Agfa and Ansco Medium Format Folding Cameras
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- Agfa and Ansco Medium Format Folders, a practical view -

This page was compiled by Andrew Yue

© 2004 - All Rights Reserved:

An Affordable Medium Format Is One That Is Pocketable.

The two cameras shown above, are the ANSCO Super Speedex and ANSCO Speedex Special "R" from the mid-1950's.   Both were built by the Agfa Camera Werk in Munich, Germany and marketed in North America under the Ansco brand.   These two medium format folding cameras were designed and built to a high set of specifications that met the post WWII needs of the serious amateur photography.

The ANSCO Speedex Special "R" and Super Speedex were amongst the last entries in a a long tradition of medium format folders, a photographic tradition that began a half-century earlier in 1900.   At first look someone today may find it difficult to believe that a class of 50 year old cameras could be capable of yielding far better images than 90 percent of the cameras that you'll see in use today, especially since they lack any type of electronic automation and look more at home on the front seat of a Model T Ford.   Until the rise in popularity of affordable 35mm photography, medium format folding cameras were the popular choice for enjoying high quality hand-held photography that was pocketable.

ANSCO, (originally Anthony & Scovill), was formed in 1901 by the merger two of the oldest photographic names in North America.   Both companies predated Kodak by nearly four decades.   After World War II many of ANSCO's top offerings were essentially rebadged AGFAs.   Agfa was the largest film manufacturer in Germany at the time and had been producing a line of all-metal bodied folding cameras since the late 1920's, around the same time period that they gained control of ANSCO.   For a short period after World War II many of AGFA's better camera arrived in North America with the ANSCO label attached to them.   This web page shows the features of each of the following AGFA and ANSCO cameras.

Index of Agfa and Ansco 6x6 Folders
Agfa Isolette II
Agfa Isolette I anf V
Agfa Isolette III
Agfa Isolette L
Agfa Super Isolette
Agfa Auto 66
Ansco Speedex "Special"
Ansco Speedex "Special" R
Ansco Super Speedex
Typical Shutter & Lens
Folder Repair & Service Tips

If you are willing to work with film in the 21st Century, then medium format photography is worth a look and folding cameras provide a portable way to do that.   The larger frame size of medium format film provides images with strikingly better tonality and with finer grain upon enlargement when compared to 35mm film or smaller digital sensors.   There are better made medium format cameras, which are much easier to use, but they are much bulkier than an old folder.

Deluxe and super deluxe medium format folders made during the 1950's are the most desireable choice for a modern photographer, because coated 4 element lenses and modern 8 to 10 speed shutters were in common use during those years.In the super deluxe category the Agfa Super Isolette and its Ansco counterpart for North America offer lens coupled rangefinder focusing, plus film winders which stop automatically at the next frame.   Less deluxe models, such as the Agfa Isolette and Ansco Speedex series still offer a good lens-shutter combination, but are slower in use and are more affordable.

Fair warning, in addition to usual need of a total refurbishing, some caveats to remember are:   Even on the ultra deluxe models, photographer must manually set the focus and exposure before each exposure.   Film winding on most folders is not automatic and the photographer must remember to reset the shutter's cocking lever before each exposure.

- Agfa Folding Cameras, (1925-59) -

Agfa is more reknown for their film.   During the 1950's they were the third largest producer of film cameras in the German camera market, if their simple box cameras are included.   In addition to their budget minded box cameras, Agfa once had a reputation for offering a variety of well made inexpensive to moderately priced cameras.   The Isolette series was Agfa's most popular medium format folder.

In 1925 Agfa acquired the Rietzschel camera works in Munich.   By the end of the 1920's the camera works began making metal bodied, medium format folders.   In 1928 Agfa acquired Ansco - a North American camera and film maker that predated Kodak.

The first Isolette was introduced in 1938.   Many variants were to follow from this original design over a 20 year period.   The good news is post war Isolettes offered coated lenses and in some models included the addition of range finder assisted focusing.   Add in a variable speed leaf-shutter with upward to ten selectable shutter speeds and one has all the necessary ingredients for advanced-amateur, old school photography.

- The Agfa Isolette II - (1952-58)

The post-war Agfa Isolette II was introduced at the end of 1952 as a down markert version of the Agfa Ventura 66 DeLuxe.   The Ventura 66 Deluxe and Isolette II, which were sold concurrently until the end of 1953, represented a substantial post-war face lift for the original 1938 Isolette.   The new features include a redesigned right-handed film advance that now had a rudementary double exposure prevention system and improved shutter/lens combinations.

As the flagship of the Isolette line, the early Venutra 66 Deluxe was fitted with Agfa's top-of-the-line 4 element, coated, Tessar-type, Solinar lens, which was set within a deluxe 9 speed Compur-Rapid shutter assembly.   It was Agfa's first post-war foray into the premium folder market.   The Ventura 66 Deluxe was a direct competitor of the ultra-compact Voigtlander Perkeo II and the exquisitly well made Zeiss-Ikon Ikonta.   The Ventura 66 "Deluxe" was dropped from the Agfa line up with the introduction of the Isolette III in 1954.

- Agfa Isolette II - (1952-55) - Features

Agfas from this period were built to a second tier price point.   The chrome, hydro-aluminum in Agfa's case and bellows are sub par when compared to the higher priced Baldas, Voigtlanders and Zeiss-Ikons of the same period.

