Monday, July 25, 2022

Akarette 1 from 1947

Akarette 1 from 1947 with 45mm Xenar

In an earlier post, I covered a general history of the Akarette/Akarelle cameras made by the German company of Apparate und Kamerabau GmbH. <> Here I want to point out some features of the earliest Akarettes as well as display the range of quality Schneider lenses AkA offered for the camera at one time.
Akarette with 7.5cm f3.8 Tele-Xenar. Finder covers both focal lengths.

 This is an Akarette I. Serial number is 175, which would date it to early 1947—among the first cameras the company produced while still operating out of a hotel room in Wildbad in the Black Forest of southwest Germany. The earliest Akarettes used the 24x32 format—the same as the first Nikons and several other early Japanese 35mm cameras. However, despite its low number, this particular Akarette is in the 24x36 format. Fine with me. Easier to get slide film processed and mounted. Was it always 24x36? Was it modified later? Counter runs to 40 and the standard lens it came with a shorter 45mm, so who knows?
Serial number behind back chart plate.

 Serial numbers on early Akarettes are hard to find. The camera body consists of two cast aluminum shells with the back shell overlapping the front shell around the edges to make a nice light-tight body. The serial number is stamped on both shells. On the back it is located under the back plate chart with its wide range of exposure factors. You need to remove the chart to find the number. The number for the front shell is inside—behind the shutter/finder module You need to remove the module to see it. Why AkA hid the numbers this way is a question I cannot answer.
Serial # behind shutter module in front casting.

    Although the finish is a bit crude, in some ways it has held up better than the later Akarette II and Akarelles. No chromed top or bottom plates. Instead, the castings are directly finished in a glossy, hard, black enamel. The front plate is polished aluminum. Not pretty, but in better condition than the nickel-finished brass plates on later models that almost always show brassing. Shutter is an early Prontor with the Gauthier mark on top. Speeds from 1/250th down to one second plus B. A respectable shutter for 1947, and probably the best that Gauthier offered at that time. Frame counter is easy to see, which is more than I can say about later models.
The dual finder is clear and the rotation between 45/50 to 75 easy. I just wish it had an accessory shoe so I could mount a finder for the 35mm f3.5 Xenagon wide angle.
Sadly, the original lens for this camera is dirty, stiff and hazy. It is unusable without major surgery. It is also uncoated and most of the black paint is missing from the beauty ring. Still, I like the camera’s compactness and easy to use controls. If one can get used to zone-focusing and mounted a lens in better condition, this could be an easy camera to put in a coat pocket and head out to take pictures.
Full range of Schneider lenses for the Akarette. 3.5cm Xenagon, 4.5cm Xenar, 5cm Xenon, 7.5cm Tele-Xenar, 9cm Tele-Xenar

AkA was determined to offer a camera with a full range of accessories and optics. All of the first lenses came from Schneider, an optical company capable of producing first-rate lenses. Here is a picture of the various Schneider lenses initially offered in the Akarette mount. Except for the 90mm lens, all are compact, solid, unit-focusing lenses. The 90mm f3.5 Tele-Xenar isn’t really that big, but compared to the other lenses, it’s a monster, twice the size and twice the weight of the 75 and with its focus direction the opposite of the others, it feels out-of-place.
    Later lenses included front-element Xenars and optics from ISCO and other cheaper sources.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

German 90s and 135s from the 1950s

Why were the German 35mm rangefinder camera manufacturers so wedded to the 90mm focal length? Was it because Leitz led the way with its 90mm f4 Elmar? Was it an easy focal length to fit on a mount with a behind-the-lens leaf shutter? Perhaps part of the understanding as to why the German 35mm camera industry largely failed in the late 1950s can be seen in this picture of a range of various 90mm lenses and a equivalent 85mm f2 Nikkor-P from the same period. The five lenses here are arranged by size. The smallest is a 90mm f4 Color-Telinear with a close focusing distance of 1.8 meters (6 feet). Distance is marked in both feet and meters, the body is mostly aluminum with chromed brass at the wear points. It is a nicely-made lens but a close focus of only six feet a loser and the maximum aperture hardly inspiring. Next is a 90mm f3.5 Tele-Xenar made by Schneider for the Akarette/Akarelle. Beautiful construction in heavy chrome-over Brass. Focuses down to one meter (39 inches). Again, nice lens but tiny controls are hard to read even in good light and small maximum aperture makes available light photography challenging. To the right of the black-finished Nikkor is a 90mm f4 Schacht-Travenar for the Leidolf Lordomat. Relatively light weight with a largely aluminum barrel and focuses down to one meter. Again, a nicely-finished lens but the small maximum aperture limits dim-light shooting. Finally we have a Leitz 90mm f2.8 Elmarit from the 1960s. A long-focus design instead of a a telephoto, it is notcably longer and larger. A flexible design but being Leitz, expensive. Now compare these optics with the 85mm f2 Nikkor-P in mount for the Nikon rangefinder cameras. It focuses down to 3.5 feet (sligtly over a meter), but with a maximum aperture of f2, it puts all the other lenses to shame by at least one full f-stop. Only the Zeiss 85mm Sonnar matched that. So what was happening? Japanese companies like Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) and Canon were selling lenses that were lighter, faster and generally closer focusing than the German equivalents. Customers were looking for those features and finding it in Japanese products at competitive prices. Part of the problem was that, except for the Leitz lens, all these optics were made to fit in front of a behind-the-length shutter which allowed only small rear optics in order to clear the shutter opening without vignetting. As long as the German companies were limited in what shutters they could use due to patent restrictions and Zeiss Ikon's promotion of Compur and Prontor shutters, customers could only buy slow speed optics.
The same holds true for the 135mm lenses these same companies sold. Here are three 135mm and one 130 lens from late 1950s and mid-1960s. The Schacht-Travenar and the Tele-Elmar, both f4 lenses, are similar in size to the 135mm Nikkor-Q f3.5 lens. All have similar close-focusing capabilities. But look at the Agfa 130mm f4 Color-Telinear with its huge 62mm filter front. Again, a need to compensate for a small exit pupil led to a big front and a no-where-near close focus of three meters!

Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Lordomat standard [Primus], an interchangeable-lens 35mm camera from the 1950s

Lordomat standard types 2 and 3 with 50mm f2.8 and 50mm f1.9

History: The Leidolf company was founded in 1921 by Rudolf Leidolf in Wetzlar, Germany. Leidolf had trained as a “precision mechanic” at Henson & Son. He was later joined by his son-in-law, Fritz Meinhardt, who had also trained as a precision mechanic for E. Leitz. The company started business machining parts for microscopes for Leitz. Meinhardt would in time take over management of the company and he may have been responsible for many of the camera designs.

    Leidolf got into manufacturing cameras after World War II (starting in 1948-49) along with many other optical firms trying to take advantage of the high post-war demand for German cameras. Its first camera were a simple, metal-bodied cameras called a Leidox that used 127 size film. Leitz did not like that name and under threat, Leidolf changed the name to Lordox. Following popular trends, the company turned to a 35mm version in 1952.
Notice of Lordomat sold by Widina, 1953.

  In 1953, Leidolf announced a new 35mm camera with a behind-the-lens Gauthier Prontor shutter and offering complete interchangeability of lenses. This became the Lordomat “standard.” It was supplemented by the more sophisticated Lordomat C35(luxus) with an additional finder and a built-in meter in 1956. Leidolf would later produce many different versions of their camera that would use the same basic body-shape, layout and controls. Some, such as later Lordox, had non-interchangeable lenses. Other versions included built-in light meters and bright-frame finders. The company ceased camera production in 1962 but lingered on as a part of Wild Heerbrugg before disappearing into the Leitz Holding company in 1990.

* For a through review and many images of the different models, I recommend Cees-Jan de Hoog’s website <> Mike Eckman also has an excellent review of a Lordomat in his series on older cameras <>. For a detailed and accurate history of the Leidolf company. I recommend the December 15th, 1998 issue of Photographica Cabinett which is totally devoted to a history of the Leidolf company and its cameras.

    Leidolf does not appear to have ever manufactured anything for their cameras other than the bodies—with the possible exception of their 35mm finder. Other accessories came from Wedena in Bad Nauheim.
    Wedena was a marketing firm founded by Willi Diehl. Originally a company called “Widina” for Willi Diehl Nauheim, it served as the exclusive sales department and marketer for the Leidolf cameras. All the German advertising and even the camera instructions identify Wedena as the company responsible for the Leidolf cameras. Wedena also marketed other photographic products such as the Taco Universal flashgun which was actually manufactured by Erich Kaiser. The Lordomat’s turret finder, filters and closeup lenses all bore only the Wedena name.
    Wedena based its sales strategy on getting major mail-order and photo supply companies to sell the Leidolf products instead of working to get the Lordomats into specialty stores. Starting in 1957, most of the German sales were made through Foto-Quelle, part of a huge warehouse-catalogue-sales chain that in 1970 would claim to be “The largest retailer in the world.”

