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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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While my professional life for the past 30 years has revolved around urban planning, my love of photography goes back much farther. I inherited an old folding camera from my grandfather in high school, and was soon taking over the bathroom develop and print film. Since then, photography has remained a common thread in all my endeavors, which have included a stint as newspaper reporter and several decades of long-distance cycling. In addition to 35MMC, I post to Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube under the user name CampyOnlyGuy