A first generation Isolette II was usually fitted with Agfa's second tier Apotar lens, set within a slightly less sophisticated, but still respectable 8 speed, Prontor SV shutter assembly.   Essentially the Agfa Isolette II was targeted to appeal to a cost minded mid-level folder market.   Although it is a second tier folder, the Isolette II still incorporates many important post-war improvements in camera design, which include the forementioned eight speed leaf shutter, which is flash synched and hard coated lens surfaces.   The antireflective lens coatings prevent flare and noticeable increase contrast.

The Isolette II and Ventura 66 Deluxe are are easily identified by having a right-handed film winder, which I prefer over the older left-hand winders of the original Isolette design.

Both the Isolette II / Ventura 66 design lack a built-in range finder.   The film advance relies on visually lining up the printed frame numbers on the film's paper backing while looking through a ruby colored window.   Ergonomics are right out of the 1920's.

Speaking of the 1920's, a curious carry-over made its way onto the first generation of the Isolette II.   It is a quaint T lever, which locks the shutter open when the B setting is selected and is only used in very dim light with the camera mounted to a tripod.   The T lever is located beside the viewfinder eye piece.   It is cumbersome to use and the lever should be kept in the left hand position as you look at it from the back for regular shooting.   The Isolette II also accepts a cable release to trip the shutter and it's a much more preferable way to lock the shutter open than the old T-lever.

Light Leaks: It is my experience that all first generation Isolette II and III cameras need their original bellows replaced.   If this hasn't already been done, new bellows are becoming difficult to source.

- The Agfa Isolette II - Mark II -

In 1956, a series two, Isolette II and Isolette III were released.   The updated Isolette II marked the return of properly made bellows - in addition to a face lift that mirrored the design of Agfa's increasingly more popular 35mm line-up.   The chrome plating is much improved over the first generation Isolettes, as well.   Unfortunately, there are fewer second generation Isolettes to choose from, because sales of folders were in rapid decline during the latter half of the 1950's.

A series two camera is easily recognized by the newly luxury milled film advance knob that matches an added film reminder dial on the opposite side of the camera.   This mostly decorative film reminder replaces what was formerly an adjustable depth of field scale which was common on first generation cameras.   The depth of field information was now printed onto the front of the shutter fascia, where it is easier to use.   Finally, the T-lever for timed exposures was eliminated entirely.   The shutter is more likely to be a late Prontor SVS.

- The Isolette I and V -

The Isolette II was also offered along side various equipped siblings, which may confuse someone unfamiliar with Agfa's line up.   These siblings include the Isolette I, an V, , plus an econo Ventura 66.   The economized siblings are built to a lower price point.   Therefore, they lack a depth of field scale on the top cover.   More importantly, they are fitted with the lesser quality lens and shutter combinations.   Hence, their lower price.

This group is easily identified by their left handed film winder.   The basic variants do not have a double exposure prevention system and to fulfill their roll as a cost leader, are fitted with a less expensive Agnar lens, mounted to either a three or four speed shutter.   Unless you are a bare minimalist, it is best to avoid the Isolette I, Isolette V, and the Ventura 66 non deluxe models.

- The Agfa - Ansco (GAF ) Connection -

Ansco, (originally Anthony & Scovill), was formed in 1901 by the merger two of the oldest photographic names in North America.   During the early 1900's, the Ansco trademark was found on many superb large-format bellows cameras for professional use, in addition to a range of smaller medium format pocket folders.   Most of these early folders used the now retired 116, 616 and 818 film formats.

After a merger with Agfa in 1928, Ansco products began to include U.S versions of several Agfa models, which in North America displayed the Agfa-Ansco trademark.   In 1939 GAF, (General Aniline & Film), was formed when the North American operations were spun off from the parent company due to the Second World War.   The relationship between the two brands resumed after the War with Ansco selling a number of rebadged German-made Agfas.   The cooperation between Agfa and Ansco seems to have lasted only until the 1958 model year.   The Ansco Products Division, continued sell a mix of cameras until 1967, but its offerings never again included any of the Agfa line-up.

- The ANSCO Speedex 4.5 "Special", (1953-56) -

The Ansco Speedex 4.5 "Special" is essentially an Isolette II wearing an Ansco trademark for the North American market.   Like its Agfa twin the Speedex 4.5 "Special" was aimed to fulfill the needs of the advanced amateur who had some basic photographic skills, but lacked the means to buy a premium medium format camera.   Its advertised price was $47.50 in 1955, (the leather case was five dollars more), seems inexpensive today, but from a 1950's perspective, it would have definitely been a major purchase.   At nearly one week's worth of salary, this rebadged Agfa would have been the ticket for someone with moderate means to own a German camera that allowed for variable focus and an extended range of exposure settings.

General Impressions Regarding the Isolette II and Ansco Speedex Special

While it isn't up to the standards of my Rolleiflex, one would be hard pressed to complain about the a 8" by 8" image from the either the Isolette II or Speedex 4.5 "Special" when used to photograph subjects at moderate to far distances with the use of a properly fitting lens hood and the lens is stopped down to its sweet spot, which is f/8 to f/16.   The Apotar lens, which is a Cooke-triplet, is best used between f/8 and f/16.

