Cameras, Photography

Agfa Clack

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I’ve been on a quest for easy medium-format shooting for a long time. The two film sizes most identified as medium format are 120 and 620, which are the same film but on spools of different diameters. 620 cameras were aimed at the amateur market, while 120 cameras tended to be for advanced amateurs and pros. 620 cameras are extremely plentiful, but unfortunately the film hasn’t been made in decades. You can reroll 120 onto 620 spools or buy it pre-rerolled, but for me the hassle of the former and the expense of the latter have lost their charm. 120 film is still produced, but the pool of available cameras is smaller, especially when you limit yourself to lower-end cameras.

The Agfa Clack, which takes 120 film, has naturally been on my radar. It was a hugely popular family snapshot camera in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Because the Clack didn’t catch on in the US, they can be hard to come by – and they command tall prices. I routinely see them go for $60 and $70 on eBay. For a glorified box camera! I decided I would pay no more than $30, and I waited a year before I found one at that price.

Agfa Clack

This camera is a paragon of simplicity and functional design. It’s so German! And since it’s German, you pronounce the As in this camera’s name as ah. Ahgfa Clahck. This camera just has to be named after the sound its shutter makes as it opens and closes.

In many ways, the Clack is as simple as it gets – light-tight box, single-element lens, single-speed leaf shutter. But it offers some surprising features and clever engineering. On the lens barrel is a lever that slides three aperture masks into place – the first for closeups, the second for overcast days, and the third for bright sunlight. The closeup aperture includes a magnifying lens that’s supposed to focus to 3 feet. Without it, the lens focuses from 10 feet. The sunlight aperture includes a yellow filter, which adds contrast to skies when using black-and-white film. The first and third apertures are slightly smaller than the second, though there’s wide disagreement about what f stops these apertures actually are. f/8 and f/10? f/10 and f/11? f/11 and f/13? Nobody seems to agree on the shutter’s speed, either, with guesses ranging from 1/35 to 1/60 sec. But specs in this range are in line with the slow-speed, wide-latitude black-and-white films consumers bought in those days.

Agfa ClackThe camera’s ovoid shape (when viewed from the top or the bottom) was not just styling. There’s no pressure plate in the Clack to hold the film flat. Instead, the film flows along the curved back, which is engineered to match the curve in the single element lens to yield an undistorted image.

The Clack is essentially two pieces that come apart for film loading. You twist the mechanism on the bottom toward AUF to open it; the top pops up and you pull it out. All of the camera’s works are in the top piece, and you spool the film around the back of it. When you drop the top back into the bottom, twisting the mechanism to ZU draws the top down and locks it tight.

In the middle of the open-close mechanism is a tripod socket, an unusual feature on such a simple camera. The Clack pairs it with a cable release socket, which is on the lens barrel below the shutter lever. These two features make it possible to eliminate camera shake for the sharpest photos the lens can deliver.

The Clack’s lens can deliver remarkable sharpness for its simplicity. I loaded a roll of Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros and spent a very sunny afternoon in South Broad Ripple. This little retaining wall had taken a tumble.

Crumbles

This former gas station is now Good Morning Mama’s breakfast-and-lunch place. Most of the images from this roll were slightly overexposed, which I attribute to the ISO 100 film. A sticker inside the Clack recommends DIN 17 film, which is equivalent to ISO 40! Fortunately, Photoshop Elements let me correct exposure on each shot.

Good Morning Mama's

A little farther down the street is a produce stand built into another former gas station. They also offer a some freshly prepared foods.

Signage

I took two photos of this scene, one with the close-up lens and one with the yellow filter. I think this is the one I took with the close-up lens, because the pumpkins in the background are softly focused. I stood about eight feet from the sign.

Pumpkins for Sale

In this camera’s heyday, images were usually contact printed from the negatives, resulting in 6 by 9 centimeter photographs. Contact printing gives crisp results when there was a little camera shake or when the lens itself was poor. But the Clack’s lens is surprisingly good for as simple as it is. I sprung for bonus-sized scans of these images; click here to see one at full scan size. The corners are slightly soft, but everywhere else detail and sharpness remain good. I’m sure I’d get even better results from the lens in, say, my Kodak Monitor. But then I’d have to use 620 film!

The Clack is a winner. I just bought a whole bunch more Neopan 100 Acros so I can use this camera again.

You’ll find more photos of and from this camera in my Agfa Clack gallery.

