The Agfa Optima 1535

home | sitemap Alfred's Camera Page

This page is no longer actively maintained. (Pardon?)

Agfa is one of those factories that has never really captured my imagination. Every time I passed by the second hand camera store I would see dozens of old Agfa boxes, each one as functional, as well designed, as well built and as totally completely bland as the next. Isoly, Isola, Silette, Selectronic, the Isorapid series: no collector's appeal whatsoever. (Though there are always those who disagree.)

Consequently I'm not familiar with Agfa at all; all I know is that they were a large producer of amateur-grade automatic cameras and that they made various successful attempts to conquer the amateur market, both in 35mm and medium format (the Agfa Clack comes to mind). Ask me more specifics and I'll stare at you big-eyed and blank-faced—I'm not a card-carrying member of the Agfa Small Automatic Consumer Cameras Mailing List, should such a thing even exist. Please keep in mind that I wrote this page from my own scant experience with an Optima 535 and 1535, and what information I could find on the web.

Ever since the Agfa Optima series' inception in 1959 with the first commercially available and very successful fully-automatic camera, the (tadaa) Agfa Optima, the Optima name has stood for fully automated amateur cameras. The first generation of Optimas were rather big and heavy metal clunkers, but the series grew mature in 1966 with the introduction of the Optima 200 and 500, which were smaller and more modern, though rather rectangular and completely unspecial in the light of the manifold Japanese automatic rangefinder cameras that had become the norm. They were accompanied left and right by very similar looking cameras under different names, like the Selectronics and the Silettes. The series' schtick was what Agfa called the "sensor" shutter release button, a soft orange membrane spun over the actual release button.

Why Agfa didn't go the way of so many other German camera manufacturers and called it quits when it became clear in the late 1960's that Europe was losing the battle for the amateur market to Japan, is beyond me. I suspect that they didn't want to cut down their camera plant in Munich, which had been producing Clacks for years but needed some other job once that camera's lifespan was over. I don't know whether the plant produced something other than just Optimas, but fact is (read: someone on the Internet claims) that the Optima xx35 series was produced in Munich, stretching the plant's lifetime till at least the very early 1980's.

This Optima xx35 series (by that I mean the 335, 535, 1035 and 1535 and the Optima Flash), was introduced in the mid-1970's and was fairly revolutionary in terms of design. Not only was the design strikingly modern and fitting in the German trend of the time (think of Braun's products, also with a subtle red dot), it was also very well thought through and made the camera at the same time practical and transparent.

I think the Agfa Optima marks the end of the engineer's era and the onset of the industrial designer's. Around the time of the Optima series, industrial design became a serious factor in consumer products. Flatly technical solutions didn't cut it anymore, because with increasing competition on price, manufacturers couldn't afford to disregard their users's experience. Had camera manufacturing always been the realm of the small mechanical industry, now the factories discovered that it was profitable to listen to consumers. Hence the industrial design approach.

The industrial designer shares some common ground with the mechanical engineer, but has a different approach to problems. Where mechanical engineers see everything a technical issue, because that's what they know, industrial designers take a wider view. Theirs includes such things as user interaction, ergonomics, use cues and esthetics. Their goal is not to produce the best technical solution per se, but the product that works best for the end user. In camera manufacturing in the 1970's, which was always dominated by the technical way of doing things, this was a new insight.

I think Agfa's idea was to design a line of cameras without reference to any mechanical heritage or past. They emancipated the camera as something technical/mechanical and gave it to the users as a friendly household instrument.

In my opinion, the xx35 series Optimas are a triumph of industrial design, in that they're a daring, successful, near optimal design that takes the user as a starting point. All five Optimas are very holistic cameras that were designed as someone without technical knowledge of photography would like to have them. Which doesn't mean they're not good for advanced users; good usability often provides advantages for people of all skills.

And why do I think the xx35 series is so well designed? All Optimas have:

  • a HUGE brightline viewfinder that makes them useful to people with glasses;
  • one single thumb lever that winds or rewinds the film, depending on the polarity set by a push button;
  • a foolproof quick-loading system;
  • the big Sensor shutter release with a clear pressure point;
  • automatic exposure;
  • an f/2.8 lens (fast ad practical);
  • a plastic slab that (briefly) protects the exposed film from fogging when you accidentally open the back;
  • a plastic-coated, all-metal body.

The Optimas are very transparently designed cameras (albeit very German in appearance and strangely reminiscent of the Plaubel Makina 6×7), and very compact too. They have an outer shell of plastic-coated metal and mostly metal internals, which makes them very durable. There are a lot of plastic parts, some of which are fairly vital like cogs and such, but I think that here plastics are not so much synonymous with cheapness and shoddiness, but with optimized mechanical characteristics and manufacturability.

Perhaps the only criticism that I have about its construction is for the unsmooth stick-stop type rotation of the rings around the lens. They feel very dinky in movement and don't inspire much mechanical confidence. The same goes for a lot of the other components on this camera; they don't always feel as smooth or as sure as I would like them to.

To sum up, there were five models in the xx35 series, of which two (a 535 and a 1535) are in my collection.

  • Optima 335: shutter to 1/300s and a 40mm f/3.5 Agnatar lens.
  • Optima 535: shutter to 1/500s and a 40mm f/2.8 Solitar lens.
  • Optima 1035: shutter to 1/1000s and a 40mm f/2.8 Solitar. Added features: self timer with LED, distance pictograms in the viewfinder.
  • Optima 1535: shutter to 1/1000s and a 40mm f/2.8 Solitar. No self-timer, but a very neat short-base rangefinder and a red and a green LED in the viewfinder.
  • Optima Flash: the wazzock of the team. A 40mm f/2.8 Solitar lens, in-built flash and shutter to 1/1000s. Seems to be an extended 1535.

The shutter speeds are all open to discussion; they're not on the cameras themselves, so you'd have to harvest manuals to find them. Since I don't have any documentation, I copied these figures from other websites.

The Optimas are pleasant little cameras to use. With their big finders, large release button and full autoexposure, they're all the happy amateur can wish for. With their (mostly) 40mm f/2.8 lenses and pleasant characteristics, they're also very delectable to the not-so-amateur.

Small!

One of the most striking features of the Optima 1535 is its size; especially in light of its possibilities. This camera should never leave your coat pocket.

Rangefinder adjustment

Another testament to the cleverness of this design is the fact that it has two adjustment screws for the rangefinder: one for horizontal, and yes, one for vertical! You reach the vertical adjustment screw by removing the small plug next to the flash shoe, and rotating the crosshead screw on the inside. Your screwdriver is visible in the viewfinder, so you can see where you're going.

I think the horizontal adjustment is hidden behind the small plug left of the battery cover on the inside of the camera, but I'm not sure because I haven't been able to remove the plug.

Return to the front page