- The Agfa Isolette III, (1952-58) -

The Isolette III is fitted with an uncoupled range finder.

The uncoupled rangefinder on the Isolette III allows the photographer to determine distances simply by turning a dial until two coinciding images line up in the viewfinder.   The photographer must read the distance off the RF dial and then adjust the lens focus accordingly.   Uncoupled therefore means there is no linkage of any kind connecting the range finder apparatus to the focus ring on the lens.

So, with the exception of the added uncoupled rangefinder, an Isolette III is essentially an Isolette II.   In order to fit the rangefinder within the confines of the top cover of the Isolette III, the archane T lever had to be deleted.   Unlike the competing Voigtl�nder Perkeo E and Zeiss-Ikon 524/16 Ikonta M, the Agfa design incorporates the rangefinder and viewfinder into a single unit, which is sometimes referred to as a combined view-rangefinder.

- Agfa Isolette III, Mark II, (1956-58) -

After 1956, Agfa release a second series Isolette III, which received the same face-lift as the Isolette II.   If your Isolette III has a set of milled knobs on top and one of which is a decorative film reminder, then it must be a series two version.   Most importantly the series two facelift was accompanied by better bellows.   Some Mark II Isolette III cameras were fitted with an outstanding, reformulated f/3.5, 75mm Solinar lens design within a Syncho-Compur MXV shutter.   These high-end Isolette III variants are truly as good or better than their Voigtlander or Zeiss-Ikon counterparts.

- The Ansco Speedex Special "R", (1953-56) -

For the U.S. market, the older series one, Agfa Isolette III was relabelled as the Ansco Speedex Special "R".   All of the Speedex Special "R" cameras I've come across need their bellows replaced.   When it was new, the Speedex Special "R" sold for the princely sum of $55.00.   Athough this was a mere $7.50 more than the Speedex 4.5 "Special", the extra seven dollars and fifty cents must have certainly been a deal breaker in 1955.   As this may explain why the Speedex Special "R", which has a built-in range finder, seems to be available in far fewer in numbers in today's used market.   The lesser equiped sibling the Speedex 4.5 "Special" is much more common..

With regards to the lens and shutter options, the Speedex Special "R" was generally fitted with the middle price range 85mm, f/4.5 Apotar lens. set within one of the Prontor S series shutter assembly.   With that said, there is a rogue variant of the Speedex Special "R" that is labelled as a "Speedex Special with an Uncoupled Range Finder", which has the premium f/4.5 85mm Solinar lens, set within a nine speed Synchro-Compur.

The Apotar lens

The f/4.5, 85mm Apotar lens is a traditional, three element, Cooke-triplet.   From 1950 onward, each element is double hard coated, which means each surface is single coated.

The 85mm Apotar's maximum wide open aperture of f/4.5 is a bit slow by today's standards, but this was and is the practical limit to the Cooke-triplet design.   A Cooke-triplet has three glass elements in three groups.

When used at f/8 to f/16, the Apotar yields sharp images of most subjects.   The exception being those subjects that are closer than 6 feet or 2 meters to the camera.   Resolution is still acceptable at f/22, but less so at f/32.   The ten bladed aperture diaphram forms an almost perfect circle at all apertures, which is great for a smooth blurring out of focus backgrounds.   The front cell focusing on the Apotar utilizes 320 degrees of travel, so focusing is more precise than one would think.   An important note is that the Apotar requires the use of 30mm slip-on filter and lens hood, which are referred to as an A30 filter size.

The Prontor S Shutter

The majority of Isolette II's that you'll run across are fitted an Apotar lens within Prontor S series shutter.   The Prontor S series of shutters come in three flavors, early 1950's production, the middle of the production run and those manufactured at the close of the 1950's.   The first two are easily identified by having a fitting for a cable release on the shutter body and a separate cocking lever for a self-timed shutter delay.

In addition to a bulb setting, all of the Prontor S models offer eight speeds.   Shutter speeds on the Prontor S an SV are 1/1, 1/2, 1/5, 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/300th of a second.   The S in the Prontor S nomenclature signifies that the shutter is synched for a camera flash.   The shutter has a standard 3mm nipple for fitting a PC cord.   The SVS version of this shutter uses modern shutter speed intervals, 1/1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, and 1/250th of a second.

Prontor S Variations:

Prontor S: PC nipple points straight up, offered between 1950-1953, M synchronization for single-use flash bulbs.

Prontor SV: PC nipple points toward the side, probably produced from 1953-56, has both M and X synch.

Prontor SVS: shutter shows the influence of compact 35mm designs of the period.

  • SVS no longer has its own cable release fitting on the shutter body.
  • SVS no longer has its own cable release fitting on the shutter body.
  • SVS is marked with modern shutter speed intervals.
  • SVS uses a combined lever labled MXV for selecting the self-timer and setting the flash synch.

Some notes regarding the Prontor S series: The shutter must be manually tensioned before each exposure, which means that the shutter is not automatically tensioned by advancing the film.   The tension lever is on the top of the shutter assembly.   Also, the M-synch setting was designed for the now obsolete, magnesium filament, flash bulbs, which were good for one use.   A modern electronic flash unit in an M-synch mode requires the use of a shutter speed below 1/30th of a second.   The X-synch setting on the other hand allows one to use a modern electronic flash unit at any shutter speed.

