Agfa Isolette III review: Compart medium format film camera that is still affordable

Some of you may know that I have got myself into this trend of film photography. A hobby essentially burning all my hard-earned money in exchange for some photo of my cat and some rocks on the beach. Although I am getting a lot of pleasure out of shooting full-frame (because, of course, my fuji is APSC), we all know this road only leads down one direction… inevitably, I want to shoot bigger format and the next sensible step is medium format. 

If you have searched for any film cameras or watch any YouTube videos about medium format film cameras, you will have definitely heard of some of the holy grail medium formats: The Mamiya RZ67, Mamiya 7, Pentax 67, Hasselblad 500c/m etc. They have been crowned kings for good reasons but fame comes with a high price tag. To find a functional copy of one of these we are talking £1000+. Yes, that’s nowhere near the price for a digital medium format camera but my wallet said films are not to die for… well, not yet anywhere. By chance, I came across an Agfa Isolette III, a clean and functional 60+ years old 6×6 medium format camera for sub £100. I got pretty excited, as they said, film photography is all about the film and not the box itself.

Appearance

Agfa isolette III is a folding camera. When not in use, the lens can be folded into the camera itself. The obvious advantage is that it can be very small compared to most other types of medium format cameras. With the lens folded, it is just marginally bigger than my Fujifilm X-Pro 1 body. It is so small that actually fit in my trousers’ pocket. As medium format cameras go, it is pretty insane portability. It has a small red window at the back for when you are winding your film to make sure you are at your correct frame.

At the top, my model has a film-type reminder on the left side. Some earlier models spot a depth of field indicator. The button next to it is the one to open up the camera and get the lens at the shooting position. Then the cold shoe, shutter button and the film winding knob at the far right.

There is a small thumb knurled wheel in between the shutter and the cold shoe mount. That’s for focusing on the uncoupled rangefinder. That’s the most important thing to remember on this camera, the rangefinder is uncoupled means, focusing (align the two images) using the knurled wheel through the rangefinder window doesn’t focus the lens. Instead, it gives you the camera to subject distance which you will then have to set at the front element of the lens to focus. Forgetting to wind your film or clock your shutter, the camera won’t shoot, but it will still shoot if you forget to set your distance and ruin a frame.

Lens

I lied earlier… In film photography, apart from the film itself, the lens obviously matters too. Those holy grail cameras we spoke about all have interchangeable lenses so you can pick and choose. But a folding camera doesn’t, given the restriction of an attached bellow. So you have to get it right when choosing the camera at the start. Isolette III was in production from 1951-1960. So if you think about it, the “youngest” model would still be 60 years old. There was a total of 6 different types of lenses used on this camera throughout their production years. My model was 85mm F4.5 Apotar Pronto. But you can get Pronto SV or SVS, or a Solinar lens which can be either 85mm F4.5 Synchron-compur or 75mm F3.5 Synchron-compur or Prontar SVS. The main difference, apart from the obvious focal length between 85mm and 75mm, are most lenses accept 30mm accessories but some Solinar lenses accept 32mm, and the fastest shutter speed on the synchro-compur is 1/500s, Pronto SV/SVS is 1/300s while my Pronto is the slowest at 1/200s.

After all those boring numbers, if you are still with me, let’s talk about how it performs. The lens is surprisingly sharp and contrasty. The wide-open aperture f4.5, just like any other camera lenses, are soft at the corners, but I like it contributing to the “3D look” you get with the medium format. Once you step down, and the lens has a red dot marking to let you know which aperture gives the sharpest image, the images it produces are fantastic.

One thing about shooting wide open at F4.5 on the Isollete though is that the rangefinder window is absolutely tiny. I have perfect vision (yes, I don’t need glasses unlike the other 90% of the Chinese population), but I sometimes struggle to align those two images in the rangefinder for focus especially when you have a complicated scene in front of you. Stopping down gives me the buffer I need to make sure my subject is in focus.

Also when deploying the lens out, be careful not to let the lens fly open. It can create a vacuum in the body and “suck” the film off the pressure plate and ruin your image.

Step to make an image

Apart from large formats, I think this camera comes pretty close to the definition of slow down photography. There are multiple steps to create a useable image.

