Have you ever wondered what happens at night in your camera cabinett when you put an Agfa Silette, one of the many nondescript german viewfinder cameras of the 1950ies and -60ies, too close to a Rolleiflex? Maybe not, but i have a possible answer: The product of this one night stand could be one of my favorite 35mm cameras: the Agfa Flexilette.
You don’t believe in love affairs between cameras? That’s okay, I don’t either. But looking a an Agfa Flexilette strange thoughts could easily enter your mind, because this member of the exquisite guild of 35 mm twin lens reflex camera really looks like a gene-mix between an Agfa Silette genes and the top dog of all twin lens reflex cameras, the famous Rolleiflex. The very name of the Flexilette, a combination of (Rollei)FLEX and (Agfa) SILETTE might count as another evidence.
Mom’s Body, Dad’s Eyes
The most conspicuous feature of this Silette on steroids are – aside from the waist level finder i will come to in a minute – its two Color Apotar lenses. These rather small, purplish-blue coated 1:2.8/45mm lenses are arranged one above the other at the front of a massive lens barrel. Around it you find three knurled metal rings for adjusting focus, aperture and shutter speeds from 1 to 1/500 of a second. The Prontor leaf shutter is the same reliable model you find on many cameras of that time, but it lacks the extra of a self timer – obviously a victim of Agfa’s price policy (at 199.- DM the Flexilette was a great deal, for the body of a Leica M3 you had to pay thrice as much). The popular price is probly also the reason why the Flexilette was not equipped with Agfas top of the line lens (lenses, in fact), the four elements Tessar type Color Solinar. Actually not a big problem, as the three-elements Coloar Apotars of the Flexilette have a rather unique character of their own.
Although it is not as sharp as the Xenons and Xenars on my Retinas the Color Apotar is sharp enough for my way of taking pictures and has a very nice lustre around the highlights which i attribute to its three elements design. This lens is a collusion of silky sharpness and a special bokeh some people pay a lot of money for when they buy a re-engineered Meyer Domiplan for their Sony A7. While the Apotar may not be a lens for everybody, i am very much in love with this optical quality you don’t find in modern lenses.
Not really a mega seller
By the way the popular price tag of the Flexilette did not make it a mega seller of its day. After only one year it was replaced by the Optima Reflex which had a fixed pentaprism and an automatic exposure control – one of the first of its kind. This “progress” is the reason why most Optima Reflexes are unusable today because the majority of their selenium cells have expired over the years.
A Praise for Simplicity
My Flexilette hat has no lightmeter that can break which is a good thing as its control elements are quite sturdy and make it a perfect companion for the nostalgic film photographer in the second decade of the 21st century. Winding the film and cocking the shutter is achieved by a rapid advance lever at the bottom of the camera. The knob for rewinding the film is located on the other side of the ground plate, leaving the top of the camera rather tidy – here you find only the film counter, an adjustably dial to memorize which kind of emulsion you have loaded and the shutter release button.
And, of course, the waist level finder – another proof of the Rolleiflexes genes in the genome of the Flexilette. But this finder is more than just a copy of its famous role model. It starts with the very bright ground glas that features a central split image rangefinder spot. A foldout magnifying glass strongly enhances the view at the ground glass which because of its smallness is kind of hard to see if you try to focus the camera without it. Looking through the magnifyer gives me the same special feeling i like so much when taking pictures with the Rolleiflex – viewing the world through this magical box lets me completely forget my surroundings an concentrate solely at my subject and its composition. Whenever my eye is looking into one of these finders i feel like i am pulled by magical forces into the picture myself.
A magic box – also in 35mm
Of course there are some drawbacks too. The picture you see through the viewing lens is not exactly the same as the one the taking lens an inch below will expose the film to. The parallax error resulting from this is not critical given the closest adjustable distance of 0.9 m, but it is there. Much more serious is the fact that the picture you are looking at in the viewfinder is reversed. You need to take that into consideration when composing your image and you have to learn to move the camera in the opposite direction to follow a moving subject. Not easy for the unexperienced TLR-photographer, but if you really want to get into trouble try to use a waist level finder to take a picture in portrait mode – a problem the Rolleiflex elegantly avoids with its square film format.
For the Flexilette with its 35mm format that is a different story, but Agfa’s camera designers found a good solution for the inconvenience. By inserting a lens into the front and the rear wall of the folding waist level finder they managed to give the camera a simple but very effective sports viewfinder. Once you have focussed the Flexilette by looking via magnifier and mirror through the viewing lens, you lift the camera to your eye and frame your image through the sports finder that gives a bigger and brighter picture than the finder of the original Silette.
Rolleiflex oder Flexilette? – that is the question …
So whenever i want to take some pictures with a twin lens reflex camera and a waist level finder (and this wanting is quite strong with me) which one do i take? One of my Rolleiflexes or the Flexilette?
Depends on what i am looking for. If my desire is image quality and shallow depth of field i grab a Rolleiflex with its 75 mm Planar or Tessar lens. If i am into street photography i prefer the Flexilette which gives me a shorter focal length and is not as conspicuous as the big and boxy Rolleiflex. The Flexilette with its everready case of brown leather is also the better camera to carry around with you all day. Of course it is more voluminous than my favorite 35mm film camera, the Kodak Retina IIIC which is foldable and has a built-in exposure meter while lacking the magic of a waist level viewfinder.
You see, i am quite spoilt for choice …
Here are some pictures i have taken with the Agfa Flexilette an a little walk along Winzererstraße in Munich