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.

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

Olympus AF-1 Super: The Affordable 35mm Film Point and Shoot Hidden Gem!

Recently analogue photography has been a very popular topic in the photography world, especially among the millennials and Gen Z. I am not going to dive into the reason for this, although might be an interesting topic for the future post. As millennials who take photos in my spare time, I can’t miss out on all the fun.

Point and shoot film camera has been very popular among film photographer. Given their small and compact size, you can always have one by your side. Their main purpose is to capture those day to day memories and film is one of those medium that almost makes you feel those memories. Along with the skyrocketing demand, the price for a decent film camera has also followed suit. I was in the market for a playful point and shoot camera at the time. And speaking of point and shoot film camera, Olympus MJU II and Contax T2 and always comes up in the conversation. Contax T2 is a very attractive little thing that carries an amazing 35mm F2.8 Zeiss lens. But after Kendall Jenner was seen using them, they cost about a kidney plus your sister’s dowry. So second option, Olympus MJU II with their award winning 35mm F2.8. They were fishing close to £200 as well which was still too much for me to justify. Okay… what’s the third option? That’s when I come across the Olympus AF-1 which carry the same 35mm F2.8 lens as the MJU II. With some luck, I managed to get a mechanically mint AF-1 Super off eBay for £30.

History and Spec

Olympus AF-1 Super is the upgraded version of AF-1 (or in the US, Olympus Infinity). AF-1 was introduced in 1986 as the first weatherproof automatic 35mm compact film camera hence the Japanese nickname “Nurepika” (wet flash). Then AF-1 Super was released in 1991 with some upgraded features such as 50cm minimal focal distance instead of 75cm, faster flash recharge, ability to disable the flash and 4 frames continuous shooting of  1fps (not really sure what it’s for, to be honest).

Review

Point and shoot cameras in Hong Kong is called 傻瓜機 – meaning idiot machine. It is true to an extent that point and shoot cameras are idiot-proof. Autofocus, auto-exposure, auto-flash, auto-wind and re-wind and autoload. Everything is decided for you, all you need to do is, as it says on the tin, point and shoot. With a few quirks, the more I use the AF-1, the more I like this idiot.

Appearance

AF-1 Super has this bubbly design to it, away from the boxy, hard-line style of the AF-1. Thicker and heavier than the MJU II but it actually feels really nice to hold. I like their sliding door mechanism. First, it means that less electronic components to move the lens in and out of the body and therefore one less thing that can fail. Second, it covers the viewfinder as well so you won’t embarrass yourself trying to take a picture when the camera is off. Third, it allows quick one-hand operation and always ready to go. Incorporating the essence of a point and shoot camera perfectly.

35mm F2.8

The lens that the AF-1 Super carries is what attracts me. 35mm is a perfect focal length for day-to-day, documentary-style photography and is exactly what a point and shoot camera is for. Olympus won 5 awards in 1997 with this fast and sharp prime lens on the MJU II body. Although they are essentially the same lens, I think the AF-1 series have an additional protective coating at the front which depends on your view can be good and bad. One of the things I like about film photography is that not everything is tack sharp, so I almost welcome that extra layer. But I find in reality, the coating is only a potential threat and the image still as crisp as your fresh trimmed hairline.

The most important manual option – no flash

AF-1 Super is fully automatic from start the finish, but one thing that I picked Super over the standard is the option for disabling the flash. I don’t actually mind the hard flash look, it is fashionable at the moment for their nostalgic feel. But for example, you won’t want it to flash while you are shooting through a glass window or trying to be discreet for street photography. They also have an option for the less powerful “fill-in” flash.

Centre focusing

AF-1 Super autofocus only comes with centre focusing. It means it will only focus on things that you place in the centre of the viewfinder, AF-1 has a separate focus lock button while AF-1 Super doesn’t. It relies on half-pressing the shutter. Truth be told, the travel in this shutter button is pretty shallow, so it does take some finger control to keep it at that sweet spot… (Ummm… why does it sound a bit strange) In a couple of occasions where either I took a picture by accident or it refocuses and my subject turned out to be out of focus. It can get a bit frustrating but that’s part of the fun in film photography.

Loud film advancing

Don’t use this point and shoot to take photos of your baby or your struggle to get them to sleep will never end. AF-1 Super has probably one of the loudest film advancing mechanism out there. I am starting to think that as they were designed in Japan, it was to deter creeps sneak-shotting someone.

Verdict

Film photography is an expensive exercise with the recurring cost of buying, developing and scanning films. And with the price for film cameras skyrocketing while my boss won’t even give me a pay raise that at least keep up with inflation, entry for film photography is getting more out of reach by the second. With pure luck, I came across this hidden gem for less than £50. I did a quick look on eBay, the cheapest nowadays are asking for £70 with the majority of them going for £90-150. If you can look past some of its quirks like the loud film advancing mechanism and the CR-P2 battery is a bit awkward to find, it is one extremely adorable little camera. If you just want to dip your toes in the film photography world but don’t want to sell your house, this is a very solid option if you manage to find one around the £50 range. This camera still put a smile on me every time I get it out for a spin.

Instant Photography

Instax vs Polaroid: Important things to know before you buy

Speaking of instant photography, most people think of “Polaroid”. And from this evolves much confusion over the use of the term. I have heard people refer to Instax camera as “Fujifilm’s polaroid camera.” or “take a polaroid with your Fujifilm camera”. In today’s blog, let’s tackle this Frankenstein gibberish and what you need to know before you decide which system to go into.

Why can’t we see the picture now?

