|Agfa Ambi Silette with 50mm f2.8 Solinar and original lens hood|
The history of West Germany’s camera industry in the 1950s is one tightly bound to the leaf shutters manufactured by Deckel and Gautier. It is a story of initial success leading to technical dead ends followed by the ascendency of the Japanese camera industry. The Agfa company was an intimate part of this classic business case study that explains why companies (and industries) can ultimately fail due to their original success. The Ambi Silette, Agfa’s only interchangeable 35mm rangefinder camera, was part of that story.
While labor costs, too many small companies and changing buyer taste were factors, the inherent optical limitations imposed by a leaf shutter were a major factor in the ultimate failure of West Germany's camera industry.
The why has to do with optical design. The glass elements in a lens shape light entering the front of a lens and bring it to a single point: the “optical center” of that lens. From there the light spreads, emerging out of a lens’ rear element to form a sharp image a focal length away. Because the cone of gathered light is smallest at the prime nodal point, even a leaf shutter with a small opening set at that point can pass that light through without causing vignetting.
|Top of Type II showing modified advance and three-lens frame selector.|
Zeiss Ikon’s Hubert Nerwin first ran into this problem while designing the earliest interchangeable lens, leaf-shutter 35mm camera, the Tenax II, in the 1930s. He was able to avoid vignetting by limiting the format to 24X24 and using deep-fitting optics that set their back elements right in front of a larger opening, medium-format, Compur Rapid shutter. Despite this approach, the Tenax offered only one short telephoto lens with a modest maximum aperture of f4.
By 1950, public demand was back world-wide for German-made cameras. Dozens of companies in West Germany were competing for a slice of a growing market for high-quality 35mm cameras that were a cut above the American-made Argus C-3. Yet, except for the top, professional level Leicas and Contaxes, and one single lens reflex, the Wirgin Edixa, none of these cameras came with focal plane shutters. Everyone else came with either a Deckel-made Compur or a Gautier-made Prontor or lower quality variant. The reasons were several. Zeiss Ikon, the giant firm that controlled much of what West German camera companies did or did not do, owned both Deckel and Gautier, and it was determined that both those shutter companies would prosper.
With limited resources for development and experimenting, it was easier for the many smaller West German camera companies to buy and install leaf shutters with consistent and predictable performance rather than develop a new shutter design. As long as their cameras offered only fixed, normal lenses this was not a problem. But the moment interchangeability of lenses became essential, optical design, vignetting and mounting became a problem.
Agfa was always a film and chemical company first. It got into the camera business as a way to promote its films. This followed the same logic that Eastman Kodak was to use so successfully. Customers who bought cameras with the same brand as a its film, tended to buy that company’s film. Agfa’s earlier 35mm Karats and Solinettes were followed by the Silette series in 1953. The Silette cameras started as simple, all-metal, non-interchangeable lens 35mm cameras. Cameras with bellows or collapsible lenses were losing popularity as photographers looked for more features, easier to use controls and more solid construction. The Silettes offered such modern conveniences as a hinged back, a fixed takeup spool, single-stroke, film advance and a modest range of shutter speeds. The series sold well and Agfa soon added more advanced models with unit-focusing lenses as fast as their 50mm f2 Solagon, rangefinder focusing and built in meters. Agfa soon bragged that it had sold over a million Silettes.
In 1956, Deckel made available a behind-the-lens version of its new Compur Synchro shutter with full MX flash sync and a built-in self timer. At Photokina that October, several West German camera companies announced new models to take advantage of this shutter. Agfa, with its Ambi Silette, was one of them.
|Advertisement for Ambi Silette from American Photo magazine from 1958|
Agfa started marketing the Ambi Silette in Europe in January 1957. It appeared in American advertisements starting in May 1958 and continued to be sold until 1961. By that point, Agfa was putting its high end efforts into leaf-shutter single lens reflexes—none which proved successful.
The Ambi was the first post-war camera that Agfa would sell in the United States under its own brand. All its previous 35mm models had been rebranded and sold by the Ansco Corporation as Memars or Karomats. A study of serial numbers indicates sales of over 80,000. Despite this moderate success, little has been written about the Ambi, and detailed histories as to who designed it and what its manufacturing involved do not seem to exist.
