The Isolette was the “bread and butter” camera for Agfa for the longest time. While Agfa was for a time very innovative in camera design of all types, what paid the bills was for the most part the Isolette. Beginning long before World War II, the Isolette series lived all the way to about 1960 with the Isolette L ( L for built-in Light meter ). I won’t go into each model of the Isolette as they all share basically the same well engineered and fabricated body. The only difference of significance is between the II and III. Versions 1 and V are merely “cheaper” Isolette II’s where Agfa shaved costs by dropping depth of field scales, used cheaper shutters, and the less expensive Agnar lenses.
Isolettes come with a multitude of shutters and any of the three Agfa lenses. All the shutters supplied on Isolettes are excellent and manufactured to high standards. The shutters are:
- Pronto: Simple shutter. Speeds are 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/200
- Prontor: same with the addition of self-timer
- Prontor-S: 1 sec to 1/300 plus self-timer.
- Prontor SV : Same
- Prontor SV-S: Same ( The only practical difference I can see between 3, 4, & 5 is really where the self-timer switch is. )
- Compur-Rapid: 1 sec. to 1/500
- Synchro-Compur (Shutters 6 & 7 are usually found on cameras fitted with Solinar lenses… but not always.)
As stated, Isolettes have either an Agnar, Apotar, or Solinar lens. Obviously and without debate, the four element Tessar type Solinar is the top of the line in Agfa lenses, whether in the f3.5 or f4.5 variety. That being said, the three element Apotar acquits itself very well and is capable of extraordinarily fine photography. It’s sort of like when I bought my Audi A4 with the 1.8 Turbo. My immediate reaction was, “why would I need a V6!” The Apotar is the same way. Do you really need a Solinar? Obviously some do, so Agfa built it!! The real bottom line is that all lenses in the line are capable of excellent photos. It still lies in the hands of the person wielding the camera to do their part in picture taking. Another factor that anyone who has bought an Isolette is familiar with is that now, almost 50 years after their manufacture, the front focusing cells are really hard to turn… and some are totally frozen. I am sure that many Isolettes have been RUINED by clumsy hands trying all sorts of ways including brute force to separate the focusing cell… and MOST difficult is the f3.5 Solinar. They are super easy to destroy! Talk about destroying. The Isolette III that I took with me to Spring Lake was an early one that I had worked on and ruined the inner element of a superb f3.5 / 75mm Solinar by stupidly allowing a steel dremel cutting bit to race across 1/3rd of its face!!! OUCH! But since I had no other Solinar Isolette III ready, I took this one to the shore. Well… for all of you who concern themselves with a speck of dust or cleaning marks, let me tell you that that Solinar, Dremel boring and all, produced absolutely excellent shots!!
The Isolette III (or Ansco Speedex Special R) is an Isolette with a built-in rangefinder. The rangefinder is today often out of alignment and needs to be dismantled, re-lubricated, and recalibrated — but is almost always repairable. Very rarely do I have to just throw one away. Most rangefinder folders are of the uncoupled type. That means you find the distance with the rangefinder and then transfer that distance to the front of the lens, hence these are all front cell focusing units. Since 120 folders are not P&S cameras, this inherent “slowness” is not a problem for folder shooters… just part of the deliberate process of photography.
When buying an Isolette, you must be prepared to replace the bellows as almost every one has a bad bellows. Once in a while I will get an Isolette in with absolutely new looking bellows and I think, great, this is one I don’t have to change! Wrong! Unless the bellows are made of leather, don’t even think that the bellows are good… and VERY FEW Isolettes have leather bellows. If the seller purports to claim the bellows are fine and light tight, don’t believe it! I replace all bellows with red, green, blue, or black bellows as a matter of course …and the desired color of the buyer.
OK, a conclusion to the Isolette: It is a super well made camera as a “folder in your pocket” and will perform as expected once it has been rehabilitated with a complete CLA. It is easy to use and almost fool proof. Good value for the buck.