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Medium Format In Your Pocket!
©Darrell Young
Folder Discussion Forum
   
How would you like to carry a medium format camera in your jacket, purse, or pocket?

Would you be interested if it only weighs a few ounces, has excellent image quality, relative ease-of-use, and instant "snoot" appeal? This type of camera takes standard 120 film, makes a 6x4.5, 6x6, or 6x9 (cm) image, and causes your subject to smile without saying cheese?

Is this some new carbon-fiber whiz camera that you've not yet heard about? Is this camera a modern miracle of miniaturization? Is there really such a camera, or am I carrying an RB67 and having delusional fantasies? Well, as bubba might say, "I ain't lyin'."

Just ask your grandmother!
The camera I am speaking of with such great fondness, is any one of a series of early 1940's to 1960's medium format folder cameras. To get these cameras does require a little work, since they are not generally available in camera stores. In fact, you might find one at a yard sale or the Internet more quickly. Your grandma probably took some naked baby pictures of you with one of these; you know, the ones she showed to all your potential spouses!

The picture at left shows the author's two 6x6cm Agfa Isolette III folder cameras. One is opened and the other closed. Look!...Medium Format in Your Pocket!
These little cameras are easily available at yard sales, flea markets, and at the world's biggest market, eBay. (Click here to find your camera on eBay) The best of them have lenses with strange names like Tessar, Solinar, Heliar, or Skopar, and come with coated, color-corrected, three or four-element lens designs. They are capable of extremely sharp and contrasty images, fully up to the standards of many new medium format cameras. And most of them will slide into your pocket, with room for a roll or two of film. It is a bit hard to believe, but is very true!

Unfortunately, it is hard to find one that is fully in working condition. But, if you can find a nice looking one, it can be rebuilt for around $150.00, and you'll have a medium format camera that is very capable for a very reasonable price. Most of the good used ones sell for $15.00 to $300.00 on eBay, and you can find them at yard sales for less than $20.00. Why not get one for yourself, and have the utility of a quality medium format camera in your pocket? I can tell you from personal experience that it is almost unbelievable how high the quality of the images are, with a good lens and a clean folder body.
I shoot regularly with a Mamiya RB67 Pro SD and the terribly expensive K/L lenses, along with a Mamiya 645 and the lovely N lenses. But, when I go somewhere I generally take my little Agfa Isolette III folder. Imagine seeing an interesting fruit or vegetable at the supermarket and pulling out a Mamiya RB67 for a quick shot. Why, you'd be arrested on the spot as a terrorist. The RB67 looks like an alien ray gun, missile-launcher, or some other weird and dangerous device for those used to little plastic cameras. But, the little folder cameras look like a camera. They have a lens sticking out in front, with a shutter release button on top, and are the normal rectangle that most expect a camera to be. People will generally come up and ask, "Hey, what kind of cool camera is that?" (Or they'll walk by making clucking noises at the idiot photographing the squash and celery...I know!)


Agfa Record III - 6x9cm Rangefinder Model


Two Agfa Isolette III's - 6x6cm Rangefinder Model

Recently, I acquired an Agfa Isolette III made in the early to mid 1950's. It is a beautifully restored camera, in nearly perfect shape, even though it's around 50-years old. A fine fellow named Jurgen Kreckel restored my camera from a $20.00 yard-sale special in sad condition, to a fully functional beauty. Later in this article, we have an interview with Jurgen. If you really want one of these beauties, he is the fellow to see.

