There is always much debate as to what makes a camera the best in its class. In the case of the Agfa Super Isolette, made in Berlin, the unanimous opinion is that it is the best medium format folder ever made. A camera that has aroused much envy from Leica and Zeiss Ikon. Yet the success of the camera came decades after its first production in 1954. The rapid decline in sales of 120 film in favor of the many times more popular 135 film and growing market for 35mm cameras was to blame. Not many Super Isolettes have come on the market, which complicates the search for this top Agfa model.
The wine red leathered Super Isolette immediately made my heart beat faster. The previous owner had it overhauled by Jurgen Kreckel, a phenomenon when it comes to CLAs of folder cameras. Loosening it from the light brown leather ready bag the sexiest camera I’ve ever seen comes into my hands. Complete new red bellows, new applied red leatherette around the body. A creative variation on all that stuffy black that characterizes folder cameras so much. It gets even better. In my hands lays a technical ingenuity, a thoughtful top-of-the-line camera from Agfa, a coupled rangefinder in medium format. And that’s pretty unique. Of course there are the Zeiss Super Ikontas, but they are a lot bigger and look old-fashioned, compared to this shiny, lighter and still reasonably compact camera.
The Isolette is one of the most well-known Agfa productions. Originally named Isorette in 1937, it was soon renamed. It is a long running series of cameras, with varying number designations, first 4.5, then 5 and than again III, I, II and L. Some models as only viewfinder models, others with an uncoupled rangefinder. Usually they came as a 6×6 or 6×4.5 version. To make things even more confusing, Agfa also had a successful 35mm camera under the name Silette. It is noteworthy that Agfa only produced cameras to increase the sales of its own Agfa films. It was actually not about being the best, but the best-selling film supplier. Yet the camera division was very popular and the cameras consequently loved by the public. They are distinguished by a fresher and more modern appearance, compact, easy to use. At the same time, Agfa also made some sacrifices in terms of quality. Common problems with the shutters and especially the biggest weakness: the bellows that only remained light-tight to a limited time and quickly showed holes, especially if they were not made of leather.
The Super Isolette was to become the showpiece of Agfa’s medium format series. A top of the line rangefinder with an unsurpassed quality lens and a unique film transport. All or nothing. It became all. Agfa had already succeeded in putting the Solinar f/3.5 75 mm, equipped with four lenses in 3 groups on its Isolettes I and II. A hit, as the lens produced ‘Tessar’ quality, perhaps even better. Especially the remarkable sharpness (even with the aperture wide open) is the biggest plus, because focussing is not done by rotating the lens, but the lens as a whole moves from back to front. The film transport is the most innovative you can find on a folder. Instead of a red peephole for tracking film numbers, in the Super Isolette a unique pointy metal gear that penetrates the film and takes care of measuring, winding and exact positioning all 12 of the 6×6 frames.
The shutter is a Synchro Compur leaf shutter. Probably the best shutter ever made. It is one of the most common and reliable shutters, even after decades of not being used they easily come back to life. The shutter is located in the lens and sometimes they are easy to reach and open and lubricate (gently with lighter fluid) or clean the parts with a cotton swab. As is often the case with these old cameras, slow shutter speeds are more prominently represented. So also on the Agfa they run from 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 250 and 500/s plus Bulb. Should you need faster times, e.g. to use large apertures in bright light, ND filters offer a solution. The filter size on the Solinar is 29.5 mm (or 32mm push on) and for this thread there are adapter rings 29,5-37 mm available for which than a whole range of filters become available. Same goes for a sunhood, although a vintage 32 mm ‘push on’ hood looks better.
The lens is coated and has 10 aperture blades. Although the lens displays F22 as the smallest aperture, the lens can be stopped down further to about F42. Furthermore, the shutter is fully synchronized for flash, all times can be used, both in M (for flash lights) or X (electronic flash) mode. Furthermore, the shutter is fully synchronized for flash, all times can be used, either in M (for flash) or X (electronic flash) mode. The flash is connected via the PC-sync connection on the lens for which the cables are still easily available. There is also the shutter delay in the so-called V(erzoegerungs) mode of about 8 seconds. Plenty of time to include yourself in the picture. Focusing is very precise through the viewfinder glass. In the center is a small round patch for the rangefinder that contrasts well even at long distances. In addition, the lens moves from back to front, which benefits the sharpness. The shutter button on the body is connected to the shutter on the lens. There is a lock system that prevents double exposures. Also, the shutter does not work when there is no film in the camera.
Inserting a film is done gallantly, no other camera has helicoid spool holders that open and close very precisely to take the film in and out. The metal film bearings and pressure plate on the back cover ensure that the film runs flatly and precisely from left to right. In the left button on the top plate reminder letters can be set for R for reversal (slides) and N for negatives (prints). The D is for daylight, and T for tungsten (indoor) color film. On the right, the frame numbers can be seen. The wind button stops automatically at each succeeding number. The known red dots on the lens dials are meant for quick pictures, so f/9.5 is for people without exposure meters and the dots at the distance scale are markers for sharp photos at either short or long distances. It’s a pity that the Super Islotte doesn’t have its own exposure meter; that didn’t come until 1956 with the Agfa Automatic 66. But there are several ways to measure the light via pluggable light meters on the coldshoe (even small, cheap digital ones), (vintage) handheld meters (like my beloved Zeiss Ikon Ikophot) or just applying the Sunny Sixteen rule or use a phone app.
The Agfa Super Isolette is one of the few 6×6 coupled rangefinder folders. As far as I know, there is only the Certo6 and the Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta. The Agfa Super Isolette is one of the few 6×6 coupled rangefinder folders. Known only are the Certo6 and the Zeiss Ikon Super Ikontas (like the 530 and 532) and a few inexpensive brands. The Agfa is head and shoulders above them all. Not only because of its fabulous lens quality, but also its film transport, ease of use and full metal finish. The Agfa is a pleasure to use, but that pleasure comes at a high price. To this must be added the cost of thorough maintenance. Is it worth it? It is if you want to drive the Mercedes among the medium format folders.