6.24.2016

Baby Billy: The Agfa Billy 0

And this is why the resistance was futile!  Finally, a "prequel" to my Boxy Beasts of 127 article to explain how I finally adopted the 127 film format. 

From all perspectives, it was my "final frontier" of the world of roll film.  I'd dived back into 120 film and had finally conceded to add 135 film back into my stable of adopted film formats.  Later, I would come to willingly work with the potential for bigger negatives by using 116 and 122 film, and finally (or so it seemed), I had worked out the gremlins that would allow me to readily and easily use a modified 120 film to stock an increasing brigade of 828 cameras. But there was one other roll film format that I'd been hesitant to touch, despite it having a wealth of both quirk and interesting history - 127.

In fact, as I took inventory of the various film formats in the earliest days of this blog, I even noted specifically "You'd think a niche like this would be perfect for a quirky guy with a camera, but I've never really been swayed by the lure." Even as I got comfy with 828 (particularly "making" the film stock), I couldn't picture adopting the curiousness that was 127 format.  It didn't help that even when I entertained the idea of trying out the format, the cameras I would typically see available for sale either had disappointingly dumbed down feature sets or exorbitantly expensive "collector" price tags.  While it was hardly a priority with me, I did keep the idea of a 127 acquisition in my occasional sights provided I could find a decently featured camera available at a reasonable price.  And if said camera took advantage of the largest 127 format of 6.5 x 4.0 cm, it would really offer an incentive to give 127 a try.

Unexpectedly, two such cameras came into my sights. One was an Ansco Vest Pocket with a folding strut mechanism that began to make me think I had found my gateway into 127. Further browsing however would help me truly find a 127 camera perfect for me: the gorgeous Agfa Billy 0. 


In my humble opinion, one of the loveliest folding cameras there ever was - The Agfa Billy 0

It is, at least conceptually, about the best of every possible world.  With a tiny footprint, large negative size, and a decent array of shutter speeds and apertures, it is in many ways a marvel of engineering.  Only a bit larger than a deck of cards when folded, it produces negatives that are about 4 times the size of those of (often much bulkier) 35mm format cameras, and about the size of the smaller of the 120 format of 6x4.5.  And fortunately, the Billy 0 didn't seem to have the allure of some collector type models, despite being gorgeously clad with art deco embellishments.  I was sold.


Folded down, the 127 format Billy 0 (center) is actually a bit smaller than a 35mm format Kodak Retina Type I (right) and only a tad larger than an 828 format Kodak Flash Bantam (left), yet the 62x42mm negatives of the Billy eclipse the size of the 35mm and 828 negative sizes of 36x24mm and 40x28mm respectively.

To a large degree, the Billy 0 is very much similar in appearance and operation with zone-focused folders of the 120 format, just in a surprisingly smaller scale.  In the camera world, it is even a bit smaller than a similarly svelte Kodak Retina I, and almost identical to the Kodak Bantam f/4.5.  However, given the negative size, and full feature set, it is a potentially more robust camera.

The one trade off to the Billy 0 compared to the many 120 folders on the market in the era is the lack of a true baseplate to align the camera lens in complete parallel with the film plane, and I noticed upon unfolding that the lens and camera back were not exactly parallel.  I tried where I could to lessen this misalignment to some degree, and some degree of varying success.  On some shots, this flaw actually culminated in some interesting results.


The closest thing to a fatal flaw in the Agfa Billy 0 is that after about 80 years, the camera "slouches" when fully unfolded.  The result is a lack of parallel plates between lens board and film plane, which results in uneven image quality across the frame. 

I won't elaborate in great detail about the usage of the Billy 0, as it works pretty much like most other folding cameras of the era.  One unfolds the camera and the viewfinder, guesses the subject distance, selects shutter speed and aperture, and then cocks the aperture for firing once the subject is framed.  The Billy 0 lacks the in-body shutter release that many 120 folders from the late 1930's onward tend to have, and this can be an impedance, particularly when one is trying to manually make the bellows parallel.  That nuance aside, the camera wasn't especially frustrating in use, and was in many ways fairly straight forward. 


Art Deco flourishes about on the Billy.  While the 75mm/f 3.8 Solinar lens and its accompaniments look typical of many of the era, the styling employed along the sides of the camera, including the winding knob, are some of the fanciest I've seen in camera designs of the depression era.

