally you release the magic button. Winding the film is easy – a single flick of the lever around back.

Optima Brochure

You paid for the Optima’s convenience. That $89.95 price tag is equivalent to just shy of $700 today. A new Nikon D3100 digital SLR with an 18-55 mm lens, a fine modern camera outfit, retails for about that.

I took my Optima out on a blisteringly hot and bright day to a neighborhood near my home – a real neighborhood, the kind with tree-lined streets on a grid, sidewalks, little brick houses, and a small business district. Indianapolis used to have lots of neighborhoods like this, but few remain in this era of vinyl villages and big-box stores in the collar counties. I make my way to this neighborhood every time I want quality meats, for Kincaid’s is there.

Kincaid's (crop)

Taking my Optima out on such an extremely bright day may not have been, well, optimal. I found that whites and light colors tended to wash out. (Could the cheap Walgreens developing and scanning have contributed to the problem?)

A seat in the sun (crop)

I also wasn’t impressed by how the viewfinder showed so much less than the resulting photograph. When I framed this shot, only the white building and the building with the red awning were in the photo. Oh, and that white building is actually turquoise.

Overexposed!

This little concrete arch bridge over the Central Canal is just north of the business district. It gave me an opportunity to shoot in the shade.

Canal bridge

I am eager to experience each of my cameras after I buy them. I enjoy some of my cameras so much I use them over and over. Unfortunately, the Optima will not join that inner circle. Its clumsy usage was not endearing, and it’s inelegant “tall top” styling, typical of many German viewfinder and rangefinder 35 mm cameras of this era, made it awkward to hold. Also, I was disappointed by the washed-out highlights in these photos. If I were in a more charitable mood I might try again on a day with more favorable lighting, or I might see if the camera needs a good cleaning and adjustment, or I might try better quality processing and scanning. But I have other cameras to shoot yet this summer, including an Olympus OM-1, an Argus A2B, and a Kodak Monitor Special, and I’d rather move on to them.

Do you like old cameras? Then check out my entire collection!

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20 thoughts on “Agfa Optima

  1. Three comments. 1) That draaaag was partially responsible for my failure to become a successful taker of pictures. 2) The Optima is a work of art, regardless of functionality. Very pretty.
    3) Kincaid’s is fantastic!

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    • You know, I actually think the Optima is a bit of an ugly duckling! But I’ve never been a fan of the high-top style of which the German camera makers were fond in those days. The style is hard to hold, too.

      But yes, Kincaid’s is fantastic. It’s an old-fashioned butcher shop to the core.

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  2. ryoko861 says:

    If anything, it’s a pretty camera I think. Not you typical square boxy thing. Has some clean lines. You’ll look sweet displayed!

    I think manufacturers try TOO hard sometimes to be better than the competition or out do themselves with products. This is such a case. But then, this was probably an awesome state-of-the-art camera back then and the picture quality was fantastic compared to other cameras of that era.

    Compared to a Kodak of the same vintage, which is better would you say?

    Speaking of Kodak, was at an estate sale this weekend and saw a Brownie Hawkeye, but it was more of a 70’s/80’s (?) camera, looked like an instamatic. They wanted $15 for it. I passed and purchased the Polaroid Land Camera for my son instead. That was only $3.

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    • Kodak made many fine cameras in the 1950s, such as the Retina line. The Retinas had very nice Schneider-Kreuznach lenses. You could get mighty nice photos from a Retina.

      There were some Brownie Hawkeye instamatics in the 70s. They were the bargain-basement models. Totally not worth $15. You chose well by buying the Polaroid instead.

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  3. Great review of the Optima. I don’t see any strap lugs, so perhaps there was an accessory leather case that would allow it to be hung over the shoulder. The sculpted, chrome-trimmed cases that went along with cameras from that era from companies like Agfa and Voigtlander often looked more substantial than the cameras themselves. In fact, they served a practical function; the cameras’ light weight was achieved partly by the use of flimsy aluminum top shells which could be easily dented without protection. While the cameras may not have had much appeal for fans of the older classics, the design style was certainly consistent with developments in the trend-setting automotive styling of the period.

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    • Mike, yes, my Optima came with a very nice leather case. I think they were standard equipment with this camera, as my Optima fits perfectly into its box when the leather case is attached. There’s also a place on the box where the model number of the case can be written, just as there’s a place on the box where the serial number is written.

      I actually bought two Optimas — the second showed up in my eBay saved searches the day after I bought the first, and as it was miscategorized I picked it up for $1.99, making my average purchase price for each Optima $21.99. I gave one of the Optimas to a fellow collector where I work. The one I gave him had the case’s model number written on that blank of the box, but the one I kept did not. The serial number stamped onto the one I kept also curiously doesn’t match the serial number on its box, but the camera itself was in better nick, which is why I kept it.

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  4. Superman’s Camera…

    I say that because clicking the shutter on my Agfa Optima requires almost the strength of superman. That’s about the only think I disliked about them.

    I was able to get some nice photos from my Agfa Optima II. I linked to the best photo in my Flickr account.

    If your fingers are strong enough to “click” the Agfa Optima shutter without shaking the camera, you’ll get some nice photos.

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  5. Christpher Smith says:

    Just bought one of these of EBay and looking forward to taking it for a spin. I think the camera looks cool but I’m a sucker for all things retro of the 50’s and 60’s era I think I’ve got the collecting bug. I think manufactures theses days are jumping on the bandwagon of retro styling as a lot of the new digital system camera’s look like they were made in the 60’s

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  6. Anne Hosier says:

    I have one of these Optima cameras but the front plate (flashing) has either dropped off or has been removed (perhaps by some curious child). The leather case is still intact but the only proof of existence of the strap is a few inches with a buckle hanging sadly on the right side and the minor remains of where the strap on the left side once hung.

    I want to try to sell this camera on ebay for parts, or repair but I’m just not sure of what it may sell for. I know it could be classified as ‘vintage’ but I am clueless about the value.

    Any ideas?

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    • Not really. You should try going to eBay, searching for Agfa Optima, and filtering on completed auctions. That will tell you what these have sold for recently and give you an idea how to price yours. Another thought is to go to collectiblend.com and search for this camera and see what it says in terms of valuation.

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      • Many thanks for your response. I just attempted to send an answer and was about to finish and send it but my dogs started jumping around and I lost the message. So excuse me if you receive two thank yous instead of one.

        I will check out ebay about the camera final sale details and see what I get.

        Thanks again.

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  7. Ron B says:

    I have two of these, an Optima IIS and Optima I. The Optima- I was purchased in Wildflecken Germany in 1962, I was stationed there and bought it at the PX..
    A friend of mine bought the Optima IIS a while after I bought mine. He sent his to me a couple of years ago.
    BTW- I still keep them in the original boxes they came in.
    I have used them both in the past and never had a camera shake problem while releasing the shutter.

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    • I imagine that when these were new, they were really very nice cameras. That so many remain in nearly original condition suggests not only that these were sturdy, but that as better cameras came along, people upgraded.

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  8. Pingback: AGFA Optima I (1960) – mike eckman dot com

  9. Chris M. says:

    I picked up an Optima II (I think it’s a II) at an antique shop a few months ago for $15. Bought it mostly as a display piece but I’m thinking of loading up some film and giving it a whirl. Haven’t shot a film camera in over 10 years but I’ve been thinking of getting back into it…maybe it’ll solve my bad habit of taking 5 photos of the same thing and hoping one turns out!

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