The Agfa Ambi Silette is an odd duck. Here we have an all-metal, fully mechanical, interchangeable lens rangefinder camera with bright-line frame lines for three focal lengths, parallax correction, and a sophisticated leaf shutter. It’s also smaller and lighter than a Leica. That’s a solid spec sheet. And yet the Agfa Ambi Silette is far from a household name. It’s likely, in fact, that most photo geeks have never heard of it.
But this camera hasn’t gone uncelebrated because of some great, inherent flaw in its design or an inability to make good photos. It’s just failed to steal attention from those other German rangefinders that over-saturate most camera culture sites. Sure, the Agfa Ambi Silette is no Leica killer, but it does remind me that there’s more to Germany’s classic camera scene than M bodies and Zeiss glass.
What is Agfa?
Strap on your Halcyon angled-glass goggles, because we’re about to condense a hundred-and-fifty years of company history into just three small paragraphs. That’s fast.
Founded in 1867 near Berlin, Gesellschaft für Anilinfabrikation mbH produced some of the earliest synthetic dyes. Photo chemical production quickly followed, and Agfa found its first big sales success in 1888 with its black-and-white developer Rodinal. By 1910 Agfa had opened the second largest film production plant in the world, only out-sized by Kodak’s operation in Rochester, New York.
In 1928 Agfa created their first camera, the Agfa Standard, a big-honkin’ bellows folder that shot on plates. Their first 35mm film camera was released in 1937. In the years following World War II, Agfa’s parent company was broken up by Allied occupiers and divided to affect war reparations (the part of Agfa that went to the Soviets became ORWO). The surviving West German slice of Agfa went about rebuilding their brand; they quickly acquired camera and lens makers such as Iloca, UCA, and Staeble, and two clock-making factories were folded in to supply camera shutters.
For the next half-century the brand would manufacture and market everything from film to development chemicals, medium-format folding cameras to 110 pocket rockets.
What’s an Ambi Silette?
By 1954 Agfa had modernized their entire camera line. Their new 35mm cameras came in the shape of the Silette and Super Silette series. These cameras were well-made viewfinder and rangefinder cameras, respectively, and they’d see production in various forms for just over twenty years.
The Agfa Ambi Silette was something of an anomaly. As mentioned, Agfa’s Silettes and Super Silettes differed in being viewfinder or rangefinder cameras. But in all cases these cameras were exclusively fixed-lens machines. That means one lens permanently affixed to the camera, a single focal length only. The Ambi Silette differed massively in that it was the only Agfa 35mm rangefinder to feature interchangeable lenses. The ability to swap lenses (and focal lengths) instantly made it the top-of-the-line camera within the larger Silette/Super Silette lineup.
In addition to this important feature, the Ambi Silette was and is a simply capable camera. Its Synchro-Compur leaf shutter fires at speeds from 1/500th of a second down to one second, plus Bulb mode for long exposures. The standard lens, an Agfa Color-Solinar 50mm f/2.8, while not speedy, works with the relatively slow maximum shutter speed well enough. The aperture stops down in half-stop clicks to a minimum value of f/22. The film advance automatically cocks the shutter, advances the film, and sets the frame counter. There’s a frame-line selector on the top, a tripod mount on the bottom, flash sync at every speed, and a rangefinder focusing patch in the viewfinder. Not a lot, but everything a real photo geek would need.
The Agfa Ambi Silette was first produced in 1957, exported to the USA in 1959, and discontinued in 1961, a remarkably short four-year lifecycle made even more remarkable when we realize just how good it is to shoot.
Shooting the Ambi in 2018
The Ambi Silette, as mentioned, is a good camera. What I’ve not yet mentioned is that it does have its share of quirks (some might call these flaws). Let’s cover those first.
To start, there’s a spring-loaded metal cover that protects the rangefinder and viewfinder windows on the front of the camera. While this felt-backed strip of pressed metal does its job (it’ll save the glass from dust and scratches) it also annoys. Flipping it up is the only way to frame shots, and in situations where we’re not really sure we’re going to make a photo, it can be a hassle having to remember to essentially unobscured the viewfinder as we raise the camera to eye level.
Next, there’s no strap lugs. Back when new, Agfa must’ve assumed that most photographers would slot their shiny Ambi Silette into the then more-popular-than-sliced-bread “Ever-Ready carrying case,” which had a strap built in. In 2018, these cases are beat, and even if they weren’t, Ever-Ready cases are horrible. The only real option for lugging around an Ambi today is to use a tripod-mount wrist strap, or just grasp it like an ape.
