As the title indicates, the Agfa B-2 Cadet is a fairly pedestrian box camera with little to make it special — but that’s really pretty good.
The thing is, box cameras are the McDonald’s hamburgers of film photography. They’re not special. They’re probably not really even very good. But they are incredibly simple and very consistent. So their shortcomings are predictable.
You can go anywhere in the U.S., or even most of the Western World, and know pretty much what you’re going to get with McDonald’s. Admit it, if you close your eyes you can imagine the taste of a McDonald’s hamburger right now — because they always taste exactly the same.
That’s how most early-twentieth century box cameras are. The simple optics, easy operation, basic user experience and image-quality are very comparable no matter who made the camera or when.
The images in this post could’ve been taken with a Kodak Bulls-Eye Six-20 or an Ansco Shur-Flash and you wouldn’t know the difference, right? The only reason you have to believe these were taken with the Agfa B-2 Cadet is my assurance (they were, don’t worry).
In general, box cameras are light on features. They were hurried to market in huge quantities at low prices in the first half of the twentieth century as George Eastman’s business model — practically give cameras away to entice middle class Americans to spend money on film and processing — was copied and built upon by camera makers around the world.
Agfa began in 1867 with a color dye factory in Rummelsburger See, near Berlin, Germany. They spent 20 years in the early twentieth century developing one of the first color films, Agfacolor-Neu. In 1928 the European photographic giant’s U.S. subsidiary merged with American film and camera maker Ansco, though all the American assets of the combined Agfa-Ansco were seized in 1941, reverting to the Ansco name as a re-established American company after World War II.
The first Agfa box cameras were introduced in 1930 and were mostly a piling-on exercise. The box camera was already nearly 50 years old, and while Kodak hoped you could get Kodak film anywhere — you couldn’t necessarily. Agfa had a big share in Europe and was making inroads in the U.S. before the war.
The explosion of consumer photography wasn’t nearly over, either. Agfa, Spartus, Ansco, Argus, and many other companies entered the market and still found success, well after Kodak established its early dominance, often without making any marked improvements on the products or even undercutting the 800-pound gorilla on price.
The B-2 Cadet was just a slight refinement of the first Agfa box cameras, and appears to have been made only in 1937 and 1938. It is made of steel with a mixture of enamel and vinyl covering.
The film type was right in the name: B-2. That’s Agfa’s designation for 120 roll film. Incidentally, I learned that Agfa’s D-6 film designation was the same size roll that Kodak called “116.”
The lens is a simple meniscus with an approximately f/11 aperture and a simple spring shutter behind it running about 1/50th of a second. Like early box Brownie cameras, the shutter is actuated by a lever on the side of the front plate, and it moves one direction on one exposure and the other on the next — the lever moves from top to bottom, then bottom to top, reversing each time.
Next to the shutter release lever is a small sliding stop for Time mode. Pull it out and the shutter stops open until you close it by moving the shutter release lever the opposite way. Not quite the same as bulb — which typically stays open as long as you held the shutter release — but still useful with a stable platform and slow film (or low light).
The image size is 6×9 centimeters, also common for box cameras of this vintage. The 2:3 aspect ratio is equivalent to the standard 24×36 millimeter frames made with 35mm film cameras — I suspect there’s something to that. The film plane is flat, though, which makes the edges frequently out-of-focus with a meniscus lens. I noticed a little chromatic aberration with this particular lens, too.
The box has two ground-glass viewing screens — one for portrait orientation and one for landscape (which is “sideways” for this camera). Each has a polished-steel reflector behind it and a small meniscus lens in the front of the box.
There is no focus — as with most “focus-free” cameras, it’s safe to assume it’s at its sharpest from about 6 feet to infinity (not necessarily sharp).
The Cadet has a ruby window on the back and manual film advance knob that could be the same part as the one on the later Ansco Shur-Flash. It turns in only one direction — forward.
Load film by opening the back via the spring latch on the top of the camera, and tilting the back cover down. The film transport mechanism slides out of the inside of the box once you pull the advance knob out about a quarter of an inch.
TL;DR: It’s a box camera, baby — just like all the rest.
Using the Agfa B-2 Cadet is, as with everything about it, just like using virtually any other box camera of its era. I may be sounding repetitive here, but I want to stress that it’s not easy to consider this as an individual camera model when it truly is so similar to so many others.