I am a camera historian with some expertise concerning early Nikons and Zeiss Ikon’s Tenax II camera. In 2018, I was ready for a new camera to investigate and turned to the Ambi due to its sparse history and unique characteristics. Several its features appealed to me: its full-featured finder, interchangeability of lenses and its unique lens mount. Again, as with the Tenax II, this was a camera with a rather complete but limited system of accessories. I just might be able to buy everything Agfa ever made for the camera and at moderate cost.
In October I came across an Ambi complete with all four of its lenses, including the rare 130mm f4 Color-Telinear. I bought the set, then spend several weeks struggling to get the shutter to operate correctly. Once fixed, the camera proved a pleasure to use, and I continue to enjoy taking pictures with it.
|Open back of a first model Silette and Ambi Silette showing design similarities. Note the large eyepiece on the Ambi.|
|Oveehead view of Type I (top) and Type II (below)|
|Type II viewfinder with larger, wider rangefinder|
|Type I viewfinder with single range/bright-frames window|
The Ambi Silette is clearly part of the Silette series. In size, shape and its numerous features, it is like all other Silettes up until style changes finally came in the late 1950s. The interiors of the Silettes are the same, the awful rewind knob with its nearly impossible to change film speed indicator is the same. The single stroke film advance and the manual reset frame counter are the same. The finder hump in the middle of the camera top is the same. Even the finish and leather-like body covering are the same. It is what is under the finder hump of the Ambi and what’s in front that are different and unique to the Silette series.
A large eyepiece offers considerable eye relief and most of the bright frames can be seen even with glasses. The .73X view is clear and the rangefinder spot is easy to use, if not quite as sharp as a Leica’s. A sliding switch on top changes the auto-parallax correcting bright frames to cover 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses. This is one of the best rangefinder/viewfinder combos ever put in a 35mm camera, a high-end feature comparable to the finders found in M-series Leicas and late-model RF Nikons and Canons. And at $125 American, it was a lot less expensive. Agfa must have been proud of the Ambi finder for it protected its front glass with a hinged, velvet-lined cover that you must flip up out of the way in order to see anything. Annoying for many, but a feature I have gotten used to.
The second unique feature is the Ambi’s clamp mount. Place one of the Ambi lenses in the opening, press and turn clockwise until you feel the lens seat, turn a few more degrees until the lens clicks, and you are set to go. Yes, you can line up a red dot with a red dot, but that is optional. What is happening? A notch on each Ambi lens engages a prong in the camera mount. Turning on the lens causes two circular blades to spring out and lock into a groove on each lens. The nearest equivalent would be the clamp mount found on Arriflex movie cameras. The mount is fast, secure and easy to use. Unfortunately, nobody else ever used it, so the four Agfa Ambi-mount lenses are all a user has to draw on [But see my earlier entry on the Schneider Curtagon in Ambi mount.]
|The four Agfa lenses for the Ambi Silette|
Certainly a modest range of optics with small maximum apertures and no close focusing capability. It is unfortunate considering the professional level of the finder, but Agfa would never offer faster lenses.
These lenses featured both the good and the bad. The good part is that all are nicely finished and solid with aluminum barrels over brass helicoids and chromed rangefinder feeler plates. All three take the same 35.5mm screw-in, 37mm press-on filters. All have a stationary milled ring right behind the aperture ring allowing easy gripping for mounting. The aperture clickstops with half-stop settings are precise and firm. Distances are engraved in both meters and feet. I can find no fault with the lens construction. The lenses shipped in plastic-and-metal “tropical” cases that seal the optics from dust and humidity and hold silica grains in the bottom to absorb moisture.
Handling is another issue. The Color Ambion is a Tessar formula lens. It is small, and light. Did I say small? The focus ring is less than two millimeters wide with sharp milling. Raising the viewfinder visor blocks any view of the tiny distance scale. To add to the challenge, you must rotate the focus ring over 340 degrees to go from infinity to the closest point. This makes follow-focusing impossible.