Quelle ad for C35
      The Leidolf camera sold throughout Europe, including England, but breaking into the critical North American market proved more difficult. Initially several small, New York based firms picked up the franchise, but none appear to have lasted long. In March 1955 the Minifilm Corp is listed as selling the Lordomat. By September 1956, Royal Photo Distributors are the “Sole Agent.” By May, 1957, Camera Import Corp. was handling sales. In 1958. Montgomery Ward was claiming “Exclusive import rights and sales” for the Lordomat. To do this, the major catalogue company added less expensive versions of the Lordomat with an “Adams” label. In 1959, importation would shift to Unimark Photo, Inc. which added its name to the cameras.
    This outsourcing of marketing and dependence on catalogue sales was to prove fatal. With Japanese camera sales growing in the United States and a shift in public demand to single-lens reflexes, companies like Wards and Foto-Quelle insisted on lower and lower prices in order to maintain sales. By 1962, margins had narrowed to the point that Leidolf could no longer make money. When Meinhardt, now the company’s president, refused Foto-Quelle’s latest demands, Foto-Quelle cancelled the contract and, with no German market, Leidolf stopped manufacturing cameras and most of the workers were let go.  Rudolf Leidolf and Fritz Meinhardt both died in 1964.

Cover for Wedena & Royal Photo Importers
   All of the Lordomat’s lenses came from two small optical firms: Enna Werk in Munich and Albert Schacht in Ulm. Both companies manufactured a wide range of lenses in a variety of focal lengths and in a various mounts, particularly in the M39 and M42 thread and in the Exakta mount.
    Enna supplied the Lordomat’s normal lenses, either a 50mm f2.8 Lordonar or a 50mm f1.9 Lordon. It also made a 35mm f3.5 Lordonar and a 90mm f5.5 Telordon plus others. Schacht made a 35mm f3.5 Travenar/Travetar, a 90mm f4 Travenar and a 135mm f4 Travenar. Except for the Lordon, all were four-element optics.
    A three-element 50mm f2.8mm Triplon in the Lordomat mount was sold with the cheaper Adams camera and also appeared on the non-interchangeable Lordox and other Leidolf cameras.

    The Lordomat standard came in three versions. All three featured a Prontor SVS shutter with speeds to 1/300th of a second and included a self-timer. The first shutter type used the old progression of speeds and did not have click stops. Later versions use the modern speed progression, have click stops and feature a button that needs to be depressed to shift the flash sync/self-timer setting.

    The first version of the camera has an orange-red film over the rangefinder window. It is the least common version. It also came with a smaller 50mm f2.8 with a chrome front and taking a 34mm filter size. By 1955, the red filter for the rangefinder window was gone and a larger normal lens taking 40.5mm filters was standard. In the third version, strap lugs were added. Otherwise, all three versions are alike.
    The first impression one gets is that this a simple, compact camera with clean lines. The wide-based rangefinder and the symmetry of the front with its centered lens mount and equal-sized windows give it balance and helps the handling. The clean top—with all controls except the counter/rewind knob set into the surface—is attractive. The viewfinder is a simple optical finder but bright and clear. No parallax correction. The rangefinder patch in the ones I have seen is bright with a yellowish tinge. The double stroke, reverse wind advance lever is different but easy to get used to. The back comes off with a turn of a bottom lock. Tripod socket and accessory shoe are both centered. Lenses exchange via a threaded collar that fits over a male thread on the body. A notch and pin allow alignment. A simple design similar to the mountings also used by the Akarette/Akarelle and the Diax cameras.

The Lordomat lens mount.
      Film loads with a reverse curl, but I find the slot on the take up spool difficult to work with and don’t trust the film is advancing correctly until I have observed the rewind turn with an advance. The film counter sets below a plastic-covered window. In almost all cases, the plastic has turned yellow, even a dark orange, making the frame numbers difficult to read.
    Removing the top requires only a set of screwdrivers and a spanner wrench. Be careful. A tiny bead acts as a click stop for the film reminder built into the rewind knob. The socket for the rewind may contain tiny brass shims. Two of the Lordomats I handled have their rangefinders off vertically. There is a way to adjust, but it is not easy. The weakest part of the camera is probably the return for the film advance. A wire loop attaches to the capstan and, in turn, connects to a spring that extends half the width of the camera’s top interior. If the wire breaks, the advance lever has to be manually pushed back to the front. I fixed this using 10 lb. monofilament fish line with super-glued knotted loops at each end. Seems to be working for now.

    German leaf shutters, Compur or Prontor, all seem to have problems with sticking and slow speeds getting too slow. The Lordomat shares this problem. Exercise and application of lighter fluid seems to help, but keep shutter the blades clean. Focus and aperture rings on my normals and wide angles all seem to be fine, particularly the 50s which still turn smooth as silk. The Schacht telephotos I own had stiff focus and in two cases were completely frozen. Hair dryer heat and lighter fluid got them working again, but focus remains rough.

    Final observations: This a camera I find a pleasure to shoot with. The low profile, compact size and easily-set controls are strong points. Despite an all-metal construction, the camera does not feel too heavy. Lens controls are easy to set and on the 90 and 50mm f2.8, f-stops click into place with precision. All but the early Lordonars take readily-available 40.5mm filters and hoods. In tests, I particularly like the 50mm Lordonar and the 50mm Lordon. Schacht lenses have a mixed reputation, but the 35mm Travetar performs well. I am not impressed with the 135mm Travenar.

