Agfa B-2 Cadet: A box camera like every other

Agfa B-2 Cadet
Everything you need to know about the operation of the Agfa B-2 Cadet can be gleaned from this view — lenses, viewfinders, shutter controls and film advance — a simple but pleasant box camera. (Daniel J. Schneider)

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.

Umbrellas at Milwaukee St. Tavern
Umbrellas and flower boxes on the railing at the Milwaukee St. Tavern, corner of Milwaukee Street and 2nd Avenue in Denver’s Cherry Creek North shopping district. (Daniel J. Schneider)

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).

Features

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.

Use B-2 Agfa film
Inside the back cover of the Agfa B-2 Cadet is a decal reminding you to use B-2 (120) film, and appearing to strongly suggest Agfa Plenachrome. The camera handle and the decal disagree on whether “B-2” should be hyphenated. (Daniel J. Schneider)

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.”

Agfa B-2 Cadet viewfinder
The Agfa B-2 Cadet viewfinders are blurry and dull, mostly, I think, from age. They are useable in daylight, but you can see here, even a well-lit cafe interior is hard to frame up. (Daniel J. Schneider)

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.

Agfa B-2 Cadet loading
The spools in the Agfa B-2 Cadet are held in place by transverse springs. Note the curved spring behind the spool; the ends touch the spool ends and are enough to hold it firmly in place against gravity, but be careful trying to unwind the backing paper during loading. (Daniel J. Schneider)

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.

Agfa B-2 Cadet handle
The Agfa B-2 Cadet’s handle is a cotton webbing that appears to have been dipped in rubber or vinyl, which has sadly cracked and flaked away over the last 75 years. This is the biggest sign of its age. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Using it

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.

Cherry Creek North bench
A funky, curved bench along 3rd Avenue in Denver’s Cherry Creek North shopping district. I usually take a camera when I go there for Sur La Table or Penzey’s Spices. (Daniel J. Schneider)

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.

Wrecked frame from misload
The second frame from the roll of film that came partially unspooled when I was trying to load the Agfa B-2 Cadet. The first was totally lost, but the rest of the roll was fine. Somewhere in Cherry Creek North in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

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.

Wall fountain
A lion-headed wall fountain with mosaic tile has been turned into a planter in this narrow alley next to the Merrill Lynch building in Cherry Creek North. (Daniel J. Schneider)

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.

Sidewalk grass
Overgrown decorative grasses crowd the sidewalk in Cherry Creek North, moments before sunset. You can see the foreground blades are out of focus, but as with most box cameras, the magic distance is about 6 feet. (Daniel J. Schneider)

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.

Planter, Cherry Creek North
One of the myriad planters decorating the sidewalks in Cherry Creek North. Behind it, the green umbrellas of another frequent site in Denver (and everywhere) — Starbucks. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Cherry Creek North construction
Evidence of construction in Cherry Creek North. In the last year half a dozen new buildings more than four stories tall have broken ground or opened in Denver’s premium shopping district. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Cafe tables in Cherry Creel North
Cafe tables line sidewalks all over Cherry Creek North, but these cheap sets from Home Depot are somewhat strangely located outside of a high-dollar real estate office. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Agfa B-2 Cadet box camera
Author Rating
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  • Very nice! I had one of these in my childhood collection. When I was in my 20s, I dated a pro photographer who was amused by my collection. She got me a roll of 120 Plus-X and encouraged me to shoot it. She processed and printed the roll herself: the woman had wicked darkroom skills. I still have the negatives and prints, mostly photos of us and her young son. You’re right: a great utility camera of its day, capable of reasonable images.