The image at left shows both of my cameras, with the red bellows being the restored one, and the other being purchased from eBay.
How can I identify a folder camera that is worth buying, and in good enough condition to use? These are important questions, because with any camera line there are the good models and cheaper ones. It is best, with technology this far back, to use only the middle to high-end lenses, unless you are limiting yourself to black and white images. Remember that color film really only caught on beginning in the 50's, and was in full bloom by the 60's. That is why all those old baby pictures are usually black and white for those of us over 40. You need the mid-range to high-end lenses to get the necessary coatings and color correcting glass for excellent color images. Below are listings of easily available camera brands, lenses, and shutters. All of these can provide unbelievably sharp images. The mid to high end equipment does so at larger apertures.
Voigtlander Bessa (Mid 40s and up)  
Coated Lens
Highest-end lens: APO/Lanthar (very rare)
High-end lens:
Color Heliar
Low high-end lens:
Color Skopar
Mid-range lens:
Vascar
Low-end lens: Voigtar
High-end shutter: Synchro-Compur
Mid-range shutter:
Prontor-S
Low-end shutter:
Prontor-S
   
Voigtlander Bessa (Late 20's to mid 40's)  
Uncoated Lens
High-end lens: Heliar or Helomar
Low mid-range lens:
Anastigmat Skopar
Low-end lens:
Anastigmat Voigtar
Very low-end lens: Focar (very old cameras)
High-end shutter: Compur-Rapid
High-end shutter:
Compur (single word)
Mid-range shutter: Voigtlander (single word) 
   
Voigtlander Perkeo  
High-end lens: Color Skopar
Mid-range lens:
Vascar
Low-end lens: Vascar
High-end shutter: Synchro-Compur
Mid-range shutter:
Prontor-S
Low-end shutter: Pronto
   
Agfa Isolette or Ansco Speedex (Same)  
High-end lens: Solinar
Mid-range lens:
Apotar
Low-end lens:
Agnar
High-end shutter: Synchro-Compur, or Compur-Rapid
Mid-range shutter:
Prontor-SV, or Prontor-SV-S
Low-end shutter:
Vario, Prontor, or Pronto
   
Ziess Ikonta  
High-end lens: Tessar
Mid-range lens:
Novar  Anastigmat
Low-end lens:
Novar  Anastigmat
High-end shutter: Synchro-Compur, or Compur-Rapid
Mid-range shutter:
Prontor-S, or Prontor-SV
Low-end shutter: Prontor or Vario (rare)
   
You will find that the folders come with the lenses and shutters a bit mixed. For instance, in the past I have owned an Isolette II with an Apotar lens, and a Compur-Rapid shutter. My two current Isolette III folders are a mix-and-match also. One has the Solinar lens and Synchro-Compur shutter (image left), the other has an Apotar lens and Prontor shutter (image below).

The Synchro-Compur shutter uses a more modern design with synchronization for both bulb (M) and electronic flash (X). So, if you can, get a Synchro-Compur. They are harder to find, but worth it.
It is still possible to find folder cameras in usable condition. They generally have pretty simple designs, so are very reliable as long as they are used from time-to-time. Sitting around on a shelf somewhere is bad for any camera, since the shutters tend to become less accurate with lack of use. In some cases you can "exercise" the shutters on the old cameras, and they will return to normal function. When I bought my Isolette III from eBay (image right), its shutter stuck on any speed below 1/25th. I exercised the shutter by firing it over and over, helping it close by lightly pushing on the cocking lever, and after a while it started working by itself.

This works with some cameras, but with those that have sat around unused for many years, it may not work. In that case, it is time to call a restorer. The Isolette III that Jurgen Kreckel restored for me has an extremely accurate shutter. He really works these cameras over, and brings them into "like-new" condition. These older cameras may never have the absolute shutter accuracy of an electronically controlled shutter, even when restored. But, they are plenty accurate. I have used Provia F slide film in my restored Isolette III, and have found no exposure errors at any speed.

The most common problems found on these older cameras are: 1. Holes in the bellows, 2. Slowest shutter speeds sticking or inaccurate, 3. Focus ring very stiff or stuck, 4. Dirty lenses, 5. Leatherette coming loose, or other cosmetic problems.


Voigtlander "Baby" Bessa 6x6cm from early 1940's

Sure, you can find one that's in good working condition, but this means that it was actually used by somebody, and not allowed to sit around for 20 or 30 years.

