The Agfa Optima-Parat is an example of what a camera can look like when there is a high level of effort put into the aesthetics of the design. The first time I saw this camera in a review I knew I had to have one. It is so shiny, and like many a man, I am attracted to a shiny new toy.
Do not mistake this as a toy though. This shiny little camera is a very capable half frame photographic instrument. Not only was care taken to make it look beautiful, Agfa built this to make the photographer really want to use it.
For instance, with no batteries it operates a meter using the power of the selenium cell. The meter though is not limited to setting the exposure, it also operates a light to let you know if you have enough light for a decent exposure. As far as features go, that is brilliant, by giving you the most useful feature on a camera battery free!
Half frame cameras are a format that I have struggled with in the past. I am not a prolific shooter, preferring to take a measured approach. This leads to very long periods of the same roll of film in the camera. Luckily with the Optima-Parat, I was very eager to shoot regularly with it once I used it the first time.
Half frame photography has come and gone multiple times as a trend. Initially it was introduced as a cost saving measure for the budget conscious. But as time has evolved, it has become an artistic statement in itself. Not just because of what can be achieved with the smaller, usually vertical frame, but with the use of diptychs, triptychs, and even quadriptychs.
During the lockdown and then restricted travel times of 2020 I have used this camera for quite a while. While it does have its quirks, it is a pleasure to use. Let’s then find out a bit more about it and then how it performed, with a notch of a surprise.
Agfa has a history in both manufacturing cameras and film. It is one of the worlds older photographic companies. Agfa is abbreviation for Aktien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation. The company was founded in 1867 in Berlin, Germany. Initially it produced aniline colours, which were some of the earliest synthetic dyes.
A chemical scientist called Momme Andresen redirected the company into photographic chemicals in 1887. A year later they released the photographic developer Rodinal, which to this day is a used by many photographers. It even has a cult following.
While it was quite a number of years behind Kodak, it continued in the film and chemical side of the industry. The first Agfa camera introduced was in 1926, called the Standard. In 1930 its first box camera was released, shooting 6×9 frames on roll film.
The merger with Anso in 1928 had a profound effect on the company, which expanded the company’s market coverage. Over the next 15 years cameras were released with joint branding Agfa Ansco. After the second world war the company was broken up, but Agfa did survive and continued to produce cameras alongside its thriving film business.
The Optima range of 35mm cameras made their debut in 1959 with the original Agfa Optima. It was the first manufactured camera operated with programmed exposures from a selenium powered meter. That is where the exposure indicators with the green/red lights originated for this line.
Many models followed that initial one, mainly through the 1960s. It was also used in the branding of the Sensor range. During that period, half frame was also gaining traction, especially with the push from the Japanese competitor Olympus and their Pen series.
In 1963 Agfa introduced the Parat series of cameras to tackle the half frame market. The first model, the Parat I, did not have a light meter and was complete manual, but did have a four exposure speeds and a hot shoe.
1964 is where the two brandings merged and the Agfa Optima-Parat came about. It is one of the more sophisticated models produced by Agfa for the half frame market. Apart from its stunning chrome looks, it has automatic exposure operation as well as manual options. The automatic exposure and exposure indicators are operated by the selenium meter.
The Agfa Optima-Parat is a half frame 35mm fixed lens viewfinder camera manufactured from 1964. It was manufactured in Germany. The half frame is in portrait format when the camera is held in its native position.
Agfa made the camera in all chrome with black paint over certain parts for definition. Very little plastic has been used, giving the camera a decent heft for it size, coming in at 427g without film on my kitchen scale. No strap lugs are on the camera, requiring that the every-ready case is used if hanging around the neck is preferred.
The fixed lens is an Agfa Color-Solinar 30mm f/2.8. This equates to roughly a standard 45mm lens in full frame 35mm. When not used in Auto mode the lens has a manual range of apertures from f/2.8 through to f/22. It has a minimum focus distance of 90cm.
Under the lens there is a couple of sliders. The one furthest from the camera body allows selection of the camera settings for in “A” auto mode, blank to disengage it, across into the flash mode and then into bulb. When not in auto mode it allows the second slider to be moved and the photographer to make a matching aperture selection. The shutter speed is set to 1/30th second in flash mode. Bulb does exactly that, sets the shutter into bulb which stays open as long as the shutter release button is triggered.
The settings are shown at the top of the lens, with auto signified with an “A” in a red box. If in bulb, “B” is shown in the other slot, as is a lightning symbol for flash. When apertures are being selected, the aperture setting is shown there. Keeping to the quality of the camera, there is a little window near the bottom of the lens mount which aligns the flash guide numbers to the settings.
Focus can be adjusted by rotating the front of the lens. There are pre-sets for easy focus selection, with a choice of portraits, group of people and a house with mountains (which looks more like lightning around it). This equates to 1.8m, 3.5m, and infinity (6ft, 12.5ft and infinity). It also has markings for more precise focus settings ranging from 90cm though to infinity. These can be selected as in between settings which gives the user extra flexibility.
The top plate of the Optima-Parat has the film rewind lever on the left. The rewind release button is also on top. On the right is a hot shoe. That is really unique for a camera like this to have a hot shoe which fires the flash. It will only fire the flash if the flash mode has been selected.
Also on top is the ISO selector for the film being used. Options for film speed are from ISO 10 through to ISO 250. The DIN numbers are also displayed on the wheel that needs something flat, like a small coin, to adjust.
