6.21.2017

Kwentisentially Kompact - Agfa's Karomat 36

For as long as I have successfully been able to use it, I have loved my Kodak Bantam Special 4.5. Its incredibly compact design and intuitive manual controls make it one of the easiest fully manual cameras I have yet to use. Add in that it is a family heirloom and this basic little camera that few employ today in their photo taking regimen sits uniquely as a favorite of mine.  
And while I do like the quirky and unique attributes of the 828 film format, even I can admit that I'm not always eager to cut down 120 film to respool to fit into my small cadre of 828 film cameras. Yet, with no Kodak-made 35mm equivalent to this trim Bantam model, I elected to look about to see if there was an affordable Bantam-like imposter made by anyone. So when this camera showed up on my radar for about $20, I knew I had found a contender for my 35mm Bantam. 

The look of the Agfa Karomat 36 is in some ways simple and elaborate at the same time. 
The Agfa Karomat's structural resemblance to the Bantam is certainly not just coincidence, as both cameras have their origins rooted in compact design practices of the era. With the Bantam, this came in the form of the 828 film, among the smallest of roll film sizes at the time of its introduction in 1938.  With the Karomat, the lineage reaches back to the use of Agfa "Rapid" cartridges, a spool free cassette using 35mm stock that was the basis for some of Agfa's earlier attempts at 35mm.  Coincidentally, Ansco, with which Agfa would collaborate, also used a similar cassette for their Memo box camera.  



The Karomat's direct descendant is the original Karat, which used the rapid cassette format prior to 19xx when the Karat 36 was introduced.  Later, Agfa would revamp this model to become simply the Agfa Karat, with its US models distributed by Ansco getting the "Karomat" moniker. And for a short time following World War II, there were also some Karomat models made under the Agfa label, of which this is one. 
Though sharing the very clamshell design that I love in the Bantam 4.5, the Karomat should, by all measures be a significant upgrade over the Bantam.  For starters, the Agfa has an f/2 Schneider Xenon lens compared to the f/4.5 Kodak Anostigmat Special on the Bantam.  The Kodak has a limited 4 speed shutter capping at 1/200 while the Karomat offers a Compur shutter that can shoot as fast as 1/500. And while the Bantam only offers "guess focusing," the Bantam enables comfortable confidence in focusing by means of one of the coolest rangefinders out there, a unique split image design.  
All of these advantages come before one considers the most convenient advantage that the Karomat offers: the use of conventional and contemporary 35mm film in modern cassettes rather than the paper backed 828 film that was long ago abandoned commercially. All of these factors seem to spell an impressively stacked deck in favor of the Karomat over the Bantam.  

A more apt 828 format "apples to apples" comparison for the Karomat 36 would actually be the lovely "Art Deco" Bantam Special model of 1938 whose specifications are nearly identical, but with prices on the coveted Bantam Special starting in the $200 range, it may be some time before I ever would pick one up.  Besides, the clamshell design of the Special conceals the lens when closed.  Both the Bantam 4.5 and Karomat 36 have lenses that are uncovered when "folded" closed, making their overall appearance a bit more similar.



A look at the Karomat both extended and retracted shows its versatile and portable nature. Note the film winding mechanism that one must pull inward to advance the film, certainly unique among most film cameras. 



Operationally, the two cameras are both quite similar yet vastly distinct from each other. They both involve adjusting the aperture and shutter speed settings using pointing indicators around the face of the lens.  However, where the Bantam has adjustable pointers to move to set both aperture and shutter speed and focus distance dial engraved on a rotating lens barrel, the Karomat only has a moving pointer to indicate aperture.  Shutter speed is set by rotating a knurled ring around the lens to align to a static pointer at the top of the barrel, while focus is adjusted using a knob in conjunction with the rangefinder to move the entire helical focusing unit inward and outward.  

The result is that the Karomat offers noticeably more functionality than the Bantam

While comparisons to other models are easy to make, and almost impossible to avoid, an apt review of the Karomat 36 should stand on its own merits, so most of the rest of my review will focus more upon the camera itself, rather than specifically how it compares to the Bantam, a camera which few may use to be able to appreciate. 

Size-wise, the Karomat 36 feels somewhat slim when compacted to its folding position, though it still carries with it an ample amount of heft, and doesn't fit into a shirt pocket.  The Schneider lens, its most valuable commodity is left a bit vulnerable as a result, and would certainly have benefitted from a retractable lens cap of some sort.  As it is, very few of the Karat and Karomat models seen for sale seem to include lens coverings.  While less of a threat with a slower lens with more recess, the f/2 Xenon's glass makes for a susceptible target if not carefully handled.  

