Competitions & Giveaways

Agfa Billy I, under $50 and contest ready

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If you have been following Brian’s Epic Edits Weblog, you’re probably aware of his most recent project/contest, the $50 film camera.

As usual with his projects, Brian prompts us to get out of our comfort zone and expand our boundaries. This time the idea is to grab any film camera that is valued under $50, explore it, and of course, publish the results.

 

Background

On a visit to my parents’ house sometime near Christmas last year, I came across a couple hundred photos taken on a period of over 60 years by my father which were the last survivors of an unfortunate accident that destroyed thousands of prints and film.

He began taking some photos in the mid-forties with a "box" camera that he built himself and later, during the fifties, upgraded to an Agfa Billy I. This was the camera that he would use until he stopped photographing in the beginning of the eighties. The majority of the film he ever exposed was developed and printed by him, without enlargers, just contact.

I remember seeing this camera around the house, unused, when I was a kid. This past summer, on another visit, I decided to look for it and check its condition. A little worried here since this camera has not been used in over 25 years.

Brian’s project was the perfect excuse to grab a few rolls and give it a try. At first I thought about my Pentax P30t, it’s even loaded with film, but why make things easy, right?

You can get one of these for $10 to $15 on ebay. So, under $50: check.

 

Agfa Billy I – old but usable

 

Agfa Billy I - Side, Open

From the outside, the camera looks very very used. The front lid has a few rusty spots and scratches and the covering material is missing around the edges. The back doesn’t look much better. But ok, just cosmetics.

 

Agfa Billy I - Front, ClosedAgfa Billy I - Back, Closed

 

My first step, even before putting any film inside was to clean it as best as I could. There was decades-old dust inside. The lens is not scratched but has some fungi inside. All the knobs and dials seemed to work with the exception of the self-timer (yes, it has one). This one it’s either stuck or the spring behind it is not working anymore.

I tried to see if there were holes on the bellows, a common problem in these old folding cameras, but could not find anything. Time to try it…

 

Agfa Billy I – Hands-on approach

 

Agfa Billy I - Front, Open Agfa Billy I - Back, Open

 

I got a couple rolls of Ilford HP5 Plus 400 120 film and loaded it. As you can see in the photo above, this camera has a 6×9 frame. A 120 roll is good for 8 frames on this camera. Not for shutter-happy people.

Specs:

  • Lens: Agfa Agnar 105mm f/6.3
  • Shutter: Pronto (some models were released with a Vario shutter). Fires in bubble, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/200
  • Focus: Has marks from 1 to 10 meters and infinity
  • Aperture: 6.3 to 22 (5 steps)

Agfa Billy I - Lens

 

A 105mm lens, with a normal 35mm frame, gives a good magnification. With a 6×9, it’s wide, and I mean wide. The portraits you’ll see bellow were taken at around 1,5 meters.

Next challenge, light. There’s no light meter inside, so I had to go back to the theory and use the Sunny 16 rule. With an ISO 400 film, having a shutter that only goes to 1/200 was a problem, specially if I wanted a shallower DoF. On the positive side, film has a much wider dynamic range, so even if I missed the calculations, not much detail was lost, although I have to say that some of the photos are quite overexposed.

 

Agfa Billy I - Front, Viewfinder

Framing was not optimal, but not so bad either. The viewfinder is clear but the bellows get in the way. Since the viewfinder is not coupled to the lens, on close range, you get some degree of parallax error. Also, after looking more carefully at the photos, I’m almost sure that the viewfinder does not cover 100% of the frame.

Focus was another (big) challenge. The viewfinder won’t tell you anything and focusing is done by guesstimating distances. When your subject is more than 5 or 6 meters away, small mistakes won’t matter that much, but at close range and wide aperture, focusing at 1,2 or 1,5 meters is not the same thing. I’ve missed a lot on this one, and I think it was my biggest problem with the camera.

Since these were my first rolls (yes Brian 2 of them, at 8 frames a roll I think I’m allowed), I tried to test the camera under several light conditions and with subjects at different distances.

The results were better than I expected. Missed exposures and focus and either lots of lens flare or a tiny hole on the bellows, but aside that I’m happy with the first results. The films got scratched at some point (you’ll see the lines in the photos), I don’t know if during advancing the film or if the guy in the lab messed up. In any case, I’ll probably send the camera for some serious cleaning in the near future. It’s not a camera that I’ll use everyday but for some fun once in a while it’s perfect.

If you’re curious, the film was scanned with an Epson Perfection 4870 Photo at 2400 dpi. Each original file has an approximate resolution of 46 MP.

 

Finally, the photos

And here they are, 15 of them (the first frame of the second roll was black). I won’t give any comment on them here but some have some notes on Flickr.

End of the day Uncertainty

Volksgarten I Volksgarten II

Alone in the Park Reflective Dreaming of Trees

Time to Rest

Up there on the Top Rhine Walk She

Him Hidding in the Urban Jungle

Going Upstream Ghosts Sharing Stories

 

And again, as I mentioned before, old cameras are fun to use and explore. Go get one and you’ll se what I mean.

