Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ansco Speedex/Agfa Medium Format Rangefinder

Went at the Palo Alto flea market last Sunday, I was hoping the seller I bought my baby Yashica TLR camera from two months ago would be there this time. I remember seeing an old rangefinder that looked like an Agfa and he had wanted $50 then. (This was part of the lot of film cameras and saxophones he bid on at a Public Storage auction). Sure enough the rangefinder camera was there. It was an Ansco Speedex with Apotar 85mm f/4.5 lens, made in Germany in 1956 by Agfa for the US market. The body was a bit old, but the lens looked clean and shutter fired fine. I asked him what he wanted for it, hoping it would be less, he said $20 (he wanted $50 two months back). I offered him $10, "$15" he replied. I played with it for a bit, and said "what about $12, I am not really sure if this camera can be used for any serious photography". I had just told him that the Yashica I bought from him works ok but shutter speeds <1/30 are off (I am still working out the kinks). Anyhow, we settled on $12 and I was very pleased with my find, knowing full well may be this very old camera will not be up to the task and will be relegated to a place on my shelf and that is fine.

"Ansco Speedex 4.5"

Join Cash Crate today to make extra cash

To make the long story short, after returning home with it, I went online, did some more research, found tips on how to check for light leaks expected of old folder cameras. Basically, one shines a bright light into the bellow in darkness and see if there are any pinholes. If yes, try patching it with black fabric paint - a temporary fix I would imagine :(

OK. now the not so good news, yes, I found at least 7-8 pinholes which I fixed by painting them with black fabric paint from Michaels. The focusing lens also appeared stuck from lack of use which can be expected of old cameras but hey for $12, I can afford to work on it. I wrapped a towel around it and try to turn it a few times and after a few attempts, it moved. I then turned it counterclockwise and clockwise a few more times to loosen it and that did the trick, the turning became much smoother. Next, I wiped the lens clean with my camera lens cleaning fluid. Now the camera is ready for a roll of 120 film. Film loading is similar to any other medium format cameras and the Holgas, one moves the empty spool from right to left and insert the new film in the space on the right. However, it took me a long while to figure out that the rewind knob can be pulled up so the empty spool can be inserted, silly me. This was because the rewind knob was also a little stuck from old age. Sometimes the most obvious thing is not really obvious at all.

Voila, now the camera is ready to use. This is still a basic medium format rangefinder, nothing fancy but allows me a lot more control (shutter speed, aperture, focus) than the Holga (and no light leaks - I am keeping my fingers crossed that I have fixed all the pinholes). One's knowledge of the "sunny 16 rule" will definitely help here. I might add that I recently picked up a digital Pentax 1 Deg Spotmeter for $165 from a photographer in Mill Valley - definitely one of the best investments I made. I use it when I need help in determining the right exposure in challenging situations and for scenics, so with that I am ready to rock and roll with the Ansco/Agfa rangefinder :)

Pentax Digital 1 Deg Spotmeter
For various types of spotmeters available, check out selections at Bhphotovideo

Join Cash Crate today to make extra cash

What can I tell you, there are just a ton of great film camera bargains out there today if one looks for them. One does not need fancy camera to take good photography, just a good eye for composition and a feeling for the light. With so many digital cameras flooding the market, great film cameras have become orphaned and can now be had for a tiny fraction of what they used to cost. Film cameras often last you a lifetime, they never become outdated the way digital cameras do the minute you walk out of the store. When I was at Kaufman's camera in San Mateo recently to buy paper developing chemicals, they had jokingly asked me if I am one of the "hold-outs". To which I replied "definitely". I have not abandoned digital photography, it is what I do half the time and it has its place in the modern world. However, nothing can ever replace shooting with film, developing and printing in the wet room. It is a labor of love and much much more satisfying....The only analogy I can think of is perhaps crushing grapes from your backyard grapevines and making your precious bottle of wine?

If your entry into the world of photography has been by way of digital camera, then you must give film (b&w that is) a try, It is a very enlightening experience, a beautiful world in black and white and shades of gray with no distraction. The images are often powerful and they leave you lusting for more......

A good place to shop for used equipment is


  1. great article. I agree about the camera as I was Frankfurt and managed to by the "German" version meaning named as a Agfa camera. I have had it for over 10 years and it still captures great images. Try using the Ilford infra-red film and tape a dark red filter. - Dennis

  2. I bought one of these for $5 in a flea market this year. The shutter worked fine, but the front focus ring was stuck tight.
    I removed the ring along the front and rear lens elements and attached a pinhole in front of the shutter.
    The aperture is set at f/4.5 and the shutter on B, with a cable release.
    Currently have a roll of Ilford PAN F plus in it for testing.
    Hope you enjoy using yours.
    Mike (DCI Photography)