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