When I got back into film a couple years ago, 35mm was going to be the inevitable default. There were a lot of 35mm cameras made, from very cheap and lo-fi to very expensive precision machines. 35mm film is still relatively easy to get (though pandemic has made things a bit difficult) and can be even found in drugstores. Medium format offered bigger negatives, so that was a logical next step, though the cameras I’ve used have been on the low end of the spectrum.
And now I’ve flipped. I’m going smaller.
110 film is familiar to anyone of a certain age, anyone who was alive and aware from the mid-70s through the 90s. Smaller than 35mm film, it allowed for smaller cameras. And taking a cue from its older sister 126 film, the film itself is enclosed in a fool-proof cartridge–no way to load it wrong. 110 cameras were popular because of that.
Oh yeah, they were also popular because they tended to be on the cheap side. Sure, there were a few high-spec examples, like the 110 SLR cameras that Minolta and Pentax put out. But these were the exceptions. By the mid 80s, 110 cameras were what you’d get because you either wanted an inexpensive no-fuss “camera” camera for the occasional trip or family gathering, or you just didn’t have enough cash to get a 35mm camera.
Because of that, 110 cameras had little appeal to me. Why would I get a machine that usually had a mediocre lens at best, with a negative size of just 13 x 17 mm? If I wanted a smaller negative, I’d just use my half-frame Olympus Pen EES-2, which still produced a slightly larger negative (18 x 24 mm), meaning a higher resolution image. Not only that, with the Pen EES-2, I could eke out almost 80 frames with a 36 exposure roll. Talk about efficiency and savings! 110? The largest roll size is just 24 exposures. These 110 rolls are usually $6-8 apiece, when I used to be able to find 35mm color rolls for less.
But I’ve been on a lo-fi camera kick as of late. After getting my Reto Ultra Wide and Slim in February, I’ve been on the lookout for more “quirky” cameras. 110 at its best is lo-fi. And to add to my GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), I met up with fellow bikes and film cameras afficionado Eric N. when he was in town last month. One of the cameras he brought with him was an Agfamatic. It looked so cool! I was used to thinking that 110 cameras were as homely as the images that came from them, but here was an exception.
Agfa got on board with 110 at the time Kodak introduced the format in 1972. (Agfa was also the first film company other than Kodak to manufacture the format.) The “matic” of Agfamatic references the name Kodak gave to its line of cartridge based films: Instamatic. (Note: none of these films are instant like a Polaroid, it referred instead to “instant loading”.) The Agfamatic series ranged from cheap and basic to pretty advanced.
And there was a good reason for the handsomeness of the Agfamatic: the design was handled by an actual designer. This was a good idea. Agfa was a big German camera and film maker. At one point Germany was the reigning champs of camera production. But by the 1970s, Japan had stole the crown. There was still a place for high end German machines, like Leicas. But if Agfa wanted to hold on to what’s left of the rapidly receding German consumer market, they needed an angle, and fast. So they decided to create beautiful machines that were easy to use. It wasn’t just 110, their 35mm cameras (Optima Sensor) also got an update. I’ve liked the Optima Sensors I’ve seen, but the asking prices are always a bit more than I want to pay. The 110 cameras go for quite a bit cheaper.
I got an Agfamatic 4000 from eBay. This was a fairly advanced 110, with auto exposure and zone focus. Alas, I could not get it to work. There were two corroded batteries in the camera, and fresh batteries didn’t do anything. 1 Thankfully I got my money back. But I had already purchased some film, so I wanted another camera.
An Agfamatic 2008 turned up on eBay for cheap, so I picked it up. This was the most basic of the Agfamatic series, offering a fixed focus lens with just an f/9.5 aperture. There’s two shutter speeds: 1/100 for “sun”, 1/50 for “clouds”. And there’s no batteries to worry about. I figure there’d be less that can go wrong, and if I really wanted the 110 experience, best to go simple.
And the Agfamatic 2008 is definitely a pocket camera. Closed, the camera measures 4 1/4″ x 2″ x 1″ and weighs just 6 oz. when loaded with a roll of film. 2 While a few of my 35mm cameras are pretty small, even my most compact ones are still a little bigger than this. When in the closed position the lens is protected and the shutter cannot fire. When the camera is “opened” for shooting, the length increases to 5″. Like the spy cameras that came before, the advancing of the film is done by “opening” and “closing” the camera. 3 This makes a distinct ratcheting sound, which caused the camera to be nicknamed the “ritsch-ratsch” camera in Germany.4 And the shutter button is big and red, designed that only a soft touch is needed. (This is what the “sensor” refers to.) A compact camera that acts as its own case and has a sensitive red button shutter–I wonder if Olympus was taking notes when designing their XA series. 😉
My Agfamatic 2008 was pretty easy to use. The only decision I needed to make was shutter speed. My example isn’t the smoothest–the ratcheting motion leaves something to be desired, and the latch button underneath that locks/unlocks the camera is stiff. But it works. I shot a roll of Lomography Tiger 200 color film on a ride to downtown and dropped off the roll for processing.
And I got back photos! Yay!
How are they? Well, let me preface this by saying I was not expecting much from a very basic 110 camera. Even if I had a better 110 camera, the limitations of the film–small size, no way to make the film “flat” 5 would mean the photos won’t be as good as my 35mm shots. I was expecting lo-fi results, and I got lo-fi results. This would not be the sole camera to take on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. But I did like many of the shots I got–some were surprisingly sharp. Cleaning up the batch via “auto color” in Photoshop also took care of some exposure issues. But yes, many shots came out on the impressionistic side of things, generally the shots I took at the 1/50 second shutter speed.
But here’s the thing: This camera was fun to use. I like how small it is, and I like the ratchet action. The viewfinder is big and bright, making composition easy. In operation, it felt a bit like using my Olympus XA2. It’s true that the photos I get from the XA2 are heaps better than anything I can get out of the Agfamatic 2008, and I’d use that for more serious stuff. But I’ll be shooting more with the Agfamatic 2008 in the future.
And I give thanks to Lomography for resurrecting the once-dead 110 format. Yeah, they sometimes get a bad rap for being “hipsters” who sell overpriced crap and inspire “the wrong kind of photography”. And it would be nice if they brought back 126 film instead of or along with 110, but I’ll take what I can get. There’s only a few varieties of 110 film now available, four color stocks, one black and white, so it’ll be easy to give them all a try if I really wanted to.
As for home development, I don’t have reels to hold this format (and they are supposedly not easy to find) so I’ll let the lab develop for now, though I could scan at home. I have a black and white roll to try but getting that developed will be a little more difficult as my two regular labs don’t handle it. 6 There are two labs in town that will handle it (Pro Photo and Blue Moon) but they are a bit further out for regular use.
1 Since the camera is electro-mechanical, pressing the shutter without batteries would still make a “click”, but after reading this post I realized that the shutter isn’t really opening.
2 Assume from here on that all 110 rolls I use are 24 exposure, as that’s the only length currently available. I could find some 12 exposure rolls if I want to dig up long-expired specimens on eBay, but I think I’ll pass.
3 I say this in parenthesis because you are not opening the back, where the film goes. There’s a separate latched door for that.
4 Thankfully the engineers knew that you’d be opening and closing the camera a lot, so it’s designed to stop advancing the film until the shutter has been released.
5 35mm film cameras have a pressure plate to keep the film in front of the lens flat and in place. With cartridge film there’s no way to do that.
6 My most regular lab, Citizens Photo, does not handle 110 at all. The Shutterbug does, but they send their black and white stuff to Citizens, so therein lies the quandary.