Design for the masses: Agfa Silette L

Mass production of 35mm cameras really took a huge leap in the 1950s. The War was over, reconstruction, growing optimism in a better world led to great economic progress. Vacations became possible, with the whole family in tents or caravans and capture precious memories with affordable cameras. These were the prime years of photography, for everyone. This demand asked for numerous brands and models. In addition to the Agfa film roll, the German company also managed to deliver quality in its own cameras, the Silette being one of the most popular.

I am always surprised about the compactness of the small, but ‘busy’ Agfa Silette L. On the top there is hardly any room ‘to get your finders between all knobs. A light meter, shutter button, wind lever, frame and ISO wheel and a big rewind button and in between also a flash shoe. Barely 15cm wide. How did they do that?

The Silette is a stylish camera. It looks beautifully retro, but at the same time the camera wants to look perfect with all its roundness and at the same time sleek design. The shutter lever is perfectly aligned horizontally with the camera. The shutter is excellent to operate and always findable. With the same tension with which you tighten the shutter, it also jumps back to its original position. Intuitively it is in exactly the right place. In addition, very conveniently the counting mechanism of the roll of film is included in the winding process with a beautiful black and red dial. On the left, you can use the large button to rewind the roll and set the ISO value (which is not linked to the light meter).

The most interesting aspect of the camera is the uncoupled light meter. This is ingeniously designed by working with a numerical EV- valuesystem where aperture and shutter speed can be linked together. Thus, you first set your desired combination on the lens and the ‘red’ value takes over at the exposure meter. You adjust the chosen ISO value on the film roll and open the cover of the selenium meter on the front. You can now turn the arrow to the measured light and see what aperture / shutter speed is needed for a correctly exposed picture. It takes some practice with combinations that are valid at the same time, for instance: 1/250 s and f/8 is the same as with 1/500 s and f/5.6; or 1/125 s and f/11. A selenium meter is a light-measuring instrument based on the photoelectric properties of selenium, it does not need a battery. The most common use of such light meters is measuring the exposure value for photography.

The Agfa Silette L has a PC or cable flash connection. It can flash synchronously as well as manually. A slider is available at the lens for this purpose. In addition, the camera can also be put in V mode which serves as a self-timer. Unfortunately, the latter no longer works on my copy, but on the other hand, the light meter does still work very well. Selenium meters are called ‘dead men walking’ anyway, it’s only a matter of time until they will fade away. The flash itself can be placed on top of the camera in the ‘cold’ flash shoe which has no contacts.

Also unfortunately, this Agfa is equipped with a Prontor SVS shutter, cheaper than the legendary Synchro Compur shutter. But fortunately this one also still works properly, although the long times are no longer clean, a common problem, incidentally also with the Compur. I can’t recommend opening the shutter for this, as I already failed to put it back together properly earlier. Especially the Agfa’s are known for complicated disassembly with no guarantee of an equally successful assembly:). If you however manage to get inside, it is easy to revive the small springs and cogs with some lighter fluid.

The most famous lens in the Silette is the good Apotar F3.5 45 mm lens, just under 50 and therefore just a bit more universal to use. These lenses seem virtually immune to fungus or haze over long time. Opening the back panel already seems very modern, as we have seen for decades on SLR cameras. Insertion is also simple and smooth. The film counter manually can be set back to 0 after closing the door. From there it counts automatically after each shot. Rewinding the full roll is only possible if the release button under the camera is pressed. This also remains the same today.

The Agfa Silette-L graces your collection. It’s a nice acquisition and a good one too. Numerous examples can be found on the Internet of sharp, colorful pictures taken with this all rounder. A compact camera that does require a good estimation of the distance, a rangefinder is missing on this camera (and can only be found on the Super series of Agfa). But you can also use an external rangefinder that can be found cheaply on the Internet.

The compactness and at the same time many extra features, especially with the light meter, the manual setting and the linking of aperture and shutter speed, make the Agfa one of the better vintage film cameras. Easy to find and affordable due to the large runs in which the camera was manufactured. Not rare, but still unique. Thanks to Mike Butkus, you can find a comprehensive manual on his site.

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