    Because it was imported into the United States, Lordomats show up in this country on ebay regularly, but prices tend to run higher than my budget will allow. These are good cameras and both users and collectors like them. The accessory lenses are harder to find and finding ones in usable condition may be difficult. If you are looking for a easy-to-use 1950s rangefinder 35, you might want to consider a Lordomat.

Two 35mm lenses, Travenar & Travetar with cases

90mm f4 Travenar with finder

A bevy of lenses, except the 50mm, all from A. Schacht

Interior 50mm Lordonar

Interior with seamstress. 50mm Lordonar

White oak and beech

Wood must be split. 35mm Travetar

Child's castle. 50mm Lordonar
Wineberry canes at dusk. 35mm Travetar

Masonry heater. 50mm Lordonar

Thursday, September 16, 2021

A Constellation of SPICAs

Named for a first-magnitude star in the constellation Virgo, the 3.5X “SPICA” was Nippon Kogaku’s second post-war product to make it into production, probably in late November or early December 1945. A 2X sport glass named Capella soon followed. Both names would be registered as trademarks by Nippon Kogaku on April 19, 1946. “Opera glasses” or “sport glasses” are binoculars with no prisms to twist the light path into a shorter housing. They typically consist of single or doublet front components that provide the necessary magnification, and negative rear elements that both allow focusing and rotation the image to one that is upright and un-reversed. By avoiding prisms, these binoculars save on weight, but compactness can only come from limiting the designs to low magnifications, usually less than 4.5X. The Spica opera glass is no exception. Four by two by one-and-a-quarter inches (95 x 50 x 35mm), the light-weight, uncased glass slips readily into a coat pocket. Its all-black finish combines clean lines with a feel of precision and quality that most opera glasses lack. In short, this is a glass that is a pleasure to hold and to use. Unlike NK’s first post-war prism binoculars, the Novar and the later Orions, the Spica was a new design. One wonders where NK found the resources to place such a product into production so quickly. But the Occupation forces were looking for quality optics at low prices. Perhaps NK felt that this might be a best seller. It is also possible that it was able to grind down glass that had been molded for use in the military Type 93 4X glasses. Sales of NK opera glasses must have been strong enough initially, for SCAP records indicate a production of 709 in 1945 then 10,426 in 1946 with September the biggest month with 2190 produced. That high may have been in anticipation of that year’s upcoming Christmas season. Almost all of these sales would have been to the CPO (Central Purchasing Office) which provided the stock for the military occupation stores. But then sales slacked. SCAP reports indicate production of only 2926 Spica the January 1947 to February 1948 period—a drop of 50 percent. Of these, 1,050 Spica went to the CPO. An additional 1,000 Spica were sold to the Continental Merchandise Company in New York City. So, only a few—no more than 426 Spica were sold domestically that year. I can find no record of any NK opera glass production for 1948 and only one final run of 569 in December 1949. The Spicas have no serial numbers, so actual production numbers can not be certain, but all these numbers in the SCAP records would suggest a total production of all NK post-war opera glasses, both Spica and Capella, of 21,539. That should make them more common than the post-war Orions, but far rarer than the plentiful and popular Novars. This short span of production explains several features of the Spicas and Capellas. All seen so far feature the older Nikko logo that would be phased out in early 1948. In addition, the body coverings are the same glue-cork or sawdust composite that the early post-war Novars and Orions used. In addition, few seem to have the “Made in Occupied Japan” mark that is seen on almost all post-war Japanese export products. Why? Because that mark was not required until February 1947—at which time the production of the NK opera glasses was drawing to a close.
The typical Spica that shows up on ebay or in auctions has a black glossy finish over an aluminum cast body with a rough finish where hands would naturally grip. The back face is engraved with the “Nikko” mark and TOKYO to the left and SPICA and 3.5X on the right. A central focusing knob to the front moves the back unit for a focus range from infinity to around three feet. Most of the Spicas and the Capellas came in unlined leather cases with a snap flap and a short unadjustable carrying strap. But at least one Spica has been seen with a canvas case. Three basic variations of the Spica seem to come up for sale. The most common type has no MIOJ markings on either the glasses or the case. The second type has MIOJ stamped on the case under the flap, but no markings on the glasses.
The third version, which must date from 1947 or maybe 1949, has MIOJ engraved and white-filled across the top of the focusing arm.
But there is an even rarer version, and these are the Spicas not finished in black. So far I have seen only eight of these: four in red, three in green and one in blue. Were these sold to the Japanese domestic market as children’s binoculars? Were any, ever sold in the PXs? Who knows. They are certainly rare, but except for their paint jobs, they are the same as the black-finished ones.
It is unclear as to what was the antecedent for the Spica design. The optical design is similar to many other opera glasses, but the black, serious finish is in contrast to most opera glasses which tend to feature fancy bodies and multiple metals or finishes. The most popular post-war Japanese opera glasses were the 2.5X Prides manufactured by Tokyo Kogaku in huge numbers (11,815 in 1947 alone). These featured fancier polished chrome trimmings and leather-covered bodies. Why did NK discontinue what had been a lucrative range of products? Since we do not know what the originals sold for, it is hard to know, but competition from other Japanese manufacturers is the probable explanation. Even in 1946, NK’s management insisted that all of the company’s products had to meet NK’s high standards. But by late that year, dozens of tiny startup firms in Japan were attempting to ride the train of Japan’s growing optical reputation by assembling and selling cheap opera glasses. These used aluminum focusing screws, stamped sheet metal housings and marginal optics. Many were simpler copies of the brass and lacquered models that had once been the favorites of theater attendees in Europe and the United States. They were impossible to keep in optical alinement and most soon showed rust along their barrel seams. But they were cheap, much cheaper than NK’s own products. NK wasn’t making much money on the opera glasses—only $3.10 per Spica and only $1.74 per Capella sold to the CPO. Overseas sales were not much better. NK got only $3.40 for each of the Spicas sold to the Continental Company in 1947. That may not have been enough to justify continued production. Another factor may have been a decision to promote the much-better finished Mikrons. These 6X binoculars took up little more space in a pocket than the Spicas did, but with their fine, brushed chrome finishes and obvious quality, they could demand a higher price which Occupation troops were willing to pay. The Mikrons were certainly popular items, so much so that when NK brought out a new range of binoculars in 1950, they called them all Mikrons. The Pair of Spica opera glasses we see here is typical of NK’s line. At first glance, the Spica hints at fine quality and finish, but a closer examination shows evidence of the problems NK was experiencing with getting any manufacturing done that would meet the company’s own high standards. What at first appears to be a leather reveals itself to be merely a baked-on material molded onto the metal barrels themselves. Disassembling the focusing unit, reveals a beautifully-machined brass focus screw, but linings were cut from red cloth ornamented with white and green flowers(!)
[see illustration closeup]. Hardly the most obvious material to use. Still, the alinement has held and the view is sharp and clear, even after sixty years.

