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.