I bought my second Agfa Isolette III, with the mid-range Apotar lens on eBay for about $70.00, and after exercising the shutter it works well. My favorite one, though, is the one rebuilt by Jurgen Kreckel, since it has a new red bellows, the extraordinary Solinar lens, and has been Cleaned, Lubricated, and Adjusted (CLA'd) to normal specs.

You can have your bellows replaced with several colors. I have seen red, blue, black, and green bellows on Jurgen's cameras. In a sense, you can have your camera personalized by selecting colors, lenses, shutters, etc.
I carry my Solinar lensed Isolette for color, and my Apotar lensed Isolette for Black & White. Could you afford to carry two medium format cameras, just to have a choice of films? Most couldn't due to the extremely high cost. But, with these excellent folders, you could carry half a dozen of them for the average cost of a used RB67 lens. For medium format on a budget, without loss of quality, consider a folder or two for yourself.

Most of the really clean ones have been at the top of grandpa's closet for the last 40 years. Although beautiful, they usually will have two or more of the problems mentioned above. But, these camera can be restored back to pristine condition, and you will have a real medium format camera that is the envy of all your photographer friends, and allows you to surreptitiously photograph fruit and vegetables at will, not to mention sunsets, people, and landscapes.

On the right is a comparative image of three of my favorite cameras. On top is the Mamiya RB67 ProSD, in middle is the Mamiya M645 1000S, and on bottom is the Agfa Isolette III. All three use the same 120 film. Which do you think I carry with me daily? (Clue: It has a red bellows)

When I fold up my little Isolette, I have a medium format camera that I can put in my pocket. It shoots 12 - 6x6cm (2 1/4" x 2 1/4") images, the same as a Hasselblad. In my humble opinion, it even rivals the Hassy in image quality! Cost: Less than $250.00 fully restored. (Chuckle, chuckle!)


Now let's interview the well-known folder restorer, Jurgen Kreckel of Saylorsburg, Penn., USA.

Mr. Kreckel buys a lot of folder cameras, and brings them back to pristine life. He says that, even though they are fifty+ years old, that when he is done with them, "they are ready for another fifty years of use!"

He sells quite a few folders on eBay, and will even make a great deal with you directly. His informative website is: http://www.certo6.com. Find him on eBay by his username certo6.

As I mentioned earlier, I bought an Agfa Isolette III from Jurgen. It looks a lot like the brass version with the red bellows in the picture, only mine's still chromed. This little camera goes everywhere with me. I cannot believe the quality of its images.

Now, let's see if we can obtain any jewels of folder buying knowledge from Jurgen. 

 
Jurgen Kreckel with some of his "Creations"

 

 
Jurgen Overhauls an Agfa Isolette II

Q. Why did you start rebuilding folder cameras?

A. Like many things, that's a long but somewhat uncomplicated story. Many moons ago I got interested in hunting and guns, but being just out of college and newly married, I couldn't afford the guns I really wanted. So I decided to make my own; eventually drifting into muzzleloaders. At that point I was creating all my guns from scratch.... and making enough of them that I began to have clients in North America, Europe, and Australia/New Zealand as well. I became one of the primary sources for 16 - 17th century firearms.

What does that have to do with cameras, you ask? Well, about the same could be said for cameras. I couldn't afford medium format cameras so I had to make do with old folders. Following my adage that "what one can screw together, I can screw apart......... and put back together again!"

I guess my years of gunsmithing was a natural when I decided to "play with medium format folders." Actually, I've been a "photographer" much longer than a hunter and gunsmith. I really got started restoring cameras about 6 years ago when a good friend of mine, Frank Frazetta, asked me to fix his cameras. He's sort of a collector and user so he'd somehow muck up a camera every now and then.
 
I just had a knack for making them right again. I refurbished an Isolette for him and myself, and pretty much have been doing so ever since.... only during the last two years with any kind of seriousness, and with the help of eBay.

Medium format folder cameras are such pure and simple photographic devices. Its just you, your imagination, the film, and a lens to create an image.