  1. Put in some film (dah…),  wind it until you see the frame number on the little red window at the back and drop the lens to shooting position.
  2. Expose your scene with a light meter of some description. I just use my phone as it has not failed me so far.
  3. Set your aperture and shutter speed on the lens.
  4. Focus your subject and compose your scene using the uncoupled rangefinder
  5. Transfer the camera-to-subject distance indicated on the thumb knurled wheel to the lens.
  6. Clock your shutter.
  7. *Click*

Because you have to do a lot of fiddling back and forth, I find it easier to just set it up on a tripod and take your time with it. Or else you will be doing a lot of composed – change the setting – re-compose and sometimes mess up your focus or your composition because you moved.

ProsCons
Extremely PortableMore suitable for still life photography 
Fully mechanical – can be repair and no need for batteriesUncoupled rangefinder – need to remember to focus on the front element
Medium 6×6 formatThe viewfinder window is tiny
The lens is sharp when stopped down No double exposure setting
Can still be had for a good price (<£100) No interchangeable lens

Verdict

Film photography can be a lot of fun, the question is more about the fund. With film photography cameras’ price taking the elevator rather than stairs, it can make it less fun in some way. I am really glad I come across this little Agfa Isolette III and gave me the entry to medium format system. There are loads of them out there but keep in mind, the youngest model is also about 60 years old, mileage might differ. So if you come across ones that look a bit dodgy, just move on. If you have issues with your folding camera, the internet has crowed Jurgen Kreckel, the owner of Certo6, to be the king of the folding cameras in the UK so he might be able to help.

Fujifilm X-Pro 1 review: How is the 10 years old camera still getting so much attention in 2021?

If you have read the previous blog or seen some of the Instagram photos, you might have seen the new addition to my Fujifilm family, the Fujifilm X-Pro 1. But why go after a camera that was released back in March 2012, almost 10 years ago? It’s all rooted in my exploration of film photography. Films have this unique, nostalgic aesthetic that provokes the feeling of “the good old days”. I enjoy the colour rendering of the film but film photography is a dangerous game. We are talking about £10 a roll, with developing and scanning costs on top, let alone the price of a film camera these days. It adds up quickly. So I was intrigued when people are raving about the first-gen X-Trans sensor renders colours like film. For £200, I did not regret pulling the trigger.

Spec

Sensor23.6 x 15.6mm; 16.3MP (1.5x crop factor) APS-C X-Trans 1st Gen CMOS
Resolution4896 x 3264
ISO (extended)200 – 6400 (100 – 25,600)
Lens MountFujifilm x mount
Weather SealingNo
Shutter1/4000 to 30 second
Storage1x SD slot (SD/SDHC/SDXC)
ViewfinderHybrid multi-viewfinder (100% coverage in EVF)
Continuous shooting6 FPS
LCD screen3”
VideoFull 1080p HD @ 24fps
BatteryNP-W126
Weight400g (exclude battery)
Price at launch£1429
Price @ 2021£200-350 (depending on conditions) mpb.com / eBay

Construction, style and handle

Fujifilm X-Pro1 was the first of the “pro” line aimed at the high-end photography market. It is very well built with a full magnesium alloy frame. The magnesium alloy allows the camera to be extremely lightweight. It was a bit of an odd feeling when I pick up the X-Pro 1 for the first time and felt how light it was compared to my X-T3. It was not weather-proofed but they handle Ireland’s condition just fine with me.

One thing I am a bit puzzled though is the tripod mount location. It is right next to the battery compartment which is also where your SD card lives. With the mount being so close to the battery flap, if you have installed a tripod plate, you won’t be able to open the battery compartment to change the battery or SD card without taking the plate off first. That’s just unnecessary faff…

Style

One thing that the X-Pro line attracts me is its rangefinder-style design. The rectangular shape without the viewfinder hump makes the silhouette cleaner. The “showing your face while shooting” style do slowly grows on you. Something about showing your face makes you a bit more approachable and less intrusive as a photographer. One thing to remember though, it is a rangefinder STYLE camera, NOT a rangefinder camera. There is no rangefinder coupling to the viewfinder so you can’t manual focus with the OVF, you will have to switch to EVF to check if you are in focus. Although Fujifilm has made it relatively easy to do, just something to keep in mind.

Handling

Also, there are a lot of buttons at the back which made changing settings very easy. Although I am not sure about some of their placement. Such as the AF button for changing the AF point, is placed at the left bottom corner of the screen far away from somewhere you can reach with your right thumb for a quick selection change. Fujifilm also limits the customisation of the buttons. The up button is permanently set for “macro” mode and the left and right buttons are for shutter speed despite already having a dedicated shutter selection at the top. The only buttons you can customise is the Fn button and the down button which I have set ISO and WB selections.

