Agfa Isolette V: A very cool folding camera

The Agfa Isolette V
The Agfa Isolette V. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Agfa Isolette V is a solid 6×6 folder with a lot to recommend it, even though the one I have may not be working perfectly. Here’s a bit about mine.

Agfa’s venerated Isolette series lasted from 1938 to 1960, going through seven iterations, plus the Super Isolette with its coupled rangefinder. The Isolette V was produced from 1950-52.

I have another Agfa of similar vintage — the B-2 Speedex — though it’s a higher class of camera. I used it for one of my 2016 Expired Film Day rolls.

The Isolette V is an entry-level camera with few options, but remains a fun user.

Agfa Isolette V closed
The front door of the Agfa Isolette V, closed, shows the nicely embossed covering in excellent condition after 65 years. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Specs and stuff

Despite its relatively low specs, the Isolette V still sports solid construction and attractive design. The three-element Agnar 85mm f/4.5 lens is slower than high-end competitors’ lenses, but no slouch in comparison to other low- and mid-range models.

The Isolette series are all folding cameras that use 120 format film and take 6×6 (6-by-6 centimeter) images, with the exception of a few that are convertible to also take 6-by-4.5 centimeter images (of which the V model is not one).

Isolette Agnar lens
The Agfa Agnar lens is a low-end model, but still impresses with its machine-age styling. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Vario shutter features speeds of 1/200, 1/50, 1/25 and Bulb mode, and has both a PC sync socket and a threaded remote release socket. There is a Time mode which is activated by sliding up a switch on the right-hand lens mounting standard, which simply holds the shutter level open for you with the shutter set to Bulb mode.

The shutter release is a lever on the side of the shutter assembly, and another lever on the top must first be operated to set the shutter before each exposure. Impressively, the aperture stops way down to f/32 and sports ten blades. Focus is strictly by distance, and the lens’ scale is marked only in meters.

The top cover has a cold shoe, a button to release the front cover and a large film advance knob. Running through the center of the top cover is reverse-Galilean viewfinder (like a telescope in reverse: producing a miniature image). A ruby window in the back cover is used for aligning each frame with the marks on the backing paper.

Agfa Isolette V back
Rear view of the Agfa Isolette V. The viewfinder is tiny, but not difficult to use. (Daniel J. Schneider)

A small button on the left side of the top cover releases the film door, and the inside operates with the same simplicity of a Brownie in terms of loading and unloading. The take-up spool slides directly into the body, but the supply side has a flip-out holder for easy loading. The advance knob pops out for removing the finished film and replacing the take-up spool.

The Isolette’s front door swings down to open, extending the bellows automatically under spring tension and locking the hinged supports open. Press down on the hinges to close the camera.

There’s a 1/4-20 (standard) thread tripod socket on the bottom cover and two stamped-aluminum feet which, along with the open front cover, level the camera for longer exposures.

The camera is exceptionally simple, incorporating just enough features to give a photographer some options without making it complicated to use.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal walkway
Wooden walkways bridge some of the potentially swampy areas on the walking trails in Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The experience

I found using the Isolette V to be a pleasure, though my experience didn’t produce any pictures I’m very excited to show off.

This Isolette came to me with a frozen lens — it wouldn’t turn to focus. I was able to free it with several applications of lighter fluid and a small strap wrench, eventually, but I fear I may have actually broken it. It rotates correctly from about 0.9 meters to infinity, with the marks aligning properly with the index mark on the shutter housing, but the lens doesn’t move in and out at all.

I also discovered after developing my film that the rear lens element was filthy the whole time. Between the inability to adjust focus, which seems to be stuck at a very short distance, and the filth on the lens, you can see my test rolls were awash in a dreamy blur that would make any Holga jealous.

Remembering to focus, as with any scale-focus camera, is a challenge — not that it mattered in this case! — and more than once I was frustrated when I tried to make an exposure while having forgotten to first set the shutter. Aside from those minor frustrations, though, there’s nothing to complain about.

Tree line
A line of trees, probably planted by farmers before their land was annexed by the U.S. government for the creation of the Arsenal. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The size and weight of the camera are very good, and the bellows is light-tight. The cosmetic condition is exceptional, with only a few scratches on the top plate betraying that it’s ever been used. Even the cover material — which I suspect is a kind of rubber or vinyl — is in fantastic shape.

The one solution I can think of for this camera is to measure the distance from the front lens mount to the film plane and, if it’s equal to that on the B-2 Speedex, see if I can swap the lenses. The Speedex has some kind of internal problem with the advance knob, and the bellows has more holes than a block of Alpine Lace Swiss cheese.

I’d kind of like to get this camera working, though, as the ergonomics, weight, and size are all very favorable. A nicely compact folding camera, overall, and a fun way to make square images.

In spite of the poor visual results, since I know the reasons, I’m still going to rate this camera a solid 4 stars. I’d give it another half star if I had the technical capabilities! Don’t pass up a chance to try one if you get it. Prices on these have gone up a lot in the last few years, I suspect because they’re so easy to operate, generally very solid in their construction, and quite consistent in their results.

Sunset trees
Trees near sunset in Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, which once manufactured Sarin gas, among other things. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Arsenal trees
Rocky Mountain Arsenal was farmers’ fields before becoming a munitions plant shortly after the U.S.’ entry into World War Two. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Black and white sunset on Kodak Tri-X with the blurry Agfa Isolette V. (Daniel J. Schneider)
This image of the dying cattails in Rocky Mountain Arsenal appears almost sharp at first glance. (Daniel J. Schneider)
An explosion of yellow as autumn finally hits in the Front Range. (Daniel J. Schneider)
A color view of the walkway. Note the focus point, barely visible along the lower edge of the photo. (Daniel J. Schneider)
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Agfa Isolette V folding 6x6 camera
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