To me, these folders have a design simplicity and honesty that aesthetically doesn't exist with our modern electronic "let me calculate it for you" cameras.


A "stripped" Agfa Isolette II

Q. What do you do to a camera, in general, when you overhaul one?

A. As you might discern from the photos I sent you, there are three versions that I do:

1. A TOTAL rehab..... I totally strip the camera of the outside leatherette covering. This is usually for a camera that's in pretty sad shape. It gets polished and even repainted if needed, and new leatherette applied. The lens is totally disassembled and cleaned. Then the shutter is disassembled, cleaned, and lubricated. This is a very precise operation, as shutters can be ruined when the oil is applied in the wrong places and in more than very minute quantity!

2. More normally, an overhaul involves Cleaning, Lubrication, and Adjusting all moving parts. This involves disassembly of the lens and, on cameras with rangefinders, the rangefinder itself as well. In addition, almost all cameras receive a new bellows in either red, green, blue, or black.

3. The third type, of course, is all the above with the addition of the removal of the chrome from the body. The body is then polished to a bright brass finish... sort of like a Stiffel lamp!

 


Another view of a "stripped" Agfa Isolette II

Q. Do you have a favorite folder camera?

A. Well, when I was about 14 my dad gave me his old camera, his new one was a Minolta SRT101, so that kinda tells ya when it was! It was an Agfa Isolette with Vario shutter and an Agnar f4.5 85mm lens. This was my camera for about 5 years until I could afford one of those new SLRs, a Praktica Super TL which I still have. I don't know how many pictures of girl friends, and other stuff of course, that I took with my Isolette, but I can remember that very few of them came out less than very good!


One thing I liked to do with my B&W matte prints in the sixties, was colorize them with simple color pencils ... just enough to give them that 1910 pastel artsy look... pretty cool! 
So which is my favorite folder in 6x6? That is hard, since there are so many good ones. I'm partial to the Isolette because "it was my first camera." I guess I'd have to say that the best medium format 6x6 folders have to be the Agfa Super Isolette and the Zeiss Super Ikonta IV.

I've tested both side by side and there is no clear winner. The Agfa by a shade maybe because it feels so much better built and engineered.

The Mamiya 6 Automatic is a pretty nice camera too .... but less long term reliability because of its complex winding system than the former.


The removed chrome reveals cool brass


Here is the disassembled camera shown above, in its restored and finished condition. Impressive, huh?

For 6x9, cheez.... until VERY recently, I never paid any attention to it. Now I have an Agfa Record III, a Russian Mockva 4, and a Voigtlander Bessa II. As a precision instrument, the Voigtlander wins hands down.... its the Rolex compared to the Moskva's Casio. But they both tell the same time.... hmmmmmmm.

Q. If I wanted to buy one for you to overhaul, which type should I buy?

A. That varies according to the format. Overhauling a 6x9 is not much different than the 6x6s. In 6x9, the best buy is still the Agfa Record III with the Mockva 4 and 5 right up there. With the Mockva though, it's more of a risky proposition if you don't have a "sound" camera to begin with.

That is one of the handicaps of buying Russian equipment, some of it is very good, and some of the same model are not.

I have had great success overhauling all
Agfas, Zeiss Nettars, Ikontas, Super Ikontas, Weltinis, and a few others. I will not, however, work on the Mamiya 6 because it is just a nightmare of "flying springs." I had to have one repaired once, and it cost me $366.00!!!! (It was one I couldn't "screw back together!")

Q. We know that you rebuild the folders, but how do you use them yourself?

A. Because of the extra margin of quality I get when I enlarge my photos to 20x30 or more, I use them for travel. I like to display my best shot "big", and that only works well with medium format. When traveling I also carry a Contax TVS or Rollei 35SE as my snap-shot camera. Once upon a time, I used to carry a bevy of SLRs, you name the brand or model .... I've carried it!! After a while I just got tired of carrying all that stuff when I could get as good results from my point and shoot and from the Isolette folder for "the Big Stuff!" I tend to carry one folder for prints and another for slides... there simply is NOTHING to compare with those big 6x6 slides.... "you ain't seen nothin" till you've seen a 6x6 slide show!!!!"