- Deluxe variants of the Isolette III -

In its home market, the Agfa Isolette III competed against the many offerings of the then powerhouse of photographic products, which was Zeiss-Ikon.   Most of the 35mm and medium format folders from Zeiss-Ikon were usually available in two quality levels with regards to their lenses and shutters, so they could compete in two price ranges.   The deluxe version of each Zeiss-Ikon model came fitted with a Carl Zeiss Tessar lens set within a Compur shutter.   Therefore, with the more discriminating camera buyer in mind, Agfa also fitted a limited number of their Isolette III cameras with their own version of the Tessar called a Solinar, which was mounted into a Compur shutter.

The Solinar Lens

The Solinar, first available in the late 1920's on larger format cameras, would see periodic refinements in the many decades in which it was to serve as Agfa's top-of-the-line lens.   Nearly all of the Tessar formula lenses of this period, which also include Zeiss Tessar, Voigtl�nder Color-Skopar and Agfa's Solinar, will rival a modern day prime lenses for B&W photography when used at f/8 to f/16.   In other words, for its time the Solinar was a pretty good medium format lens, but don't expect its wide open aperture performance to rival the more expensive lenses, such as the better corrected Planars and Xenotars.

As is the case on all Tessar equivalents, the Solinar lens is a modification of the Cooke-triplet.   The major improvement over the original Cook-triplet is that the single rear element of the Apotar has been replaced by a doublet of two glass elements of slightly different refractive properties.   The two rear elements, a plano-concave and convex lens, are cemented together to form one group.   In theory, the difference in performance over the Apotar is that the Solinar should yield slightly better sharpness throughout the frame and be better suited for color film.   That said, the differences in performance between the 3 element Apotar and the four element Solinar isn't what I'd call a show stopper, but in photography there are always folks who are willing to pay a lot more for relatively small upgrade in performance.   Hence, it is not unusual to see an Isolette III with a Solinar sell for two to four times more than the same camera fitted with an Apotar lens.

The f/4.5, 85mm Solinar was the deluxe option available on both the Isolette II and III models made before 1956.   Its maximum aperture of f/4.5 makes it a bit of a slow lens even by 1950's standards.   The surfaces of the 85mm Solinars made after 1949 benefit from anti-reflective coatings.   This significantly reduces flare and thereby improves the amount contrast rendered in the final print.   The f/4.5, 85mm Solinar will accept a 30mm slip-on filter or lens hood, which are also referred to as A-30 accessories.   By the way, even with the antireflective coatings, a lens hood is a recommended when shooting into the direction of a stong light light source.

For the Mark II Series a reformulated f/3.5, 75mm Solinar became the deluxe lens for both the second generation Isollettes.   The 75mm Solinar has a maximum aperture which is approximately one stop faster than its predecessor.   Due to its slightly reduced focal length this lens seems to be a tad sharper than the earlier 85mm Solinar at close range.   The 75mm Solinar also uses a redesigned focus ring that now accepts a slightly larger 32mm slip-on, A-32 filter size.   The reformulated 75mm Solinars are usually set within either a Prontor SVS or Synchro-Compur MXV shutter.

The Compur Shutters

The Compurs were originally built by F. Deckel.   Most offer nine shutter speeds and were the preferred between-the-lens leaf shutter of their time. Just like their Prontor cousins, the venerable Compurs show a fair amount of evolution over time.   Prontors on the other hand were produced by Gauthier, a firm that built a variety of medium to lower priced leaf shutters destined for entry to mid-level German cameras.   The Compur shutters, by comparison, were fitted to the more deluxe models within each manufacturer's line up.

The Compur-Rapid : Early post-war Compur-Rapids are nine-speed shutters with a top speed of 1/400th of second and may lack a PC nipple.   These Compur-Rapid shutters would evolved so by the early 1950's they had a top shutter speed of 1/500th and have a PC nipple, which connects to a modern flash unit via a PC cord.   The Compur-Rapid is not an X synch shutter.   Non X synched shutters may delay the opening of the shutter to allow the old-school, magnesium filament flash bulbs to reach their full intensity.

The Compur Rapid shutter gets its name from the extra shutter speed that was added.   To make this possible, a secondary spring is engaged at the fastest shutter speed.   Do not try to adjust the shutter speed dial into its fastest setting when the shutter is cocked.   Alway set the shutter speed before tensioning the shutter cocking lever.

The Synchro-Compur MX, introduced in late 1952, has both M synch, for magnesium flash bulbs and X synch settings.   The main advantage of X synched leaf shutter is that it allows for the use of a modern electronic flash at any shutter speed.   Other than the addition of the X synch capability, the early Sychro-Compurs from the 1954-55 era don't seem that much different from the last versions of the Compur Rapid.   For example, the aperture adjustment lever is still hidden a the bottom of the shutter on the Synchro-Compur MX and joyfully it retains the ten-bladed aperture of the older Compur Rapid.

The "Synchro-Compur MXV" appeared in 1956.   The Synchro-Compur MXV appears to be major redesign of the venerable Compur shutter.   The most striking difference is the newer "MXV" design has ten modern shutter speeds and it has a aperture adjustment lever that is now located on the top versus the bottom of the shutter.   Additionally, the flash synch lever is used to select a 10 second shutter delay through an added V setting.   Upon further examination of the "Synchro-Compur MXV" one will notice a five-bladed aperture assembly, in place of the former 10 bladed aperture.   Lastly, the aperture is linked to the the shutter speed through quirky LVS interlock system.   For the uninitiated, the LVS interlock simply allows the user to maintain a constant exposure value as the shutter speed dial moved from one speed to another.

