Cameras, Photography

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.

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. The left button on the top plate opens the camera, by the way; the right button fires the shutter. I love this symmetry! And glory be: I found a sturdy, light-tight bellows. That’s apparently 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: before testing any more of this camera’s functions, I loaded no less than Kodak E100G slide film into it. 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.

Bell

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.

Envoy

Still, facepalm. 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. 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

I enjoy shooting old folders like these. Along with pinhole and box cameras, this is photography at its most elemental. But I like to move in close, and these kinds of cameras seldom let you focus closer than about one meter. As you can see, I shot a lot of walls at St. Paul’s, rather than details.

St. Paul's

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.


Do you like old cameras? Then check out all of my gear reviews!

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10 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.

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    • 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.

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    • 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.

      Liked by 1 person

  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.

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    • 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.

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  3. Alex Hurst says:

    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. :)

    Like

  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.

    Like

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