<<<>>>

We appreciate Jurgen's allowing us to interview him. Check out his eBay ads, and communicate with him at this e-mail address: jurgenk@epix.net. Below you will find a series of images taken with folder cameras.

So, in summary, if you are tired of little teeny 35mm negatives and want to move into the real world of photography, but cannot afford medium format. Or, if you are ready for a photographic challenge, where you get back to real basic photography. Look into the folders of yesteryear. Many of the old masters used these cameras regularly, as did your grandparents. Pass the folders on to the next generation. Maybe someday a camera company will forget about maximum profits all the time, and start making new small medium format folders. Until then…carry on the tradition!

May the folders be with you!


   
Sample Images  
   
Below are several images taken with my Agfa Isolette III in Tennessee. These are highly compressed full frame scans from a 5x5" print, not the Fuji NPS 160, 6x6cm negative. I cannot express to you just how sharp and contrasty these images actually are. I tried to make a series of blow ups from one of the images to let you see how well the detail is captured. In the actual image, the detail stands out in great depth. Notice the edge-to-edge sharpness and lack of light falloff. I was completely blown away the first time I saw these images. You will be too, when you get your folder!

The image above is easily equal to a 20x30 or larger enlargement. In fact, it is about 3/4 lifesize. Can you see the detail...even in this highly compressed JPEG image. I enlarged this one so much that I am approaching the resolution limit of the printing paper as is evidenced by the just evident horizontal lines.

The two images directly above are negative scans by Fleetwood Photo in Knoxville Tennessee. I simply took the full frame scan and cut a 100% view 600 pixels wide to show the awning in its full detail. It is quite impressive that an enlargement this size would contain this much detail. Try that with 35mm negatives. These pocketable medium format folders, with the the high-end lenses, are the cat's meow for people who want either medium format on a tight budget, or excellent portability...Medium Format In Your Pocket.

A
ll the sample images above were taken with my Agfa Isolette III with a Solinar 75mm f3.5 lens, at about f16 and 1/100th, handheld, on Fuji NPS 160 ISO negative film. If you've enjoyed this article, my greatest reward would be an e-mail from you. I am collecting the e-mail in a thread. If you have any interesting stories about how YOUR experiences with a folder camera, past or present, we'd love to hear about them.

I
f you have read this entire article, then it's clear that you are indeed a folder fanatic, or are about to become one. Join us! ...

Keep on capturing time...

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If you would like to discuss this with others, check out the new
Folder Discussion Forum
 
Read this article in french (an excellent translation by Mario Groleau)


Find your folder camera today on eBay...Click Ad Below:
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If you click through here and buy a folder, eBay will send me some money. YAY!


For more information on folder cameras see the following websites:

Jurgen Kreckel's Vintage Folding Camera Website: http://www.certo6.com

Classic Folding Rollfilm Cameras: http://homes.jcu.edu.au/~zlraa/Campix/folders.htm
Agfa Isolette 120 Folder Cameras:
http://people.smu.edu/rmonagha/mf/agfaisolette.html
Agfa Isolette II:
http://www.cix.co.uk/~rgivan/isoletteii.html
Roland and Caroline's Home Page:
http://www.rolandandcaroline.co.uk/
Medium Format Articles Page:
http://people.smu.edu/rmonagha/mf/
Classic Camera Forum:
http://pub16.bravenet.com/forum/show.asp?usernum=1359033357
Agfa Theo:
http://www.homepages.hetnet.nl/~agfa-theo/index.html
Russian Moskva:  http://members.aol.com/forgeniuses/MOCKBA/Mockba.html


Mule Pattersons Photographica (A Modern Look at 1930-1950's Folder Images): http://www.pattersonville.com/photography/photographica/photographica_folders.html

 

Copyright ©2004 by Darrell Young, All Rights Reserved