Most of my photo output is from digital cameras, although I have an abiding love for film. I recently bought some 35mm and medium format cameras online. Among these were three bellows cameras: an Agfa Record III, Voigtländer Perkeo I, Agfa Isolette. I had mixed results from these, but overall I far prefer medium format and intend to expand my use of this.
First, a quick rewind… In April 2018, I bought a Nikon D850. With its larger sensor, the D850 put the spark back into my photography, helped by the addition of a Sigma 100-400 telephoto lens. This new enthusiasm also increased my interest in film. I had owned a Hasselblad 500 C/M for a couple of years which saw frequent use, but over the past few months, I became interested in 35mm cameras, such as Olympus OM-1, the Nikon FM series and other golden oldies. I bought a Nikon FM10, which had a disastrous end in a local river and finally settled on a Mamiya/Sekor 1000DTL and a Nikon FM2.
The Mamiya came with an unbranded 80-200 telephoto lens. I had good results with this heavy lens and found a 35mm Zeiss Flektogon lens on eBay. The Nikon FM2 uses some of my current lenses. I have experimented with color and monochrome film, but prefer black and white. The problem with 35mm film for me is that it is small. I had become used to working with the medium format film from the Hasselblad. Although there are more photographs on a 35mm roll, I find it fussy to work with when scanning. Also, the end results are not as rich as when I use larger format film.
In this article, I’ll be describing my experiences with these three medium format bellows cameras, what I liked, what I didn’t and of course, some of the results I’ve had so far.
Agfa Record III
Bellows cameras were reasonably common when I was a child, but have almost disappeared now. An advantage is that the lens and its mechanism can be hidden away when not in use, so the flat package takes up less room and can be put in a pocket (in some cases). The Agfa Record III was made between 1952 and 1955.
This Agfa does not fit in my pocket. However, it is light and can be fairly easily carried, taking up far less room in my bag than the Nikon DSLR. A button to release the lens is on the top, to the left of the viewfinder. The bellows part springs open, pushing the 105 mm lens forwards. To close I press down on the hinged middle of the supports, then ease the structure back in until it clicks shut.
The viewfinder is not linked to the lens, but a dial to the right is used to bring the image into focus. A reading from a dial is used to adjust distance on the lens. I am not sure how accurate this is, but infinity is infinity.
I take exposure readings using the iPhone app Pocket Light Meter: this has served me well. ISO depends on the film being used of course. When I am ready to take a shot, the shutter must be cocked with a spring lever on the left side of the lens. The shutter release is on the top right of the body. Winding the film on once the photograph is taken releases the shutter-cocking lever so double exposure is not possible.
I use ILFORD film mostly, so am familiar with the markings on the paper backing, viewed through a red window when rolling film on. This viewing window is opened using a lever just to the right, so the markings are visible. When I switched to a different film type (Lomo Lady Grey) I missed the markings and ended up losing the roll. Unlike the 6 x 6 square images of the Hasselblad, the Agfa uses the 6 x 9 format. The Voigtländer uses 6 x 6. The film rolls also have markings for 6 x 4.5 – 16 photos from a roll.
The dials around the lens control input: time and aperture. The time settings range from 1-250, plus B. Aperture settings are from 4.5 up to 32: the highest I have seen. Most of my DSLR lenses have a maximum of 22. Distance is marked in Feet (the camera came from the U.K.): from 3 up to 50 and infinity.
Voigtländer Perkeo I
I saw a Voigtländer bellows-type camera a few months ago in a Bangkok shop, but decided against purchase at that time. My recent look at online availability of older cameras had me looking through hundreds of models and I bought both the Agfa Record III and the Voigtländer Perkeo on eBay for quite low prices. Although the cameras are cheap, shipping adds a fair amount and there may be import fees.
This is a smaller camera than the Agfa and produces images of 6×6 like the Hasselblad. Perkeo is German for pygmy – a diminutive race from central Africa. This is reflected in the way this medium format camera fits in my pocket which I find really attractive. When it was unpacked I noticed minor blemishes (reported by the seller), but with a camera made in the 1950s, some marks are to be expected.
My first problem was opening up the lens. There is an obvious button on the bottom plate of the camera, but I was not successful in my first attempts at opening the access. I teach engineering students and a group came into my office while I was grappling with the problem, so I gave them the task. It was open in about 10 seconds: as well as the button, the lens covering plate also needs to be persuaded a little. I was then unable to shut the lens, but the students came to the rescue again and found twin buttons on the rear of the lens plate that need to be pressed together.
The red film viewing window is marked by a large X to show that the window is closed and safe. While there was an obvious lever on the Agfa to open this, what appeared to be a button did not work when I pressed it and I lost the first roll of film trying to work this out. The button is simply a circular lever that is turned to open the viewing window, although on first discovery it was quite stiff. Once I was used to it, opening and shutting the X cover was easy.
