Home Features 1957 Agfa Ambi Silette: Quality is for life

1957 Agfa Ambi Silette: Quality is for life

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One of the more enjoyable things about being a Macfilos reader is the surprisingly varied contributions and stories that crop up. Surprisingly mainly because one may suspect that a site that has Leica strongly woven through it would revolve mainly around, well, Leica.

Yet this is not so, as many long-term readers will attest. Another surprise is that amongst the varied content, one may unexpectedly connect with an article on a topic that appears, as it were, out of nowhere. Thus it was late last year, when Mike recounted a story about his first serious camera – a fixed lens Agfa Silette dating back to 1963! Not least astonishing was that Mike was able to find the original receipt and bank statement, but we will perhaps leave that aspect of retentiveness mercifully brief.

Incredible record keeping aside, that article prompted me to recall that I too had an Agfa camera in my past, a far more recent past, and in fact actually also in the present. At that moment, though, the camera was locked away in storage as we rebuilt our home. I did make a mental note to retrieve the Agfa when the time suited, and this week all of my old film cameras returned home.

Opportunity, inclination

The back story to my Agfa was one of opportunity and a natural inclination to be drawn to unusual, less common items. I was on the hunt one Saturday morning for a small, manual, film SLR. I was envisioning an OM2 or similar, and called into Croydon Camera House in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne. They usually have a few shelves of second-hand equipment and I thought the odds were decent of finding a suitable SLR.

As it turned out, other than a Pentax Spotmatic that I ultimately declined, there wasn’t much to interest me. But I did get talking to Andrew, the store’s camera tech and repair guru, about various old film systems and what may suit. I hadn’t met him before, and a very enjoyable half hour or so ensued. At the end, he looked at me as if he’d made a decision.

“Right, you seem worthy”. He raised his finger portentously. “Let me show you something really nice”, and vanished into his little workshop room. When he emerged, he was carrying an old, large camera case. “A lady brought it in a few weeks ago, it had been hers and her husband’s since new, but not used in many many years. She wants it to go to someone who will use and enjoy it, and I promised that it would.” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial level. “Not just to some hipster who’ll think it makes his coffee at the café look cooler. This isn’t a prop! That’s why I haven’t listed it publicly for sale as yet”.

Not the foggiest

Now, I must confess that Andrew’s enthusiasm was contagious, but equally I didn’t have the foggiest notion of what I was about to see. Some sort of medium format? An old Leica? A mint-condition early SLR – which was, after all, what I’d set out to find and largely what we’d been discussing?

No. When Andrew unshackled the hasp and lifted the hinged lid, I peered into a felt-lined interior at what appeared to be a small, metal-bodied rangefinder form and associated lenses. In fact, it turned out to be an entire kit, including shutter release cable, small tripod, an ancient light meter, three lenses, the original manual, a lens hood and push on filter. I gently lifted out the body and held it up to the light. Emblazoned across the front was “Agfa Ambi Silette” and mounted on the body was a more exotically named 50mm/f2.8 Agfa Color-Solinar lens.

It would be an outrageous lie to pretend that I’d ever even heard of this camera, let alone always wanted one. But. as I held it, I was already fighting the urge to buy it. Andrew wasn’t helping. “That’s right, this is a collectors’ piece, German machining quality and German optics. A full complement of lenses, too. Isn’t she beautiful?”

Price agreed

Well, yes. She was. I went for a walk to think things over. A quick Google search revealed not a lot of info, but hinted that the interchangeable lens Agfas were not exactly commonplace. Considering I left home that morning hunting for a small SLR with metering and fast shutter speeds, was I mad to be intrigued by an old German rangefinder with no metering and a sluggish 1/500 top speed? Probably; perhaps undoubtedly. I returned to the shop, we agreed on a price and I walked out with a ‘new’ camera, the likes of which I’d never owned before. Andrew’s voice followed me out. “Remember, you have to use it, and please come back with some results!”

Part of the big attraction for me was the camera’s relative rarity. It’s a bit odd in many ways. And information about the Ambi Silette line is not exactly plentiful. What I could find out is that the Ambi is the only Silette made for interchangeable lenses. The Silette and Super Silette lines were all fixed lens designs. The Ambi also appears to have had a very short production run of four years, online sources seemingly in agreement that it spanned 1957 to 1961.

