In the second edition of What It Takes, I unexpectedly find myself wrist-deep in the inner workings of an Agfa Super Silette after my test shots take a turn for the worse.
Before we get started, let’s cover the basics of What It Takes:
- I buy, find, or otherwise acquire through honest means a camera for the low, low cost of $50 or less, all included.
- I scrape off the gunk, polish everything necessary for reasonable optical quality and basic (possibly only primitive) functionality, and run a roll of color and a roll of black & white film through.
- I show you the resulting pictures, the camera, and tell you all about What It Takes.
This time around, my subject was an Agfa Super Silette Rangefinder, bought towards the top of my price range ($43.75 with shipping from New York) from an online auction site. I was actually a bit taken aback when it arrived in the mail because it was not nearly as grungy as the auction pictures had led me to believe. At first glance, I didn’t think there was any work for me to do on it, but as I got in and looked closer, I realized that a bit of spit (figurative) and polish (literal) was in order.
The first thing I needed to do was to clean the lens and the external rangefinder glass. I blew off the dust with a squeeze bulb, then used a recently acquired Lenspen to remove any remaining particles. While giving the glass the once-over, I spotted a few other problems (stains and some corrosion under the paint) that, although unsightly, wouldn’t affect the operation of the camera.
After blowing the dirt out the camera’s interior, I was ready to figure out what makes this thing tick (always a good idea before loading film).
The lens housing of this camera is really an elaborate calculator designed to make estimating exposure settings simple and easy. There’s no onboard light meter with this camera, but if you can measure or estimate the Exposure Value (EV) of a scene, you just move the shutter speed and aperture setting to line the red numbers up with that EV (picture 1), and the camera will allow you to select only the aperture and shutter speed (pictures 2 and 3) that would give you a good exposure. I found this method very reliable when paired with the light meter app I have installed on my phone.
Focusing is done with assistance from the camera’s coupled rangefinder. This is a definite step up in convenience from the guess-focusing method necessary when using the Mercury II, or for that matter, the only slightly more reliable scene settings on a Holga. Convenience has its downfalls, though, as we shall see.
The film advance has a lever, and the film counter is automatic, but you have to move the counter back to a starting point manually. To my consternation, when I tried to do this, the counter fell off! Luckily, this was a quick fix. I just screwed it back into the top of the winding mechanism and it worked like a charm.
ASO is “set” by spinning the inside of the rewind knob (easier said than done). This is more of a reminder than a setting, since this indicator changes nothing about how the camera shoots.
OK, already, load the film!
This camera was a pleasure to shoot with. Its shutter is quiet, its design comfortable to use, its rangefinder bright, clear, and integrated into the frame you use to compose your shot. I completed my black & white test roll of Rollei Retro 80 and went right into a roll of Fuji Astia 100.
This is where things went south. As I have with every roll of Astia I’ve ever shot, I overexposed the first half of the roll (when will I learn?), then, I’m ashamed to say, I knocked the camera off my desk when answering the phone and bent the hell out of the rewind knob. I was able to straighten that out and continue shooting (and overexposing), but then I noticed that when the rangefinder told me I was in focus on an object 5 feet way, the lens was actually focused at infinity. The fall had knocked the rangefinder out of focus.
I finished up the rest of the Astia roll by guess-focusing and prepared myself for a journey into the guts of my camera’s rangefinder mechanism.
I won’t go into a step-by-step rangefinder adjustment discussion here. Long story short, I took apart the top of the camera, turned the adjusting screws while quietly muttering words unfit for publication or repetition in polite company, and ended up with a camera that now focuses convincingly through the rangefinder again.
To atone for my abuse of a vintage camera (and also because it’s a fun camera to use), I shot a third test roll, this time with color negative film. The lens rendered vivid colors, even if the focus may still be a bit off.
If you can pick one of these cameras up inexpensively, you won’t regret it. This is a well-designed precision instrument, but, like any precision instrument, handle with care! There’s probably a professional adjustment in the future of this camera, but if you get one in good shape, expect crisp focus, easy exposure settings, and reliable operation.
Photos and words by Dan Arnold. Dan lives, writes, and accumulates cameras in Vancouver, Washington and works in Portland, Oregon. Read more of his series What it Takes.