As with all rangefinder camera, what you are seeing through the OVF is not exactly what your lens see because it’s off to the side. It creates something called the parallax effect. The effects are stronger when the subjects are closer to your camera. It ultimately affects your composition, therefore rangefinder is not for everyone.

This camera is created with photographer in mind. More specifically, street photographer. All of the features are photography focus. Even though it is capable of take video, it feels like more of an after thought.

X-Trans CMOS 1

One that has been regarded as “legendary” and “most film-like sensor”, the X-Pro 1 has the first generation X-Trans CMOS sensor. Compared to the “traditional” Bayer sensor, X-Trans doesn’t need the extra anti-aliasing filter which supposedly means it renders a sharper image. However, I am not after the “supposedly sharper” images because truth be told, I am not 100% convinced. If anything, possibly because of the low megapixel sensor, I feel the X-Pro 1 render images with this distinctive “softness” that I really like, more natural and less digital. 

Another thing that people rave about is the “film-like” rendering. I have to say, I am very impressed, so much so that I only shoot JPEG with the X-Pro 1. The colour, highlight from this sensor has this unique, natural roll off that reminds me of film. High ISO performance is of course not as good as the newer model, but that’s what I was looking for as well. Because of the X-Trans having a more random colour filter array pattern, the grain it produces has a more organic look to it and more comparative to film than the digital noise.

Focus

Autofocus

It is slow. We have come to expect split-second AF, eye tracking and all these advances over the years. So deprived of all the technological advancement, X-Pro 1 AF system is of course expected to be slow. Even with my XF 35mm F2, the X-Pro 1 takes time to focus and have to hunt a bit before deciding on the subject. When I had the 7Artisans 25mm F1.8 lens on, I sometimes find manual focus can be faster than the autofocus.

It is a bad point if you are after a “modern” camera that has all the fancy AF system, you shouldn’t be looking for a 10-year-old camera anyway. But because the AF is slow, it forces you to be slow and more intentional. It actually compliments the “film camera experience” even better.

Manual focus

As I said above, it is a rangefinder-style camera, not a rangefinder. Therefore you cannot manually focus with the OVF and have to rely on the EVF. The focus peaking feature is certainly welcomed, but unlike the newer camera that you can choose focus peaking colour, X-Pro 1 comes with the white line. It is very difficult to see especially in broad daylight. It is only helpful if you are shooting black and white or nighttime photography. Other times, the 3x or 10x focus magnifier which you can bring up by pressing the thumbwheel is much better to help with focus check.

XF lens mount

Fuji X mount is such a versatile mount. Fujifilm has already had decent selections of native Fujinon lenses. And with the popularity of Fujifilm grows and X-Mount opening up to 3rd party lenses for AF, there will only be more and more reasonably priced lenses that produce a tremendously amazing image. Apart from the AF lenses, MF prime lenses also complement the small camera body very well. In fact, you can adapt the vintage lenses from your film camera on the X-Pro 1, get the best of both film and the digital world. A slow film-like shooting experience, but don’t have to sell your kidney for film stocks.

Verdict

ProsCons
Rangefinder-styleNo weather seal
Hybrid EVFMinimal customisation on buttons
Legendary X-Trans 1 – a film-like colour and grainParallax effect from rangefinder style
Slow and intentional like a film cameraIn the digital world, it’s ancient
<£300 Video feature feels like an afterthought

In the digital camera world, 9 years is a very long time. The technology advancement can be light-years apart. Despite that, Fujifilm X-Pro1 stands in a unique position that we are seeing prices go up rather than down in recent years. With film photography being more popular again, X-Pro 1 has been identified to be the most “film-like” digital camera. From the image it renders with its X-Trans 1 sensor to the whole shooting experience with its rangefinder styling and tactile buttons and dials, it has the same attraction as film photography attracts the newer generation photographer. It slows us down in the manic world. Obviously, the film-like colour and grain rendering also appeal to the trend. To complete the feel, you can even find a 1GB SD card and limit yourself to 36 exposure. I find myself recently picking up the X-Pro1 more than my X-T3. It’s not because the X-T3 can’t do what the X-Pro1 can, it’s quite the opposite. I don’t always need the extra power from the X-T3, on my day-to-day life documentary work, I want to strip it back down to the bare minimum, enjoy the process and be more intentional.

Holga 135BC review – What is this toy camera for?

