Rapid was Agfa’s reply to Kodak’s instantly popular Instamatic. Cameras are still widely available on the cheap, but the film rolls have become rare and precious. No problem: revive your Rapid camera in five minutes with this easy tutorial.
It is war in the 1960s between the two largest camera manufacturers. American Kodak introduces their 126 film cassette and corresponding Instamatic cameras, that become an instant hit. European Agfa responds by blowing the dust off a pre-war invention. The old Karat cartridge is proudly presented as a revolutionary new system: Agfa Rapid.
“You press the button, we do the rest,” is Kodak’s tagline in those days. The company aims for amateur photographers without any knowledge: the cameras are simple little boxes with merely a lens, shutter and advance lever, and the film is inside an asymmetric cassette that will fit in one way only. Open the camera, drop in the film, close the camera and shoot. The film automatically transports from one side of the cassette to the other, and after finishing the roll, the whole cassette is delivered to the local photo shop, drugstore or supermarket for developing. Absolutely foolproof. Instamatic is an instant success: 100 million cameras are sold.
Agfa’s Rapid system works equally simple, but a little different: the film is inside a metal canister that resembles a normal 35mm roll, but with a pointed edge. A loaded cartridge goes in one chamber in the camera and an empty one in the other. The film is then automatically advanced from the loaded into the empty cartridge and after shooting, the whole, now full, cartridge is taken to the shop. No hassle with film leaders that need to be hooked to tiny sprockets, backing paper with incomprehensible numbering or endless rewinding – according to Agfa, their Rapid system is just as easy as ‘instant coffee or the TV dinner’.
Nice try, but Rapid failed rapidly. Agfa sold no more than five million Rapid cameras and although these were often a better quality than Kodak’s Instamatic cameras, 126 became the standard. When Agfa started producing 126 film in 1967, their own system became idle. By the end of the 1960s the cameras had vanished from retail, although the films continued to be produced until the early 1990s. Kodak’s 126 system lasted longer: the last Instamatic camera was made in 1988 and the manufacture of 126 film ceased in 2007.
Rapid cameras can easily be found for a few quid in thrift stores, flea markets and auction sites. Most are straightforward, like the Agfa Iso-Rapid, but more advanced cameras have also been made, such as the Fujica Rapid S2, probably the best-designed camera in my collection, or the Minolta 24 Rapid, a rangefinder with B setting. Both cameras produce square photos, just like Kodak’s competing Instamatics. Retrolicious.
Films for these obsolete camera systems, however, have become rare. Expect to fork out 25 Euros for a long expired 126 cassette, and Rapid films are even harder to come by. But that doesn’t mean your camera’s only purpose is decoration. An empty 126 cassette can easily be reloaded with ordinary 35mm film and Rapid cartridges are even easier to refill. Just follow these five simple steps and revive your Rapid camera in an instant.
What you need
- Two empty Rapid cartridges
- A 35mm film roll of your choice
- Cotton gloves
- A darkroom, changing bag or completely dark space
How to do it
1. With the lights on, arrange everything you need so that you can find it by touch. Switch the lights off.
2. Pull the 35mm film out of its canister, cut it off and keep track of which is the emulsion side.
3. Push the film into the Rapid cartridge, starting at the end and with the emulsion side down. The slit is narrow, so this may take some fiddling.
4. Push the whole film inside, but leave the leader sticking out. You can now turn the lights back on. Cut the film straight and round off the corners, so the film will slide into the reception cartridge more easily.
5. Drop the reloaded and empty cartridges in the camera, close the backdoor and shoot.
Tips and Tricks
*When you buy a used Rapid camera, there’s usually only one cartridge inside, so you’ll have to search for a second one. You will only sporadically see them on eBay, either loaded with original Rapid film or empty. A faster and cheaper way is to purchase a second camera that usually will also have a cartridge inside – if you’re lucky, it even has two cartridges, but it can also have none.
- Rapid cartridges do not have a centre spool – a sprocket pushes the film inside. Hence, the length of the film is limited; Rapid cameras were built for 12 rectangular, 16 square or 24 half-frame exposures. Your safest bet is to load the camera with a 12 exposure roll. You can of course also use a 24 or 36 exposure roll, but then you will have to figure out a way to measure the right length; approximately 70 cm. Although it may lead to clogging and other problems, you could also put a longer stretch of film in. However, the camera will usually block after 12/16/24 exposures. Quickly open and close the backdoor, in the dark, to reset the counter and you can continue shooting.
*Rapid cartridges are equipped with a small metal T-bar that automatically sets the film speed in the camera. Not all cameras can ‘read’ this, but if yours can, it is best to load the cartridge with a matching film. A letter on the T-bar or on the cartridge indicates the ISO value as follows: A = 25, D = 50, E = 64, F = 80, G = 100, H = 125, I = 160, K = 200, N = 400. The T-bar is the only difference between the Rapid system and its predecessor, Karat. Behind the Iron Curtain, the latter system was copied under the name Schnell-Lade System (Quick-Loading System) or SL. Karat and SL cartridges can also be used in Rapid cameras, but do not have the T-bar, and Rapid cartridges without the T-bar have also been produced.
- Finished shooting? Take the film to your favourite lab and tell them you want the cartridge back. If you don’t trust it, take out the film yourself, again in the dark of course, put it in a lightproof black film canister and mark: “Naked film!”
Have any useful hints yourself? What are your own experiences with the Rapid system? Please share them below!