Sunday, 9 September 2012

Agfa Box Cameras

I have a big pile of medium format film. Let's stick it into some things. Here's an Agfa Synchro Box, let's stick it into that:

It has a face! If it could talk, it would say snoooo. The "eyes" are actually viewfinders - one for portrait orientation, and one for landscape. They're simple one-piece lenses with a mirror behind them that's really just a piece of bent, polished metal. The camera came to me with cloudy optics and cloudy viewfinders, but it's easy to pop off the front plate and clean everything up. The circular piece of glass in the middle of the camera is a dust cover - the lens itself is behind the shutter. The lens is a one-element design that fits onto the front of the film cradle:

The whole cradle comes out of the back of the camera, like one of those Russian dolls. The camera takes standard 120 film - none of Kodak's deliberately non-standard 620 nonsense - although being German the advert on the side of the cradle calls it B-2:

Agfa advert, or early Kraftwerk album cover? You decide. The Synchro Box was part of Agfa's long-running box camera range, which used the same basic design but added features over time; the Synchro version has terminals for a flash unit, which synchronises with the shutter. If you can find a flash that still works, look after it.

The Synchro Box produces 6x9cm negatives, which are six times the size of 35mm. The camera has a fixed shutter speed of roughly 1/30th, a fixed-focus slightly wide f/11-ish lens, and a pull-out tab that can select (a) a smaller aperture, which instinct tells me might be f/16, but who knows? comma or (b) a yellow filter, which darkens blue skies and is generally a good thing on sunny days.

The slightly awkward controls make it hard to take a picture without wobbling the camera, but with such a large negative a little blur isn't apparent unless you look really close. In the distant past the expectation was that people would make simple 6x9cm contact prints rather than paying for enlargements, and at that size you could afford to be sloppy.

I was slightly disappointed with the Synchro Box's image quality. I was expecting Holga-esque instant art, but it's much better than that. If you don't jog the camera when you're taking a picture the middle of the image is nice and sharp, with the edges becoming progressively blurrier. Here's a negative scanned at 3000x4600, followed by a 100% crop from the middle, taken with the yellow filter:

That was shot with Kodak TMAX 100. At ISO 100, with a shutter speed of 1/30th, f/11, you're overexposing on a sunny day even if you use the yellow filter, but TMAX has more than enough latitude to cope. If Agfa had made the pictures 6x6cm instead of 6x9 the image quality would be even better across the frame.

Still, the practical consequence of the little Agfa's decent image quality is that it makes more sense as an ornament than a photographic tool. The image quality is too good to be distinctively novel, but the camera is too limited to carry around all the time. Compare the above with this shot, which was taken with a Holga and demonstrates (a) strong vignetting (b) distortion (c) curious focus:

It's a really good trinket, though, because the design is so chic. Here's the latest Ikea catalogue, cover on the left, inside front cover on the right:

Spot the Synchro Box. Ikea do not put bad things in their catalogues. Only good things. Never bad things. Not sharks, for example, or wasps, or poor people.

In its day Agfa was the German Kodak, a film manufacturer that sold cheap cameras as a loss-leader for their range of films. The company came through the Second World War relatively intact, although their eastern arm was swallowed up by the Soviets and became East Germany's ORWO, which apparently still exists. Agfa's box cameras were replaced in the 1960s by the popular Agfa Clack, which housed the same basic specification in a curvaceous plastic case. The Clack is almost as popular an objet d'art as the Box, although the design language is very different; much cuter, more toy-like, less deco.

From the 1960s onwards Agfa concentrated on 35mm point-and-shoots, such as the Agfa Silette, although the company's focus was always film and optical equipment rather than cameras, which they stopped making in the early 1980s. Among the last gasps was the handsome Optima Sensor, which resembles a kind of value engineered Leica CL / Minolta CLE. The company eventually split up and sold its consumer film business in 2004, which went bankrupt a year later. Old stock Agfa film remained on sale for several years afterwards. Nowadays Agfa is what Kodak will be in a few years; a network of co-branded businesses that sell industrial optical equipment and services to other businesses, with a small sideline manufacturing film for the few specialist markets that still buy it. They still make aerial photography film, for example, which is intermittently repackaged into 35mm canisters and sold under the Rollei brand. The company also makes print film for theatrical distribution, but apparently no longer manufactures motion picture negative film; it was one of the pioneers of European colour movie film stock, and it remained popular with certain cinematographers right until the early 1990s (on Out of Africa, Gorillas in the Mist, The Mission, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - apparently it was very good with browns and greens).

Still, box cameras. The Synchro box takes eight shots per roll, which is going to cost you plenty unless you develop it yourself; I used this method of stand development with R09. The Box itself is tiny - in photographs the handstrap makes it look much larger, but in real life the strap is more a kind of fingerstrap - and weighs almost nothing, so it's not a bother to carry around. Metal. The fixed focus distance runs from about three metres to infinity - the near end is slightly too distant for parties or individuals, it's more of a family group shot type of camera. Here's a short film:

When poked by a hairy white hand the Afga Synchro Box makes a noise the end.