TLRs

When a Silette meets a Rolleiflex: The Agfa Flexilette, a 35mm TLR – By Thomas Merk

Agfa Flexilette

Agfa Silette with every ready case and rare accessories: Clip-on filters (yellow and skylight) and a close-up lens. Note the lens in front of the waist level finder that makes it a rather convenient sports finder.

Every once in a while I fall in love with a camera. I am sure some of you do too, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog… And maybe sometimes you fall in love with a camera – as I do – by looking at a photograph that is either showing this camera or had been taken by it?

With my newest camera love, the Agfa Flexilette, it was the former. While browsing Ebay Classifieds for another Agfa Isolette (hopefully one with a Solinar lens and bellows without the notorious pinholes) I came across a camera I had not seen before: The Agfa Flexilette, a camera that looks like a cross between an Agfa Silette – a run of the mill 35 viewfinder camera of the 1950s and 60s – and … Tatam! … a Rolleiflex!

Hard to believe somebody really built a camera like this: A mechanical rangefinder chassis on steroids – with a Compur leaf shutter – speeds ranging from one second to 1/500th– a waist level finder with a magnifying loupe to help critical focussing and hefty lens barrel with two little lenses one above the other! Two Agfa Apotars 2.8/45mm to be precise, one for viewing, one for taking pictures, just like the medium format TLRs of various flavours that all stem from the one and only Rolleiflex.

As you might have guessed by now, I own a Rolleiflex. Well, I own two, actually. An Automat and a 3.5F with a wonderful Planar lens. And I use my Rolleis quite often because every month or so I am overpowered by the urge to take a picture while looking down on a ground glass, viewing my motive horizontally mirrored and getting pretty confused when this motive wanders out of the picture and I move the camera to the other side. It keeps my mind alert, I guess, and on the other hand I love the magical way of viewing a picture through these waist level finders.

Being able to have this experience with a 35mm camera built in 1960 electrified me. I bought the Agfa Flexilette in the classified ads for little money – 20 Euros, a fifth of the amount people normally charge for working specimens of this camera. When it came it was kind of a surprise, though, because the camera lacked a shutter release button. Okay, it was there, not on the camera, but dangling from a worn old cable release. Fact is that the little metal collar that connected the shutter release to the camera body must have broken off and there was no way, short of soldering it back on, to make it work.

Fortunately, I found a workaround for the problem – by inserting a thin plastic rod into the hole on top of the camera I was able to push the lever inside that releases the shutter mechanism. So out I went with the Agfa Flexilette… though while I was happily shooting with it I lost the plastic rod at some stage and had to replace it with a tiny twig I found on the ground beneath a tree. It worked, too!\

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Aside from this rather rustic improvised user interface the Agfa Flexilette worked like a charm: The finder is bright and clear, much brighter than that of my Rolleiflex Automat and also brighter than the waist level finder of a Praktica VLC. Actually it is the brightest waist level finder I have ever seen and with the focusing loupe very easy to focus too due to a precise central split image rangefinder. And there is one more rather unique feature to the waist level finder of the Flexilette: In its front and back walls you find windows with little lenses which together form an eye level viewfinder that is comparable with the better viewfinders of other cameras of this era.

Focus, aperture and shutter speed are adjusted via three concentric rings on the perimeter of the lens barrel. Two of them are knurled with distinctly different patterns that make it rather hard to confuse them. While the third one for changing the shutter speeds is operated via two black plastic tabs. These are about the only plastic parts (together with a little leg on the bottom of the lens barrel and the film spool) you can find on the Agfa Flexilette – the rest is made of metal or glass which gives the camera a reassuring heaviness and a trusty, reliable aura.

The Agfa Flexilette is ergonomically well designed. You look downwards into the finder while your left hand adjusts the focus and the right index finger presses the shutter release. The rapid wind lever is situated at the bottom of the camera and although it has a rather longish travel of 270 degrees it handles well and fast. Firing the shutter and transporting the film is silent and very unobtrusive – a big plus for a street photographer.

As for the lens – or better: the lenses – there is some debate going on amongst Agfa Flexilette aficionados. Why, some of them ask, did Agfa choose the three element  Apotar instead of their flagship prime, the four element Solinar? I guess the reason for that decision was the relatively low price of the camera – DM 199 when the camera was released in 1960, while a Leica M3 body cost thrice as much.  And I confess freely that i have no problems whatsoever with the 2.8/45mm Apotar. Actually I like it a lot. Even wide open it is sharp enough for my demands (at least in the centre) while giving me a hint of that distinctive “three element glow” and the special softness in unfocussed areas some people pay a lot of money for when buying a re-engineered Meyer Trioplan lens for their Sony A7.

