AGIMatic – an Innovative British 35mm Film Camera

By Bob Janes

I’ve written before about the British camera industry. I’ve done a review of a medium format SLR from a company called ‘Aeronautical General Instruments’ (AGI). AGI were based in Purley Way, Croydon. They produced AGILux cameras and lenses there. AGI claimed to produce everything in the one factory, even constructing their own lenses and shutters. As well as the medium format Agifold and Agiflex cameras AGI produced a 35mm camera called the ‘Agimatic’.

The front of the Agimatic showing, from left to right across the top of the camera: The control wheel for the extinction meter calculator, the square rangefinder window, the centrally placed extinction meter window above the film counter (upside down because you would be viewing it from above). Further over are the viewfinder window and a slider for the 85 mm lens mask.

Agimatic

The Agimatic was launched in 1958. The camera featured an uncoupled rangefinder, an extinction meter and interchangeable lenses. It also took a novel approach to winding on and rewinding film. 1958 was when the export controls came off in the UK, so AGI were aware that they were competing in an international market.

Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?

This is a novel camera, but there are some aspects that strongly remind me of a Braun Super Paxette. These include general body shape, the slide-off body, and the use of hinged pressure plates. Both cameras were rough contemporaries. There is often debate about who-made-what and who-copied-who between companies. In this case I was able to directly compare.

The Agimatic (top) in comparison with the Super Paxette. Croydon Vs Nuremberg (Crystal Palace Vs FC Nürnberg?) The differences are notable. Pressure plates hinge in opposite directions. Sprocket drive is done differently (but both with cut-outs in the pressure plate. The Prontor shutter on the Braun is more elegant. The Braun also has a little hinged cage to support the 135 cassette.

It is almost like someone was trying to make things just different enough to get away with it. The pressure plate on the Braun seems to hinge in a more logical way. The Agimatic has a suspiciously unused mounting point at the bottom of the camera. It looks like they were considering putting in a hinged cage like the Paxette has.  On the balance of probability, I was inclined to think it was the German company that was being imitated/flattered. Later on I found out that the the Super Paxette was actually introduced in 1956, two years before the Agimatic.

The Super Paxette (left) has a hinged support for the 135 cassette, while the Agimatic features a suspiciously positioned mounting point that doesn’t seem to be being used.

It wasn’t all one way though. Braun made a follow-up version of the Super Paxette which featured a rewind lever system very much like the one on the Agimatic. As that camera was released in the same year as the Agimatic, it may point to some sort of cross-licencing arrangement.

The Agimatic

Loading

Film is loaded by sliding the back of the camera off downwards. It is held in place by a neat little catch on the back of the camera. This gives easy access to the cassette chamber and take-up spool. The film passes under a hinged pressure plate. The plate is pressed against the gate by springs on the back once it is in place. The film is pulled by a single large sprocket placed centrally below the film gate. Be warned: you need to remember to reset the film counter wheel (which counts up) when you load the film as the control is covered by the base/back.

Interchangeable lenses

The Agimatic takes interchangeable breech-lock bayonet lenses – however, only two variants were made for this camera. The standard lens was the 45 mm f/2.8 Anastigmat, but there was also an 85 mm f5.5 telephoto. You release the bayonet with a little catch on the left side of the lens mount and directly remove one lens ready for replacement by the other. The lenses fit over a pin, with a small flange rotating to hold the bayonet tabs in place.

The rear of the 45 Anastigmat. Here you can see the bayonet tabs and the locating hole for the post on the camera mount, just outboard of the lower bayonet tab at about 7 O’clock.

When the 85 is mounted, you can slide a mask over the viewfinder restricting field of view. Each of the little lens units has its own many bladed diaphragm which can be set at intermediate values if required.

A sliding mask crops the viewfinder for the 85 mm lens option

Viewfinder and uncoupled rangefinder

The viewfinder is not the biggest in the world, but the viewfinder patch for the uncoupled rangefinder is reasonably clear – you simply align this using the little wheel at the back of the top-plate, then transfer that value (in feet) to the lens.