Friday, May 28, 2021

AkA’s Akarette and Akarelle: compact 35mm cameras from the hey day of German dominance of camera manufacturing.

Akarelle type 2 with 50mm Xenon & Akameter.

  Apparate & Kamerabau Gmbh (AkA), based in Friedrichshafen, in southern Germany, was one many small camera companies founded in West Germany during the post-World War II period. It was started by two brothers, Max and Eugen Armbruster. Eugen, with a degree in engineering, was responsible for much of the early design work. Their first camera was the 35mm Akarette I(sometimes referred to as an ‘AkArette.’)
    The Akarette went through several models, including a name change to Akarelle in 1954 before the series ended in 1957. By then the company had moved on to other designs—some with non-interchangeable lenses, some with rangefinders and built-in meters—before returning to the earlier names and dying along with many other small German camera companies in the early 1960s.
    For me, the appeal of the Akarette/Akarelle is that here was a camera that always offered fully interchangeable lenses using a behind-the-lens leaf shutter, coupled to a film advance with double exposure prevention, and a double viewfinder allowing coverage for more than one focal length.
    AkA was a small company with limited resources, yet the Akarette/Akarelles were system cameras offering a wide range of near-professional-level accessories and, ultimately, an extensive range of lenses. Yet, at the same time, their cameras sold at prices far below that of most of their German competitors, and even at lower prices that many American-made cameras during this same period. Perhaps part of the reason so little is known about the company today is that apparently their cameras (except the Akarex and Arette series) were never sold directly in the United States. Even today, most Akarettes/Akarelles only show up in Europe.
Akarelle with Isconar & Akarette with Xenar

    The first camera featured here is an Akarelle, dating to 1955 with a Schneider 50mm f2 Xenon lens, a Gauss derivative—the most expensive lens AkA offered and somewhat rare. The more commonly seen lens is a 50mm f3.5 Xenar with front-element focusing.
   Also pictured here are An Akarette II with the 50mm f3.5 Xenar and a type 3 Akarelle equipped with a ISCO Color-Isconar 50mm f2.8 lens—a three-element formula and the lowest cost normal lens that AkA offered. It is also front-element focusing, but the click-stopped apertures and depth of field marks are metal on black and easier to use and see, even if the markings are not engraved into the metal.
    My first Akarette also came with a Schneider 90mm f3.5 Tele-Xenar lens. It is unit focusing, heavy chrome over brass but compact—a top-quality lens with its own case with a slot inside to hold an individual 90mm finder. Nice.

