The Agfa Isolette range of cameras have a cult following. That includes me as I own both Isolette and Jsolette labelled cameras. The ability to shoot medium format, especially 6×6, with a camera that is small and at a stretch pocketable, is very enticing. Throw in the fact that they look lovely, and you can understand the popularity. I personally like quite a few different “folders” as you can see by another review of the Voigtlander Perkeo I.
This model is the Agfa Jsolette 4.5. Agfa has used the names Jsolette and Isolette interchangeably, as the letter J referred to an I in German. There is a misconception that the Jsolette name was only used between 1937 and 1938, and afterwards only the Isolette name was used. That is incorrect, as it was used again in the mid-1940s which dates this camera between 1946 to 1950.
When I bought the camera, the seller had specified it was a 1937 model, and due to a too brief search on my side, I bought it believing that. Looking on the bright side, the advantage of getting the post war model is that the top plate is cast-hydronalium alloy making it a little sturdier.
The next problem I faced was the lens was very hazy. The seller had specified the haze, but as I thought I was getting the original 1937 version, I still bought it. This is quite common in these vintage Agfa folders, as the fumes from some of the glue used causes the haze. They do also suffer from stuck focus rings, due to the grease drying out, but luckily mine did not have this issue (unlike the Isolette II that I got). While I could still shoot with the hazy lens, it did lack some contrast, so I had it cleaned. It cleaned up better than I ever expected, so when the repairer handed it back to me, I could not wait to shoot with it again.
Out and about using the camera, I remembered why they are liked so much. A quick press of a button and out pops the lens and you are ready to go. The sound it makes, while very different form the sound Polaroids make, has almost the same satisfying effect. Sort of announcing you are going to take a picture. I also got all sorts of questions from people as the look of the bellows attracts a lot of attention.
Having to set up the aperture and the speed on the lens, then having cock the shutter, it does slow you down just enough to make sure you are serious about the picture you are about to shoot. I find that compared to 35mm SLRs or more so with digital, my ratio of keepers is significantly higher.
Before we go into the camera lineage, it is worth looking at what was happening to Agfa as a company around the time they embarked on the Isolette series, including some branding changes to the company itself.
In 1928, the German company Agfa acquired Ansco, an American photographic company. This led to products being sold under each of the names and jointly. In 1936, coincidentally the year the Isolette range was introduced, Agfa also introduced a new film, Agfacolor Neu, a film for both amateurs and professionals.
1941 saw the American assets of Agfa-Ansco seized by the United States which reverted those photographic products back to the Ansco only branding. Therefore, there is identical cameras with the Ansco label on them in circulation. In 1945 when the Allies broke up companies in Germany ensuring the reduction of the German chemical industry, the Agfa brand reappeared internationally. This is also coincidentally a year before the updated Jsolette/Isolette cameras appeared.
As mentioned, Agfa first introduced the Isolette range in 1936. At that time, they were labelled Jsorette but then re-labelled to Jsolette within a year later. In 1938, they were re-labelled again to Isolette until 1945. Afterwards they used both Jsolette and Isolette names depending on the market through to 1950. The cameras were manufactured until 1960, giving this range a 24-year lineage. The was even a Super Isolette model, which included a coupled rangefinder.
The whole line of these cameras did not deviate much from the original design. Why mess with something that works? There were advancements, including change of materials. For instance, the original pre-war models used a type of plastic called Trolitan on the top plate, while the post war models used a hydronalium alloy. This was a type of magnesium and aluminium mixed alloy, but mostly aluminium. The reason for this was the materials were harder to come by during the war and only became available soon after.
Other changes included that the camera could no longer shoot 6×4.5 format as the mask option was discontinued. This at least feels like a step backwards.
The Jsolette 4.5 was made between 1946 to 1950. It is a viewfinder medium format folding camera, which shoots only in the 6×6 format on 120 film. Being 6×6 you get 12 frames per roll of film. The camera is constructed in metal with a covering which is textured for easier holding. The top plate is made of a hydronalium alloy.
The lens is an Apotar 8.5cm 1:4.5 with a minimum aperture of f/22. The aperture is controlled with a sliding lever towards the bottom of the lens. Interestingly, even though it is a post war camera, the lens in uncoated. That is a little disappointing, but it is still quite a good lens with decent contrast but not great with flare. The shutter is a Compur-Rapid with speeds from 1/500th of a second to a full second and Bulb. The shutter is cocked with a lever at the top of the lens. It is visible when cocked in the viewfinder, which is handy to see that it has been cocked. Also on the side of the lens is the self-timer, something I cannot recall ever using.
