5 Frames – Old Bikes, Old Camera, Old Film – By Eric Norris

Agfa film running through an Agfa camera, once quite common, is now increasingly rare as stocks of the film dwindle and the cameras fall into disrepair. But with help from my daughter, I was able to make this rare pairing once again.

This post began a few months ago as my daughter was walking around her neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, looking for yard sales (like a “boot sale” in England, but held in the front yard or garage of the home). At one sale, Sarah came across several large plastic bins full of film, all supposedly stored in a freezer until they ended up on sale for a very low price ($4 US per roll). There were dozens of rolls, color and black and white, from various manufacturers. She quickly texted me a photo, and I just as quickly called her back and asked her to buy ten rolls of 35mm color film for me.

When I got the film a few weeks later, I was thrilled to see that among the rolls of Portra were two rolls of expired Agfa Prestige color film. I have a soft spot for Agfa products, and I’ve assembled a small collection of their cameras, but I’ve never until now been able to shoot their film.

The film was Agfa Agfacolor Optima Prestige 100, a film last produced by Agfa in the mid-2000s as the company was winding down its photographic operations. Mine came as film in canisters, so I don’t know exactly when it expired (why, oh why don’t they put the expiration date on the canister?) but safe to say it was 15 or so years past its best days.

Still, with high hopes I shot the first roll in my Leica M5 at box speed, developed and scanned at home (CineStill’s C41 kit and an Epson V550 scanner) and was very pleased with the results. The negatives looked normally dense, colors were good. Reds, especially, popped.

I now looked for an opportunity to shoot the second and last roll. An upcoming cycling event here in Northern California featuring a 100Km ride on vintage bicycles seemed perfect. Bicycles and riders are colorful photo subjects, and we had high hopes for a clear, bright Fall day.

For my camera, I selected an Agfa Optima Sensor 1535, the last and most advanced camera in the Optima Sensor line of cameras that began with the 335 and advanced through the 535 and 1035 before reaching its pinnacle in the 1535, which features rangefinder focusing and fully automatic exposure. I’ve always enjoyed shooting this camera. Its huge viewfinder is a joy to look through, the design in pleasingly Bauhaus, and the camera is reasonably sturdy. The big red shutter button (an Agfa trademark and reason for the “sensor” name) is easy to find and use, even with gloves on.

The day of the ride in early October did turn out fine. About 30 riders set out for a ride on a variety of vintage bicycles mostly from the 1970s and 80s. Five of my favorite shots are shown below.

Some riders paired their vintage bikes with vintage kit. Here, a rider on a Lemond racing bicycle.
Heading out through the vast, flat farmland of California’s Yolo County. Setting the focus at infinity let me use the 1535 like a point-and-shoot for photos like this.
My friend, Tara, with her little dog, are a frequent site on local rides. He loves feeling the wind in his ears.
The bridge over Stevenson Creek is a popular spot for local young people (mostly students from the nearby University of California at Davis) to add their own artistic efforts to the graffiti. Some waggishly insist that the layers of paint are helping hold the bridge together.
Halloween was a few weeks away, and many local farms displayed their pumpkin crops at roadside stands.

I was again pleased with the results from the Agfa film, which survived the years since it was made mostly intact. Exposed as box speed, it retained nice colors and contrast. Now I just need to find a Time Machine to go back and get more!

As per usual, not all of the shots turned out this well. Shooting from a moving bike with a rangefinder camera isn’t the easiest thing to do, and not every shot was in focus or properly framed. Still, it felt great to pair Agfa film and camera once again … and the ride was fun as well!

You can find my other excursions with cameras and film young and old at my Instagram page here. The folks over at Japan Camera Hunter did a review of Agfa Optima Prestige film–see it here. Nathalie Porter reviewed the 1535 here on 35mmc a couple of years ago. Another good review of the 1535 (with shutter sounds!) is available here.

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6 thoughts on “5 Frames – Old Bikes, Old Camera, Old Film – By Eric Norris”

  1. Thanks for the read! I have a 1035 that worked once or twice after I bought it; as you say – that viewfinder! I love the design of that series. And I too have a soft spot for Agfa film; my first camera was the Agfa Rapid that used to shoot those Rapid cartridges. Recently I’ve shot a couple of rolls of the 35mm Precisa 100 slide film that was given to me in a shoebox with a bunch of 20+yr expired and poorly stored films. The Precisa held up really well, but that’s not a scientific test by any means. Oh – and I do have an old steelie or two! The guy on the Lemond is doing a good job matching his kit! Thanks for sharing…

  2. Ah, those heady days of old before film went down the gurgles and became a niche product!!

    In 2006 during one of my several retirement periods (I’ve did four as “tests” before my final and permanent disappearance from the work force in 2012) I traveled around Southeast Asia with four of these small film gems – namely the Agfa Optima Sensor 1535 – and shot several hundred rolls of the then still-available Kodachrome 64.

    It was an ideal way to go. The cameras, lens hoods, UV filters, a Leitz table top tripod and up to 20 rolls of film easily went into a medium-size back pack and could be easily carried even on long day treks. Back then one could still earn reasonable money from stock photo sales and many of my slides taken with the Agfas found ready markets. I can’t say I earned enough to pay for my entire time away, but my stock sales went a long way to fund small luxuries – better hotels, good food, and rather a lot of good Asian beer, notably big bottles of Bintang and Heineken in Indonesia, San Miguel in the Philippines and Tiger in Malaysia and a few other SEA countries, in those good old days when I was younger and travel was cheaper and AUD$3 bought a big bottle of heady brew.

    Even in the ’90s I recall many “serious” photographers carried one of these small Agfa P&S cameras. They were widely known as mini-Leica and with a little care in composing and steadying one’s shots, surprisingly good results could easily be had. Not to ay they were as good as the Leica Ms of the time, but almost.

    I was younger and fitter in those now bygone days and I did a lot of mountain trekking – notably a week in East Java to explore the entire Bromo Valley and a day trek to nearby Gunung (Mount) Semeru, luckily at a time when this often active volcano was dormant and it was possible to get quite far down into the caldera.

    I particularly liked that the Afgas were surprisingly adjustable and one could “up” or “down” the film speeds to cut the notorious Asian light glare or add a little more exposure to record fine detail in the early mornings or evenings. A lot of this can still be done with DLSRs or mirrorless but back in the film days one had to apply a little thinking to exposure to get effects now so easily done on the ‘A’ setting.

    I still have all my slides, nothing much has sold as stock in recent years but on occasion I like to pour myself a glass of Heineken (alas, no longer available for those good old day Asian prices) and relive those past adventures. The two Agfas went to new owners in the mid-teens and I hope are still being used – my then partner liked B&W and often went out with one 1535, a yellow filter and a few rolls of Tri-X or HP5 for street shooting. The results were always nothing short of excellent.

    I recall the one and only downside of these Agfas was the number of batteries they required – I recall the 1535 took four. Not cheap to buy, but they did last a long time.

    My time as a photographer is now running short, but I go on hoping that color and B&W films will soon again be available in more supply and many of us will again be using these Agfas (and other similar P&S wonder cameras of their day) to make our images on analog. Film has a unique look and these 1535s were certainly built to last (German made after all) and they go on producing superb results.

    A most enjoyable article, this, many thanks to the author from an appreciative older reader.

    Dann in Melbourne

  3. Ibraar Hussain

    Thank you – really enjoyed the write up and loved the photos – absolutely loved the colours. You’ve inspired me to seek a roll out and also to look for an Agfa camera such as yours
    Thank you

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