Meet the Camera: Agfa Paramat

After recently introducing several medium format cameras, it seems appropriate that I now shift gears with a half-frame, the Agfa Paramat. This is not just any Paramat, however; it is the first camera my parents bought, and the one with which a fair bit of my childhood was documented on glorious Kodachrome. I stumbled across the camera recently and decided it was only appropriate to put it back in service after all these years.

The Paramat is one of Agfa’s mid-1960s half-frame lineup; there were several models built on the same body, with various shutter, control, and lens arrangements. The Paramat is the auto-exposure version, with a coated Color-Apotar 30/2.8 triplet in a simple two-speed (1/125 and 1/30) shutter. The body is mostly plastic, but the package is surprisingly heavy by modern standards. The shutter release is oddly placed on the front right face of the body, and is actuated by pressing downward (rather firmly, as it turns out) – not an ideal arrangement for a smooth motion. Focus is by zone (portrait/group/landscape) or, if you prefer, by actual distance – there’s a scale on the bottom of the shutter housing. Frame advance is handled by a compact single-stroke lever, which works nicely. There’s no manual exposure control unless you shift to flash mode, which locks the shutter at 1/30 and requires you to set the aperture manually; there’s a bulb mode as well.

In use it’s pretty typical of the genre. Comparing it to my old (and now departed) Olympus PEN EES-2, the Agfa is not quite as solid, has a triplet instead of a four element Tessar-type lens, and is let down by that annoyingly stiff shutter release. On the bright side, the viewfinder on the Agfa is a bit better, and I find the color rendition of the lens better (subjective, to be sure, but contrast seems higher and colors more saturated) than on the Olympus. Of course, the images don’t have the sharpness of half-frames from my PEN D3 or Yashica Samurai Z, but those have far more advanced lenses. For the most part, it’s an easy camera to use and it produces nice photos – just what most consumers want.

The camera appeared to be in great shape, still in its original case, so I had hopes that it wouldn’t require more than a simple cleaning. But alas, it wasn’t quite that easy. The lens, shutter, and advance mechanism all worked fine, but the Paramat is a fully automatic exposure camera and relies on a selenium cell for metering. My first concern was that the cell would be dead after multiple decades, but it wasn’t – staying in dark place for all those years probably had a lot to do with that. It was metering, but it was doing so inconsistently. This meant I needed to get in and see what exactly was going on.

The system uses a needle-capture mechanism; basically, the selenium cell produces voltage based on light, which in turn moves a small needle. When the shutter release is partially depressed, an arm descends on the needle and holds it in place, locking the exposure. The arm, in turn, is limited by the needle, and where it ends its travel determines the aperture setting. The problem seemed to lie with the movement of the needle – there was a spot in its arc where it was hanging up. Nothing was bent or out of place, so this had to be internal to the needle mechanism itself. I disassembled it and found nothing specifically wrong, so I cleaned it repeatedly with electrical contact cleaner. This helped a lot, though I’m not fully satisfied with the solution; I prefer to identify the actual fault, which I could not do in this case.

Obviously, a test was necessary to see what how effect my work had been, as well as to determine just what the camera could do. As usual with a half-frame, a roll of film seems to last forever. When shooting a test roll, I have to force myself to shoot more freely to get through it in a timely fashion. I shot into the light, away from the light, bright scenes, dark scenes – in other words, I tested it. Turns out it handled most situations surprisingly well. The lens is quite flare-resistant (the coatings are a deep purple – I suspect they are responsible) and the meter seems to be doing its job. Vignetting does not appear to be an issue.

It was interesting to go back and shoot with the same camera my father shot with many years ago (he’s graduated to an iPhone). It’s not really my preferred mode of shooting, so I don’t think it will be going out all that often, but I’m sure I’ll feel a bit nostalgic every now and again.

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