Far from ordinary: Agfa Flexilette

While the Russians build the Berlin Wall, Agfa introduces its newest Twin Lens Reflex, the Flexilette. A unique, desirable and much sought after camera because it was only produced for a few years.

We write 1960 as the consumer camera is doing extremely well in sales. Many brands with lots of models and the rise of the modern SLR. The latter also heralded the decline of the TLR or Twin Lens Reflex, especially as a 35 mm camera. In the TLR actually belongs a 120 film because it is intended as a medium format camera, yet there were brave camera makers who also saw a future in the TLR as a 35 mm camera, purely because of its ability to focus sharply. So no difficult and unreliable estimation of distances or zone focusing, but actually seeing sharpness by moving the lens from front to back. So you don’t have to turn the front lens, but rather slide both lenses (the take-up lens and the viewfinder lens) forward or backward at the same time to achieve focus. What you see is what you get.

Looking through the viewfinder requires a 45-degree mirror, a matte focusing screen at the top of the camera, and the classic TLR pop-up hood surrounding it. Also a small extra focussing screen can be used with a split image focussing circle to achieve critical focussing (as with rangefinders). The two lenses are connected, so that the focus shown on the focusing screen will be exactly the same as on the film. And no parallax correction is needed as the two lenses are so close together.

What makes the Flexilette special as a TLR camera is its 35mm or 135 film format. Most TLRs, are boxcameras for 120 film with different negative formats, ranging from 6×6, 6×9 or 4×4. The most famous brands are the TLRs from Rolleiflex, Yashica, Mamiya and Voigtlander. Only from Zeiss Ikon is the Contaflex known as a 35mm TLR. But why Agfa wanted to distinguish itself in this way is unclear. Some claim that shooting from waist level produces more exceptional photographs, while others see the advantage in the precise focusing with a sliding viewfinder. But the answer was soon overtaken by the emerging SLR that cast its shadow far ahead of the Flexilette and the later final Optima Reflex (with lightmeter). But there appeared to be no future for a 35 mm TLR. The experiment failed miserably.

But as a vintage camera, the Flexilette is a special asset! Shooting with this far from ordinary 35mm camera is a bot adventurous as it requires patience, thinking, composing. Elements that make photography a hobby and are only rewarded afterwards by seeing successful photos. Metering can only be acquired with an external light meter (in my case a beautiful and still functioning classic Sixtinette from Gossen). The Flexilette offers a range of shutter speeds from 1/500 to Bulb. But on the positive side, the camera uses the good Apotar 45mm lens with a, for that time bright F2.8 lens (!) and as smallest aperture f/22.

Another advantage of TLRs is that the shutter is located directly behind the lens, here in the ‘Prontor Special Leaf Shutter’. So a nice and especially quiet leaf-shaped shutter that resembles aperture blades. There are a few ways to use the viewfinder, on waist level with or without the focussing screen or composing directly through the ‘sports finder’ (without critical focussing). More curious is that the winding lever and rewinder are on the base, so under the body and the filmrol winds from right to left. The camera has an automatic filmcounter that does need to be manually set to the “0” position with each new roll. Do not get confused by the little ‘memory’ knob on the topplate, it only refers to color and B&W films in many variations of light conditions. In the manual you can read what all abbreviations mean. Loading is quickly done, as soon as the film is inserted in the take-on spool, close the back.

from the manual (as found and uploaded by Butkus.org)

All important settings are around the lens. The inner ring closest to the body controls the shutter speeds, the middle ring is for adjusting the aperture and the outer ring is for setting the focus distance.  I must admit that it is always close watching on the rings to see which one you are moving. After the roll (24or 36 exposures) is full, the arrow button on the back serves as the release button to then use the little wheel on the bottom right side to rewind the film. Yes, you can also connect a flash by means of the PC socket at the bottom right of the lens. Electronic flashes can, because of no mirror, use any (!) shutter speeds, while the bulbs need 1/30s.

Photographing makes the Flexilette a real asset in the era of revaluation of film photography. The quality of the camera is solid, the lens of high quality and the use a kind of simple, although you need to take your time and know some photographic fundamentals to achieve successful pictures. But the more time that requires, the more fun this hobby becomes.

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