The camera rear showing, from left to right: The viewfinder window visible through a hole in the rewind lever, The extinction meter window beneath the cold-shoe, the rangefinder wheel with an adjuster at its centre and the setting wheel for the extinction meter calculator.

Shutter release and winding

The Agimatic features a long throw wind-on lever on the front of the camera for operation with the fingers of the right hand. The first movement of this lever fires the shutter. Further movement towards the base of the camera winds the film on to the next exposure, re-cocking the shutter at the bottom of the throw. AGI described this as a ‘4-in-1’ control. Releasing the shutter, winding the film, advancing the film counter and cocking the shutter.

It is reputed that this allows for the camera to be used for rapid sequence shots, up to 2 frames a second. I’d be nervous of tearing the film.

Agimatic stripped down with shutter mechanism exposed. A is the (slightly crude) two bladed, blue steel ‘scissoring’ shutter blades. B is the threaded remote release attachment point. C is the flash synch socket. D is the lens release, which moves the silver coloured lock-ring around the shutter to hold the two tabs of the lens bayonet. E is the post that the lens drops onto to locate properly. The shutter-release/winder is being partially depressed in this picture to the point where the shutter is released. To wind on and cock the shutter for the next shot, the lever must be pressed right to the bottom of the stroke. Also visible in this picture is the little red tab at the top of the shutter which indicates when the shutter is cocked.

Shutter speeds

The Croydon made shutter has speeds from 1 second to 1/350 plus B. It is mechanical but can be set between values.

Focus set for 13ft, F-stop at 3.5 and shutter speed at 1/50. The red colour under the circular cut-out shows that the shutter is cocked, so pressing on the lever on the right will take a picture…
The Agimatic with the top plate removed.

Film rewind

The Agimatic rewind is a little unconventional too. There is a lever on the left whose end is perforated so that you can look through it into the viewfinder. Ratcheting this lever back and forward draws the film back from the right-hand-side of the camera, back into the film cassette.

No rewind button! To rewind the film you move this lever through a series of 180 degree strokes. A little ratchet mechanism pulls the film back past the gate. A disk with stripes on it sits on top so that you can verify film movement and direction through a window in the top plate. Braun used a similar system on their later Super Paxettes.
The bands visible through the window on the left of the top-plate move to show which direction the film is moving in during winding and re-winding.

Extinction meter

The Agimatic features an extinction meter to aid exposure. When you look through the window in the centre of the camera, you see a range of numbers, each getting a little harder to see. It would seem that you pick the highest number that can be clearly seen and transfer that number to the little calculator that sits where you would expect a wind-on lever to be. The calculator then gives you a range of shutter speed and aperture combinations.

Under the hood. F is the screen for the extinction meter with 12 numbers of varying brightness, illuminated by the central window. G is the rangefinder mirror with the wheel and distance scale directly moving it via a threaded post on the rear. The mirror is on a long arm anchored to the right of the viewfinder in this picture. H is the calculator for the extinction meter: you set film speed then rotate the ring to match the highest clear number you can see showing up on the extinction meter screen.

In use

I find the long throw of the shutter-release/wind-on lever a little unnatural. However, the camera also supports an initial press to release the shutter followed by a second, longer press to wind the film, which was what I settled to. My preference may well be down to simply being used to a conventional setup over the course of 50 years. I was pleasantly surprised with the results from the in-house ground lens too.

I also tried using the extinction meter, but found myself preferring to use a separate light meter.

The camera itself is a nice size, fitting easily into a jacket pocket. Although it is pretty much identical in size, somehow it doesn’t feel quite as tiny as the Super Paxette.

Rewinding

The Agimatic behaved impeccably while winding on, giving regularaly spaced negatives throughout the film. The one issue was with rewinding. Once the lever has finished pulling the film past the gate, the drive sprocket is free. The rewind lever can then pull film back into the cassette. On my copy the drive sprocket is a little stiff and there were times during the re-wind when it started to make nasty noises.