The standard lens is the 50/2.8, and there were also a 35mm/4.0 Color Ambion and a 90mm/4.0 Color Telingar. Happily, I have all three! And I love the names, just by the by. If you go online and do some digging, you’ll find an even longer focal length – a 130/4.0 Color Telinear that requires a hot-shoe viewfinder.

All mod cons

Obviously, none of these lenses is considered overly fast, but the apertures probably gel quite nicely with a top operating shutter speed of 1/500 of a second. Incidentally, the leaf shutter can be controlled all the way down to one second, and also has “Bulb” mode.

There is also a suggestion of a “holy grail” 50/2.0 Color Solagon lens, but it may be down to confusion with the fixed lens Super Silette, or the SLR Ambiflex model. I haven’t been able to confirm either way whether this lens actually exists for the Ambi.

The camera has a self-timer and also a flash sync port. The hot-shoe is actually a cold-shoe and offers no connectivity to anything mounted on it.

There’s a spring-loaded flap that covers the viewfinder and rangefinder windows. Unless you spring the flap, you cannot see through the viewfinder. I found this somewhat problematic, often raising the camera to my eye and experiencing a moment of confusion as I looked into darkness. I dare say I’d get used to this with more usage. There is a slide switch on the top plate that allows you to choose 35, 50 or 90mm frame-lines. This is a nice touch, since you don’t need to mount the relevant lens to bring up the framing. You can “see” potential framing/perspective changes at the flick of a finger. (Just like a Leica – Ed)

The Lens mount is rather unusual. Unlike most, where you need to line up two marks before the bayonet will slide home, with the Ambi you can simply mount the lens and turn until it clicks into place. It’s a bayonet mount but feels a little like a screw mount as well.

The rundown

My kit came with two plastic lens containers, complete with desiccant granules in the base to ward off evil moisture. There is a frame counter driven by the beautifully smooth film winder, and also a dial that allows you to remember whether you’ve loaded colour or monochrome film. I’m not entirely sure why.

The machining is lovely, the knurling on the dials clean and sharp. The shutter mechanism is crisp and very quiet, the rangefinder patch reasonably bright and the lenses feel very solidly made. All in all, this feels a premium, beautifully built camera. If I had one complaint during the first roll of film, it’s that the film winder sits flush with the body and the end is quite sharp. My thumb protested a few times until I worked out that the best way was to wind on the film from slightly above to get the lever moving.

What don’t we have? Well, of course, there’s no meter, and more annoyingly there are no strap lugs on this one. I did find a reference to the effect that later cameras may have had lugs added. If so, this makes my example an early model. Happily, it did come with an ever-ready case and a little pouch for a lens hood. Less happily, I don’t like ever-ready cases and would rather not use them. In practice, I was happy to just carry the camera in my hand. It’s a tad square and angular, but I never found it unpleasant to carry about. The film rewind is a knurled dial rather than the later setups with flip up handles. This obviously slows things down, but since I’ve shot just the one film it’s not exactly a major problem.

A promise to keep

Right, then, enough of the rundown. I had a promise to Andrew to uphold – to use the Ambi Silette as it was intended. So, I did, forthwith. Considering the not overly fast shutter speeds available, I opted to ignore a roll of 400 ISO that I had handy and instead picked up a packet of cheap Kodak Colorplus 200. I’ve found recently across a couple of cameras (including a Yashica 35ME that I found for $5 in an op-shop!) that this budget film is actually surprisingly nice in good light. I loaded the film, closed the film gate with a satisfying snick and proceeded to carry the camera about for a few days’ shooting. In the main, I focused on some fairly innocuous and pointless things, as one tends to do with a new camera. But I did finish the film at a vintage car show up in the mountain village of Kalorama on a lovely sunny autumn day, so I was looking forward to seeing the results. Excitement and trepidation in equal measure, as I fretted over how badly I may have done with a medium that essentially allows for no do-overs.

