[first published on http://www.JohnnyMartyr.com in 2015]
The Agfa Optima Parat is a beautifully quirky compact, fixed lens, scale focus, 35mm half-frame camera, made in Germany in 1963. I bought mine in 2008 from Tina Waters, the curator of Gallery 61 in New York. I paid $70 for it as a tested, working copy and today, in 2015, it still works 100% without having had any service. [in 2017, I found that the shutter was sticking and I am currently ISO a repair tech who knows these cameras]
It’s the kind of camera that you’ll tend to see on eBay for anywhere from $50 to $150 or even $200 with no bids probably because people don’t generally know much about them. But make no mistake, this is a fun, very high quality, very shootable, point and shoot, camera that is worth giving a chance.
Images found online may lead one to believe that the Parat is nothing more than flashy cosmetics but in the hand, one immediately feels its surprising density. Fit and finish are also taken from The Top Shelf. What few gaps between exterior parts there are are consistent across their length, but the majority of parts fit tightly and flush with absolutely zero play. While some plastic is present in the usual places; finder window, frame indicator, slider controls, shutter release and to serve as a bushing between some metal parts, one quickly overlooks them. The Parat sports deep brushed satin and polished chrome finishes throughout that are accentuated with thin black enamel and plastic lines.
Perhaps most striking is Agfa’s choice not to clad the Parat in common black pebble grain leatherette but to employ sleek ribbed sheets of polished aluminum as covering and gripping material. There simply has never been another camera made with this feature. Sure, it’s a bit slick in the hand but it works and brings so much flare to the camera. The Optima Parat’s a very smart looking camera and seems to embody industrial style of the early 1960’s.
Okay, so maybe it is about flashy cosmetics but it really is a solid performer and an easy/fun camera to use in the 21st Century.
Armed with an Agfa Color Solinar 30mm f2.8 (a Zeiss Tessar copy), the Parat’s optics are world class. Even on the small half frame image plane, the Solinar makes sharp subjects pop out of creamy backgrounds.
And unlike many classic German cameras whose optics are sought after but are cumbersome to use, the Parat would be right at home in the hands of a grade-schooler as it would a travel camera for a seasoned professional looking for something as fun as a Lomo but that can really deliver.
Below are some of my favourite photos that I’ve snapped over the years with my Parat.
The examples above are single half frame images measuring 18x14mm instead of the usual 24×36. This is how this and all half frame cameras were intended to be used. The idea was, lower resolution output (in 2015 speak), smaller, more portable camera, twice as many photos (72 shots for a 36 exp roll!) so therefore less loading and unloading. Perfect for the novice or casual photographer. Even today, 35mm film exposed in a half frame camera can be processed at any lab that processes full frame 35mm film. Be sure to let them know it’s half frame though so that you can discuss film cutting, scanning and/or printing options. Notice how shallow the DoF is, particularly in the first example. I was pretty astonished that with an image sensor this small, this DoF was possible.
Above are examples of a more modern approach. Some half frame shooters scan/print two (or more) half frame images next to one another to in order to explore a cinematic effect. One, of course, could just do this in editing with two full-size images, however, there is something more organic about taking your photos in such a way to prepare them to be shown together in pairs. Notice that little half circle that is missing from the lower third of the black bar between the images. Like the famous Hasselblad “V notches” that show when a photog prints just outside the image, Agfa’s half circle is like the fingerprint of the Optima Parat.
I’ll spare you the details of how to actually shoot with the Parat as I have included a scan of the original instruction manual (kindly gifted to me by my good friend from Denmark, Hans Marvell) at the bottom of the page. However, I wanted to point out some fun features of the camera and discuss how I personally use it.
Those engineers at AgfaPhoto were so far ahead of their time. Think about how you meter with a modern DSLR. You press the shutter release halfway, right? Well, that feature didn’t hit interchangeable lens 35mm SLR’s until probably the 1980’s. Think about that. A staple of nearly all serious and professional modern photographic hadn’t evolved in the ancestors of DSLR’s until the 80’s. Yet here, in 19 fucking 63 Agfa have this feature in their humble little point and shoot scale focus camera! That’s right folks, press the Agfa Optima Parat’s big front-mounted shutter release down half way and lo and behold, you get a meter read-out! It’s primitive but it’s effective. AND it doesn’t even require batteries!
Don’t know about selenium? Check out that bicycle reflector thing beside the viewfinder window on the front of the camera. This lens gathers and amplifies ambient light which is then converted into a very weak electrical current by a selenium cell. The amount of current that is created makes the otherwise all-mechanical auto exposure system of this camera move. The more current, the dot changes to green and the more the aperture stops down and shutter speeds up. The less current, the wider open the aperture stays, the slower the shutter remains and the red “don’t shoot” dot remains too.
While you can select from a full range of apertures on the Parat manually, these are only available in bulb and flash modes so I always keep the camera set on “A” for automatic exposure. Note that if you do go changing exposure modes, the plastic tabs that rotate around the lens can be rather squeaky. I believe this is normal due to the tight tolerances and plastic parts rubbing together slightly. I exercise mine every once in a while but do not usually move these tabs. The auto exposure mode works just fine. There is no AE lock and the metering pattern is average so you’ll have to settle for underexposure of your subject in backlit scenes for example. With print film, this often isn’t a problem due to the latitude of the film or you can just rock it as I did in the third portrait image above.
Also, just to note, if the meter indicates red, as in “don’t shoot”, you can still fire the shutter, unlike other pre-electronic autoexposure systems. However, your shutter speed will simply be the lowest allowable and aperture the widest; about 30 at 2.8.
As with all Agfa scale focus cameras, if you want to shoot a close-up of your subject, simply rotate the focus ring to the nearest extreme, this is about 3 feet as noted on the underside of the lens with actual meter and foot measurements but this is not marked as an icon as are the portrait, group, and mountain (infinity) settings. I tend to shoot much of my work in the 3-5 foot range in order to maximize lens performance and give a more shallow DoF so this method can be done with the Parat. According to the manual, Agfa made close up (Natarix) and telephoto (Telepar) lens attachments for the Parat. They occasionally make appearances on eBay but people seem to want well over $100 for them and I have yet to see examples of them in use. Please contact me if you have one or just examples of photos taken with one!
Anyway, below you can find a PDF of the Agfa Optima Parat manual. Special thanks to Hans Marvell for mailing me an original copy!
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!