Sprocket damage while rewinding.

Some of the sprockets on the film show damage as the film has been dragged against the resisting teeth of the drive wheel. Not bad enough to tear the film, but enough to cause worry about what the state of the film will be when the back is opened. For the next film I think I will take the back off in a dark bag and wind the film back without it being pressed against the gate and the sprocket wheel.

Shutter

In a way it is nice that AGI made all the parts in the same factory, but the two rough-hewn blue steel blades of the AGI shutter seem a bit brutal and crude in comparison to the fine multi-bladed leaf shutters of the competition. The slow speeds (below 1/30) don’t seem that reliable on the AGI, but the same is true of the Prontor on the Super Paxette – and on other cameras of similar vintage in my possession. Slower speeds just seem to gum-up far more on leaf shutters that are not regularaly used.

Pictures!

Selfie with Agimatic. I found the initial tripping of the shutter quite natural, but completing the stroke to wind the film on usually ended up with me repositioning my grip.
Public passageway under the control centre for the Thames barrier.
Steps on the Victoria Embankment
Posh flats overlooking the river.
Derelict pub at Charlton.
The Royal Iris. A Mersey ferry left abandoned on the southern bank of the Thames.
The standard lens focuses down to about 3 ft.
As with many rangefinder cameras, accurate framing using the viewfinder is troublesome. In this case the top of the masts of this Thames barge have been cropped off.

Conclusion

AGI went on to produce a follow-up to the Agimatic called the Agima. This had the same combined shutter release and wind-on and interchangeable lenses, but it also featured a coupled rangefinder. It had a bigger viewfinder with bright lines for the standard and telephoto lenses. It sounds like a highly practical camera, but it is rather ugly and is much rarer than the Agimatic. Braun had  produced something very similar, which was also ugly and probably a complete coincidence.

AGI got out of domestic cameras in the 1960s. They also got out of Croydon, eventually relocating to Poole on the south coast of England. A lot of the emphasis seems to be on Maritime instruments these days, which may be one of the reasons behind their recent rebranding from AGI to Trident.

Braun also abandoned domestic cameras in the mid 1960s, concentrating on producing slide projectors. Shortly afterwards this class of little interchangeable lens leaf-shutter rangefinder compacts were blown away by 35 mm SLR system cameras from Japan.

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About The Author

By Bob Janes
Retired IT guy. Volunteer stem-cell courier. Interested in education, photography and local history. Lives in Greenwich, SE London, UK.
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Comments

Scott Gitlin on AGIMatic – an Innovative British 35mm Film Camera

Comment posted: 30/07/2023

That multi-use film winder is such an interesting concept. Nice set of captures with the camera.
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John Collins on AGIMatic – an Innovative British 35mm Film Camera

Comment posted: 30/07/2023

I have one of these Agimatic cameras. Despite its quirks it is a lovely little camera to use. The only downside is that I don't have a case for it, rare as hens teeth apparently.
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Simon on AGIMatic – an Innovative British 35mm Film Camera

Comment posted: 29/07/2023

Thanks for writing about this model and AGI. The range of designs seen in post-war 35mm cameras is quite fascinating. In my teenage years I had an Agilux Agima 35mm RF camera, a hand-me-down from a family friend. It stopped working after being covered in snow when I tumbled (harmlessly) down a steep slope during a school skiing trip in the Alps. The film advance / shutter-cocking was a bit quirky and I only had the 45mm lens but the RF focussing was at least an improvement on the blind guesswork required with a Werra 1 he also gave me. I certainly preferred both cameras' near-silent and efficient sounding leaf shutters over the focal plane shutter of my Olympus SLR (also given to me by the same fellow).
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Paul Quellin on AGIMatic – an Innovative British 35mm Film Camera

Comment posted: 28/07/2023

Great article, really interesting to read. I fascinating insight into a British manufacturers approach. From the pictures, the slightly quirky camera is clearly still able to deliver. A while ago, I missed out on an AGIfold, this makes me think I should have a look for another. Thank you.
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