BelOMO Agat 18K – Plastic Fantastic
The BelOMO Agat 18K is a bit of an oddity. It is a camera that by all intents and purposes sells itself as a toy camera, but has functionality which even some “better” made cameras lack. When you first pick it up is feels very light and is considered one of, if not, the lightest film cameras that use 35mm ever made. As it is a Soviet made camera, it continues the theme of Red October this month.
The styling is colourful and playful. The camera does come in different colours to give the impression of fun. It is also the kind of camera that is ideal for not attracting attention, as one glance and it is dismissed.
The popularity of the styling makes sense though, as there is one other product with world wide acclaim which has a similar design shape. Think of the original Apple iPod. It was a similar shape, size and where the lens is the iPod had the original touch wheel. A bit of a stretch, but it does show how this shape does resonate with people. Maybe Steve Jobs used this as his inspiration!
The Agat 18K is a half frame camera which shoots the half frame horizontally. As such, it has a profile which is taller than wider. The shape has an added benefit where it fits into a pocket very easily, and in fact is one of the few cameras that can realistically call themselves pocket cameras. With hardly any weight, your coat pocket is not dragged down.
With the benefit of being light and styling which is fun, the question is raised on how good is the camera? Should it be used or just given to children to play with? It may surprise you to find out that it is quite a decent little shooter. Just how much, let’s find out about it and see some results.
BelOMO is not one of the more well known camera companies. The Belarussian company is often mistaken for Lomo, the Russian manufacturer of cameras. BelOMO was founded in 1971 in Minsk, which was then part of the Byelorussian SSR of the Soviet Union. It is now known as Belarus. Note, that it came to be from an existing factory founded in 1957, known as the Minsk Mechanical Factory (MMZ).
Originally BelOMO made photographic equipment and machines to make photographic equipment. It now manufactures a very wide range of optical based products for both military and consumer use. In fact, since the mid 1990s BelOMO went into partnership with Zeiss where it manufactures lenses for microscopes.
BelOMO has produced a number of camera ranges, namely the Chaka, Elikon, Orion Shkolnik, Vesna, Vilia and the Agat. To those collecting Soviet cameras, some of these names are known especially the Chaika half frame camera. They also produced the Smena and Smena-2, not to be mistaken with the Smena cameras made by Lomo, like the Smena 8M.
Generally it was aimed at the lower end the market. This was by manufacturing cameras with a lower price point, and generally a lower level of quality. That’s not too say that they didn’t produce very useable cameras.
BelOMO released the Agat 18 half frame camera in 1984, which at the time was likely geared to just being a cheap but capable camera. In 1988 a revision was released, the Agat 18K being reviewed in this article. The main changes were that the film speed was now labelled in ISO, rather than DIN/GOST, more options for shutter speeds and a threaded shutter release. A new lens cap made of black plastic was also included.
The Agat 18K was manufactured for about 3 years, to 1991. Since then it has become a real favourite for the Lomography movement and is quite sought after. Luckily there is quite a few of them around.
The BelOMO Agat 18K is a plastic camera manufactured from the late 1980s. This copy would have been about 1990. It is a half frame 35mm camera, shooting in a horizontal format. The camera is almost entirely made out of plastic apart from the lens. It has the Agat 18K name on the front but in Cyrillic writing, АГАТ 18K. Due to the horizontal nature of its framing, the camera sits taller than wider. Being plastic, it is very light at 132g.
This particular copy has a yellow ring around the lens, and a yellow shutter button. They did come in a variety of colours, which some people like to collect.
It is a viewfinder camera, with front cell focus achieved through rotation of the lens and lining up the distance markings. Minimum focus distance is 90cm. All distance markings are in metric.
The lens is the Industar-104 (ИНДУСТАР), 28mm 1:2.8. This translates to roughly 40mm focal length in 35mm terms. The lens is a glass triplet, and takes only slip-on filters. Aperture is available from f/2.8 through to f/16, while marked, these aren’t directly selected.
The exposure settings are selected through rotating the outer yellow ring around the lens and selecting predefined lighting conditions. They are the usual symbols covering sunny (Sun), shade with sunny day (Black Sun), cloudy (cloud), shady or heavy cloud (black cloud), rainy (black cloud with rain) and indoors (building). There is also a selection where you can push or pull a stop with circle indicators either side of the lighting conditions marker.
