This chunky Agfa viewfinder camera gets with the program.

Agfa Optima

This unassuming camera that sells for peanuts on the auction site is actually a landmark camera for its pioneering exposure control.

Testament to this camera’ s impressive build quality is that it survived the five feet drop out of my banana hands and the three bounces on tarmac before it came to rest under a parked car.

Thankfully, the robust Agfa continued to work after I recovered it, allowing me to continue using and reviewing it.

Why is the Agfa Optima a landmark camera?

The world’s first camera with programmed exposure control.

The User Experience

The Look

Well, its no looker is it? Squat, chunky and not at all eye catching. There are a zillion German made flush top cameras from the likes of Adox, Kodak, Leidolf, Balda and others made around the same period that look very similar. Take a closer look though and you will notice an oddity that gives a clue to this camera’s importance; a lever on the front of the camera that looks like a left sided shutter release.

Agfa Optima

The Feel

It may not be a handsome camera, but it does feel good in the hand; weighty and solid. It is an all metal camera. As mentioned earlier, it passed the stress test when I dropped it! The film advance situated on the rear of the camera has a very long throw, but is smooth and light.

Focus control is of the zone type with three set positions marked by icons that click into place with by very short turns of the thick aperture dial at the front of the lens.

It is a beautifully simple system and proved effective; although you are limited to shooting in good light.

Agfa Optima from the top
Top of the Agfa Optima showing flush film rewind knob and ISO dial.

In Use

The left hand “magic lever” on the front of the camera appears to be the shutter release. It isn’t. It actuates the light meter. The lens is a somewhat slow f/3.9 39mm Color-Apotar. Maximum ISO is 200, set using a lockable wheel on the top right of the camera. The shutter speed range is 1/30th-1/250th second. Based on the light measurement of the selenium meter activated by the left hand lever, and the set ISO, the programmed camera works out if you have enough light for a decent exposure. If you have, it displays a green light top centre in the brightline viewfinder and you can release the shutter. If not, it displays a red light, but you can still take an exposure gamble and release the shutter.

Agfa Optima
Agfa Optima with meter activation lever on the left.

It is a beautifully simple system and proved effective; although you are limited to shooting in good light. The shutter is also locked until the light meter is activated, preventing accidental trips of the shutter. It’s a reassuring and clever feature.

Another interesting feature of this camera are the exposure counter positioned at the rear of the camera and at the very bottom in the middle. The counter counts down from a number that has to be manually set by turning a thumbwheel.

The film rewind mechanism is also curious; a small disc slid to the left releases a catch and the rewind knob pops up from the flush top of the camera body. Rewinding is slow, as the small dial has to be turned a bit at a time, and there is no rewind crank handle to assist.

Agfa Optima
Agfa Optima film rewind knob pops up by sliding the small disc.

Another camera with an interesting shutter sound

On depressing the shutter release, you hear the typically quiet sound of a Compur leaf shutter doing its discreet thing. In complete contrast, when allowing the shutter release to move back up to its resting position, a loud “clack” can be heard from the camera body.

Agfa Optima
Rear of Agfa Optima showing the film advance and exposure counter.

Photographs taken with the Agfa Optima

I didn’t expect much from this camera, but it pleasantly surprised me with some well exposed and sharply resolved images taken around Hartlepool. The film used was the cheap and ubiquitous Kodacolor 200.


Down the Road