Despite using only the Agfa name, the B-2 Cadet is a product of Agfa-Ansco merger; my Cadet is stamped “Made in USA” inside, and includes a couple U.S. patent numbers. The combined companies still seem to have used both names individually, as well as the combined “Agfa-Ansco” name, depending on the product in question.
The carrying strap on top appears to have been made of cotton webbing that was subsequently dipped in vinyl or some kind of rubber and stamped with the “B-2 Cadet” badge while it was still soft. Unfortunately, the rubber coating has become embrittled during the ensuing 75 years and the coating has cracked, taking much of the badge with it.
The film advance has a nice one-way clutch in it, so it’s impossible to turn it the wrong direction. Its gentle curves remind me of the shape of a hearse’s Landau bars, but also have a hint of Art Deco to them. Mostly, it’s a very comfortable shape and really easy to get a firm grip on, unlike the round, barely-knurled knobs on some cameras (ahem Kodak ahem).
The ruby window is clear (well, as clear as dark red plastic can be!) and easy to use. It doesn’t have a cover and it’s fairly large, but I noticed no evident fogging from it.
In fact, my only light-related problems with the Cadet were a result of the loading system. I actually had a spool of film come partially unwound while I was attempting to load it, damaging a couple of frames.
The Cadet doesn’t have the usual sprung posts to hold the ends of the film spools. Instead, it has a transverse spring whose ends touch the edges of the spool. There is no facility to hold the film against the spool as in many cameras (usually a curved piece of spring steel that adds a little pressure to the middle third of the width of the film). The take-up spool will still be held in place by the advance knob, however.
During loading this can make things fiddly and a bit precarious. You can’t lock in the fresh spool and feed out the backing paper to affix to the take-up spool; instead, you’ll need to unwind a few turns beforehand. Peeling off the paper with the spool in place can cause it to pop out from under the transverse spring — which is what happened to me. I suppose it’s possible to keep your fingers in the right spot where the spool can turn without popping out, but I wasn’t able to figure the method out reliably in my few rolls of film.
I also found the shutter release lever firm enough and smooth enough that my finger slipped off a few times, and when I had a grip, its long travel made me worry I was moving the camera trying to trip the shutter. My films, however, indicate that the shutter is fast enough or the movement minimal enough that I was still able to take reasonably sharp pictures.
There is some noticeable chromatic aberration and a general reduction of sharpness towards the edges of the frame, but it’s comparable to other meniscus lens cameras in my collection; the sharp center is really quite sharp. There is some distortion, as well, which I think might be the result of the film not being held very flat in the back of the camera, possibly a result of the weaker spring system. I wouldn’t discount a little contribution from the lens, though.
Common among box cameras of this era, the shutter is in front of the aperture, with the lens behind that, meaning the lens is well-protected except for the fraction of a second when the shutter is actually open. With just this simple design choice, it’s amazing how clean and clear the lenses in a lot of these old cameras can be.
The viewfinders, even after I disassembled the front plate and cleaned what I could reach, are terribly dim and blurry. This isn’t uncommon, and at least they sort of work. Many Kodak Brownie box cameras I own or have handled over the years have had the mirrors come unglued, allowing them to just flop around uselessly inside the front plate of the camera (if I figure out how to fix these without damaging anything else, I’ll post about it). The viewfinders are at least usably bright in daylight, which is where you want to be using a box camera most of the time, anyway.
The Cadet’s metal construction is about the same weight as a similarly sized Kodak box camera — most of which were made of paper board — but it feels considerably more rigid. Solid, even. It’s very sturdy and substantial in the hands.
Both the shutter release and the film advance are very, very quiet. And even after 75 years, everything mechanical on this camera still works quite flawlessly.
Overall, it’s hard to give a bad grade to a camera that does so little, but does it so well. Measured against other box cameras of its day, the Agfa B-2 Cadet is probably somewhere in the high middle. A solid value and a decent performer.
Should you have occasion to purchase one I wouldn’t dissuade you, though I don’t think it will prove significantly different if you have other simple box cameras. You definitely shouldn’t pay more than $5-10 for one unless your heart is set on this specific model. Forced to choose between them, I’d probably keep the more-attractive Ansco Shur-Flash.
Here are a couple more frames from my test rolls, all made in about an hour when I popped over to Cherry Creek North in search of shallot salt or some similarly obscure seasoning from Penzey’s Spices.
Sadly, the Penzey’s location in Denver’s hoity-toity shopping district has closed (why??), so I’ll be forced to head to old downtown Littleton from now on. Which means I’ll have to go right past Englewood Camera. Darn it all.