The 50mm Color Solinar is Agfa’s version of a Tessar. Good lens, nice images, better handling than the Ambion, but a 270 degree rotation slows a user down. On the other hand, the five-element 90mm Telinear has a large, easy-to-grip focusing ring, easy-to-read numbers and a short 60 degree throw that make it a pleasure to focus.
|The 130mm f4 Color Telinear with modern shade and dedicated finder|
Agfa added the 130mm f4 Color Telinear to the Ambi’s lens range in 1959. Same quality construction but with a huge front element (taking 62mm filters) and focus down only to nine feet.
All four of these lenses are capable of excellent results with good, modern saturation of colors and good correction. But why did Agfa restrict its choices to these modest aperture optics within a limited range of focal lengths? The answer may lie in the limitations of the behind-the-lens Compur shutter. With an opening of only 25mm, vignetting would be a problem with any high speed lens. Close focusing that would move a rear element too far from the shutter opening could only compound the problem. Or, perhaps, aiming its marketing at advanced amateurs, particularly women, Agfa felt these optics were enough. Other companies, such as Voigtländer and Kodak’s Retina series, ran into similar challenges but did offer faster lenses, but perhaps had more lens-designing resources
There are three versions of the Ambi Silette: a Type I, a less-common Type II and a rare special deluxe version that came covered in snake skin but otherwise was the same as the Type I. The first version was replaced by the second in 1959 without fanfare about the same time that the 130mm lens came out and the change may be related to that lens.
Fitting the rangefinder/viewfinder into the same width as other Silettes limited the space available for a rangefinder. In the first version, the rangefinder was centered in the bright-frames window yielding only a 35mm base. When combined with the .73X magnification of the viewfinder, an effective rangefinder base (ERB) of only 25.5mm was the result. Barely enough for focusing accurately with even a slow 50mm f2.8, but not enough for a 130mm lens, even with its close focus limited to three meters. In the Type II, the rangefinder window was moved to the right edge of bright frames window, increasing the base to 40mm and increasing the ERB to 29.3mm. A small gain, but an improvement.
The second version featured a number of other minor changes. Two features that definitely improve handling were one) the addition of strap lugs. They are narrow but appear to be steel, so should do the job. Two)was changing the shape of the advance lever so that it projects off the back of the body. Much nicer.
Other minor changes: The frame counter changed from an additive to a subtracting counter. The film type reminder changed from black on white to an easier to read white on black. The frame switch changed from a 35-50-90 progression to a 50-35-90 progression. In the Type I, the 35 frame appears at all sittings. In the Type II, the 35 frame disappears at the 90 setting.
The Ambi Silette is typical of many leaf shutter cameras from the 1950s, and buying one always involves taking a chance. Sometimes everything works; sometimes a shutter won’t work, sometimes a lens won’t focus, sometimes the film advance will be messed up, the frame counter will be stuck and sometimes the rangefinder will be out of caliper. It is difficult to predict what will wrong. Of the four lenses I got with my first Ambi, the Ambion focused but felt dry, The normal’s focus was smooth as factory-new. Both the 90 and the 130 were stiff and took a lot of exercising and application of lighter fluid to get them turning. I own three Ambi Silettes now—a Type I with poor cosmetics but shutter and lens work pretty well. A second Type II has a good shutter but the lens focus feels dry. Rangefinder was off, so I had to reset that. As I noted above, the first Type II I bought has a non-working shutter. I had to take off the shutter, open it up, clean and exercise it until finally it decided to behave. Fortunately there are several on-line resources that can take you through the whole process step-by-step with numerous pictures for guidance. It is hard to “break” a Compur shutter, but a lot of them require cleaning in order to get their speeds back within tolerance.
So how do I like the Ambi Silette? Good camera with excellent handling. Easy to take pictures with and capable of excellent results. The shutter speed ring is hard to read and projections cut into my fingers when I change the settings, The rewind knob is a nuisance. The advance lever has too much travel and no racketing capability. The 35 and 50mm lenses require too much turning to focus. But this is minor stuff. Overall the Ambi is a fun camera. It is solid without pulling at my neck. The finder is a real pleasure. The shutter is quiet and vibration free. The little slide-out shelf underneath to keep the camera level on a table surface is cute and practical. The Ambi proximeters, singly and combined, can take either the 50 or the 90 from three feet all the way down to 18 inches.
|Proximeter on the Ambi Silette|