How it Took Me Two Years in Four Countries to Realize I Love the Agfa Optima 1035 Sensor
I’ve been on a journey for the past five or so years to find my ideal “bring everywhere” camera. I’m not looking for the perfect camera, or one that can do everything, just one that suits my shooting style and isn’t a pain to carry around all the time. I’ve been looking for the camera I want to have when I’m not necessarily trying to take photos. The “the best camera is the one you have with you” camera, as the kids like to say. But ideally, one that also can take great photos when I am trying to take photos. Maybe I’m too picky.
The reason I tell you this is because I think I’ve found it in the Agfa Optima 1035 Sensor. Or, I should say, I think I found it in 2018 when I first owned (and lost) the Agfa Optima 1035 Sensor. It just took me a while to figure out that the camera I was looking for was right under my nose.
When I first started shooting in late 2015, I had no idea what I wanted from a camera. I learned to shoot on a quirky Zeiss Ikon SLR that didn’t even have instant mirror return. But this was 2016, and the film camera industry was still a bit of a wildcard. There were plenty of options out there for a clueless amateur like myself.
I would frequent second-hand stores, and buy basically whatever cameras they had. From Minolta X-700s to Fuji point and shoots with plastic lenses, I was a proud Goodwill scavenger. I’ve found multiple Olympus XAs for less than thirty dollars, and in the process, basically ruined myself for almost all other cameras. I gave those XAs away to people like they were candy on Halloween, thinking I could always find more at that price. What a fool I was. Now they’re typically selling for more than $200. I’m happy to report that most of the people I gave them to still use them actively, though.
I was a collector. I loved (and still love) to try new cameras, figure out their quirks, and then be either excited or disappointed with the results. I’m a big appreciator of the design and feel of a camera, and a big believer in the idea that if you’re a good photographer, you can make good photos with pretty much any gear. I guess that’s part of why I write for CP.
So naturally, when I was planning a trip to Costa Rica in 2018 I wanted to have a cool camera by my side. Bag space was limited, so I wanted something small and light. I also wanted a prime lens, preferably with some kind of manual control. Enter the Agfa Optima 1035 Sensor. Not a great name, but a recognizable one. It’s a compact, plasticky wonder with excellent design, a 40mm f2.8 Solitar lens, and “manual” focus. Seems like a good fit, and $45 isn’t such a bad price for a test.
When I pulled my first Agfa from the box, I was blown away by how small it was. How was I supposed to fit a roll of film in this thing? I’m being dramatic, as always, but it was abundantly clear that this camera had been designed meticulously and with purpose.
The entire camera is made of textured black plastic with rounded edges and simple, sans serif fonts. The entire thing screams Bauhaus, and it really appeals to the graphic designer in me. There are no hard edges on the Optima, and there’s something about the material that makes the light hit it nicely from any angle.
It’s plastic, yes, but it doesn’t look or feel cheap. It’s solid, but not showy. A very understated thing, really. The advance lever even looks a bit like the lowercase “B” in the Bauhaus font. So that’s fun, too. But anyway, back to actually handling the camera.
When you lift the latch to open the film back, a section of the bottom plate pops open as well. After putting film in the camera, this bottom plate pops back into place, holding the film steady. With this little feature, Agfa’s engineers managed to make their camera quite a bit shorter, and I’m genuinely surprised that I haven’t seen it on other cameras.
Another cool design feature is the combined advance/rewind crank. Where most cameras have two separate levers to control film advance and rewinding, the Agfa’s clever gearing means the same crank both advances and rewinds, depending on the position of a small button next to the shutter. Don’t ask me how it works, I’m sure there are a bunch of little gears in there. It’s just really cool, and again saved the Agfa engineers quite a bit of space, which aids the smooth, minimalist design.
A third engineering feat is the quick-loading system. There is a plate covering the take-up spool with guiding arrows telling the photographer where to put the film. This may seem simple, and other quick-loading systems work just as well, but it’s a simple and elegant solution that just works. I have never had an issue with the advance in my Optima.
So the Agfa engineers were clearly concerned with saving space and ease of use. What did they do with the space they saved? Well, they put a big red shutter button on top. This is Agfa’s “Sensor” shutter, a soft membrane that covers the actual shutter button and is meant to be… comfortable? I guess. Whether it is or not is up to you, but it does make the shutter hard to miss. Compared to cameras like the Minox 35 that have tiny shutter buttons, it’s a point for the Agfa.
Another way that the Agfa Optima 1035 Sensor uses its free space is in having a huge viewfinder. You can sort of tell from looking at photos of it, but the viewfinder dwarfs almost every similar point and shoot in size and brightness. It’s wonderful, and the 1035 model even has distance markers for zone focusing. The lower models don’t, and that’s a deal breaker for me. I want to know where I’m focused.