Focusing is achieved by rotating the ring around the lens, in my case marked in metric. There are of-course imperial versions available in feet. Closest focus is 1 metre, but unless you are very sure, it would be difficult to get that right without a rangefinder, especially with anything wider than f/11.
The camera folds up to a very flat little package, which is fantastic for both storage and transport. The front gate drops out by pressing a button on the top plate. It drops fast, bringing out the lens and exposing the bellows. The bellows are the weakest point of this camera, as the quality of the material is considerably lower than the rest of the camera. They are very well known for deteriorating and needing replacement. In fact, this demand has created some specialist repairers.
Also on top of the camera is the shutter button, and the wheel to advance the film. The Jsolette 4.5 has a double exposure safety, but interestingly, you only need to wind on a quarter of the distance for it to disengage, and reset the indicator next to the shutter button. Luckily, I had experienced this in the Perkeo, so did not fall for the same trap and always aligned the numbers through the little red window. Finally, there is a cold shoe on top as well.
The back of the camera is a very simple affair. Apart from the red window to show the film count on the backing paper, is the viewfinder. The viewfinder is also a simple affair, no guide lines and no parallax correction. For what this camera is intended for, not much more is needed.
The latch on the side opens the back to load the film. A nice feature is that on the right side, where you load the film, the holders slide out. When out, the bottom holder is hinged and folds down to allow an easier insert of the film spool. The camera also came with an eveready case, again something I have never used.
When I first received the camera I eagerly took it out for a shoot, even with the hazy lens. It was so much fun, I really enjoyed myself. It slotted very easily into my hand and it was great having a 6×6 camera which I did not have to compose in reverse, like you need to do with a TLR. In no time I got used to the routine, of setting up the exposure on the front, bringing the camera to my eye, and firing the shutter, only to realise that I had not cocked it!
As I was walking around Newtown, an inner suburb of Sydney, one thing that started to bug me was how I had to hold the camera. With the eveready case left at home, which I hate to use, the camera does not have any lugs to attach either a hand or neck strap. This was not comfortable holding it freehand. The results were quite good, even with the haze. The lens is quite sharp, but it did lack some contrast. To see how much better it can be, I put it in for a CLA and to have the lens cleaned.
When it came back, I was very excited to shoot with it again. First thing I did was add a ring to the tripod socket and fed a wrist strap through it. Problem of holding it solved! By this point I had also started a new job, so my time was a little more limited, mainly having free time only during lunch (winter darkness had taken hold in the evenings) and some weekends. My main area to shoot was around Milsons Point, to the north of Sydney Harbour.
Having solved the holding problem, I was able to concentrate on making the photographs. The experience was great, apart from a small light meter, which I rarely used, I did not need to take anything else. Being square format, orientation decisions were already made for me. The Jsolette is not a very discreet camera though. Since it forces the user to slow down and with the bellows flying out, it does attract attention. A bit of practice will make you a bit stealthier.
Back home, after picking up the film from the lab, I scanned the HP5+ negatives quickly and was satisfied the money spent on cleaning the lens was worthwhile. There was much better contrast and the sharpness was even better. The lens is considerably sharper in the middle, especially on the larger apertures. That is not that surprising. Overall, I was satisfied with the results and I took to the camera a bit more.
Having only shot black and white in this camera, I was curious on how it would handle colour film. The only film I had available was some Porta 160VC which had been expired for a few years. Probably not a fair thing to do, but I loaded some in and took it to the city centre during a couple spare hours.
The colour rendition, while shifted from the correct colours due to the age of the film, was prominent and well separated. The colour shift was also very easily corrected in Lightroom. What I did notice is that the pictures did not jump out at as the colours were a bit muted. Without the coating this is expected.
I have struggled to put into words how using this camera embeds itself into you. It is not overly complicated, it is not a leading camera in quality, it has a few quirks and some real weak points, like the bellows and grease used. But it does make you want to take it out time and then time again. I guess the word I am looking for is fun. The Jsolettes and Isolettes are not very expensive, so not much to stop anyone from trying them out.