Akarette II with 50 and 90mm Tele-Xenar
   The lenses exchange via a threaded collar that screws over a male thread in front of the leaf shutter. Most of the lenses available came from Schneider or its subsidiary, ISCO. Focal lengths ranged from 35mm to 135mm, although only the accessory 35mm, and 90mm appear on the used market with any regularity and then at high prices.

How do they compare to similar 35mm cameras from this period?
    The body length, height, weight and rounded ends are similar to a Leica II. This is a compact, solid but not heavy camera with simple controls including a hinged, full-opening back and a fixed takeup spool for easier loading.
Top of Akarelle.  Note smaller frame counter.

    The finish of both the Akarette and the Akarelle is a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. The bodies consist of two cast-aluminum shells covered with chrome-plated tops and bottoms and two nickel-plated half-moon front plates that surround the shutter mounting. The chrome finish of the particular Akarette shown here's top and bottom plates have a rich glossy finish that almost glows. The Akarelle’s finish is duller. Neither finish is good at resisting scratches. The bottom plate on the Akarelle features two nubs that, together with a peg on the shutter mount keeps the camera from rubbing against any surface it is placed on. The balance of the exterior is covered with a durable black leatherette. The interior is blackened with strength-adding ridges and baffles and nice black ridges and frocking in the light chamber. The clamshell back is hinged on the right side and seals the camera from light leaks due to the way the back edges overlap the front. The shutter is in a module that comes out of the camera along with the viewfinder optics allowing for ease of servicing. All-in-all, a straight-forward design with attention given to details that can be critical for good picture taking.
    The bad part is the lack of a rangefinder, or any coupled means of determining focus—a serious weakness in a camera with possible focal lengths as long as 135mm, and also offering closeup lenses and extension tubes. AKA did sell a separate rangefinder that mounted in the accessory shoe. While uncoupled, it does show the coverage of a normal lens. One can determine focus and frame the picture, then transfer the distance reading to the lens already knowing what the composition would be.
    The uglies are the front plates which almost always show wear. In many samples so little of the front plating remains that the cameras look like they have brass fronts.

    The three cameras here are near look-alikes differing only in details. Starting with the top deck, the Akarette features an advance knob that requires only a short wind. A film speed reminder is built into the top, but the direction arrow for turning the knob is not engraved and mostly worn away. (On the Akarelle the film reminder is set into the top of the rewind knob.) To rewind the film, you need to lift the knob clear of the body. This releases a cog and allows you to turn back the film using a conventional knob at the left end.
    The Akarelles feature a film advance lever. This rests on the top plate with no off-set clearance, but it is easy enough to grab with a thumb. The advance can work with single stroke, but that carries around for 180 degrees and it will interfere with the straps—if one is using the lugs mounted on the front of the camera. However, the throw is ratcheted and one can easily advance the film using a series of short strokes that allow you to stay clear of any straps. To rewind the film, press on a small lever mounted on the advance lever and labeled R. This disengages the advance ratchet.
    Next left is the frame counter under a clear window and behind it a knob for resetting the number. Advancing the film  on the Akarelle causes the counter to rotate completely around before stopping at the next number. (On early Akarettes, the frame number advances when you take a picture.) The numbers inside the small frame windows on both the Akarelle and Akarette  are almost impossible to read except under ideal lighting.
    Just left of middle is the finder hump. In the Akarette, you have two optical finders side-by-side. and separate in the rear. The one to the right shows the field of coverage for a 75mm lens. The one to the left, the coverage for a 50mm lens. The user can select which finder to use by moving a blind over one or the other window via a labeled switch on the front plate.
    The Akarelle still has two windows in front, but in this case, the left hand one shows the coverage of a 35mm wide angle lens. The second window admits light for bright frames that show the coverage of both a 50mm and a 90mm lens, or, the case of the earlier Akarelle, 50, 75 and 90mm.
    The Akarette windows offer bright, neutral-color views with the 75mm near life size. Despite the lack of parallax compensation, these are nice finders. The earlier Akarelle’s bright frames are easy to see. I do not like the reduced view, but the view is bright enough. Unfortunately, the later Akarelle finder is dimmer with a low-contrast, bluish tint, and the bright frames faint. Viewing is the weakest feature of all these cameras, a cost the company was willing to pay  to continue offer a low camera height and compact size.

    The Akarette’s shutter is an unlabeled Prontor SV with speeds from one second to as short as 1/300th plus B and a self-timer. A quality shutter with a nice speed range for its time.
    The Akarelle’s shutter is a labeled Prontor SVS offering full flash, M or X, sync at all speeds, plus a self-timer. You set this via a small switch on the right side of the shutter. The switch can be easily hit, moving it over to the V mark. You go to take a picture and nothing seems to happen. If you do not realize that the shutter is using the timer, you advance the film again and have just lost a frame.
    In other ways, the Akarelle’s shutter is an improvement. The speed-setting rim is wider and easier to move. The index mark is painted red and easy to see although there are no click marks.