The Perkeo Vaskar 75mm lens and its controls look similar to the Agfa setup; they were made about the same time after all (compare any two modern cameras). However, aperture range is limited to 4.5 – 16 and the time settings run from 1 – 300 plus B. I had tried some ISO 50 film in the Agfa, but I thought the Voigtländer would behave better with some Bergger Pancro 400, just arrived from CameraFilmPhoto in Hong Kong.
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In many light conditions this is suitable, but in the bright, noon-time sunlight here, the film was too limited, with time readings of 1/500 or more needed for the maximum 16 aperture setting. I was carrying the Agfa at the time with ISO 50 loaded and switched to that.
The third bellows camera arrived a little later and I had already seen the results from the first two by the time it arrived. The Isolette ended up being a disappointment for a number of reasons, not least its output. Out of the box the camera felt less substantial than the Agfa Record, due to the metal parts (top and bottom) which are made from what appears to be an aluminium alloy which feels cheap. From descriptions and images on the Camera Wiki site, this appears to be the Isolette I, but there may have been some modifications.
Although smaller than the Record III it will not easily fit into my pocket like the Voigtländer. There is a button to release the lens housing like the Record III, but no viewfinder range dial. The lens is an 85mm Vario with an aperture range of 4.5 to 32. Distance settings show 3 – 30 feet and Infinity. Time settings run from 25 to 200, plus B, so this is limited compared to the Record III.
I had learned the foibles of the Record already so the Isolette was easy to use. Like the other two bellows cameras the user still needs to cock the shutter before a photograph may be taken: aperture, time, focus, shutter, shoot. I have forgotten more than once on each camera. I also forget to remove the dark slide from the Hasselblad sometimes.
The Isolette takes 12 6 x 6 photographs from a roll of 120 film, like the Voigtländer Perkeo. Early models could switch from 6 x 6 to 645; and the later Isolette L had an odd alternative of 6 x 3. The back of this camera has one red film viewing window for 6 x 6 film and another, higher up, which I assumed might be for 645 images because of its position in relation to the paper film backing.
I decided to stick to 6 x 6, but when I collected the developed film, I was horrified to see 12 thin images, which I later measured as 3cms wide (looks like I have the “L” model!)
There were no indications (apart from the second red window) or controls. When I looked inside the camera, I found a plastic frame that matched the 3 x 6 format. Clearly, this was not adjustable. After a few words with a colleague, I took this out and will now try another roll of film to see if it will produce 6 x 6 images as I had originally hoped.
When I scanned the 3 x 6 negatives, all except one were unacceptably thin, although there is room for cropping with a couple. I must have taken one photograph with the camera held at 90 degrees to the norm. When that was scanned it was a reasonable, but wide image. This is not likely to be my prime camera.
Output, comparisons and comments
I took the Agfa Record III and the Voigtländer out for a couple of experimental shoots locally and in central Bangkok. My first objective was to check for light leaks and test the limits of performance. The Agfa is more versatile with its larger aperture options (4.5 – 32), so I did not find that the maximum time limit (1/250) was as restrictive as I had expected. This was also my first experience of 6 x 9 output. I have been impressed with the first (and subsequent) results.
The Voigtländer is a delight to handle with its small size, once the lens housing is open, but the limited aperture options need me to consider film choice carefully. While ISO 400 works well in most cameras, the Voigtländer limits this with its aperture range and the time (min 1/300) in bright sunlight. That is simply part of my learning process and not a fault of the camera. I have added some ILFORD SFX 200 film to experiment further.
The output from the Agfa was far better in terms of exposure and sharpness, with both ILFORD PAN F PLUS (ISO 50) and HP5 PLUS (400), and also some Bergger Pancro 400 which has the same style paper backing as the Ilford film. Some grain did creep in with certain light conditions, such as in the metro system here and in poorly lit underpasses.
The output from the Voigtländer was also sharp – both lenses performed beautifully – but output using ISO 400 film was affected by my exposure settings. The Agfa just seemed easier to work with when making exposure and time settings.
In terms of portability, the Voigtländer wins hands down, but output from the Record III seems to be superior judging from my first few test rolls. I am not particularly concerned with portability – my use of Hasselblad cameras would demonstrate that – and the Agfa takes up little space in my bag. The Voigtländer is only a little larger than the iPhone X I have and I can carry both in my hand at the same time.
It would be a hard decision to choose one over the other if I had to select one. The Isolette would seem to have excluded itself. The quality (so far) of the Agfa Record III and its interesting 6 x 9 images give it a slight edge in most scenarios. This new look at medium format also has me moving away more from my recent flirtation with 35mm cameras.
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