Setting 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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!