Traveling with the Agfa // Sample Shots
Cut back to 22-year-old me opening this camera for the first time in February 2018. I had just spent nearly my entire life savings on a trip to Costa Rica and the film to document it, but there was no existential dread (yet). The Agfa felt so right in my hand that I didn’t even bother to test it before getting on the plane. Please, no comments bullying me about that. My current self is already appalled enough at my boldness/stupidity. Please test your cameras, or buy your cameras from someone who has.
My destination was Puerto Jimenez, a small town on the Osa Peninsula. The town was very close to a large national park, and promised a mostly tourist-free vacation compared to some other popular spring break locales. The town was also close to a group of students from my college, one of which happened to be my then-girlfriend. I chose the location at random, though, I swear.
When I stepped off the plane in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, I had to switch planes from a large commercial plane to a small “puddle jumper” plane. Now, I don’t like heights, and this was my first time leaving the US. When the pilot asked some of us to sit in different spots to “balance the plane out” I was convinced that at some point within the next thirty minutes, my life would end in a fiery explosion.
It was loud, shaky, and intense, but as soon as we got to our cruising altitude I was blown away by the natural beauty of the Costa Rican isthmus. My face was pressed to the window for the first half of the flight, vibrating with the plane and appreciating the views. There were rows of houses as we left San Jose, then sections of colorful farms, then dense tropical forests.
Eventually, we crossed through some clouds, and I was reminded that I had a camera. We emerged from the clouds into a small section that felt like the eye of a hurricane. We were surrounded on all sides by clouds, even below, with no wind to shake the plane. It felt like flying a plane really close to some concept of heaven and giving a high five to whatever God lives there.
Then we arrived in Puerto Jimenez, landed on a dirt runway, and departed. I had recently learned that I would be unable to stay with the other students, so I was left to my own devices to find a place to stay. Agfa in hand, I wandered the late-afternoon streets. The trip was beautiful, and I was incredibly lucky to be able to experience Costa Rica so naturally. I wandered the streets of the city, taking photos for days.
That means taking photos and naps in various natural locations, like a black sand beach in Matapalo or… an ironic black sand beach at Playa Blanca. There were a lot of beaches and a lot of forests. I spent a week in Puerto Jimenez, walking around, swimming in the ocean, riding bicycles, and underestimating the strength of the tropical sun. I had been in Vermont’s dark, winter-y embrace for too long to not wear sunscreen, but there I was, burnt to a crisp after three days.
The Agfa Optima 1035 Sensor was a constant companion, and I didn’t once question its abilities, even if I was unable to get the film developed. I shot fifteen rolls of film that week with absolutely no idea how any of them came out.
When I returned to the cold “spring” in Vermont, the film was the first thing on my mind. The guy at my local lab took one look at the happy, sunburnt boy holding fifteen rolls of film and said “Had a nice trip, eh? This much might take us a few days to finish.” That’s fine, I can wait, it’ll be worth it.
The photos had, and still have, that wonderful quality of bringing me right back to the moments I took them. Even smells and sounds from the Costa Rican beach come back when I look over the results from the Agfa Optima 1035 Sensor. The camera did exactly what I wanted it to. It didn’t get in the way, and exposed things properly. The only way I could have gotten through that much film is with a camera that doesn’t fight back, and the Agfa just works.
That tiny light sensor directly above the lens does a great job metering the entire scene, and the Agfa’s flexible shutter has a wide range. The Optima Sensor series is named based on their top shutter speed. The 335 is 1/300, 535 is 1/500, and the 1035 is 1/1000. All the models can, according to Agfa, handle up to 15 second exposures. Pretty impressive for something so small.
It was safe to say that the Agfa had secured a permanent spot in my bag. Its next chance to shine was a journey to Kingston, Ontario, for a concert. Kingston was the opposite of Costa Rica. The colder urban scenes and general darkness presented a different challenge for the Optima than the lush greenery of Puerto Jimenez. But even in low light, or clouds, or dark concert venues, the Agfa pulled through. The camera’s compact size and very quiet leaf shutter mean that lower shutter speeds are doable, and I fell in love with the shots I got at the concert itself.
The Agfa’s ability to shoot up to 15 seconds came in handy, and the dreamy effect of a slow shutter combined with the bright neon lights make these concert shots some of my favorites I’ve ever taken.
Over the next few months, the Agfa had removed other cameras from my bag entirely. Instead of carrying an SLR, or even the rangefinder system I had invested in, I was reaching only for this tiny Agfa and filling the rest of my bag with film and snacks. Having the Agfa on my wrist just felt right, and I didn’t think I needed any other camera.
It also made a great party camera. I would strap a small flash on top and get way too close to my friends’ faces in an attempt to blind them. The photos were always crisp and well exposed because the Agfa is a smart camera. And while that last sentence feels a bit too much like a Ken Rockwell sentence, I mean it. Maybe they fit a little brain in all the extra space they saved with clever engineering tricks.
