Camera Reviews

Agfa Isolette III

Here it is, Agfa’s highest volume camera of the 1940s and 1950s, the Isolette.

Agfa Isolette III

Actually, this is the 1951-60 Isolette III, one of a range of Isolette cameras, all of which folded and took 120 film. Each Isolette was offered with a couple shutters and lenses. Mine comes with the 85mm f/4.5 Apotar lens set in the Prontor SV shutter, which operates from 1 to 1/300 sec. You could get Isolette IIIs with better lenses and shutters, but this lens/shutter combo is no slouch.

Agfa Isolette III

What set the Isolette III apart from other Isolettes was its uncoupled rangefinder. That’s the knurled knob to the right of the accessory shoe. To use it, look through the viewfinder and turn that knob until the image in the rangefinder patch lines up with the viewfinder image. This is where the “uncoupled” part comes in: you then check the distance on that knob and set the lens to the same distance.

Notice that dot to the upper left of the winding knob? When it’s red, you need to wind the film to the next frame. The shutter won’t fire until you do. My experience has been that it’s unusual to find double-exposure prevention on an old folder like this.

The left button on the top plate opens the camera, by the way; the right button fires the shutter. I love this symmetry!

If you like old folders, I’ve reviewed several others: the Ansco B2 Speedex (here), the Certo Super Sport Dolly (here), Kodak Monitor Six-20 (here), No. 3A Autographic Kodak (here), Kodak Six-20 (here), Kodak Tourist (here), and Voigtländer Bessa (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

When this Isolette was donated to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras, the first thing I did was look for pinhole light leaks in it. And glory be: I found a sturdy, light-tight bellows. That’s nothing short of a miracle, as these Isolette bellows were made of patented Crumble-Away™ material. But while I shot my two test rolls, one corner of the bellows did start to flake a little.

And yes, I said two test rolls. In typical Jim Grey fashion, I leapt before I looked: I loaded no less than Kodak E100G slide film into it before testing its functions. Upon first press of the shutter button, my folly revealed itself: the shutter didn’t fire. I nudged the cocking lever hoping to trigger the shutter. Success! Sort of — the shutter was clearly slow. And slide film needs such precise exposure.


The shutter loosened up more and more the farther I went through the roll. This shot of my neighbor’s house and car shows some improvement.


Still, facepalm. I should know better after all these years to put film into a camera I haven’t checked out first. But figuring that the shutter would loosen way up if I kept firing it, after I finished the E100G I fired the shutter a dozen or so times at each available speed. The shutter sounded pretty good after that. I wondered if I’d blown the cobwebs out of it. So I loaded a roll of Kodak T-Max 400, which is much more forgiving of exposure error than E100G. But strangely, the shutter immediately became a little sluggish again. This was the first shot on the roll, and it was fairly overexposed. Photoshop corrected some of it but as you can see the sky is still blown out.

Focusing in the driveway

I took the Isolette right over to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a favorite photographic haunt, to hurry through the rest of the roll. I feared the shutter would get stickier if I let it rest. It was a good call: the shutter loosened up with each successive shot. This is my favorite shot from this roll.

St. Paul's

A camera like this slows you down. I used a light-meter app on my iPhone to figure out exposure. And the uncoupled rangefinder isn’t as fast as a coupled one. But the Isolette’s learning curve is shallow. That’s not true of some of the other manual-everything cameras I own.

St. Paul's

Pointed arches are a real theme at St. Paul’s. This congregation has roots to 1866, though all of these buildings are much newer. A quiet residential neighborhood borders the church to the west; busy Meridian Street, the city’s north-south main drag, borders it to the west.

St. Paul's

The Isolette III delivered lovely medium contrast and good sharpness. Just what you’d expect from a good old folder.

St. Paul's

To see more from this camera, check out my Agfa Isolette III gallery.

Even as the shutter loosened up with use, the shutter button didn’t always fully move the linkage that fired the shutter. I frequently found myself nudging the cocking lever to finish the job. No doubt about it, my Isolette III needs a good clean, lube, and adjustment. It will also eventually need a new bellows. Unfortunately, and I almost hate to admit it publicly, I’m not sure it will ever get either. Not as long as I own it, anyway. My Isolette curiosity is pretty much satisfied.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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15 thoughts on “Agfa Isolette III

  1. This is my favorite kind of camera piece that you do, something that looks old and cool that I would never in a million years invest the time in to experience for myself.

    After reading, I can see how much work it would be to get good pictures out of, even if it were working properly.

    • I guess people who shot cameras like these all the time used tricks to make it easier. They figured out how to guess exposure in their head, probably starting with the Sunny 16 rule, which says that on a sunny day, set the shutter to the inverse of your film speed and the aperture to f/16. They also figured out where to focus the camera at the selected aperture so everything from 10 feet on out was in focus.

      I’m still figuring out how to do that. I shoot mostly SLRs now or I would have figured it out by now. I have a roll of film in another similar camera now and I’m trying these techniques on it.

    • Thanks Joe! Sure, I could get the lab to pull the film. I could also try some DIY shutter repairs, the kind that involve tiny amounts of lighter fluid. I’ll even bet there are instructions around the Internet for removing the lens to get at the shutter.

  2. Nice write-up Jim. You did really well to get one with the bellows intact. As you say, that’s pretty much unheard of. Is that blue covering the original? It looks very smart.

    • I did luck out on those bellows. And the camera is black — the blue tinge is just the light from the nearby window falling on the cover, and me not fixing white balance to correct that.

  3. I’ve never owned an old camera, but the shot of the bench IS very nice. Not sure I would cough up the money for one of them, though. Most of the shots look like Instagram filters, which maybe shows the authentic quality of the filters and not much about the camera. Nonetheless, the wall details are very beautiful. :)

  4. Ron says:

    Jim, Nice review and commendable results. I’m cycling in Donegal, Ireland, right now. Been playing with my $12. Asco Super Memar (Agfa Super Stilette), a little later non-bellows coupled rangefinder 35, on its test rolls. It will be fun to see how it works out.

  5. I’ve got mine loaded right now, coincidentally. I just took out the shutter and gave it a thorough CLA and it works like a charm. I lighter-fluided the shutter several years ago but that only temporarily fixed it, so it deserved a full overhaul. If you can avoid flare, the Apotar lens is really good.

    • Ah, the old lighter-fluid trick. It does tend to work only for a while. I should have tried it on this camera before shooting it at all.

  6. -N- says:

    I really like the Agfa Isolette II I have with a Solinar lens. It makes for wonderful shots. It is slow, but if you set it up with specific factors for exposure for your day, it can be a great bit quicker. I really enjoy cameras of old ages, from my box Brillant to my digitals. Each has their place. Keep shooting and writing – always a pleasure to read, and to see what you have produced.

    • Yes, I think the key with these is to preset exposure as much as you can so you spend less time futzing with controls and more time just making photographs. I keep wanting all cameras to be able to do what my SLRs can do. I’d probably have more fun with folders on evenly lit days taking photos of landscapes, things where I can be at 1/100 and 15 feet or whatever, and just adjust aperture if needed for the current pic.

  7. Pingback: Fabulous Folders - Agfa Isolette II - 35mm Retro Photo

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