A New Angle of View, Part II

Yes, I’m at it again.

Hot on the heels of my acquisition, via the twenty-first-century e-commerce miracle that is Ebay, of a medium format film camera from 1937, I’ve spent another ten dollars (plus rather more for shipping) on another film camera.

Stop running away, that’s going to be it for a while. Promise.

To keep the old Voigtländer company, I’ve been after a nice 35 mm camera – preferably a rangefinder design, but in the end I was happy to settle for one with a simple viewfinder, like those in digital pocket cameras you can buy today. I’m rather fond of German cameras from the middle part of the twentieth century – all chunky dials, solid metal construction, and attractive leatherette casing, even on the consumer point-and-shoots of the time. Some of the brands are evocative of the great photographers of the era:  Contax, Leica, Rollei, Zeiss. A couple are familiar to users of modern microscopes. And the lens names sound like a Pantheon of photographic gods:  Apotar, Solagon, Anastigmat, Biogon, Tessar.

What I ended up with, after bidding against absolutely nobody else (the way I like my Ebay auctions), was a 1958 Agfa Silette LK. Agfa’s still around today, although they no longer make cameras, instead focusing on high-end imaging products. The Silette was an extensive range of cameras, comprising a bewildering array of variants. It’s said that Agfa sold millions, including some branded for North American sale as the “Ansco Memar”. Who thinks up these names, anyway?

1958 Agfa Silette LK
Agfa Silette LK, with 45 mm f/2.8 Color-Apotar lens, and Prontor Pronto-LK shutter.

The LK had three separate body styles, of which this is the first, and yet another two as the later “LK Sensor”. The fancier Super Silettes were rangefinders, and there was even one version, the Ambi Silette, with interchangeable lenses. The LK is near the bottom of the range, with a decent but unspectacular 45 mm f/2.8 lens. If you followed my rambling discussion at the Voigtländer post, this is also a roughly “normal” lens, providing something like the angle of view that the human eye naturally sees. It’s no good for telephoto or close-up macro photography, but more or less ideal for snapshots, street photography, and landscapes.

Like the Voigtländer, this camera has the distinct advantage of not needing batteries to operate. Unlike it, the Silette uses 35 mm film, which you can still buy everywhere and have developed at your local grocery store. Also unlike the Voigtländer, it has a light meter built in, a selenium design that relies on the good old photoelectric effect. Light hitting the selenium in the meter causes electrons to peel off, providing electrical energy that moves a needle. You line this up with a “target” in a small window in the top surface of the camera, and voilà, you’ve got the photo properly exposed. Give or take a bit of variability due to the intervening fifty-plus years since the thing was manufactured, of course.

That’s some old magic at work – the photoelectric effect was first described by Heinrich Hertz (yes, that Hertz) in 1887, and made more famous by a certain Albert Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for his work describing it. This is probably one of its more trivial applications, but a useful one.

Knox College, Toronto - Agfa Silette LK
Lobby and chapel staircase, Knox College.

And it still seems to work alright. Stuffed with some cheap Fuji colour film from the local store, I took a quick lunchtime whirl around the University of Toronto’s downtown St. George campus. Although I’ve spent most of the last 25 years or so on or near it, and it’s packed with attractive old buildings, I’ve rarely spent time photographing here. A quick circuit around the central part of the campus, through the lobby of Knox College, the concrete monolith of the Medical Sciences Building, and the convoluted old stone piles of University College, Trinity College, and Hart House, turned up some pretty locations. As expected, my guesstimated metering was a bit dodgy at times, and the cloudy day conspired to make everything look a bit dull. Difficult interior light meant that some of the photos needed a very slow shutter speed, and since this camera pre-dates anti-shake technology by five decades or so, I had to toss a few of those out. But overall, the results were promising, and the Silette is now loaded with some Ilford HP5 Plus black and white film, in anticipation of a shooting expedition with an Ottawa-based photographer friend. I also need to give this camera a try on some portraits, since that little lens might give some nice results. Fun, as they say, and games.

Trinity College Toronto quadrangle - Agfa Silette LK
Quadrangle, Trinity College, University of Toronto.

Debates Room, Hart House, University of Toronto - Agfa Silette LK
Throne, Debates Room, Hart House.

More photos, if you can bear it, are in this Flickr set.

About Richard Wintle

I am Canadian by heritage, and a molecular biologist and human geneticist by training. My day job is Assistant Director of a large genome centre, where I do various things along the lines of "keeping the wheels on". In my spare time, I tend to run around with a camera, often chasing horses, race cars, musicians, and occasionally, wildlife.
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9 Responses to A New Angle of View, Part II

  1. rpg says:

    Damn you, Wintle. I have my first SLR—a Praktica—and another I got for free when a lab darkroom was being cleared out, sitting around somewhere. One has colour film in it, the other B&W. I might have to find them aand start playing.

    • Praktica – nice. Not a company I know much about but very interesting. I traded in our old Pentax film SLR when I bought my DSLR – it wasn’t anything special though.

  2. steve caplan says:

    Great photos!
    You are wasted in sequencing work–you need to shift to cell biology and starting imaging!

    • Thanks, Steve. I have for many years been jealous of those who get to take pretty micrographs as part of their work (Jenny springs to mind as a recent example). So much so that I’d like to buy a scope of my own with the appropriate mount for my Nikon DSLR. But such things tend to be stupidly expensive, unfortunately, and I don’t think I could sneak one in to my boss’s grants, somehow. 😉

  3. Ken Doyle says:

    The very first 35 mm camera I used was an Agfa Silette Vario (my dad’s). I also inherited a Rolleiflex TLR from him, which I still have sitting on a shelf. Sadly, the shutter mechanism needs to be serviced, and the last time I checked, the cost was around $300.

    • Nice. The Rolleiflex, whichever model it is, is a far better camera than the Voigtländer in my other post. The Silette Vario is similar to this one, but with fewer shutter speeds and no meter. Still a pretty little thing.

      It’s possible to disassemble shutters of these cameras and service them yourself, but I’d be very nervous about trying. Lots of tutorials (text, photographic, video) on the web if you’re brave.

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