    The best features of all these cameras are their size and a shape that fits easily into one’s hands. Controls are simple and straight-forward. One can learn how to shoot a Akarette/Akarelle in five minutes and start taking pictures. Picture quality is what can be expected from Schneider optics. i.e. quite good. Values are all over the place with top prices often asked for bodies in clean, unworn condition. But if you aren’t fussy and patient, worn cameras can be found at modest prices. It is unfortunate that accessories are so difficult to locate. Unlike other old cameras I have purchased and tried, I think these will be keepers—easy to throw in a bag and take along wherever I go.

Sunken farm road in pasture.
Woodpecker work on Sweet Cherry.

Spring flowers. Focus requires care.
Dead hemlock and winter storm.

Main barn at family farm.

Corner of my desk.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The object at hand: Copy Stand Device for Akarette/Akarelle

The AkA Akarette/Akarelle copier

Many of the West German leaf-shutter 35mm RF camera manufacturers offered close-up devices for their cameras These usually consisted of a closeup lens that mounted on the front of the prime lens, sometimes combined with a parallax-compensating view-glass that adjusted the rangefinder/viewfinder image for the closer distances. These devices usually dropped the closest focusing distance from a meter to half that distance, or around 18 inches.
Illustration from French ad.

AkA also offered a range of closeup lenses, but in the company’s goal of marketing a full systems camera, they also offered copy stands that could be used with either extension tubes or closeup lenses. By doing so, their Akarette/Akarelle cameras joined a small group of rangefinder 35s that enabled true closeup photography all the way down to a 1:1 ratio.

Each of these companies offered different approaches to solving the same problem: how does one set the focus, then change from viewing to substituting the camera into the film path to take the picture. Does one slide the camera over into position, displacing the focusing ground glass in the process (Leica, Nikon P), remove the focuser/framer and attach the camera (Nikon S, SA, Contax, Leica), or attach both the camera and a focuser to a rotating platform (Contax “revolver”).
The similar in concept Zeiss Ikon 'revolver' for Contax.

AkA appeared to have offered two options: a stand with the lens screwed to a holder and a removable focuser above, or a rotating platform that held both the focuser and the camera. To use the rotating unit, the photographer positions the focusing screen over the lens, composes and focuses, then rotates the platform 180 degrees to substitute the camera and takes the picture. In concept, it is similar to the Zeiss Revolver, except that it is easier to rotate the AkA’s platform since changing does not require lifting the spring-loaded upper part before turning.

In practice, the second type is easy to operate. The ground glass has no condenser, so the view shows edge falloff. It does offer a nice etched grid for composing. With just a normal lens, focus is at about sixteen inches.With a 1.5+ diopter closeup lens the distance drops to six inches. I am not sure what other combinations will yield. One problem is that once the camera is fastened in place, it is impossible to change the the shutter speed. So one needs to plan settings in advance.

The rotating copy stand that I have consists of two aluminum disks each machined out of stock, The top has a machined art deco swirly surface: different and kind of neat. A large screw holds the two together and provides the pivot point. The focuser was missing, as well as the stand. I can use a Zeiss focuser without a problem. The post is internally threaded for 3/8 inch, allowing direct mounting on a tripod, but I also manufactured a new stand out of plumbing pipe. Long ago, the person who assembled this unit etched a number ‘2’ on the inside of both the top and bottom parts.
Inner surface of
bottom plate showing number 2

Otherwise, there is no serial number. We have no idea how many AkA manufactured, but probably not many.
With the copy stand set at maximum height, the lens covers an area of about nine by six inches, or 1/6 life size. With the 1.5x closeup lens added and the lens focus set at its closest distance, the coverage is about 82mm X 50mm, .5X reduction, or half life size.

Results are good but not gee-whiz, due more to the limitations of the front-element focusing Xenar than the copy stand’s potential. Since I like to do closeup work, I will continue to experiment. 

Baldric closeup
Using device in the field: Daffodils
Patch for the Hawk Mountain Highlanders Bagpipe Band

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Karat 36, Agfa's top-of-line 35mm folder.

My Agfa Karats: A journey in discovery, frustration and finally satisfaction (Sorta’). 

 Agfa offered its first Karat in 1936. A small, rounded-body bellows camera with a collapsible lens plate mounted on struts, it took Agfa’s Rapid cassettes for 12 non-rewindable exposures per roll. The series moved to a rangefinder-equipped body after the war, taking on a modern chrome and leather appearance. It gained weight and size in the process but remained a compact, well-finished camera. In 1948, responding to the decline in demand for cameras using the Rapid cassette, Agfa brought out the first of its Karat 36 cameras. Although similar in appearance to the earlier Karats, these used 35mm film in standard magazines, and featured a now essential rewind knob.

