5 frames with...

5 Frames in Paris with an Agfa Half-Frame Flea Market Find – By Eric Norris

Agfa Half-Frame
One of my goals when visiting Paris recently was to scour the used camera stores on the Boulevard Beaumarchais, well-known for their great selection of interesting gear. Alas, my trip was scheduled for August, when most of Paris goes on vacation, and all of the shops I had hoped to visit were locked up tight.
Fortunately, however, as my friends and I were walking to visit a bar in the Butte-aux-Cailles neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement, I spotted a flea market taking place nearby under an elevated streetcar track. We had walked almost the entire length of the market when I spotted the Mother Lode—a vendor with several tables crammed with all manner of used cameras. While my friends rolled their eyes and made half-hearted attempts to speed me up, I examined the selection.

Eric, Meet Agfa

And there it was, sparkling in the late afternoon Parisian sun–a very nice-looking Agfa camera, wrapped in a leather half case. I picked it up and was impressed by the heft of the camera. Even on close inspection it looked great—shiny chome, no dents, etc. And I was even more intrigued when I put it to my eye and the image in the viewfinder was vertical. This was a half-frame camera, a format I’ve started getting into the past few months! I opened the back (there was still a roll of old film in it) to confirm that everything looked clean, and decided to buy it.
A few minutes later, after a little haggling with the seller (aided by my French-speaking friend), I paid €35 for the camera. We continued on our way to the bar, where we enjoyed some great beverages and an overflowing cheese and meat platter.
Later on, back at the hotel, I found a manual online and checked the camera in more depth. The shutter appeared to work, reacting appropriately to different lighting conditions, so I loaded a roll of film (Kodak Gold 200, 36 exposures) and started taking pictures.

About the Agfa Optima Parat

At this point, let me say a few things about the camera. It is indeed a half-frame camera, taking half-sized negatives, which means that my roll of 36 exposures turned into 72 frames. Exposure is automatic, powered by a selenium sensor, which means no hunting for obscure old batteries. I’ve heard of selenium cells ageing over time, but the images from that first roll of film turned out fine, so I’m assuming mine is OK. Film advancing is quick (only half the length to advance). A counter on the bottom, reset manually, counts down from 72 or 48 or whatever value you set. The body is wrapped in a smooth metal skin, not leatherette, giving it a more luxurious appearance.

Another photo of the Eiffel Tower? Why not? Shot this from the deck of a tour boat on the Seine.

Shooting the Agfa

Shooting involves a half-press of the front-mounted shutter, a feature that only showed up in SLRs much later. Press the shutter halfway, and an LED in the viewfinder (powered by the selenium cell) changes from red to green if there’s enough light. Keep pressing, and it takes a photo. Unlike some other cameras (the Olympus XA comes to mind) that won’t shoot if there’s not enough light, the Agfa will go ahead and take a picture at the slowest shutter speed and largest aperture available. That’s a nice feature, in my opinion—I often argue with my XA while I select a different aperture and hope that my shot is still available.

A classic view of part of the Île Saint-Louis. Brassai, Doisneau and many others have looked on the same scene for decades.

Focusing is easy—turn the ring on the front of the camera to match the “mountain/group/head shot” settings (marked by gentle detents as you move the ring) or to a specific distance. Based on my limited experience, the focusing is sharp and accurate.

I steadied the camera on a door frame to get this shot of a restaurant in the Marais district. The slow shutter blurred the motion of the pedestrians.

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Other than focus and ASA, the only other setting available is to turn the camera from automatic exposure to either flash or “B”. I haven’t tried either one and don’t anticipate ever doing so.

Even Paris’ roofs are scenic! This was the view from my hotel room.

Results So Far

My experience so far? It takes great pictures which print and scan reasonably well despite being half the size of a standard 35mm negative. Exposure is generally good, but the selenium cell sees the totality of all the light hitting it and adjusts accordingly. As a result, a scene with a single bright light source will generally be underexposed.

This park, at the tip of the island that contains Notre-Dame, was built to honor the French King Henry IV. A statue of the king looks down on the park from a plaza above.

So, my Parisian flea market find has turned out quite well. I have a second roll of color film in it right now, and I sourced some mildly expired Fuji film with 12 exposures per roll because, outside of a target-rich environment like Paris, it takes a long time to shoot 72 photos!

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7 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Martin
    October 8, 2019 at 10:16 am

    Great article and story and fine pics with a half format not heard of so often. I cannot agree on the Olympus XA not shooting in low light.
    Prove:
    https://flic.kr/p/4b4GpB

    The XA-1 does not, I agree. And I’m also not sure for the 2, 3 and 4 but the original XA does.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Terry B
    October 8, 2019 at 11:33 am

    Nice shots of Paris. It seems that Agfa were intent on getting the best out of half frame as I see they equipped the camera with their top quality 4-element Solinar, their take on the Tessar design. It therefore seems odd they they decided to provide focus indication only via three settings and not via a full focusing scale. I can only assume that they thought that the DoF provided by the short focal length lens was sufficient.
    One small point, front of body shutter releases had been available for at least a decade on an slr camera before Agfa inroduced it to their Optima range c. 1959. Firstly the Contax, Praktina, and then Praktica cameras all featured this. The feature also appeared on Corfield Periflex cameras from the first model launched in 1953.
    Personally, I find this arrangement much more comfortable than any of my 35mm cameras with the more conventional top-mounted shutter release.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Eric Norris
      October 8, 2019 at 4:24 pm

      Might be a little hard to see in the photo, but distance markings are on the bottom of the focusing ring—clearly, Agfa thought most people would use the close/middle/far icons on the top.

      The front-mounted shutter button is a bit of a pain. I’m always afraid of too much shake from the long throw and the relatively hard push, but the photos never show it.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Terry B
        October 9, 2019 at 2:41 pm

        Eric.
        Thanks for the info re the focusing scale. Regarding Agfa’s implementation of the front mounted shutter release, I agree. It isn’t the best ergonomically as it requires a downwards pressure on the release and it does have a long throw. Also, it is positioned fairly low down on the body making positioning of the right hand somewhat awkward as well, not comfortable at all. I have a mint Optima 500S and this is the only aspect for which I’d mark down this otherwise excellent camera.
        The way that Praktina and Praktica positioned the release was just where the right index finger comes naturally to rest when holding the camera, and the release is at an angle. In the Periflex models the shutter button again falls in a natural position for the right index finger but is operated by being pushed horizontally into the body. Thus, these cameras make use of the hand’s natural opposing thumb principle to ensure a very comfortable means of holding the camera and releasing the shutter.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Dan
    October 9, 2019 at 12:02 am

    Great little camera

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Graham Orbell
    October 9, 2019 at 9:55 am

    Very nice photos of a beautiful city. I borrowed a half frame Olympus Pen in the early 60s and the results were excellent with Kodak Panatomic X, the only film I used in it. I would certainly buy a half frame camera if I was lucky enough to find one today. I knew the “full frame” Optima cameras back then and they were sturdy cameras. I think it was the Optima 3S that had a rangefinder and an optional close up attachment. Perhaps because lots of people took Kodachrome and other slides in those days, 1/2 frame never really became popular. You would need to mount your own slides in special mounts or there was always the possibility of 2 frames being automatically mounted together. A slide projector would show a smaller picture and have to be a long way back. Most people like to take horizontal images and don’t like turning a camera on it’s side. But it’s all those differences that make 1/2 frame interesting especially these days when film is not a cheap option.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Okyar Atilla
    October 10, 2019 at 9:29 am

    If you are in Paris, it doesn’t matter what you have in your hand for photography… I love more shot of a restaurant in night. Well done.

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