The local lab developed the film for me and emailed a set of scans back. I took the budget option, the scans not being high res, but I was so pleasantly surprised at the results. Actually, I was outright happy that I hadn’t completely ruined the exposures and that the camera obviously worked perfectly. Hopefully, the images throughout this article provide a good indication of what the Ambi and the Colorplus could accomplish. I took the jpeg scans, applied a few basic edits such as contrast/colour stripping etc, and voila! A genuine film look from a genuine period camera and lenses.

Sunny sixteen

I should note that for metering I used a mix of guessing, based on Sunny Sixteen, and (for the car show) a Panasonic G9 to take ballpark meter readings. What you’ll find in bright light and a maximum shutter speed of 1/500 is that you need to stop down the lenses, which obviously both limits shallow DOF, but also helps minimise critical focusing issues.

Obviously, when limited to full stop increments with shutter speed, it’s not always possible to replicate a modern meter reading. I adjusted aperture where I could to compensate. If anything, I think if I went wrong anywhere it was to overexpose some shots slightly. Which is ok with this film, as grain emerges quickly in darker regions of the frame if you try to lift the shadows. I also suspect that the lab may have tried to correct exposure issues; a couple look rather grainy, as if they’ve pushed them a stop or more.

I started carrying a little notebook in which to record the lens/exposure settings for various shots, and there was a sense of charm imparted by the slow, methodical use and recording that I found myself having to do. First time around, the 90mm wasn’t my favourite lens but then, again, the subject matter probably wasn’t ideal either. The 35mm and 50mm lenses I absolutely loved.

I have no regrets at all in investing a little money in a simply beautiful and unique old camera. The rangefinder seems fairly accurate, but with many shots at f/8 or smaller due to too much light and no ND filters, it became almost a zone focus proposition anyway.

It forced me to think about the exposure triangle and problem solve on the fly. I dare say it was probably amusing to onlookers to watch me pause and look vacantly into the distance whilst I pondered which way I needed to shift aperture or shutter speed, and which parts of the frame I really wanted exposed correctly.

Premium quality, then and now

The bottom line, for me, is this. In photography, premium quality in 1957 can still be premium quality in 2019. Of course, we miss out on a few bells, whistles and conveniences, but, if anything, the results can be even more satisfying. It’s not exactly cheap in running costs compared with a modern digital, but it’s a very luxurious feeling to be able to indulge in it occasionally.

So, if you come across an old camera you like the look of, or even just the idea of it, just go right ahead. Arguably, the less automated the camera the better because the inevitable slow shooting will help you conserve film and attendant developing costs.

This is it, then, the Agfa Ambi Silette. Is it a “poor man’s Leica” as a few online reports suggest it was nicknamed? I don’t know – I suspect it has been an inappropriate soubriquet hung upon a great many cameras over the years. And, frankly, I don’t care. It has its own distinct feeling of quality and timeless appeal, it’s made in Germany and is my first ‘real’ interchangeable lens rangefinder camera. And without question, it will absolutely get more use.

I would like to explore some more the vintage rendering and shallow focus that the 90mm can grant. Now that I know the camera functions and exposes pretty well, I’d like to spend some time taking more considered shots. And then there’s just something about the smaller primes that are so pleasing in use and results. At roughly $20 per outing, I won’t be going crazy with it, but I can certainly justify a few shoots per year. I have some HP5 and even some Portra that I may risk running through it. But I quite like the look and feel of the Colorplus. so perhaps we’ll just stick with that for the time being.

That reminds me. I’m meant to show Andrew the results as well. That was the deal. And there’d be no harm in grabbing a few rolls of film while I’m there. But perhaps I would be best served by steering clear of the used camera shelves, or he may talk me into another old gem of yesteryear.

Thanks for reading and happy photography to all Macfilosians.

Note: All field photos shot with Agfa Ambi Silette and Kodak Colorplus 200, film scans by lab, tweaked for contrast, etc, in jpeg editor. Product shots taken with Panasonic Lumix G9 and Olympus PEN F.

What does AGFA stand for? No, it isn’t All Good Funk Alliance as Google would have us believe (well, I suppose it might also stand for that these days). But for the purposes of this article, AGFA stands for Aktiengesellschaft für Anilinfabrikation. It was founded in 1867 and is now part of Agfa-Gavaert NV. The Silette, though, is a now distant memory

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Simply marvellous story, and absolutely the kind of thing I also read Macfilos for !
    Real very attractive images, too.
    So many thanks!

