AGFA Karat 36 v3 – 36 Carat Camera
The AGFA Karat 36 is a German fixed lens folding 35mm rangefinder camera. The idea is that it folds down flat(-ish) and becomes a carry with you every day camera. I had eagerly wanted to shoot this camera since I reviewed the camera it competed against, the Kodak Retina (Retina IIa review here).
The idea of having a camera that is easy to carry which does not take up much room is not a new one. Camera manufacturers have been trying that since the late 1930s culminating in the wonder compacts of the 1990s, now progressing to our mobile phones. Difference with the earlier models is that they were still made of metal, thus you need pockets that can take some weight!
The Karat 36 was designed with that in mind but it does have a few little quirks to it which take a bit of getting used to. For instance, the film advance lever moves in a different direction to normal. It also has a very unique rangefinder function. I suspect some of this is to keep it small while some of the quirks are as advancements on design.
Normally when I review a camera, I use it for an extended period to make sure I get to grips with it. I did the same with the Karat 36, but for reasons I will go into more detail below in the Experience section, the basis of the results are based on one roll of Kodak Tri-X. I got outdone by one of the quirks a couple of times.
So to see how was it to use and how it performed, through a limited example, let’s read on.
AGFA and Kodak were seen as direct competitors. Both were film companies which also produced cameras to sell more film. They competed in a lot of photographic markets from the 1930s and 1940s including the smaller format market.
While Kodak was selling Retinas using 135 format film (35mm), AGFA developed their own Rapid cassette to cassette system. This differed from the 135 format in that it did not need rewinding, as it wound into another cassette as you shot your photos.
The camera AGFA introduced in 1936 was called the Karat, which was originally made from a Bakelite type material. A number of variants were produced until World War II halted production. After the war, initially the same Karat cameras were produced until the mid-40s when a second generation was developed.
The second generation was called the Karat 12 (or 2.8) and continued until about 1950. It still used the Rapid cassette system, but this was losing ground to the 135 format from Kodak. The cassette system was limited to 12 frames, thus the name.
In 1948, in response to the popularity of the 135 format, AGFA released the Karat 36 which used that format. The Karat 36 came with four options for the fixed lens. They were: AGFA Solinar 50mm 1:2.8; AGFA Solagon 50mm 1:2; Rodenstock Heligon 50mm 1:2; Schneider Xenon 50 1:2. The Solinar has four elements and the others are with six.
In the U.S. it was distributed as the Ansco Karamat.
The Karat 36 v3, the model featured in this article, was introduced in 1953. The Karat series continued until 1956, with the final model being the Karat IV.
The AGFA Karat 36, specifically the v3, is an all metal meter-less 35mm folding rangefinder camera released in 1953. It uses a small set of bellows located within the struts which are contracted when not in use. There is a safety mechanism to disable the shutter avoiding accidental firing of the shutter when the camera is in the closed position. The lens pops out when the button on the left of the lens is depressed.
A unique design of the Karat 36 is that it does not have the traditional rangefinder patch. The whole viewfinder is split across the middle horizontally and is the rangefinder. This allows the focusing to be found at any point across the frame. This is also why the two windows at the front are not vertically aligned.
Focusing is controlled by a lever on the left side of the camera. The focusing is a known weak point of these cameras as there is quite a number reported with seized or very stiff movement. Some cleaning and re-lube usually takes care of this.
This copy has the Solinar 50mm 1:2.8, which has four elements. Aperture range is from f/2.8 wide open to f/16 closed down. Aperture control is on the left of the lens, near the bottom, as a sliding lever.
This model has the Compur-Rapid shutter with a shutter speed range from 1/500thof a second through to 1 second and bulb. Shutter speed is set by rotating the disc around the lens. On the front is also the flash port.
At the top of the lens a set of depth of field markings have been included alongside the focus distance.