Start with some history…In my opinion, without a doubt, Instant photography is one of the most mind-blowing innovations. Dr Edwin H Land, the founder of Polaroid, revolutionised the industry by integrating the whole darkroom developing and fixing process into the film itself, allowing the photos to be developed just minutes after the deciding moment of pressing the shutter button. Saving the guesswork and the disappointment of only finding out days later that you have missed the shot. 

This Polaroid legacy stemmed from an innocent question Dr Land’s daughter asked while they were on vacation in Santa Fe in 1943. Till today, the signature white square frame and the hypnotic way of the photos developing within minutes in front of your very own eyes, comes vividly into everyone’s head when anyone speaks of Polaroid.

Polaroid Originals vs original Polaroid?

With Dr Land achieved, seemingly at the time, an impossible task, most people today are still referring to any instant photo as “Polaroid”. Ironically, although Polaroid still exists and offers instant film today, they are far from the one Dr Land created. After being bankrupted and reformed twice, they are now owned by a Dutch company, the Impossible Project, which exists under the name of Polaroid Originals. During their struggles, a Japanese co-operative giant, Fujifilm, has risen to take over the instant photography world. So nowadays Polaroid to instant photography is merely like Hoover to vacuum cleaner, they were once so influential the brands essentially become synonyms with the product, though only the names stand the test of time. Polaroid still has instant cameras but, certainly, in today’s market, Instax is the new King.

Polaroid to instant photography is merely like Hoover to vacuum cleaner

Things you need to know

Phew, with some history lesson out of the way and getting the terminology right, we can finally be civilised and talk about other interesting things. 

1.   The Recipe

In analogue photography, the film plays a key part in how the photos look and feel. Since Polaroid went out of business in the 2000s, chemical companies whose sole business was to supply chemicals for Polaroid also closed for good. Polaroid Originals, therefore, has to re-develop their instant film formula. They have come a long way, but their formula still far from perfect. Apart from the long development time, reports of colour shifts, colour streaks and faded colours are not uncommon.

Fujifilm has been in the photography game for donkey’s year and with all the resources at hand, they seem to have nailed their instant film formula which produces a very consistent result. Although I once had a film that came out wrong, it rarely happens that made me wonder if that was caused by my malfunctioned brain rather than a dodgy film. Instax films also manage an amazing colour separation. They produce vivid images with a punchy contrast and incredible saturation. It is perfect for someone looking to have a system that does exactly what it says on the tin without any surprises. Although from a photography hobbyist perspective, you can say that’s a bit boring. Sometimes that little accident, be it a light leak or colour smudge, give the photo that unique charm that cannot be replicated.

bad film
A film that came out wrong. Although not sure if that’s my fault or a dodgy film

2.   One speed to rule them all…

Film speed is just about how sensitive to light the film is and most people know it as ISO. The higher the number, the more sensitive it is to light. You may want to know a little because it also picks up “noise” although nowadays everyone loves a bit of grain.

All Instax films come in only one speed, ISO 800. It is a good choice for indoor photography where the room is usually artificially lit. With the combination of an automatic flash that most Instax cameras come with, I took pride in somehow manage to mess one up. 

However, when you shoot outdoor on a sunny day, with ISO 800, the problem is reversed – there is too much light. With a fast film, it forces the aperture to close down small where diffraction becomes significant and soften the image (Yeah Mr White, yeah science…). If the fastest shutter speed and smallest aperture cannot compensate for the excess light, the film can get overexposed and “washed out”. Worst-case scenario, the film gets “blown out”.

Meanwhile, Polaroid offers 2 different speeds, ISO 160 or 640, ready for your tanning session on the beach or a drunken night out.

3.   Size doesn’t matter, it’s how you use it

Well… it’s a kind sentiment but in the photography world, size does matter. As we are discussing Instax and Polaroid, we will keep on topic. Instax has 3 sizes: Mini, Square and Wide. While Polaroid technically has two sizes their standard size and large format, as their large-format film needs an 8×10 film camera with a specific holder and processor, we will disregard it here.

A larger film means you can pack more into one frame. More people, more stories and possibly more freckles on show. In Fujifilm line-up, Instax Wide is the largest, providing a 1:1.618 golden ratio but still fall short of Polaroid signature gigantic 3.1×3.1inch square frame.

Instax and Polaroid film size

Apart from the picture size itself, I always think there is just something about a square format that pulls people in. From the good ol’ large format 4×5 and medium format 6×6 or 6×7 to the nowadays Instagram aspect ratio, they are more squares than rectangular. Maybe it’s the symmetry of a square that feels more natural to the eyes. With that, Instax came up with their square version back in 2017, basically a smaller version of a Polaroid film. It is understandable that Polaroid wasn’t well pleased about it and got some lawyers involved.

Verdict

To me, the ultimate winner for having more options in the market is always going to be the consumers. Both manufacturers produce great products and it is difficult to say if anyone has an edge over the other. Instax film has good colour and consistent results but Polaroid has their enormous picture size and their “artistic flair” that won them a very loyal fan base. My personal approach is to start with Fujifilm Instax to dip my toes in the instant world in a more controlled and consistent way. Now I am satisfied with Instax, I would love to get my hands on the legendary Polaroid SX70 and see what their diehard fans see. The whole concept is like a gateway drug, once you are hooked by Instax, then experiment with Polaroid and you might understand the “inconsistency” might just be the way layperson interpret “character”.

Thanks for reading! Go check out my review on Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 if you haven’t already. Share your thoughts with me below, are you a fan of Instax or Polaroid?