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

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28 thoughts on “Agfa Clack

  1. ryoko861 says:

    Gotta love German engineering! Takes great pictures! Well, you take the pictures, it produces them! Will you try color film next?

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    • Jim says:

      Oh thank you, thank you. I’ve never quite thought of myself as an artist, but I do like it when one of my compositions pleases others!

      Like

  2. Jennifer S says:

    The produce signs are my favorite shots… just so retro. By the way, Jim… I totally expect you to not be pleased, but I’ve added you to one of those lists of people to whom I’m passing awards. Feel free to ignore… but thought it might send a couple new readers to your site. And I only want to refer others to blogs I actually read and regularly enjoy!

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    • I’m grateful to you for the award and the views I might get for it! I’ve never gotten anything like this before. I’m just glad you enjoy my blog!

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  3. Mark says:

    The Clack is one of those cameras that defies expectations. Better than a Holga, and certainly more reliable than any of the plastic toy cameras from China. As you found, the results are satisfying! The other thing about using cameras such as these — nobody takes you seriously as a photographer, so you often end up with images you’d never get with the gazillion megapixel DSLR with the big lens.

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    • Yes, I can very well imagine being ignored in a crowd when I’m carrying my Clack. I think it was just the medium-format camera I was looking for!

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  4. Glad you are getting to experience the Clack. One thing that amazes me about this camera is that even though its shutter speed is slow it doesn’t seem to have as bad a problem with motion blur as other box cameras that I have used. Not sure why that is, however I have shot enough film with these to be pretty sure there is a difference. Imagine back in the day having a big supply of Verichrome Pan to use with a Clack.

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    • The VP was even faster than my Neopan! But its wide latitude would have covered a lot of exposure sins. I found the Clack easy to hold steady, which helped a lot. But its tripod mount just goes the extra mile in that department should I ever choose to use it.

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  5. pat waller says:

    What type of scanner do I need to scan negatives from this camera? They’re all single negatives – not in a strip. Any help appreciated.

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    • You need a scanner that can handle transparencies. You also need one that can handle 120 (medium format) negatives — many scanners can take only 35mm negatives. Epson makes a nice line of flatbed scanners that handle transparencies; I have one and I like it.

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  6. I just got one! With only 8 exposures and a corner number count on the back, is there a trick to advancing the film? I’m used to a center window count just winding to align the usual 12. Any help?

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  7. Bill Bussell says:

    I continue to be impressed with all of your photographic pursuits. I would like to point out a link failing as I see it. Clicking on one of your gallery links on Flickr opens up a full page view of one picture on my Ipad. I cannot navigate away from that view, and it takes some time bring up on fast Internet. Therefore, I found you on Flickr. That is the only way it works for me on the pad. It might be helpful for some viewers to understand that Flickr is so much better than a blog or Facebook to see the quality of an image. I can pinch open a blog pix only to see pixels. It is different with Flickr. Cheers…

    Like

    • That link goes to a slideshow, which apparently isn’t supported on an iPad. I changed it just now to just link to the album page on Flickr. Yes, the advantage of Flickr is you can see the shot up to the resolution at which I uploaded it! Click any image in the post to see it on Flickr.

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  8. Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz says:

    Excellent article and great sharp shots! What aperture and shutter speed would you recommend for pictures outside in lets say a bit sunny day? Yellow filter too? Sorry I’m new into analogues I dont want to waste my frames. I have bought Agfa Clack and B&W 120 ISO 100 film :) have not used it yet. Cheers from Poland :)

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    • The Clack is practically foolproof. It has one shutter speed. It has three other settings: a closeup filter, plus two apertures, one for cloudy days and one for sunny days. Just set the aperture for the weather and get shooting! And use the yellow filter when shooting black-and-white on clear days so the skies have good contrast from the clouds.

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      • Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz says:

        I see. I gonna try this week. One more question. Do you shoot on M or B shutter speed? Because if aperture is f/11 or f/14 and shutter is on M, shouldn’t the picture be super dark because shutter spped is very fast (i think ‘M’ may be1/35s)?? Cheers.

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        • I shoot on M. B holds the shutter open as long as you hold the shutter button, which makes it useful mostly for low-light work.

          ISO 50 or ISO 100 negative film and a sunny day — that’s what I’d shoot. Next time I shoot my Clack, I’m using Ektar 100, as it is said to have very wide exposure latitude.

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