After I shot one roll of Kodak ColorPlus 200 I was hooked. The Flexilette was definitely to stay in my little zoo of film cameras. But that meant that I had to go shopping for another one with a working shutter release button. A couple of weeks later I found one at Ebay classifieds for 40 Euros. Not in mint condition but in acceptable working order and with one of the characteristic chrome-lined leather ever ready camera cases of the time. The lady I bought the camera from told me on the phone that her husband – a retired officer of the German Navy – had travelled with the Agfa Flexilette to many a foreign shore and snapped a good lot of pictures there. She sent me some of his photos via Email, so I now have proof in black and white that my second Flexilette  has travelled to the far corners of the earth and deserves a place of honor among my ever growing collection of film cameras!

The Agfa Apotar 45mm at 2.8 – rather narrow depth of field

A door from the 1950ies – i like the way the Apotar renders geometrical forms

Taken with f4 and 1/30 sec – notice the paths of the snowflakes in front of the window panes

For a three-element lens the Apotar is quite sharp

Details in the window one of the last old fashioned booze and tobacco shops in my neighbourhood in Munich Schwabing

Street photography with the Flexilette #1: I had to react quickly when i saw the leopard lady, so i shot this picture with the sports finder and no time to focus properly

Street photography with the Flexilette #2: This picture was focused without hurry through the bright waist level finder

I love the bokeh of the 2.8 three element Apotar

A well travelled camera: Pictures taken with my Flexilette by its first owner, a german naval officer.

You can read more about the Agfa Flexilette and my other vintage film cameras in my blog (in English and German): www.zeitmaschinen.org
My pictures with this and other cameras you can find on my flickr account: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zeitmaschinen/ 

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9 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Callum Ross
    March 5, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    These show 3 elements is definitely enough for sharp images on 35mm! This looks more like Kodak cameras of the era, such as the Retina Reflexes, than other Agfa cameras I have seen; especially the wind-on lever underneath the body. Were they made by the same company or in the same factory by this time?

    For the record, I’m selling my Agfa Isolette II if you’re still looking. Not a solinar unfortunately. The lens is perfect and shutter speeds correct. It’s on eBay, if you’re interested I can send a link or get in touch? Only looking for ~£25-30 as it cost me very little in the first place.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Thomas Merk
      March 6, 2019 at 9:11 pm

      Hi Callum, no, it was not the same company. The Agfa cameras were built in Munich by Agfa camera works while the Kodak Retinas (also the Retina Reflex) were made by the german manufacturer Nagel in Stuttgart. I own a Kodak Retina Reflex too and the build quality and finish of that camera is superior to that of the Agfa.And thank you for the offer of the Agfa Isolette II, but i own two Isolette III already, one with an Apotar and one of a Solinar. The difference between the two lenses is not really something to write home about, i personally prefer the Apotar because of it’s special character.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Peter Grey
    March 6, 2019 at 3:07 am

    Good story! Just because of the name I would want a Flexilette 🙂

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Thomas Merk
      March 6, 2019 at 9:04 pm

      Thank you, Peter! I agree, the name Flexilette has an alluring sound to it 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Lori
    March 6, 2019 at 4:03 am

    That’s pretty cool. I just picked up an EXA 0 from a camera meet. It’s another 35mm camera with a waist level finder.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Thomas Merk
      March 6, 2019 at 3:58 pm

      The Exa is a lovely waist-level finder camera as well. And often it comes with interesting lenses like an East German Tessar or a Meyer Domiplan – a three element lens similar to the Agfa Apotar of the Flexilette. Enjoy your Exa!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Christos Theofilogiannakos
    March 6, 2019 at 7:27 am

    A really interesting concept, but rather poorly implemented I think, as I found the narrow controls around the lens barrel unnecessarily crammed together which made it an ergonomic nightmare for me. Other than that, your review is spot-on, esp. the part about the quality of the lens, I found it to be unexpectedly sharp, still full of character and the colors were amazing, just like the Triotar of my Rollei 35B, which says a lot about german optics of that era.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Thomas Merk
      March 6, 2019 at 3:41 pm

      You are right, the controls are a narrow affair and it took me some time to get used to them.There are some other drawbacks too like stick-on filters made of plastic and the general finish of the camera. But the lens is great (yes, i had a Rollei 35 with a Triotar too and agree totally with your view) and so is the extremely bright focussing screen. Thank you for your comment!

  • Reply
    Recommended Reading 3/8/19 - mike eckman dot com
    March 8, 2019 at 3:04 pm

    […] When you think of 35mm TLRs, your options are quite limited.  There was the odd shaped Zeiss-Ikon Contarex from the 1930s that was a squished down TLR designed for 35mm film, and then there’s oddball cameras like the Bolsey C, but for a very short period of time, AGFA was taking normal looking 35mm cameras and grafting on a waist level finder.  Is this a true TLR, you be the judge with Thomas Merk’s review of the AGFA Flexilette. […]

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