Shutter Tensioning: It is important to note that on all early Compurs, to set the fastest shutter speed "before" tensioning the the shutter.   Trust me, there is a rather heavy-guage spring inside the Compur Rapid and most Synchro-Compurs which must be compressed or released when selecting or disengaging the 1/500th of second shutter speed.   To be safe, I normally set my shutter speed before tensioning the shutter at all speeds.

- Isolettes from the Late 1950's -

All things must come to an end and by 1958 the venerable Isolette had been soldiering on for two decades.   As mentioned, the Isolette II and III received a minor face lift for the 1956 model year.   Again, the good news is the second generation Isolette II's and III' no longer have the troublesome shiny bellows.

- Agfa Isolette L -

For the 1958 model year, Agfa introduced its final model in Isolette line up.   It's the Isolette L, which is essentially a modified Isolette II, sporting a totally new top cover that houses a built-in selenium light meter and a larger dual mode viewfinder.   Its standard issue lens is a Color Apotar, which is set in a four speed Pronto shutter rather than an eight speed Prontor SVS of the Isolette II and III.   Similar in principle to the very first Isolette, the Isolette L is fitted with a dual purpose film mask.   Upon closing the two swinging film masks and switching a dial above the viewfinder, the camera will allow two dozen 24mm by 56mm exposures to fit on a roll of 120 film.   In the 24 exposure mode, the film must be advanced to not only each frame number, but also to the first of dot preceding the next frame number.   If you are using Kodak film number, stop the intermediate frames at the K in Kodak, as there are no dots.   Wind slow.

- The Agfa Super Isolette / ANSCO Super Speedex -

In 1954 Agfa introduced a totally new medium format folder for the high-end market and called it the Super Isolette.   For North American distribution it was rebadged during the following year as the Ansco Super Speedex.   The Super Isolette and its Super Speedex clone are Isolettes in name only.   There is no commonality between the original pressed steel chassis of the 1938 Isolette that served as the basic building block on all previous Isolettes.

To compete head on with the best Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta, the Super Isolette is full of innovations that are not part of a normal Isolette's repertoire.   Focusing is done through a helicoid gear assembly that moves the entire 75mm Solinar lens assembly forward and backward as a complete unit rather than the utilizing front element focusing.   Also, the motion of lens assembly is now coupled to the rangefinder apparatus via a push rod.   The coupled rangefinder of the Super Isolette therefore allows for one step focusing.   The main advantage over the older design is that unit focusing is inheritantly more precise throughout the entire range of distances than the older front cell focus method used on all previous Isolettes.   The 75mm Solinar of the Super Isolette not only accepts 32mm slip-on filters, but also allows one to use threaded 29.5mm filters.   The lens is fitted to a premium Synchro-Compur MX shutter on early models.   Later models would have a Synchro-Compur MXV.

With regards to its speed and ease of operation, the Super Isolette design wins hands down against any of the previous Isolettes.   In addition to the coupled rangefinder, film loading on the Super Isolette is fully automatic.   One simply inserts the film into the take-up spool, closes the rear door and winds the film until the knob stops automatically at the first frame.   There is no red window on the back of the camera to peer into.   The film advance automatically stops at each succeeding frame, which speeds up shooting considerably.   Due to the auto-loading feature, the shutter release button will not engage the shutter when there is no film loaded into the camera.   Therefore, you must have film in the camera to test its operation.

Both Super Isolette and the Super Speedex have a fit and finish that is much more upscale than any previously introduced Isolette.   Consequently their better build quality and rarity places them into a higher price bracket.   The Agfa Super Isolette and the Ansco Super Speedex range from $150 to $500 versus the usual $40 to $90 for a lesser equipped Isolette III or Speedex Special "R" equiped with Apotars.   That makes the Super Isolette and its Ansco twin beyond the reach of the more economically minded enthusiast.   The Isolette III and Speedex Special "R" will remain better values for the more practically minded vintage photographer, but let it be said that the Super Isolette, along with its Super Speedex twin, are simply the finest folding 12-on-120 cameras ever made.

- The Agfa Automatic 66 -

In 1956 Agfa followed the Super Isolette with an even more grandiose 120 film camera.   This is the largely unknown "Agfa Automatic 66".   It was produce for only one year and with only a thousand produced, it has become a rare collectable.   The Auto 66 was never rebadged under the Ansco brand.   However, as an indicator of where camera designs were headed, the Auto 66 was capable of a semi-automatic exposure.

The Auto 66 is based on the body and chassis of the Super Isolette, so it shares nearly all of its premium features.   It has unit focusing, but with what is now labeled as a 75mm, f/3.5, Color-Solinar.   Of course it retains the same wonderful automatic film advance as the Super Isolette.   The top cover of the Auto 66 is noticebly different, as is the shutter, a Prontor SVA, which offers both manual settings and an aperture preferred mode.   The shutter speeds for the auto mode only range from a 1/15th to 1/250th of a second.   Its huge top cover houses a selenium meter, a functional film speed selector and a meter, which includes an indicator to prevent over or underexposures in the auto mode.   The built-in selenium light meter, which had been for over a decade on a few top of the line Zeiss-Ikon cameras, is now coupled to an auto-exposure mode.   This was a first for a 120 film camera in the 1950's and its cost must have exceeded any perceived benefit, because only a small number were made.

