10.24.2014

A Camera named Billy

There is a very strong likelihood that at some point, someone took a picture of a streetcar named "Desire" with a camera named "Billy."

And while the now-discontinued New Orleans Desire streetcar line is pretty much well known as a result of the famous Tennessee Williams play, Billy has fallen into relative obscurity.

And yes, there really is a camera named Billy, and he comes in many variations.



I myself learned about Billy through some very roundabout means, starting with a Saturday afternoon browsing a store named Pink Cabbage in Ellicott City.  Here, I spotted a folding Kodak rollfilm camera in very good condition with a working shutter for the modest price of $34.  I was instantly intrigued, but upon opening it, discovered it took 616 film.  I did a few hasty Google searches to see how 120 film could be repurposed in a 616 camera, but the results seemed to be more trouble than it was worth.  


Still, I was curious to see what I might be able to find in a similar folding camera that might take the still largely available 120 film format.  Why you might ask?  Because I thought I might have some luck in using a truly vintage camera to get some truly vintage looking results.  At the same time, there was something really compelling about taking photos on one of these folding contraptions, and the thought of shooting medium format in a traditional rectangular format definitely struck a chord with me.

An ebay search for "120 folding camera" led me to results that included the Agfa Billy, or as I would come to find out, the variety of Billys.  Amid my two dozen choices, I spotted a rather recently serviced example up for opening bid of $50, and got fixated upon it.  Meanwhile, I also spotted a very clean looking example with a lesser feature set for $22, and couldn't resist giving it a bid as well.  As my odd ebay luck would have it, I wound up winning both for opening bid.

Though I knew the cameras differed in some main specifications such as maximum aperture and shutter speeds, I expected them to be otherwise pretty identical.  The two cameras arrived a mere two days apart, and having gotten quickly acquainted with my first score, nothing quite prepared me for the surprise I got as I opened the second of my two wins. Despite sharing the same product name and shape layout, these two cameras feel quite different from each other.  I don't think I see a single common shared part between the two cameras; not even the film winding knob.

One one hand is my first arrival, the 1949 vintage Billy Compur, whom I call "Posh Billy."  Feeling like every bit of a nostalgic art deco dream, this camera is bedecked with chrome and feels substantially and exquisitely made.  Its pinnacle is a lovely bezel of controls surrounding the f/4.5 Solinar Lens.  It is definitely the kind of camera that recalls a long vanished era of opulence when it is unfolded, ironic perhaps given that it is a product of post-war Germany. 

On the other hand is the ca. 1951 vintage Billy I, whom I call "Austere Billy." Noticeably lighter in weight than his older relative, this Billy calls more to mind an era of no-frills simplicity.  There is no glossy chrome, but rather buff aluminum finishes for shiny areas often countered with plain glossy black paint.  Even its bezel has foregone any semblance of the deco styling, opting instead to use plain lettering styles that matter-of-factly spell out the camera's useful information.  To say that these two cameras are the "same" would be the same as equivocating an overnight trip in a Drawing Room on the 20th Century Limited and a trip in a baggage combine on a milk run as both "train rides." 

To go into further detail, take a look at the chart below to see how the features of both align:

                     "Posh Billy"         "Austere Billy"
                      Agfa Billy Compur    Agfa Billy
Vintage               1949                 ca. 1951
Shutter Type          Compur               Vario
Shutter Speeds        B, 1-300             B, 25, 50, 200
Lens                  4 element Solinar    3 element Agnar
Max aperture          f/4.5                f/6.3
Lens Coating          Uncoated             Coated
Finishing             Chromed              Painted Metal
Bellows               Leather              Coated Cardboard
Multiple Exposure     Prevention Mech.     None
Shutter Release       Top or Side          Side
Viewfinder            Flip up Glass        Flip Up Frame
Focusing Scale        Feet                 Meters
Framing Assist        Pivoting Viewglass   None


As alluded to earlier, the form factor of both cameras is quite similar, but the superior finishes on the "Posh Billy" are readily apparent.  Below is a view of the front/bottom of both cameras.  The posh Compur on the left has a nicely padded flip out base while the basic Billy I at right has only a flat platform with covering. 



Looking atop the cameras, the Compur in foreground has chrome inlay stripes, a shutter release and lock, and a button next to the dial to release the camera for unfolding.  The basic Billy has no such niceties, and is unfolded simply by flipping up the tab on the front/base and pulling out the "guts" of the camera.  Even the winding knob of the Compur equipped camera feels more solid.  


The flip up viewfinder of the Compur is trimmed in chrome and fabric and has glass inserts providing magnification to approximate the lens.  The basic camera has just a pair of metal pieces that flip up with cutouts to approximate the field of view.  Even the viewing window of the film advance is more elaborate in the Compur version, with a sprung lever compared to a simple pivoting cover on a rivet on the basic model.


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Agfa Billy Compur

"Posh Billy"

Centerpiece of the Compur's appeal is a well regarded Agfa Solinar 105mm f/4.5 lens.  This is surrounded by a classic Agfa Compur bezel that includes focusing scale around the lens, aperture across the bottom, and shutter speeds around the top.  The shutter requires manual cocking by pulling the tab at top left across the top of the bezel (in all but T and B settings) prior to firing the shutter release.  




One of my first test shots from the Billy Compur loaded with Fuji Velvia 50 shows tremendous promise.  I'd worried that the older lens may not render color well, but that worry was quickly vaporized when results like these came back.   