On top of the camera is a threaded shutter release button with a frame counter next to it in a half moon shape. The counter is reset manually. On the right of this is the film advance lever. This is one of the design items which is different to most cameras, the lever is actually pulled towards the user rather than pushed away with the thumb.
On the left side of the top is the rewind wheel. Next to it is a film speed reminder which can be set using the left thumb.
Behind the camera, apart from the rust bump under the leatherette on mine, is only the viewfinder. Under the camera is a rewind release button and a tripod socket on the right of the camera.
Loading the film is from the left to right, which requires threading. This is once the back release is pulled downwards on the left and the back swings open. It has a little film guide tab at the bottom which needs to be put over the bottom of the film, otherwise it may not thread the film through with the sprockets.
The camera has no strap lugs, so can only be hung from the tripod socket.
I bought the AGFA Karat 36 at the same time as when I got the Kodak Retina. Immediately I can see why these were considered direct competitors. Very similar in looks, though quite different in operation.
Having enjoyed using the Retina quite a bit and loved the results, I finally got a chance to load the Karat 36 with some Tri-X and went out. Using the camera, I found it quite quirky and at times difficult to use. The film advance was initially a bit strange and never really got natural, but I suppose that is not the camera’s fault. Decades of advancing film with my thumb is a strong muscle memory!
The other aspect I struggled with is the shutter speed selector. It is quite difficult to change quickly and very fiddly. The markings are small and at least on my copy, it was stiff to turn. When I used it in the street, it just took too long to change and set.
Something I really liked and enjoyed using is the rangefinder function. Splitting the whole viewfinder and making it effectively a big focus patch is a brilliant idea. I wish more cameras had this, it makes focusing so much easier.
As the film advanced through the camera I suddenly realised I was beyond the end of the 36 exposures. I then realised something was wrong, so I shot a few more frames confirming that it had not threaded through.
So rather than rewinding the film, I opened up the back and my suspicions were confirmed, it had not advanced a single frame. It seems I had forgotten to flip the little tab at the bottom over the film causing it to not be caught by the sprockets.
I then tried again, and luckily this worked really well. The camera was used around my neighbourhood, in central Sydney, the ferry in the harbour and a little in Manly, a northern Sydney beach suburb. I was still not coming to grips with the camera though and it did not feel natural to me.
When the results came from the lab, I must admit the quality is quite good. The Solinar lens, though the cheapest and probably the least capable of options on the Karat, is not too bad. Sharpness is good, especially in the middle, but not bitingly sharp. It also has fairly even exposure across the frame.
These photos got me a little excited again, so the Karat got loaded with some Kodak Pro Image 100, and this time I was quite careful to ensure it was threaded and was turning. I started using it again, but soon put it down because of a combination of lack of time and some bad lighting in Sydney due to smoke caused by a very bad bushfire season. I did also find that I kept bypassing it when I chose a camera to shoot.
In the end it did not matter. While initially it had caught the film on the sprockets, something still was not right and it did not advance forward. After having initially checked I did not check again. The film was mostly blank. I could not bring myself to load it again.
The AGFA Karat 36 is not a bad camera, contrary to my description above, in fact it is quite a good camera. Especially the rangefinder design is genius. But it just did not connect with me. It was a combination of things that just did not gel. There are clubs dedicated to the Karat cameras, and they are held in high regard so I could just be an exception here.
Mike Eckman has a great write up of his Karat 36, including a fix to the sticky shutter issue: AGFA Karat 36 v1.5 (1950)
CJ Classic Camera Collection has a good overview of the model numbers within the Karat 36 series.
Perry Ge, of Classic Lenses Podcast, has written how he has really enjoyed using his Karat 36 on 35mmc: AGFA Karat 36 – The Patchless Rangefinder
Always really exciting to read these reviews. You are right in saying that a lot of ingenuity went into camera designs in the 1930s and 1940s. A similar process to fountain pen design as well.
Thank you! The exciting development back then continued though into the 1950s, where it exploded in innovation for both.
What film would this camera take?
It takes any usual 35mm film.