  2. Good story. Mechanical cameras are so enjoyable. The colour images look great for a lens of that vintage. It would be interesting to see the results on ‘professional’ negative or transparency film.

  3. Lovely photos, Jason. It is great to see a ‘real camera’ here for a change. A friend of mine who is a noted collector and camera historian highly rates the Agfa cameras from the 1950s. Don’t worry too much about the film latitude with colour negative film. You will have plenty of it, much more than with transparency film or with digital. I mainly use Kodak Portra 160 for film work. I shot some (or was shot with some) today using a Leica IIIc which is exactly 3 days older than myself (per the Leica Archives) and we both have a ‘big birthday’ coming up shortly. Such cameras, when in good condition, can give a sense of pleasure and achievement that no autofocus, do it all, digital camera can give. I hope you get plenty of use out of the Agfa Silette. Try the Portra the next time out. You will love its smooth and refined colours.

    William

  4. Jason, thank you -a very interesting read. I will be interested in how your enthusiam for the camera goes in the longer term. Whenever I dig out a film camera and put a film in it I am enthusiastic for about 12 exposures and then I decide it’s really all too much pain and put the camera back on the shelf. And that’s before I get to the really painful part-paying for the film to be processed and scanned.
    An 12 month report card from you would be interesting reading.

    • I suppose, if truth were know, I have the same relationship with my film cameras. If I were into processing at home things might be different, but these days film + processing is an expensive business. Another downside is waiting to finish the 36 shots.

      On the one hand you have to be less enthusiastic in pressing the shutter, so more careful in your choice of subject. On the other hand, if you are too sparing the film can be stuck in the camera for weeks (months?). At least there is then some element of surprise in remembering stuff you’d forgotten.

      I don’t suppose my film-enthusiast friend Adam Lee would agree with one bit of this. Last time I met him he was spooling his own cassettes from a bulk supply of film he had bought at a bargain price and, of course, he does all his own processing. That’s different, I admit, but I do prefer the immediacy (and profligacy) of digital.

      Discuss….

      • There should be plenty of film users at Photographica next Sunday and tables laden down with boxes of film. You could do a ‘roving reporter vox pop’ type exercise and report back here next week. I should be there myself and can introduce you to a few film users.

        William

    • Thanks John.

      I agree, it sometimes just feels to much hassle with film. Complicating that is that I have a couple of other film cameras that I want to put a roll through, so it may be 3 or four rolls before I come back to using the Ambi again.

      It’s certainly not going to be a high use camera, and I won’t pretend otherwise. But I’ll try to report back again.

    • I am the opposite. The few times I have purchased and tried a digital camera for awhile, I just cannot really get into it and always return to film. I just prefer the tradition, the equipment, the thought and working process, the rendering of film, and the negatives and transparencies. And I have never done my own development. I do sometimes get scans, but sometimes only of the selects. I usually make a relatively small number of exposures, though.

      While perhaps not relevant for all images, the archiving issue mentioned by Kevin below is an interesting point. I think there are still a number of organizations using negatives, transparencies, and prints for archives because no one really knows how to archive digital. Physical copies are vulnerable to fire or water, but in addition to those risks digital are vulnerable to hardware failure, data corruption, format changes, and software incompatibilities.

  5. Thanks Jason

    Excellent narrative and images. I’m too lazy to go with film nowadays I used to process images in the darkroom but any postprocessing softwares have made things so simple and easier than manipulations in the darkroom. I just regret the simplicty of film cameras but with leica X series you jus get the simplicity fo film cameras.

  6. Thanks Jason,
    I have recently inherited a couple of Minolta lenses and Kriston at Aperture in London sourced a working body when my father in law’s was no longer repairable. I have one exposed black and white film awaiting development and am keen to see the results. The main attraction for me is that I will have a physical negative to keep whilst my increasingly digital world keeps my memories in my computer and back up hard drives, all with limited life spans.

    • This is an interesting – and relevant – point. Just last night I was sorting an old box of paperwork and found a photo of my great-uncle driving a Bullock train in outback Australia. He gave it to me when I was a youngster and we visited his farm. It must date back to the 1940’s at least. I wonder how many of our digital files will be lost over the next century?

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