For my initial experiments with this camera, I cut down a roll of Ektar 100 to shoot color 127 in the Billy 0. I had no clue of what to expect, but I was excited to see what it might do.  The results are a mix of good and not-so-good, but were pretty surprising nonetheless.  The film wound up taking on a cast around the edges that I didn't really care for, but other color renderings were sort of a pleasing blend of both muted and saturated through the uncoated lens.  Focus and shutter were largely accurate, but the need to adjust the lens position wound up creating some unexpectedly interesting effects in the results. 


Off the bat, the Billy 0 delivered a nice shot taken in late afternoon light.  The excess dust on the image is the result of this being my first cut of 127, and some excess dust on the rig.

But then, things start to get a bit questionable, but not entirely in a bad way.  This image has an odd focus rendering of equidistant points due to some lack of parallel planes between film and lens.  The result is something of a miniature effect. 

And again! The elements along the right are in decent focus, but the left is fuzzy, and in this case, it results in a lucky accident.  It is no coincidence that the side with the focus issues is the end opposite the mounting of the lens to the flip out board. 

I tend to like to try BULB shots where I can, but the flare and soft focus are pretty bad in this example.

In the above shot, I tried to manually adjust the lens to make it parallel, while in the below shot, I let it sit as it naturally did when unfolding.  Neither are perfect, but I do notice the foreground is actually sharper in the latter.  Maybe I overcompensated. 

A shot of the Nation's Capitol comes out a bit fuzzy and indistinct, but the film may not have been perfectly flat.  See the outline at lower right that looks like a silhouette of a cat?  That's a notch in the film from my poor choice of a blade for my first 127 cut. 


And then I took this shot which I find to be the most compelling of them all.  The elements in the right foreground look quite sharp, only to have this sharpness fade as you head to the left.  The focal point was set short to try to get some degree of focus separation, but I didn't expect this much to result. 

Like most of the rest of the roll, my final shot on the initial roll of 127 shows the odd color vignetting along the sides, though it is a fairly pleasing result.


Enamoured with the camera but feeling the results were a little too unpredictable to make the camera a true part of the cadre, I elected to try an experiment of taking some of the [kromiem] film that I found a bit too off color for my tastes, and lined it onto the 127 backing paper for another test that would involve cross processing the film for sprocket scans. Admittedly, the 500 speed of the film was a bit too fast for the camera in all conditions, and the cross processing didn't tend to help matters.  As a result, I only got a couple of images that found favor with me.





The camera sat idly for a while until I determined it was worth another try, particularly now that I had happened upon a small quantity of expired 127 film.  I tried again to load a roll of "panchromatic film (Gevaert Gevapan) in the camera, but even trying to lightly develop it, the film came out EXTREMELY dark.




Immediately after this third roll, I figured that if I really wanted to see what the camera's capabilities were, I'd be best served by loading a roll of "true" fresh 127 into its chambers.  In my reserves was a single roll of Rerapan 100, the last commercially available 127 film.  I quickly loaded up the Agfa and took it along on a lunch outing.  Admittedly, it was nice to carry along this little camera through Lafayette Square snapping photos with tourists armed mostly with smartphones for their photo memories near the White House.  


Beginning with this roll, I tried to change my habits so that I wound to the next frame just prior to the next exposure, rather than just after the previous exposure.  Let's just say that didn't go well. 


Okay, and on second try, at about f/8 and 1/100, despite recalling focusing for about 30 feet, I did not get a good result.


But then, signs of promise.  I get a pretty well focused, and very well exposed image on the Rerapan. 


Widening out the focus to infinity, and shooting more directly into the light, the little Billy did a pretty passable job considering there is little in the way of lens recess to combat flare.

The roll's biggest flop was this skyward attempt.  Soft image and terrible contrast.

And as often happens with some of my rolls of film in vintage cameras, exposure, focus, and camera all start working together.  Holding the tiny Billy parallel with line elements in the photo and manipulate the lens mounted shutter release was a challenge that did not always work as hoped.


I coerced the lensboard slightly on this shot and wound up getting a great result that shows what the camera is capable of doing.   Despite a small light leak, the results are extremely promising.


Man in the box.  Set to the close focus of 7 feet, and with the pedestrian intentionally framed by the old fire call box, the results were again really pretty good. 

Several months and four rolls of film later, I have come to determine that this tiny Agfa Billy 0 is a capable little companion provided I can work around its sometimes challenging caveats.  Even in spite of its shortcomings of design, it remains one of the most truly remarkable pieces of film related engineering that I have ever had the privilege to put to use. The range of aperture and shutter speeds, as well as focusing ring make it capable for a very wide range of still scene settings.  

The camera will definitely see future use when I can take my time and see how best to utilize its range of capabilities in the midst of its amazing portability.  This camera, while not perfect, is anything but a zero!