The selection of the lighting conditions aligns the aperture to a mechanically predefined shutter speed. Speeds are between 1/65 to 1/540 second, but not shown anywhere on the camera. It is effectively a mechanical auto exposure system based on the film ISO. The ISO can be set from 25 – 1600. This is selected by the inner yellow ring around the lens.
The shutter button is also yellow plastic and in front of the camera. It offers a cable release thread, for longer exposures. To allow for use of longer exposures, there is a ¼ inch tripod socket, which doubles as the wrist strap holder. Just unscrew the wrist strap for access. The wrist strap also holds the lens cap, which doubles as a shutter release protector, to avoid accidentally firing the shutter in your pocket.
Film is advanced through a rotary thumb winder on the side of the camera. Advancing the film also cocks the shutter. The frame counter, also on the side of the camera, resets automatically when film is loaded. The rewind setting is within the same winder, with a thumb selector. A crank is also on the same side, for rewinding back into the cartridge.
The viewfinder is a bright frame type, with frame lines matching the lens. Parallax correction lines are included for closer focusing.
A cold shoe is hidden on top of the camera and can be accessed by removing a sliding panel.
The camera is loaded with film by literally pulling it apart. By flicking a switch on the side, the Agat comes apart into two pieces. Film is inserted at the bottom and requires a reloadable film cartridge as the film take-up. Many examples use an open spool as the take-up. The camera then snaps back together, remembering to put the pressure plate back behind the film.
The BelOMO Agat 18K came to me as a bonus camera when I bought a group of sub-miniature cameras. It was a bit of a surprise especially as it looked like it had never been used. I originally thought it was a toy and put it to the side, until I read a few reviews of it bestowing the surprising results from the lens. I hadn’t even expected it to have a glass lens.
From that moment, I was quite keen to use it, but always put it back in favour of more “serious” cameras. Finally I decided to give it a go, and it surely was a bit of an experience.
Opening it up felt like I was going to break it. The plastic is quite thin, but surprisingly it is quite strong. It makes snapping sounds as it is opened up which made me cringe. Once I had it open, I then was also surprised to find two reloadable film cartridges in there. One was made of metal, which is ironic considering the construction of the camera in plastic.
Obviously this had been used before, and by someone that loads their own film. I picked up some Kodak Ultramax 400, a film I have been using lately for testing cameras, threaded the leader through to one of the cartridges and inserted them both back in.
Snapping it together, I again thought I was going to break this camera. It snaps with a loud sound and I even went looking for any pieces that had fallen off. The Agat though, was in totally good condition.
I did have an internal debate on what ISO I should set it to. Usually I shoot negative film a little overexposed, but with the mechanical auto exposure of the Agat, I did not know how it was set up. In the end I set the film ISO to box speed considering this film is aimed at consumers who do this the world over.
Shooting out and about, it kind of felt a little silly. I mean, do look at it. I am a fully grown man using a camera that looks like a toy you get at a fast food chain with a children’s meal.
Holding the camera takes a little getting used to, due to its shape. Interestingly I also found myself automatically rotating it to a portrait hold. I suspect this is because mentally I know it is a half frame camera, and all the others I have are oriented this way.
The viewfinder is quite bright and easy to see through. The frame lines are quite well defined and easily identifiable. As I do like the 40mm focal length, it also suited my field of vision. Due to the nature of the camera, it felt less constrained, and I found I was shooting away very easily.
Focusing through the lens rotation is a little bit fiddly, and I noted that it needs to be done after selecting the exposure settings. It is otherwise knocked out of focus very easily. Selecting the exposure setting was very easy and did not take much thought. I was pretty much in the hands of the camera.
The film wad dropped off at my lab one morning and on the way home picked up the envelope. I was very interested to see how a free, plastic, toy like camera would perform. It actually did very well. The Industar 104 lens is actually quite a little performer, especially in the centre. There is very much softening on the edges, but for something that small it is expected.
Exposure was a little too dark for my liking. This may be that I should have stuck to my usual routine and set the ISO to over expose the film some extent. I have read that Ultramax is more vibrant and a little less grainy when this is done. Might be my next trial.
I had an absolute ball shooting with the Agat 18K. It is something I did not take seriously from the beginning which made it all the more fun. My suggestion is that if you come across one, and it is reasonably low priced, grab it. Have fun.
I just received mine in the post from Belarus. I cannot wait to take it out to play!!
It is a really great fun camera, you will enjoy it quite a bit!