In my opinion, both the superbly engineered Super Isolette and the garish Automatic 66 would have been greater successes had they been introduced in 1950, a time in which post war demand for luxury bellows cameras was at its greatest.   By the late 1950's the tide was beginning to shift towards twin-lens reflex cameras for medium format photographers, while at the same time the 35mm format was exponentially replacing medium format in the amateur market.   Although twin-lens reflex cameras offer greater convenience in operation and are more precise, they are deifinitely not pocketable.

The Isolette and Today's Photographer

I see the old school Agfa cameras as compact tools for medium format photography rather than a retro-fashion statement.   A medium format folder along with a smallish 35mm rangefinder camera or my compact dSLR both fit neatly in my smallish satchel.   While a medium format folder doesn't replace my 35mm or my digital camera, it simply augments what I already use.

A medium format folder allows me to experience one more level of photography which in this case results in a different look.   It's a definitely, a slower, more contemplative experience, but the big medium format negatives that produce stunning enlargements.   Amazingly, a medium format folder is more compact than a 35mm or digital SLR.   Neither of which are pocketable.

Compact pocketable digital cameras offer hundreds of instant exposures, but the small sensor necessitates the use of a short 6mm to 18mm focal length lens that results in way too much depth of field for my taste.   The shallower depth of field of the 75mm to 80mm lens of medium format allows me to isolate a subject in the foreground from the background for a more three dimensional look.

For anyone solely accustomed to a fully automated, auto-focus camera, the use of a medium format folder that is a half century past its prime will probably be an acquired taste.   The viewfinder is small and is like looking though a key hole.   To be become fully proficient with a vintage folder, such an Isolette III, takes some practice.   At a miminum, it will mean dusting off some basic old-school photographic skills. &nspb; This photography at a measured and leasurely pace.

For anyone with access to an enlarger, the advantage of medium format film immediately becomes evident when looking through the eye-piece of a grain focuser.   Each frame is approximaetely four times larger than an equivalent 35mm frame, (see the above image) and a larger frame size results in prints superior tonality and smaller grain for a given print size than a comparable 35mm frame.   A cropped 6x6 neg for an 8 by 10 print only needs to enlarged by a factor of 22 versus 72 with a 35mm frame.   Finally, with twelve, (6 by 6 cm) exposures to a roll, one can easily finish a roll of film in one session and then develop the roll while the session is fresh on the mind.   It's nice to be able to do.

With access to the affordable Epson 4870 scanner and color film, the humble Isolette can easily becomes a 36 megapixel or greater digital camera.   This translates to over a 100 mega-byte file for each image.   With only a 8 megapixel needed for an 8" by 8" print there is plenty of allowance with regards to cropping the image.   It opens some possibilities.

Getting that Isolette Serviced

Cameras in general don't like long periods of disuse.   In nine out of ten cases your Agfa Isolette probably has never been serviced.   Therefore, expect to either have to perform a do-it-yourself service or have a professional technician service your camera.   For those of you worried about the cost of this service, bare in mind that there are no entry level medium format cameras being made at any price - that are this compact.   Also, a folder even with the cost of servicing is still only a fraction of the retail price of one of today's medium format camera offerings.   Agfas are some of least complicated and most straight forward vintage medium format cameras to refurbish, but they do have some very noteable service issues.

Service issue number 1.), the lubricants used to assemble the camera most likely have dried out in the past 50 years and become gummy.   Agfas are notorious for their green lens grease, which in the worst case scenario becomes a solid cement.   This results in a front element that is very stiff or frozen solid.   Shutters also suffer when their lubricants dry out.   I once clocked a Prontor SV at 4 seconds for the 1/10th of a second setting.   On an Isolette III, the range finder dial will be stiff or frozen.   Sadly, it too was assembled with the same green colored grease that was used as a lens lubricant.

Service issue number 2.), is the real heart breaker.   Agfa bellows from this period may begin to develop light leaks as the plastic coating deteriorates.   New bellows are custom built, in other words they are not mass produced.

Bellows: As mentioned, the major stumbling block when refurbishing more than a few mid-1950's Isolettes is they may need their bellows replaced.   New bellows are about $75.

  • Temporary Bellows Repair: One can coat the inner corners of the bellows with alight coat of Jacquard Textile Color after its been thinned to a 1:1 mixture with Jo Sonja's textile medium. &nsbsp; Allow the paint medium to dry thoroughly before closing the bellows.   Setting the paint with a small hair dryer set to its low heat setting after it has dried increases the longevity of this repair, as does adding thin strips of gaffers tape to outer corners of the bellows.
  • Testing Bellows: To see if your bellows leak light, test them in a darkened closet by firing an electronic flash into the rear of the bellows while inspecting at the outer corners of the fold.   May you be pleasantly surprised to find them light tight.