Extended, the Karomat has a nice feel.  The angular edges of the body aren't obtrusive or tiresome on the hands or wrists, though the scissor type extension apparatus feels a bit fragile and prone to wear.  A good shooting flow with the Karomat is to determine the exposure ahead of time and then foucus using the camera's most unique feature, a split image rangefinder inset viewfinder.  Rather than a superimposed square prone to fading, the viewfinder of the Karomat is composed of two mirrored images to compose the top and bottom of the image composition.  The user then seeks a vertical element at the desired focusing distance, and adjusts the focus mechanism until the top and bottom half of the viewfinder have that element aligned.  It is bright, fairly easy to use, and surprisingly rare among rangefinder cameras.



The control panel to the Karomat lay more or less directly on the front panel of the camera.  A sliding pointer sets shutter speed, while the knurled ring is dialed in to the shutter speed.  The small handle nearest the camera adjusts focus via the rangefinder, seen below, whose horizontal split shows focus on the plants in the foreground, but mismatch to the building in the distance. 




After such praise of the viewfinder, one might ask "what's not to like?" about the Karomat. Well, my example suffered from some maladies that may well be specific to it, but which tended to leave me a bit numb to it to get the warm fuzzies for what should be a top notch camera in my book.  

For starters, the focus pointer on my example had a tendency to stray between photos.  I'd set it to f/5.6 for a couple of shots, walk about with the camera in hand and take a few more photos, only to discover the aperture now set to f/16.  

Then there is the film advance.  This model and its Karat sibling have a unique reverse motion film advance that you pull towards the center of the camera to advance from frame to frame.  The only problem is that mine would never latch properly after stroking, and if I had my finger upon it as I shot and nudged it a little bit, it would lock the shutter until fully advanced again.  The result was that I lost quite a few frames before trying to be far more careful with the Karomat on future rolls. 

This was even after the camera was given a gracious rehab by Mike Eckman whose capable hands helped get this camera to a more workable condition from the state it was in when I first took delivery of it.  All told, the camera had encountered a rough life and was well worn, not even fully extending from its retracted position.  The camera returned to me having benefited from a thorough shutter cleaning and focus collimation effort.

Over the course of the past year, I've used the Karomat 36 about 2-3 times.  Each time, it has delivered me sharp and well focused images, and provided I pay close attention to the aperture settings before each shot, these same images are perfectly exposed.  However, in the course of these three rolls, I've noticed the Karomat still has some lingering issues that plague it, and which hold it shy of my favorites.  


Fresh off reconditioning, the Karomat traveled to Maine, where I snapped some images on a trip down to Bailey's Island.  Though the film advance did not do me any favors, I was pleased with the quality of images coming from this camera.


Under bright light, the Retro 80S picked up a lot of detail through the lens of the Agfa. 


Moderately shallow depth of field was no issue with the Karomat thanks to the well collimated rangefinder that was a snap to use 


A coastal fog leaves a stark and eerie scene at Dog Fish Head Beach. 


As the fog starts to lift, an interesting scene develops, but shows signs of a light leak in spots. 


Retro 80S film works great with some of the very historic New England architecture. 


The Karomat snapped a marvelous photo of a vintage auto taken while on a rambling drive. 


A more recent trip out with the Karomat shows a bit of excessive highlights in spots.  


Evidence of the light leak returns in this image taken on Ilford FP4 film 


By the next shot, the light leak is only more evident, seen here ghosting through this image. 




A pair of images taken partially stopped down above, and wide open below.  Interestingly, the second lacks the technical flaws of the first, to allow the bokeh of the Xenon lens to show. 




A closer view  on a different exposure reveals particularly nice bokeh in the distant highlights.


A close up detail shot portrays quite nicely on the Karomat 36, with lovely tonality and pleasant out of focus highlights. 


A more distant shot taken partially stopped down shows what the Karomat can do when it is doing what it should, producing sharp results! 


A more open shot shows some glimmering in the highlights on the water that is interestingly compelling.  


While the previous image pushed the film to the limits of overexposure, this one busted those limits.  This was something more my fault than that of film or camera. 


While bokeh is generally decent, contrast at wider apertures is on the softer side.  Thankfully this can work well with Ilford FP4.  

The Agfa Karomat 36 is one of those cameras that tend to perplex me.  I certainly like it, but given its issues, I'm not quite in love with it.  Given it's specifications, and its slightly quirky nature though, I feel as though I should love it.  I've tried on a few occasions to get a fresh start with this camera and even after loading film into it, it has a tendency to sit before it gets used.  And when I do start using it, I find something a bit lacking in the shooting experience that I can't quite quantify.  Some cameras make you thirsty for the next shot, but there never seems to be that "je ne sais quoi" vibe to this camera with me. 

A number of people truly love the Karat and its many variants through the years, and I completely understand the appeal.  However, after shooting my own copy a few times, I'm just not there yet. Perhaps I'll see if I can tend to its most pressing issue in the leak, and give this camera a try with color film to see if the Xenon lens offers some mystical powers across the full spectrum that no other camera or lens in my collection can match.  Lacking this, I'm afraid the Karomat will be see a reasonable amount of service for me, but won't be the constant companion that I'd almost expected it might be.