The Box Camera Baby: The Agfa-Cadet A-8

Surprises can be a very good thing, particularly when they fill an unmet need or want.

I had just won one of those "bulk" camera ebay auctions which somehow closed for surprisingly less than I'd have expected.  In fact, I considered by bid to be a mercy bid that would soon be sniped as the auction drew to a close.  Perhaps I had a little luck on my side, or perhaps traffic was light on this afternoon before a three day weekend, but I now had a motley collection of about 8 cameras that also included the Ansco GoodwinRolls, and the Pickwik.

As I surveyed my surprising win, I could see that one of the cameras headed my way would be a more modern Agfa box camera with a lot of patina on its face plate.  Doing a quick look about online, I spotted a very similar looking Agfa-Box B2 camera, and presumed this was what would be in that package on delivery day.

So the true surprise came upon opening the box and discovering the tiniest of box cameras awaiting me.  I had become the unexpected owner of an Agfa-Cadet A-8 camera, a true box camera for 127 film!

Pictures do lie. This seemingly imposing brute of a box camera is likely smaller than the box your last mobile phone was packaged in. 

This adorable little box camera dates from about 1940, and is a bit of an update over previous versions of this camera with a more ordinary leather front.  This model has a metal front with a more Art Deco style to it, with geometric lines inside of the box case and outside of the lens opening, all punctuated by the diamond "Agfa" script logo.  Atop the camera, which measures roughly 3" x 5" x 7", is a leather carrying handle.   

The Cadet A-8 is a full frame 127 camera producing negatives (or transparencies should you dare) measuring about 40mm x 65mm. Film is loaded by removing the inside of the camera and spooling the film on a rather long path between supply and take up reel.  On my example, opening and closing of the camera is often a bit belabored as the fit between interior and shell of the camera does not have much tolerance, requiring patience and some skill, and oh yeah.... more patience. 

Interestingly, the lens of the camera is actually mounted to the interior of the camera rather than within the front of the box itself.  I thought this was a great touch as it helps ensure a more consistent distance between lens and film plane in the event there is any possibility of slack between the interior of the camera and it's shell.  

Controls on the A-8 are admittedly even more limited than most box cameras of the era. Whereas the typical box camera may offer between 2 and 4 "diaphragm" settings to adjust for light and improve sharpness, the A-8 offers only a wide open setting.  I've toyed at times with the idea of making my own "snap on" diaphragms that could be slipped on or off the outer opening of the camera, but never got around to it.  

Lack of aperture settings aside, there is a lever that will allow for taking bulb exposures that most box cameras have, though sliding it upward to the bulb position isn't the easiest for those of who were never cured of our nail biting habits.  Rounding out the controls and "features" are a wind knob, two porthole waist level viewfinders for verticals and horizontals, and the red window on the back to see the frame numbers when advancing film.

With a healthy amount of verdigris, an aged Cadet A-8 may have an acquired look compared to a mint version, but don't let the patina lead you into thinking it is a junk camera.  Though the lack of a diaphragm lever is a disappointment, this Cadet has a particularly decent waist level finder that isn't too tough to use for framing, as can be seen below.

My usage of the A-8 actually got off to an interesting start.  With 127 film a somewhat scarce commodity at times, I elected to try this camera out by attempting to spool 35mm film onto some recycled 127 backing.  My first thought wasn't in getting cool "sprocket shots" but more of testing the lens and shutter of this camera without having to delve into my limited 127 stocks. I took a long snippet of TMax 100 and applied it to the backing, and loaded up the Cadet.  

Interestingly, the little Cadet did a lot better with this repurposed 135 film than the Ihagee Auto-Ultrix, returning a decent amount of good images, despite my hasty re-respooling job being a bit amateur in following a straight alignment.  Either I rolled the film with less slack, or the A-8's simple internal mechanism is a bit more forgiving of less than perfect spooling. Maybe the cadet cut me some slack!

A little bit of film slack in the dead center of the frame mars an otherwise sharp photo from the Cadet, most noticeable in the bust on the monument. 

Shutter speed on the Cadet isn't even fast enough to stop a distant moving bus, which made its use on TMax in full sun a bit of a problem.  Note the meandering film path of my spooling in the top border of the film.