Under the camera is a lock switch for removing the back, giving access to loading a 35mm cartridge. Loading is simple, with threading the leader in and then winding on. Once the back is on, the counter, which is also on the bottom must be reset manually. It is a thumb wheel and is set to the number of exposures expected, for example 72 for a 36 exposure film, and then counts backwards.
On the back is the film advance lever, which is recessed into the camera. It is a single stroke advance. The viewfinder next to it is in portrait framing, as is common on half frame cameras. Frame lines are visible in the viewfinder, with markings for parallax compensation for when photographing closer subjects.
Also in the viewfinder is the exposure indicator. When the determined shutter speed is considered too slow it will be illuminated red when the shutter release is depressed half way. If the exposure is within the range of the camera determined as safe, it illuminates green. Speaking of the shutter release, it is a lever style on the front of the camera on the right side.
The exposure metering and powering of the indicators is totally powered by the selenium cell located next to the viewfinder at the front.
My Agfa Optima-Parat came to me via an online purchase. It was, though, quite a long search for one that would be in the condition that I wanted. After seeing a review of the camera one day, I knew I had to have one. But it also had to show its beauty, which meant all the shiny bits had to be, well, shiny.
When it first arrived, I was surprised on how solid and heavy for its size this camera is. I do like the Olympus Pen range of cameras, but the difference in heft is considerable. It feels nice in the hand, but not having strap lugs did worry me a little. Especially as there is no rubber to grip. To counter that, I used a wrist strap which I attached through a tripod socket screw loop. This worked a treat.
The first time I went out with the Optima-Parat, it nicely fit into my hand. I found holding it with my thumb on the hot shoe was quite comfortable and easily transitioned to a shooting hold quite easily.
So, all excited, I loaded the camera with Ilford FP4 Plus for a really sunny day. Loading requires taking the whole back off, so it was more comfortable to do it in my lap. I reminded myself to set the counter 72 and off I went.
It amazes me how quickly I adapt to the portrait orientation when the camera natively is set that way. Portrait orientation became the go to. As I mentioned earlier, I am not usually a prolific shooter, which usually causes me to struggle to finish off 72 frames. With that in mind I made my mind up I would not hold back from being creative.
The viewfinder is nice and bright. The frame marks are easy to see, even in all but the brightest light. Half pressing the shutter release illuminated the green or red indicator and this also could be seen easily but was more affected by the bright light.
I mostly used this camera in auto exposure mode. Maybe a little bit of a risk initially considering the age of the selenium cell, but it seemed to be reacting correctly.
Soon, a few rolls of FP4 Plus had been through this camera. Each time the exposures came out very well. Getting back the negatives is always fun when half frame, as there is a lot to look at.
A nice little surprise on the negatives is a little notch towards the bottom on the right hand side. It is almost a little window continuing the exposure. I normally do not scan borders, but with that little notch it was irresistible. Especially on diptychs or more exposures, as it blends the exposures together further.
One thing that was quite prominent is that the spacing between frames is very inconsistent from this camera. Normally I have seen cameras where it gets wider in some older cameras, but in this case it was all over the place. Sometimes the little notch was even overlapping into the next frame!
Straight away I could see the frames were all well exposed. I am actually amazed this old selenium meter is so accurate. I scanned the negatives on my Nikon Coolscan LS-4000 and all the while I swore a lot (scanning half frame is painful and long). It took even longer than normal as I specifically wanted to maintain diptychs, triptychs and even a quadriptych together. I did have to digitally restitch the quad as the scanner does not allow them in one go, due to the width restrictions for a scanner designed for 24x36mm frames.
During scanning I evaluated each frame and it reinforced what I was seeing on the film. That the lens on the Optima-Parat is a real performer. The images were all nice and contrasty, with clear definition. I was expecting lots of grain being a smaller negative frame, but the results outperformed my expectations. The only complaint is that it is subject to some flare where the light is in front or slightly to the side.
After only using black and white film for a while, it was time to try colour. On my way out that day I picked up a roll of Kodak Portra 400 and put it in my bag ready for use later. Here is where I found something I didn’t like with this little camera. The maximum film speed selection is ISO 250. Luckily Portra 400 is often shot at 250, including by myself.
Images that resulted from using Portra 400 were not as smooth as the ones from FP4 Plus. In fact, even though it was rated to overexpose, I found there was some frames which were quite underexposed. After some analysis I realised it was mostly due to the meter being fooled by bright skies. Perfectly understandable for an ancient selenium meter.
Again, scanning was a little more difficult because of the frame size. With colour it was even more so because I wanted to keep the frame on quite a few of them. This throws Negative Lab Pro out a little when converting from negative to positive. Easily enough to handle, just crop into the image and then reverse it after the conversion, but the effort is amplified with 72 frames.
I must admit that I continued to mostly use the camera in auto mode. I would set the distance, usually left it on the middle setting, and just shoot if the little light went green at the half press. It is such an easy use camera in that regard, and the results definitely support that mode of shooting.
I’ve had a lot of fun with the Agfa Optima-Parat, so much so that I can say that it is now my favourite half frame camera. It took a while to find one in the condition I was happy with, but I am glad I did. It is an extremely addictive camera to use and the results are some of the best ones I have had in this format. Not the lightest little camera, but very handy and comfortable to use.
If you can find an Agfa Optima-Parat at a reasonable price and works well (check the selenium cell still works) it is definitely worth getting hold of it. If cosmetically it is nice and shiny, it is a great bonus.
Johnny Martyr wrote a great review of this camera, in fact the reason I got one. It is in: A rave review of the Agfa Optima-Parat.
Mike Elek has a short write up of this camera in his collection: Agfa Optima-Parat review.