“I brought you a gift.” my friend said simply upon arriving in Europe, and I knew that the gift would be one of two sorts; either it’s one of the many small things I miss from the United States (Duracell batteries, extra-strength Tylenol, air conditioning), or something related to photography.
Since this friend has traveled with me in the past and frequently endured my stops and starts, my disappearances to grab the perfect shot, I figured he’d brought me something related to camera geekery. But that could mean any number of things – cameras and lenses, a bag, a bag full of film. But when he added, “It’s from Belarus.” I knew what he’d brought immediately.
“It’s an Agat, isn’t it?” I replied, correctly.
I was told that the motivation behind the gift was the overwhelming number of times he’d been forced to listen as I complained about not having a camera. On earlier trips together, after long days of carrying around a camera and plenty of lenses, I’d get tired and would shed the weight, leaving my camera gear behind at the hotel. For the sake of my back and feet I’d risk not having a camera and hope that I didn’t miss something truly worth photographing. After enough instances in which that risk became reality, my friend had had enough.
The Agat 18K is an absolutely fascinating camera, one that is both unique and utilitarian. Most importantly, it didn’t require a lot of effort to use. It was something that could fit in a jacket pocket and could run without batteries. It’s a shining example of the idea that less is more.
It was produced by Belorussian optical firm Belorusskoe Optiko-Mechanichesckoye Obyedinenie (BelOMO) from 1988 to 1997, a stretch of time that saw the overthrow of communism across the Slavic world and pseudo-westernisation. My particular camera was produced in 1993, which was a year during which Belarus was in extreme flux. It had been two years since the dissolution of Soviet government and one year before the nation could claim to have a democratic institution.
But the Agat kept rolling off the production line even if ownership over the means of that production was rapidly changing.
It has an Industar-104 28mm lens with an f-stop range from f/2.8 to f/16. This focuses via manual zone focusing. It’s compatible with nearly all film, offering compatibility from ISO 25 to 1600. It’s got a hidden hot shoe, and a lens cap that attaches to its tripod socket. It also has a frame counter.
Functionally things are interesting. It uses a mechanical program mode, whereby the photographer sets the ISO and uses the illustrations of clouds, the sun, and a sailboat. These settings tell the camera what to set as the aperture, then it sets the leaf shutter to anything between 1/65 and 1/540 of a second.
All of this combines with its tiny, light plastic construction to ensure that the Agat is an interesting camera. But the most interesting part of the Agat, the thing that makes it most unique, is that it’s a half-frame camera — one of the smallest and lightest ever made.
I’ve long had dreams of shooting something like the Pen F, a half-frame camera that packs incredible quality into a tiny body and makes double the exposures on each roll of 35mm film. But the high price tag and the difficulty of making prints of any serious size kept me from pulling the trigger.
I wanted a half frame camera that would act as my snapshot buddy — taking photos of rental cars, funny signs, even food — the personally important but otherwise disposable photos that end up being the favorites years after they’ve been shot. I wanted the camera to have some of those same charactaristics — small, quick, almost disposable. In short, something I don’t have to think about. And with seventy-two images per thirty-six-exposure roll, mistakes are more acceptable, or at least cheaper to make, so let’s not stress if the camera isn’t a masterpiece.
My Agat got the chance to prove itself right when I received it; on a two week skirt through Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Poland. Seventy-two images makes film selection an even bigger commitment, so I chose the color do-it-all Portra 400 shot at ISO 200.
Loading film into the Agat can be confusing — the camera is taken apart into two pieces, with the film stretched across into a second spool only millimetres away. The difficulty comes in reattaching the two parts of the camera, which is more tedious than difficult, as the take-up spool isn’t attached to the body. I took it out, threaded in the film and put them both back in as one unit — something that gets easier with practice.
Shooting is easy, just wind the film wheel, select your weather preference, focus using how many meters you are from the subject, compose and shoot. Wind and repeat, seventy-one more times. After a dozen frames, the vertical handling but horizontal composition feels normal and even allows for fast and discreet snapping.
It’s certainly a camera geared toward the more experimental and lo-fi set, and sits comfortably in the Lomography wheelhouse despite BelOMO having no relation to Lomography. The freewheeling Lomo mentality isn’t my cup of tea, and I prefer having a little more quality control and precision with my photos. Even using f-stops instead of weather symbols would be an improvement. A change from my usual deliberate methodology, shooting the Agat became a refreshing exercise in letting go of control.
During my two-week jaunt I also shot with an SLR and a handheld light meter — the polar opposite experience of the Agat. But I often found situations where I didn’t have time to think about the SLR because this little black box was already set to go, and quite often the more-capable Konica stayed in my bag. As a result, I spent less time fiddling with gear and more time not using a camera.
All was not bliss with the Agat, however, with the control wheel causing the deepest frustration. Aside from being yellow and giving the black camera a very Pittsburgh feel, the main aperture wheel was often difficult to turn and getting the camera to the sailboat setting was nearly impossible. Changing the ISO wheel was even more difficult, something I had to use a pen to do, and then only at the start of the roll. Composing could also prove challenging with parallax compensation difficult to see in strong light. It became clear that many photos had incorrect horizons, or were slightly off from what I’d originally intended.
Focusing shouldn’t be a problem if you know how long a meter is, but if you’re someone subjected to the Imperial system, get ready to do some quick math or lean on focusing at infinity. That’s not a knock on the camera, but on countries using measurements like feet, yards, furlongs, and fathoms.
Despite being housed in a mostly-plastic body, the Industar triplet lens is made in glass and produced images with sharper-than-expected results. Characteristics typical to Industar lenses abound; greater-than-average light falloff, vivid contrast, light leaks, and lens flare are all here in the 104 28mm/2.8 (which is a 40mm equivalent on a full-frame camera). There’s also the well-worn feeling typical to these lenses, and while they’re capable of technical correctness, their charm lies more in their faults — the accidents that give photos a faux-nostalgia.
Five countries and seventy-two clicks later, my roll ended in Krakow’s main square, one of the largest in Europe and a fitting end to my time with the smallest camera I’ve ever used. One roll of film in the Agat 18K lasted me two weeks, a budget-conscious photographer’s dream.
But I can’t necessarily say it’s the ideal travel camera for everyone. There are a lot of quality control issues that a camera this rudimentary presents by its very nature. Of course it’s not going to deliver the quality of a rangefinder or an SLR, but it’s not really supposed to. A lot of lo-fi lovers use this camera, so it has that reputation, but it’s a disservice to load it with film that expired fifteen years ago. The Agat needs over-exposure, a lot of light, and a fair amount of leeway. With the right amount of time and practice it will pack a bigger punch than you might expect, and it’ll do so twice as often as its full-frame comrades.