Vertical "sprocket shots" can sometimes be effective, though the inability to get closer to the subject as well as the blown highlights make this shot pretty ineffective. 

A darker scene with more shadow renders better while the slack seems to have abated.  The slow shutter speed is again evident in the moving water. 

Seeing the blow out of highlights in this image makes me glad I didn't sacrifice a roll of 127 film for the first testing in harsh mid day sun.  Seeing the border of this image makes me wince at my spooling job. 

Though the viewfinder is generally easy to use, I was still prone to screwing up the alignment if I wasn't careful about my framing.  To my defense, I was trying to quickly snap this from a vantage point in the middle of a busy street. 

Looking at the tonality of this image, I can see that if I used 100 speed film in this camera again, I'd tend to shoot in moderate overcast to optimize exposure.

Two more shots showing the blown highlights on 100 speed film.  In spite of this, I can still detect an impressive amount of sharpness in the basic lens. 

While my first results offered me some encouragement, I could clearly see signs of overexposure on the film in the blown out highlights.  How I wish this camera had a way to stop down the lens.  Still, I had a good bit of fun with this easy to use camera, and elected to slow things down a bit on the next attempt. 

Not only did this mean I'd do a better job of spooling the film on the next roll, but I'd go for a slower speed film.  And there are few films slower than my beloved Mr. Brown Low ISO film from Film Photography Project.

This film turned out to be a near perfect match for the Cadet, producing results far better than my first roll.  Gone were the blown out highlights and spots of blur, and in their place were some very vintage looking images that gave off the look typical of a nice meniscus lens: sharp centers and blurred edges.  

Now this is a bit more like it.  Despite having a speed of only 6 (and a bit of light leakage that may have occurred in the canister loading process), the exposure of this image is pretty much spot-on with the Agfa Cadet. 

As I began working through this short test roll, I got more accustomed to framing, and was rewarded with images like this.  The film rendering is lovely. 

This was pushing it however.  The subject is just not offering enough light and contrast to yield a defined image on the slow film. 

The fountain shot above seemed to have more motion blur than this.  Either the fountain jets in that shot are more powerful, or the shutter speed on this camera is gradually quickening with added use. 

One of my favorite dusty roads at the Best Farm at Monocacy National Battlefield.  This is one image that I'd have rather had full frame without the sprockets. 

One more attempt at a vertical sprocket shot gives an OK result. 

Though the Cadet sat out the Winter as I tended to other projects, it came to mind as I assembled my Spring list of color films to process.  Armed with the 50 foot roll of 46mm wide expired Agfa Portrait, I elected to try a few more shots on the A-8, to see how it performed full frame on something closer to true 127 film stock.  As with previous rolls shot on this film, this came back with the same "pontillistic" effects, but the old Agfa film was very tolerant of overexposure.  Besides it seemed fitting to have the first "true" 127 roll I send through this Agfa camera be genuine Agfa film stock. 

Shot very close in, the foreground has a grainy blur, but the center of the backdrop is pleasingly sharp.

After my headaches with blown highlights with 100 speed film, it's odd to see poor shadow detail when using a 160 speed film. 

Through the moire and pointillism of the aged Agfa film, I can see some decent results from the aged Agfa camera.  

After getting sharp centers for most of my images, my only explanation on this one is that I must have had some camera shake when taking this. 

One of my typical "finish the roll" shots of Summers Farm.  The fogging makes it tough to discern the technical qualities of this image. 

In retrospect, the Cadet A-8 is a very fun camera to use, despite having even more limited functionality than your typical box camera.  It's the only box camera in my collection that will "share" the camera bag with other cameras, and when paired with a slow film, and a careful eye, can produce some fine photos with a vintage appearance not easily or entirely replicated using digital methods.  The full frame 127 format offers a great size for both traditional 127 film as well as CAREFULLY respooled 135 film.  

For an auction lot that I didn't expect to win to provide me a camera I didn't even know existed, this was certainly among the happiest of happy accidents.  The Cadet A-8 comes in a few variants and can be readily picked up for under $20.  Given the fun outings it can provide with its compact size and good results, I'd recommend it at that price without any hesitation.