Camera review: me and my Agfa Selectronic 3 – by Mark Brown
What you see below is my Agfa Selectronic 3, the camera I’m reviewing today. It’s a Pentax K-mount SLR released in 1980 and produced for only a few short years until around 1983. I bought it because of the big orangey-red button.
I’m shallow like that.
The above photo is an image of a Bitter SC, a rarity from the ‘80s. It is not my photo – in fact, credit goes to Jay Ramey at Autoweek – and it does not really have anything to do with an Agfa Selectronic 3. I include the above photo as I have been a car nerd since the age of 6 months, and I can’t help but to compare my cameras with particular cars.
So, if you’ll indulge an old car bore, I shall be likening this little known camera with this little known car below.
[EMULSIVE: OK, I’ll indulge you. How is this the Bitter SC of cameras, then?]
Let’s look back at the Bitter SC for a minute
The SC was the second model of car produced by a German fellow named Erich Bitter. A racing driver in a previous life, Erich had the idea of producing a car that had the looks of a fancy Italian exotic with the reliable gubbins of a mainstream German car. It was a svelte cruiser from the outside and a hum-drum Opel Senator family car under the skin. It was as expensive as a Ferrari and not many were made.
You’ve probably never seen one.
The Agfa, likewise, was a pretty little thing specially penned by the German design firm Schlagheck & Schultes, but with basic, reliable Japanese underpinnings provided and manufactured by Chinon. Anyone who can find the 1980 selling price for one is a god amongst men, but I suspect that, like the Bitter, it was expensive and not many were made.
You’ve probably never seen one.
So why not just buy a Chinon, then?
Seriously though, I’ve never understood ugly (or at least, anonymous) cameras. People willing to spend good money for a camera are, I’m willing to wager, those who appreciate aesthetics. While there’s a certain beauty to be found in the truly form-follows-function world (e.g., Nikon F Photomic), a good-looking camera just has a desirability factor that can often outweigh any specification shortfalls. Wouldn’t you rather have a Leica R6.2 than an R8? Maybe I’m just weird, but I’m willing to forgive a few faults when beauty is involved.
Same goes for cars, like the Bitter SC.
When I started looking for a Selectronic 3 (which, by the way, differs from the manual Selectronic 1 and the auto-only Selectronic 2, by offering both aperture-priority auto and manual modes, as well as other features), I just wanted one and had no idea if it would actually be any good to use.
Details about and reviews of these cameras are scant. Go on, just try searching YouTube for one. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by the machine as soon as it arrived from Germany and I’ve taken quite a liking to it. That said, it does have some points against it.
First off, the body is plastic – very plastic. Not cleverly disguised modern plastic, not chintzy-cheap Holga plastic, more like 1980 “THE FUTURE IS NOW!” plastic. Even the area which is traditionally home to some form of leather or vinyl is a sort of coarser, grippier plastic. Despite this, it feels solid and relatively substantial, weighing in around 500g without lens. That’s comparable to an Olympus OM-1.
Second, its fastest shutter speed is merely 1/1000th of a second. While I’m not generally the type to go all bOkEh!!!, I do use 1/2000 or even 1/4000 often enough on other cameras to miss it on this one.
Finally, the usual split-image/microprism/ground glass finder is not terribly bright or contrasty, requiring a bit more effort and time to accurately set the focus. Grabbing my Contax RTS after using this camera is a revelation in that regard, and unfortunately the screen in the Agfa does not appear to be interchangeable (even if it was, good luck finding a replacement). I don’t know if this is a fault specific to my example or representative of the model.
Oh yeah, one more thing. The shutter speed selector dial has an invisible wall between “Off” and 1/1000, so you can’t switch directly between them. You have to spin through all the rarely-used low speeds to get to the good stuff. As the “Off” position only seems to lock the shutter and the meter only comes on for a bit when you half-press the shutter release, I usually just leave it set on a useful shutter speed.
Well there are certainly worse cameras out there, so…
What’s it like to use?
As mentioned above, I was pleasantly surprised when I received the camera. It’s a good size – bigger than my Pentax ME Super, and smaller than my Contax RTS – and it fits nicely in the hand.
The big red shutter release, which at first feels comically large, is easy for fingers to find and soon makes every other shutter release feel comically small. Its travel is short, requiring only a light touch, yet the difference between a half-press for metering and full press for release is well defined. I’m also, irrationally, picky about the sound a shutter makes, and this one is a treat – a nice, solid “Cha-Chuck” with absolutely zero metallic clinks or springy clangs or rattly thppts.
Shutter speeds and mode selection are found on the selector ring around the big red button, which is easily turned by one finger and yet features solid detents for each position.
The dial on the left of the body serves as both the film speed selector and the exposure compensation control, as little raised “+” and “-” marks on the body can be lined up with the film speed to select over- or under-exposure compensation. A button near the dial needs to be depressed to turn the dial.
The wind-on lever is one of the nicest I’ve ever used, with a short throw that is quiet, smooth, and even throughout its travel, unlike some of the gritty and crunchy ones I’ve experienced.
LEDs on the left-hand side of the viewfinder display correspond with both the selected speed (if in manual mode) and the metered speed.
On the front on the camera, there’s a self-timer switch which can be set to either 5-seconds or 10-seconds (above, left). A small red LED sits in the middle of the switch and counts down the time.
On and around the lens mount is a depth-of-field preview switch, the lens release button, a connector for a PC flash cable, and a button which my German-language manual calls a “Meßwert-Speicherung.” It makes the LEDs in the viewfinder light up. I assume it has some actual use beyond that.
Finally, there’s the one part that’s conspicuously less-polished in design than the rest of the camera, a multiple-exposure switch which looks like a hastily screwed-in pin. Push and hold the pin towards the lens while you crank the wind lever and it’ll cock the shutter without advancing the film.
This is a feature not present on its cousin, the Chinon CE-4.
At the rear of the camera is the little film-reminder-pocket-thing, which differs in design from the norm by being sideways and solid, and is the only one I’ve seen that actually fits the flap from a film box without specific trimming.
How about lenses? Are they as hard to find as the bodies?
Agfa did release specific lenses for these Selectronic cameras, but yes, they do seem to be as hard to find as the bodies. However, fortunately, the camera uses the Pentax K-mount – so excellent and common Pentax lenses, as well as those from Chinon, Ricoh, and countless others can be used with this camera.
They’re probably better than the Agfa-branded items anyways. I’ve used my trusty Pentax-M 50/1.4 with mine.
Here are a few snaps taken on Agfa Vista Plus 200 (for testing the camera out) and more recently, ILFORD FP4+.
Well, now you know all about the Agfa Selectronic 3. It’s a lovely little gem that took a while to find, but which utterly charmed my superficial self.
The fact that it also does what I want it to do, and does it well, is icing on the cake. If you can find one without being fleeced (WoW!!! RaRE!!11!), I’d highly recommend you give it a shot.
Thanks for reading,
~ Mark Brown
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