It was its status as a party camera, though, that spelled doom for the Optima. At a friend’s party, after consuming an amount of beer that I’d rather not admit, I dropped the camera straight onto concrete. I picked it up, went “oh no,” ordered Chinese food and fell asleep before the delivery driver got to my house. Little did I know that the Agfa’s shutter had broken entirely.
The next day, I realized what had happened. My Agfa Optima 1035 Sensor had shot its last shot, and for some reason I wasn’t too upset about it. In my hubris, I figured I would find another camera just as good and be fine. It was just like giving someone an XA to play with. There would always be more cameras, right? So up on the shelf went the Optima Sensor 1035, relegated to a life of looking nice. What I fool I had been. And so, my search began again.
Luckily, I was working at Complete Camera Center in Vermont, a wonderful repair shop full of cameras I could borrow and play with. It may have been a curse, though, to be constantly surrounded by new gear. It can have the effect of making any one camera seem less special. I played with point and shoots like the Minolta Talker and Samsung ECX-1. The quirky Yashica Samurai almost became a permanent member of my bag. I shot a lot with a Nikon F3 and an Olympus OM-1, both of them being go-to SLRs for years. I added a Fujica GM670 as a professional option, but carrying that around every day would give me back issues by the time I turned 30. I still didn’t have that “bring-everywhere” camera that I wanted.
My search went on and on, stopping for a bit as I tried different cameras, but always continuing when they didn’t feel quite right. I brought this search with me when I moved from Vermont to Georgia, and when I moved from Georgia to New Jersey. It was right before I packed up one last time to move to Finland that I said enough was enough. I finally searched for another Agfa and found… none. For the first time in the previous few years, I was unable to find the camera I wanted to play with.
I ended up buying an older version of the same camera, taking it out of the box, and going “oh no, this isn’t it” before returning it. The lens was also hazy, in my defense.
So I left for Finland, Agfa-less. And again, working at Kamerastore.com, I was surrounded by new gear. I played with a silly Olympus point and shoot SLR thing, and an iconic Zeiss folder that could easily be a “bring everywhere” medium format camera, but my Agfa lust became well-documented to some of my coworkers.
Then I received the text that we had one. An Optima Sensor 1035 in good condition, with the compact Optimalux flash. I came running to my coworker’s desk, took it from his hands, and tested it myself. Then I went shooting.
It was like saying hello to an old friend, and all the muscle memory came right back. Clicking the focus ring into the different zones is satisfying, and seeing the needle move in the viewfinder is the peace of mind I need. For fidgety people, the ring is what you’ll play with. The clicks are just… so nice.
The frame counter on this one is busted, but who cares. I don’t take notes on every shot I take, especially not with a full-program pocket camera like this. I just shoot until the camera doesn’t let me shoot anymore. And the most beautiful thing about the Agfa is that it lets you do that. The slight wheeze of the shutter is an interesting tone, but I trust the metering system in the Agfa to deliver great results and leave framing and focus up to me. This may offend the “I only use mechanical cameras because I don’t trust electronics” crowd that I used to be part of, but I think for everyday snapshots I like a program camera.
The zone focus is the ideal amount of interaction for me. It’s just as fast as using a rangefinder once you memorize your camera’s zones. The Agfa’s are 5 feet, 15 feet, and infinity, with an unmarked “macro mode” at 3 ft. That’s 1.5m, 5m, and infinity for everyone at home not using the Queen’s units.
The 40mm focal length is also great for me. It’s so close to the eye’s natural focal length that framing is second nature. What you see is more or less what you get. What else could you want from a “bring everywhere” camera?
And again, the photos are fantastic. The lens is sharp, the colors are crisp, and the light meter is just magic. It meters the entire scene properly even with harsh light. I’ve shot much more expensive cameras with 40mm lenses, like the Leica CM, and honestly the only difference I could notice is a very tiny bit of distortion when comparing the $100 Agfa to the $2,000 Leica CM. Does the distortion impact everyday photography? Absolutely not.
The Agfa has not left my bag since I acquired it, even on multiple trips to Helsinki and other cities in Finland. The Optima has succeeded in the Finnish city and countryside just like it did in the US, Canada, and Costa Rica.
This time, I’m not going to let it slip away (literally, from my hands, because I dropped the last one). Hopefully it will be my trusted companion on many more journeys. So, with that, I declare my search for my “bring-everywhere” camera officially over. Even though I am still struck by Gear Acquisition Syndrome when I, say, pick up a Minox 35 GT-X in the store, I don’t think the Agfa will be replaced anytime soon. I spent two years missing it without even realizing it, and I think it’s time to let the little guy shine.
That’s been my story of finding, losing, and re-finding my Agfa Optima 1035 Sensor – my everyday camera. It’s taken me two years, four countries, and plenty of cameras which ended up broken, stolen, or lost. I hope you all find a camera like that for yourselves, someday. Maybe even on F Stop Cameras. Who knows? James always has a nice selection, after all. [Editor’s note – thanks for the plug, Connor.]
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