Lens Disassembly & Cleaning: First, remove the shutter and lens assembly from the front standard by removing the rear element and the shutter retaining ring.   Then remove the front focusing ring.   The three screws that retain the focus ring to the front element are easily damaged.   Make sure that you have the proper size jewelers' screw driver.   These screws do not need to be removed from the focus ring, only loosened.   As mentioned earlier, the front element may seem to be solidly glued to the middle element of the lens assembly.   The two elements are suppose to unscrew from each other.   A couple of microdrops of Tri-flow lubricant, plus a small drop of Rosinol on the helicoid threads followed by a twenty four wait may do the trick.   I have a spare focus ring from an Isolette I that I reinstall, so as to have something to grasp when removing the front element.   If the front ring still doesn't turn, remove the focus ring and once more apply a couple drops of lubricant.   At this point you may need to add a couple of drops of ethanol or acetone to the helicoid threads as well.   This proceedure may need to be repeated over a couple of days.   Have patience.

If the front and middle elements come out as a single unit, and are stuck together then the link below to Dave Riechart's web pages will come in handy.   As a last resort, try repeated heating and coolings of the two elements using a small hair dryer along with intermediary applications of a small amount of penetrating lubricant or Rosinol, which is very flammable.   They will come apart.   The glass elements on many Apotars are removeable from their threaded mounts and can be put away for safe keeping while cleaning the helicoid threads.   Once down to the bare lens mounts, soak them in ethanol for a couple of hours.   Then scrape clean every thread of the helicoid with a wooden tooth pick and wipe clean with a Q-tip or paper towel soaked in ethanol.

Cold cream from the pharmacy's beauty department can be used to remove stubborn fungus and haze from less than pristine elements.   Before reassembly, the element will need to be light wiped clean with a tissue soaked in Rosinol and then one in ethanol.   Finally, gently clean the elements with a soft microfiber cloth, dampened with a drop or two of lens cleaner.   Fog each surface with your breath for one final cleaning with the micro cloth and before reassembly.

Lubricants and Solvents: After cleaning the threads of lens helicoid and the range finder's adjusting knob, it is necessary to lube them so the operate smoothly.   I do this in two steps.   First, with a Q-Tip cotton swab soaked in Tri-flow lubricant, I coat the treads and wipe of the excess.   Then, with the head of a wooden tooth pick, I smear a thin film of Corning heavy silicone grease on the center portion of the treads.   The stuff never dries out, stays put for years and is moisture proof.

Proper Tools: If you plan to refurbish an Agfa or any other 1950's folder yourself, you'll need the proper tools.   Most better camera shops, stock these items, albeit most of what I've seen is of the lowest quality.   Consequently, things like your flat tip screw drivers will wear out on you and the lens spanners available at most camera shops are at their best rickety contraptions.   The list below is a bare bones set that should be on hand before any dissassembly of the camera's components.   A good set of tools will most likely cost more than the camera itself.

  • A moveable light source and a hobbyist magnifier which has a stand.
  • An Agfa Isolette I with an Agnar lens to practice on.
  • A set of jewelers' flat tipped screw drivers
  • A lens spanner with 1/16th inch flat tips
  • A good quality drafting compass with two metal points for loosening specialized screws
  • A special pair of vise grip needle nose pliers, the smaller the better
  • A set of jewelers' tweezers or small hemostats for picking up and installing small screws
  • A roll of Gaffers' tape for protecting lenses and helicoid threads, (this tape doesn't leave a residue)

Range finder: An Isolette III that has been dormant for a couple of decades will usually have a stiff or a very stuck range finder adjustment dial.   The threaded shaft of the adjustment dial is lubed with same type of green grease that resulted in siezed lenses.   So the ability to remove the range finder entirely from the camera is a real blessing.   With the range finder off the camera, one is able to remove the adjustment knob from the main assembly and carefully clean out all the solidified grean colored grease from the threads of the screw.   There is a limit plate on the side of the range finder that prevents the removal of the adjustment dial, but this plate is held in place by a single small screw.   Take care to prevent any contaminants from getting on either the beam splitter or the front surfaced mirror of the range finder.   Also, I don't recommend cleaning the beam splitter or the front surface mirror, but do clean the glass lenses and good luck cleaning the center lens which projects the range finder patch onto the beam splitter. (See Roland Givens page for adjusting the range finder.)

Shutter Service: Both the Prontors and Compurs need to be cleaned before using if they hang open when using the slower shutter speeds.   This seems to be more of a problem with the Prontor than with the Synchro Compur.   The only remedy is to remove the shutter must from the front standard and then remove the lens elements so the shutter can be properly or improperly cleaned.   (See Roland Given's web site below, which should again be of some help).

  • Prontor Shutters: The Prontor S series shutters are prone to gumming up.   With the lens elements and the front fascia removed, soak the entire shutter in a tank of Rosinol lighter fluid.   Allow the shutter to soak with the front facing upwards for a day or two in the Rosinol, with some periodic pouring off of the Rosinol and resubmerging into the fluid.  I use a Rubbermaid plastic jar that has a screw on lid for this purpose.   I follow with a soak and rinse in ethanol.
  • The final step is to repeatedly clean the shutter and aperture blades with a lens tissue soaked in ethanol until the shutter seems snappy after it has been allowed to fully dry.   Once all of the ethanol has evaporated, if there is any lag time in the shutter closing on the B setting, then shutter blades and their pivots aren't clean.   Allow the shutter to dry overnight before reinstalling the front fascia.   Then check its operation, again.
  • P.S. there is a little activating lever on the Prontors for the self-timer that will definitely come loose and fall out of the shutter.   Keep an eye out for this tiny lever and do not activate the self-timer or cock the shutter without it in place.
  • Synchro Compur: This isn't a shutter that I recommend cleaning with the dip and dunk method.   Instead of dipping, dunk and pour, a repeated light wiping off the blades with a lens tissue soaked in Rosinol seem sufficient.   Repeat the operation for as many times as necessary.   Try not to squirt the Rosinol into the body of the shutter.   I'm reluctant to tell you to removed the front cover plate under the fascia, because this is shutter that will spring apart, if roughly handled.   So, follow the above proceedure and your shutter should be fine.