Agfa Karat 36, type 3 with Xenon lens

In quality and appearance, the Karat 36s rival the Kodak Retina cameras sold during the same period, offering better features in some ways, not so good in others. All were marketed as Agfa’s highest-quality 35mm camera. Priced at $165, they were also Agfa’s most expensive camera, the equivalent to almost $1500 in 2020 dollars. They came with the same quality optics that the Retinas did: Schneider Xenar or Xenon lenses or Rodenstock Heligons, and later, Agfa brand Solinars and Solagons. Also, like the Retinas, all featured Compur Rapid or Synchro-Rapid shutters except the last, very-different Karat IV. I got interested in the Karat series after working with the Ambi-Silette cameras and liking their features. The compactness of the Karats and their split-mirror rangefinders appealed to me. I located a restored Karat, but found that its bellows leaked. The seller took it back, but I kept looking. Prices typically run-higher than the Ambi Silettes, often over $100, and I tend to go as cheap if I can, so it took some time. Several purchases revealed non-operational shutters and/or frozen helicoids. Repair attempts were unsuccessful. Finally, down to zero Karats, I located a Ansco Karomat 36 with the 50mm f2.8 Karat Xenar lens at a low enough price. I took a chance and got lucky. Everything worked, although the advance lever return was initially stiff and the focus lever difficult to move. 

Ansco sold the Karat 36 in the US

Ansco Karomat & Agfa Karat 36. Same cameras with different labels

Agfa 35mm camera focusing helicoids are notorious for their greenish lubricant that hardens over time and can become like glue. The solution is a complete disassembly of the lens helicoid, flushing out all the old lubricant, cleaning, re-lubricating and re-assemblying. Not fun work. A 

little lighter fluid dropped into the threads from the rear, followed by heat from a blower gun freed the focus enough for day-to-day picture taking. But, even though I now had a working Karat, I was still on the lookout for a Karat in better working condition, particularly one with the faster f2 Xenon lens, or equivalent. In July I finally found one at a price I was willing to pay. The metal work shows some corrosion, but the 50mm f2 Karat Xenon was clean and scratch-free. The shutter operated at all speeds and the focus was smoother than the Karomat’s. 

Agfa mark on Karomat

The Ansco label
The Karat top.


Only the rangefinder was out of alinement—an easy problem to fix since access to the rangefinder prisms is pretty straight forward. So was I happy? For a while. Shot a roll and the results were pleasing. Two weeks later, while exercising the shutter to help the advance get smoother, the shutter suddenly jammed. This time I sent this Karat off for repairs. It’s back now with a replacement shutter. So, we shall see. 

The most distinguishing characteristics of the Karat 36 is its split-mirror rangefinder and its pull-back advance lever. The nice thing about such a rangefinder is that it does not depend on a superimposed image but uses a split image instead. The result is a clear view plus faster and easier focusing, even in low light. I like it. The pull-back advance lever takes a little getting used to, but operates well enough. Hook a thumb or index finger around the front of the lever and pull back. Why did Agfa go with such an advance? Probably due to the demands of the Rapid cassette. When Agfa went over to the 35mm magazine, it carried over the same advance used in the Karat 12. Here is where I feel the greatest weakness of the Karat lies. Instead of a pair of sprockets for pulling the film out of its magazine, the Karat 36s have only one, set back away from the takeup stool and guarded by a snap-over plate. This means that advancing the film depends almost completely on the takeup spool with the sprocket drive pushing the film forward like it would have using a Rapid cassette. It usually works, but advancing the film requires a hard pull accompanied by discomforting crunching sounds. 

 In operation the Karat is solid and easy to steady, the release firm, the shutter ultra-quiet. Since no cover shields the lens when collapsed, it is wise to carry a lens cap if one wishes to stow the camera in one’s jacket pocket. Like other 50mm Schneider lenses during this period, the Xenon takes 29.5mm filters, or 32mm slip-ons. Focus is down to one meter, but with a slip-on proximeter, you can get down to 18 inches. The film type guide and manually-set, additive frame counter are easier to set than the Silette series. Linkages from the body to the shutter are more robust than the Retina’s and the frame counter does not care if you shoot more than 36 exposures on a roll. The 50mm f2 Xenon is the same lens as the Retina IIa came with. Like so many German 35mm camera from the 1950s, shutter speed and aperture settings have no click stops and are difficult to see. This makes bracketing exposures a slow process. I wish the Karat had strap lugs. The cameras came with cases but today many are missing and invariably the straps are rotten and undependable. Still, it is an easy camera to slip in one’s jacket and just take along for a walk or photo shoot. 

With closeup device