Another photo also shows excellent color, but has focusing issues evident.  The scale focusing on folding cameras of this nature can be challenging, but I thought I'd accomodated well for it. 


Shooting "wide open" at f/4.5, and trying to guesstimate focus, it can be a bit challenging to hit the mark, but this photo does a reasonable job.  The statues were my focusing goal in this exercise.  


The Solinar lens handles the challenge of shooting into the light fairly well, without any noticeable flare issues often associated with older lenses.  The shutter speed did a good job of "freezing" the water in the fountain.  


One of my favorites below, a shot of the restored "Woodies" sign in Northeast Washington DC, shows some of the promise of the folders and the 6x9 format.  I can't picture being able to readily get this classic "film" look from a digital camera.  


Along Skyline Drive in Virginia, the camera shows it is capable of portraying some vivid color even on an overcast day, thanks in part to the hyper-saturation of the Fuji Velvia film stock. 


Two areas where the camera can be produce some challenges come when framing images as well as the handling of shadow detail.  I didn't intend the clock tower to be so "marginal" in the finished result below, and I found the handling of the shadow details on the prominent building in foreground to be quite a challenge in getting a good image from a starting scan.  


Another image shot open at f/4.5 to try to minimize depth of field.  The result works pretty well, though there is some softness evident in the letters, even in the center of the image.  


For the image below, I'd hoped to get a good focus on the pillar near center.  As it turns out, the railing in the immediate foreground is sharp, while the pillar is somewhat indistinct. The camera has decent bokeh, but nothing exceptional in anything I've shot.  


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Agfa Billy with f/6.3 Agnar

"Austere Billy"

The ca. 1951 Agfa Billy I has a slower and less renowned lens than its posh relative, sporting an f/6.3 Agnar lens.  This is surrounded by a silver bezel that, while lacking the gleam of the Compur version, is pretty similar in set up.  Focusing, in meters, is immediately outside the lens, while the few available shutter speeds line across the top in a directionally opposite manner than the Compur, with the shutter cock also aligned in the opposite direction.  Aperture, however, is set atop the bezel using a sliding lever that can be seen above the number "2oo."  




Since the lens on this camera is "slower" than the other, I elected to run a roll of Fuji Provia 100F through it as opposed to the Velvia 50.  My first photo taken with this camera, of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington DC, comes out remarkably sharp and brilliant! This Billy is coming forth with some "A Game!" 


The second photo lacks quite the punch of the first, but is still very sharp, albeit showing some evidence of glare or light pollution across the one side of the frame.  Note the dark fringing across the left, a quality I actually think gives a more organic quality to this film photo.


Since one of the few shutter speed options is that of "Bulb," I decide to give it a try, and it performs quite well, though also displaying some glare in spots.


Fortunately, the glare of the above two photos is not universal, and this shot shows a return to the endearing qualities of the first.  


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Agfa Billy "Faceoff"

When your film budget (and time) is not limitless, it's tough to make a fully rounded faceoff between a pair of similar cameras.  Still, I made sure that my last exposure taken on each before sending off to processing was of the same scene, using the same aperture, with one being one stop faster to accommodate for the differences in film used.  The results were pretty surprising as seen below:



Above is an image taken on the Compur equipped Billy, with the one below being taken with the Vario equipped model.  At first glance, the top one appears more vibrant, though this is likely just as much to do with the film than the camera.  The top image definitely has the warm rendition associated with Fuji Velvia.


I decided to peek more closely at the details, and made a 100% crop of the same area of each image. Since I didn't use a tripod for this shot, the compositions are slightly different, and as a result, the Compur model holds something of a competitive advantage since the silos selected are closer to the center of the frame.


The above image is from the Compur/Solinar equipped Billy while the bottom comes from the Vario/Agnar version.  Surprisingly, the sharpness on the lowly "Austere Billy" is significantly better than the more robustly equipped version.  


Why the discrepancy between the two?  The answer may lay in the photo of the two cameras facing each other above.  The silver rails that link the camera body with the base of the platform under the lens are slightly bowed, when they should likely be completely straight. The result is that the Solinar lens may be sharp, but is not achieving proper focus, particularly at infinity.  This seems to be substantiated in the samples that show closer objects such as railings in sharp focus across the frame.  

Interestingly, in surfing photo boards recently, I discovered a quick way to do a rudimentary check of focusing of zone focused cameras like these, by laying a strip or two of scotch tape across the film plane to create a makeshift ground glass and then opening the shutter using "T" or "B" to check the focus on the matte screen of the tape.  It's hardly perfect, and works better when looking at high contrast items, but it does provide a good start, but as I can see from my test below, I need a magnifier when looking at my makeshift ground glass.


So, ultimately the question comes down to which I'd choose if I had to, and to that I'd be likely to retort something of an "apples and oranges" response.  More specifically though, I could say this much:

Which I would want if I had an antique camera display? Posh
Which one I will likely take out next? Austere (to test Velvia 100)
Which I'd choose if I wanted to obscure my backdrop? Posh
Which I'd choose if I was shooting in low light levels? Posh
Which I'd choose if I wanted to have confidence in image quality? Austere

I'm sure I'll figure out my next desired assignments for each of these cameras, and I've pretty much already done so with the Billy I.  I'm slowly getting more familiar with shooting these folders, and I'm loving their looks and portability, so I can already assure you that the interest in this type of camera hasn't stopped here.  Stay tuned!