While I was rooting around in my house, I found this little film camera that I have long forgotten about. I got it back when I was still in my junior years in secondary school in Hong Kong. It jogged back to the reason for me getting this camera … I was around 12 years old, only just started in my photography journey and still using my dad’s Canon PowerShot. During that time, the heavy vignette look was in vogue and Lomography was selling everywhere and created a cult. With about HKD $200 (~£20), I got myself one that comes with a flash and shot maybe 2 rolls of films on it. Due to the fact it was expensive to buy film and have them developed, especially for a school kid that only had £5 of pocket money a week, it ended up sitting in the corner on the bookshelf as a decorative display. It came with me to the UK and recently with me dipping in and out of the film world, I decided to put some film through it again. And boy, it reminded me of the purest of photography fun.

Appearance

Holga 135BC is a 35mm camera. It is all plastic, including the lens, the only thing that’s metal is probably the shutter thread, tripod thread and the hot shoe and that’s about it. And so, you guessed it, it is incredibly light. Fully mechanical and minimal settings. It uses a zone focused system where the focusing lens has 4 little diagrams to suggest roughly your focusing distance. 2 apertures, F8 or F11 shown as flash/cloudy or sunny, and 2 shutter speed, 1/100s or Bulb. And that’s it. It is designed to be a toy camera and I had fun with it.

Spec

Film35mm
Shutter speed1/100 sec or Bulb
ApertureF8 or F11
FocusZoned focus
Multiple exposuresBy not winding film forward
AccessoriesTripod mountCable release mountHot shoes

What I like about it

First of all, It was very cheap. It does reflect on the quality of the build where everything is cheap plastic but it was part of the charm. You know how you have heard any seasoned photographer said at least once “it is not about your gear, at the end of the day it’s just a black box.”? This is literally a box with a hole, nothing more. The beauty of this limitation is that it allows you to put down the thought of “what aperture/shutter speed” and focus on just creating.

Secondly, the unpredictability. Film photography in general has a little bit of this element in it. Every time you press down your shutter, unlike digital photograph where you can chimp, you only have a rough idea of what the image is going to look like until you have the roll develop maybe a day or two later. Yes, the more you practise, the more accurate that mental image will be. But this toy camera is a different story. The viewfinder is just a window above the lens, so you have to factor in the parallax issue. The plastic lens takes in light whatever the way they feel that day and you can’t even have accurate focus as it’s just 4 different icons at the top of the lens for you to guess your focus range. And depends on what film you have in it, with absolute minimal control, you will probably end up over/underexpose your film the majority of the time. That means you really can’t know for sure if your image is going to turn out right or not. But once in a while, I find it liberating. We all have this expectation where every time we go out to make photographs, we will end up with loads of good photos that we are super happy with. In reality, we don’t always get good results and we can come home with absolutely nothing. That’s very normal but the expectation, over time, can wear us down and make us forget what we set out to enjoy in the first place. I do still practise my photography with other “serious” camera. But once in a while, I will pick this wee thing up, the unpredictability allows me to just go out with absolutely no expectation at all. It sets your mind free to just take the photo without thinking much and just enjoy photography as it is. The excitement of getting your roll back from the lab is different when you have no idea what photographs you have made.

What I am not a fan of

Lomography’s toy camera earned their fame with the heavy vignette that comes with their plastic lens. “Heavy vignette” is just the polite way of saying the lens doesn’t cover the whole 35mm negatives so leaving the 4 corners un-exposed. Luckily my specific one is not too bad compared to what I have seen online. I enjoy a little bit of a vignette sometimes but that 4 black corner look is a bit too dated for me. It makes me cringe just like when I see those black and white images with only the red umbrella coloured in. If that’s your thing, go for it. The extreme of style is just not my taste.

Also, it is not THAT cheap when you consider I got my Olympus AF-1 Super, a second hand 30 years old point and shoot camera that are well-built with a sharp 35mm F2.8 lens, for only £30 from eBay.

Verdict

Holga 135BC is a toy 35mm film camera. An all-plastic, cheaply build black box that takes pictures. It is like those plastic toys that pretend to be a camera. The build quality of the camera is unpredictable, the pictures that come out are even more unpredictable. But that reminds me why I loved photography. The simplicity of the camera takes away all the stress that you put on yourself trying to make the next masterpiece for your Instagram feed. It leaves only the purest joy of photography.  It allows you to be “unintentional”. Press the shutter because you want to remember that moment. 

One of my all time favourite photos is taken with this little toy camera