Shutter Lubrication:Whether to lube or not to lube some of the shutter components has its pros and cons.   I do apply a micro droplet of watch oil or Tri-flow to the inner surface of the cocking rings, gear shaft bearings of self-timers, and anywhere levers pivot or come in contact with other surfaces.   This usually amounts to four or five micro droplets for an entire shutter assembly.   One can buy a special lubrication container from a model train store or simply dip the point of a large sewing needle into the lubricant and then make contact with the part of the shutter being lubed.   The pin method allows you to coat the spiral spring for the fastest shutter speed with a light coating of molygrease.   Keep in mind that any Tri-flow or watch oil you use will attract dust and dirt for years, which will eventually gum up the works.

A couple of rules for repair: First, if ain't broke don't fix it.   Second, thou shalt not do no harm.   On the second rule, use the right tool for the job and cover surfaces that you don't want scratched with Gaffer's tape.   Before starting my work, I usually have an assortment of filter cases on hand for small parts, a large towel underneath everything that prevents parts from rolling off the table, along with a years supply of lens tissues and Q-tip cotton swabs.   Cleanliness is next to Godliness in this business.   If you are cleaning a lens before reassembly, use a new microfibre cloth, not an old one.   They are cheap, if you buy them from a pharmacy.

The bottom line on this section regarding servicing is to be realistic and expect that a half a century old Agfa will require some work before it can be used.   The good news is these cameras of simple construction and were screwed together by human hands.   Agfas generally have fewer complicated assemblies than their competitors.   Hence, they are much more easily serviced.   Once serviced, the camera will be good to go for at least a couple of decades.

Other Resources On and Off the Web

By all means take a look at the links below.   Their web pages required some hours of work and have a wealth of information.   No one site can answer everyone's question, but these will answer most.

Links to Other Web Pages

David Richert, a professional photographer from Hawaii, has a web site dedicated to photography that includes an exhaustive amount of info on vintage folders and general photography.   Even though much of the information pertains to Zeiss-Ikon folders, the web site has a well illustrated page of an Isolette I overhaul.

The Givens family in the U.K. have another web site with information regarding do-it-yourself Agfa servicing.   In addition to having information regarding a plethora of Agfas from the period, their web pages on servicing their collection gets more into the nitty gritty of do-it-yourself repair.

Daniel Mitchell's web site offers a little more detail on servicing a Prontor SVS shutter.   He also has a well written page on servicing a Compur Rapid.   Do note: You rarely should need to fully tear down a shutter assembly for cleaning.

Last but not least, I highly recommend that the focus ring be properly reinstalled so that it is set for infinity by using the back-sighting method, as described on Rick Oleson's web page.     If you don't have a 35mm SLR with a long focal length lens, borrow one.   It is important that this final step be done correctly. shows Rick Oleson's backsighting method for properly resetting the focus ring.   It's easy to cut a clear acrylic target screen from a CD jewel case, so that it is 60mm by 120mm.   Then cut an X into the inner surface with the point of a pin.   I use a 135mm single focal length lens mounted to a 35mm SLR for viewing.

Finding Replacement Camera Bellows

My reliable source for camera bellows in Birmingham, England has shut down due to financial meltdown at the end of 2008.   Tony Eaton and Keith Lowe of the now defunct Camera Bellows Ltd. plan to start up an independent firm, which will use the name Custom Bellows.   The new firm hopes to be accepting work starting in March of 2009.

Mark Kapono over at the University of Hawaii in Hilo makes Isolette bellows in his spare time.   He occasionally has extras to sell and does so on eBay.   If your 6x6 Isolette needs bellow and you feel up to installing them, give him a try.

Keep in mind that he has a regular day job on the Big Island and makes bellows as a side line to his photographic interests.

- A Couple More Web Pages -

The following article at introduces a wide variety of medium format folders, as well a tribute to Jurgen Kreckel.

Jurgen Kreckel now has a web site with a superb desciption of the Agfa Isolette, in addition to other classic folders and includes many photos of his custom restorations.

A note on copyright infringement: Please do not cut and paste any of the above work for publication either on the internet or for anywhere else without first getting my specific permission.   This is a noncommercial web page written for educational purposes and it is intended to be of assistance to anyone interested in amateur photography.   Fair use allows for appropriate content from this page to be used for description purposes by web search engines, reprinting for personal, (not commercial), use and links with a appropriate citations mentioning this web page.   On personal web pages please provide a link to this web page that states, "See Andrew Yue's web page for more information." The views expressed on this page are my own and do not reflect an endorsement of any kind by the University of Texas at Austin.

- Last Updated on July 4th, 2009 -