In addition to these irritants, the film’s rewind mechanism is a knob, not a lever. And it’s too small, making rewind a pain in the… thumb. On the other end of the camera, the film advance is a lever that springs flush to the body. There’s no detent to make it protrude a bit from the back like many cameras of the day, so rapid film advance is nearly impossible.
But a lot of these annoyances aren’t so bad, on closer look. The viewfinder cover can be left open (not ideal, but it’s fine). The lack of strap lugs is helped by the fact that the camera is compact and comparatively lightweight. The rewind knob will annoy just once every thirty-six exposures, and the film advance can be lifted away from the body by using an index finger on the knurled side of the advance mechanism (likely how Agfa intended, since many cameras of the Ambi’s era had advance knobs instead of levers).
And even considering these unmitigated disasters of ergonomics and design (I’m being dramatic), the things the Agfa Ambi Silette gets right easily outweigh the things upon which it stumbles.
To start, the camera feels nice. While not the most solid camera I’ve ever used, it’s clear from the moment we pick it up that the Ambi Silette is an all-metal affair. The only bit of plastic on the entire machine is found on the film take-up spool. At approximately 700 grams it’s weighs as much as a film camera should.
Its film advance action is an incredible symphony of clicks and whirrs. As the shutter springs tighten and the film transport ratchets the emulsion across the focal plane, a hum of clockwork hints at the magical mechanisms inside. It reminds me of the Zeiss Contina, a camera that had me coin the term “clockwork camera.” Mechanical cameras like this aren’t made anymore (or if they are they cost over $4,000).
Similar mechanical certainty is exuded by the camera’s other knobs and dials and switches. The lens aperture clicks into detents with precision, the shutter speed dial (located at the base of the lens) does the same. The frame line selector clicks solidly into place as the frame lines snap to luminous life in the tinted viewfinder. The focus action is smooth and precise, and the rangefinder focusing patch is a bright and contrasty dot in the center of the frame. It’s all just so lovely.
I’ve used the 35mm Color-Ambion lens (incredibly slow, with a maximum aperture of f/4) and the more common 50mm Color-Solinar (f/2.8), and both performed well. Performance from the 50mm, in particular, was exceptional. The lens’ built-in depth-of-field scale makes zone focusing a breeze, and the distance scales in feet and meters are beautifully etched and individually painted.
If not obvious from the names, these lenses were made during a time when popular color film photography was a still novel and relatively new invention. The lenses have been coated and formulated to make the most of the then-new films. The resultant images, even today, simply burst with super-saturated color. Shots taken yesterday have that signature depth and rendition of classic photos from the 1950s. Even standard Kodak Ultramax looks more like slide film.
At f/8, exposures are sharp from edge to edge. Ghosts and flares happen, for sure, but at no greater rate than with any other lens of this type and from this era. Chromatic aberration isn’t apparent at all, and black-and-white film exposes nicely (even if contrast is a bit low). For the price today, these lenses and the Agfa Ambi Silette that they fit to are a superb value.
The Collector Angle
I really appreciate cameras that have some sort of collectibility. I chose a Nikon SP 2005 as my “heirloom camera” in part because of its rarity, and one of the reasons I love the Contax G2 is because it’s a concise system that’s easy to collect to completion. The Agfa Ambi Silette has both of these traits; it’s a rare camera (more so in the United States than Europe) and it’s a concise system. With a body, four lenses (35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 130mm), and just a few accessories (one being the turret viewfinder for the 130mm lens) it’s possible to collect the entire Ambi Silette system for very little cash.
These may not be the strongest selling points for the average photo geek or for the photographer simply looking to buy a nice camera to casually shoot some film, but for those of us who love both shooting and collecting, they make the Ambi Silette just that much more appealing.
There are some unique cameras that every serious photo geek should shoot at least once – a Leica M series camera, the Hasselblad X Pan, a view camera and a TLR. I can’t say that the Ambi Silette is a camera that everyone should own or even shoot. It’s just not as special as that. There are rarer cameras for collectors to hunt down, and there are more capable cameras for shooters to shoot.
But that doesn’t mean the Agfa Ambi Silette isn’t a worthy camera. It’s a very excellent camera. It looks great, functions beautifully, and earns a certain cachet from its existence outside of the mainstream. Most important, it can make really excellent images. Any camera lover who finds one at a fair price could certainly do much worse.