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14 Comments

  1. the_wolf_brigade's GAS is incurable

    September 12, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    A good review that makes me lust after another folder.

    The flare in the photos, the softness, most likely comes from the fungus and the lens being not as well coated as modern lenses. I found in the one I have that it makes the photos appear aged even though they were taken recently. While this effect works nicely for b/w, it makes colour look a little funny.

    I’m curious as to what happened to the box your father built? Does he still have it? Or even photos of it’s construction? I’d like to one day build my own pinhole camera, but building a camera with an actual lens would be an interesting experience.

  2. A Marques

    September 12, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Incurable GAS, I see :)

    I agree with you. Probably the fungus. There’s a real coat of it inside the lens. Can’t imagine how much it will cost to have it cleaned, but I’ll try.

    And unfortunately I have no idea about the box. I’ve never seen it. Probably disappeared a long time ago. No records of construction also. I’ll have to ask him how he did it.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. gary

    September 19, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    I found this entry very interesting, and if you’ve looked at mine, you will know why.
    About the scratches, it could very well be the smallest of a ‘burr’ that the film passed over as its advanced. I little nail file would do the trick.
    Us folders have to stick together, I hope you use this camera from time to time.

  4. Rockelita

    September 22, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    I really like the double exposure of the two women on the couch. :)

    Folders like these are truly something else! Even better when you know its history. Glad this camera stayed in your family.

    Good luck in the $50 Film Project.

  5. A Marques

    September 22, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    Hi Gary,

    Great job on your entry too.

    I’d have to agree with you. I think that some of the little rusty spots were scratching the film. Hadn’t thought about a nail file though. Will give it a try, thanks for the suggestion. And I’ll definitely keep using it.

    Good luck for the project.

  6. A Marques

    September 22, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    Hi Rockelita,

    Thanks for the comment.

    When I was taking that photo, unfortunately I wasn’t thinking much and didn’t think of the old ways of doing it properly. Haven’t done a double exposure in film for so long…
    So, it came out, well… as you see it.

    I’ll definitely repeat the shot, but this time the proper way.

    Thanks for your support.

  7. Jose betancur

    April 16, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    One simple question..

    yesterday I found one Billy I at the my father house.. But I can’t figure out how to open the backdoor.

    May you help me.
    Thanks

  8. A Marques

    April 16, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Hello Jose,

    It’s fairly easy. On the side of your Billy I, where the handle attaches to the body, the handle support works as a rail that slides down. Just look at it closely and you’ll see what I mean. When you pull it down, you can just open the back door.

    If you need any further help, tell me something.

  9. Jose betancur

    April 16, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Thanks a lot for your fast feedback!

    I saw at your photos the handle you said.. but.. if you look at my camera you will see my problem:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/chiky/3447920416/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/chiky/3447110995/

    Any Ideas?

  10. A Marques

    April 16, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Ok, so your handle is missing… and the locking mechanism also. I was taking a look at mine and there is really no interior lock or spring or anything like that. The locking is all done by the handle. I could almost assume that without that handle, the back door would just open. Have you tried pulling it a bit more forcefully? From the shots you’ve posted, it seems quite rusty around it, so maybe it is shut by the rust. If that doesn’t help, try using an anti-rust spray. I can see no other explanation for it to stay closed.
    Give it a try and tell me something afterward.

  11. Carol Miller

    June 23, 2011 at 4:47 am

    Can you please tell me what an Agfa Billy 1— 6/9 is worth .
    Thank you
    Carol Miller.

  12. Carol Miller

    August 3, 2011 at 4:57 am

    Could you tell me where i could get an Agfa Billy 1 camera please. I tried on Ebay but couldn’t get anywhere.
    Thank you
    Carol Miller.

  13. Adam

    September 8, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    Really late to this party, but wanted to thank you for this write-up! I just picked up a Billy 6.3 off of ebay for $22 and am really looking forward to running some film through it to attempt some classic imagery. I can see that the biggest challenge will be focusing. Thanks again!

  14. Tom Thomas

    November 2, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Thanx for posting your review of the Agfa Billy 1. I just picked one up yesterday at an antiques fair in Cadarousse, France. I paid too much comparing what I’ve seen on E-Bay comparable versions but mine looks nearly new and came with the leather case which is also like new. Lens looks clear but has some dirt around the outer edge on the front lens but bellows looks supple and like new as well, just some minor scratches and bit of corrosion on the outside. Major problem is that the focus know is frozen at 7 meters, and I mean stuck, stuck. German lubricants tend to turn to mud over time so some TLC will be necessary to release it without using WD40 all over the place. I rebuild old cameras as a hobby and shoot them when I can find the correct film. 120 film can be rewound on 620 spools for example. Luckily this Agfa is 120 already. I’m going to bring it to the US next week when I return to try it our on some Route 66 shots in Tulsa, OK.

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