These days, Adox is hardly recognized as a camera company. Which makes sense, since over their 100-plus year history, the German photo-chemical company didn’t make very many cameras. But somewhere in the company’s mid-life, they produced the Adox 300, a unique and interesting 35mm camera with a striking design, a respectable lens, and one very distinctive feature – interchangeable film magazines which allow us to load and unload rolls of film into the camera at any time, regardless of whether the whole roll has been exposed or not.
I’ve been using the Adox 300 off and on for a number of months in various shooting conditions with all varieties of film. The results have been a mix of good and decent, with a few bad frames brought about by the camera’s inherent weaknesses and the inherent challenge of shooting a seventy-year-old all-manual camera.
It hasn’t been an easy thing to load, to hold, to shoot, or to love, but at the end of my time with it I’ve decided that I do indeed love it, in a certain way. It’s a charming, interesting, challenging camera, and for camera-likers like me who enjoy weird, old cameras, the Adox feels just right.
Brief History of Adox and the Origin of the Adox 300
The German company which would eventually come to be known as Adox was founded in 1860 as Dr C. Schleussner Fotowerke GmbH by the eponymous Dr. Carl Schleussner.
The company was initially engaged in the development of pharmaceuticals, but when the English photographer and physician Dr. Richard Leach Maddox invented the lightweight gelatin negative dry plate for photography in 1871, Dr. Schleussner became interested in refining and adapting the new technology to other industries.
The Schleussner laboratory transformed into a factory, and soon the company was a foremost producer of gelatin emulsion dry plates. A later collaboration with physicist Conrad Wilhelm Rontgen resulted in the development of X-ray plates, and another new revenue stream for Schleussner’s company.
Carl Schleussner died in 1899, but his company lived on and became a major producer of photo chemicals, film, and black-and-white paper, all sold under the Adox brand name.
In the 1920s, Adox created a small number of cameras in various formats, including 6 x 4.5, 6 x 6, 6 x 9 folders, box cameras, and 127 film cameras. Later, when the founders of the Wirgin camera company were forced to flee Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Adox acquired the designs for Wirgin’s cameras and began selling them as rebranded Adox cameras. (After World War II, these designs were re-purchased by Henry Wirgin.) Following the war, Adox began designing and producing their own cameras once more, resulting in a small number of 35mm film cameras.
All told, the Adox name only ever appeared on fewer than 30 models. Of these, the most unique, most unusual, and (arguably) the best of the brand’s 35mm cameras was the Adox 300 of 1956.
Specifications of the Adox 300
- Camera Type: Viewfinder 35mm film camera with interchangeable film magazines
- Lens: Schneider Kreuznach 45mm f/2.8 Xenar coated (4 elements) or Steinheil Cassar 45mm f/2.8 (3 elements)
- Shutter: Compur-Rapid leaf shutter or Synchro-Compur leaf shutter
- Shutter Speeds: 1/500 to 1 second, bulb mode for long exposures
- Focus: Manual focus only, scale focusing only
- Viewfinder: Simple viewfinder, no frame lines or focusing aids
- Exposure Meter: Uncoupled Selenium cell light meter with top plate display in EV
- Additional Features: Cold shoe for flash mounting, X flash sync cable; Self-timer; Remote shutter release via cable; Film frame counter display window
- Weight: 850 grams
What is the Adox 300
According to the spec sheet, the Adox 300 is a rather simple camera. It’s a fixed-lens viewfinder camera with scale focusing, a fairly standard lens and shutter combination, an uncoupled selenium light meter, and not much else (with the exception of that one unique feature previously mentioned).
It belongs in that same class of camera with so many others which were being produced in Germany and Europe throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Simple, all manual, well-built, and capable. Cameras that were made for a new class of enthusiastic amateur photographer, everyday people who were seeking to capture images of their lives, vacations, and travels with family.
In this way, it’s quite typical for its time. However when we get the Adox in the hands we find a camera that’s bizarre and interesting in some ways, and almost totally unique in others. It’s a fun thing, stretching far beyond its spec sheet.
The first unusual feature is its shutter advance and film wind mechanism. A large ring surrounds the lens barrel, from which extends a lever which is plunged downward to advance the film and cock the shutter. This lever actuates beautifully with a mechanical ratcheting that’s satisfying in both a tactile and auditory way. Two strokes are required to set the camera from rest mode to ready-to-fire mode, after which we can press the top-mounted shutter release button, same as on most cameras.
Another odd feature is the transparent window we find on the top plate of the camera. This transparent window provides a view through the top of the camera and into the film compartment, where the interchangeable film magazines live when we’re exposing film. On each magazine is a mechanical film frame counter wheel, which spins with exposures. By looking through the window on the top of the camera we’re able to see how many shots are left on a roll.
This frame counter feature is, of course, found on most film cameras. The way it’s implemented here, however, is virtually novel.
And then there’s the main event, the film magazines themselves. 35mm film cameras with interchangeable film magazines are few, indeed. I can think of only three or four in the history of the medium which offered this feature (the ridiculous, fragile, and expensive Kodak Ektra, which I shot during a tour of the Kodak factory, is one such camera – others include the Mamiya Magazine 35 and the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex SLR). Interchangeable film magazines allow the user to swap film at any time, at will, without the need to totally finish or rewind a roll before unloading.
Here’s how it works.
The roll of film is loaded into the removable film magazine, a separate metal object totally removed from the camera itself. The magazine includes a built-in mechanical dark slide, a sort of second shutter which prevents the film inside the magazine from being exposed. We then drop this magazine into the back of the open Adox 300, within which it integrates with indexing posts and rotating screw drives. These drives open the dark slide and turn the wheels which advance the film.
If at any point we wish to swap out the roll of film we’re currently shooting in favor of another type (let’s say we’re shooting black-and-white and we wish to switch to color, but the roll of black-and-white isn’t yet finished) we simply rotate the film door opening lever on the bottom of the camera, which slots the dark slide back in place and allows us to remove the film magazine without exposing the loaded roll of film. We can then load and drop in another magazine and get right back to shooting.
The magazine system that the Adox 300 uses is in fact the very best of the systems that I’ve used in a 35mm camera. It’s even more elegant than the film backs and magazines of some medium format film cameras, a format in which this sort of magazine technology is almost universal in its implementation.
But just because it works well, doesn’t necessarily make it a compelling feature. Interchangeable film magazines are interesting, yes, from the perspective of a camera nerd shooting the Adox seventy years later. But the key feature of the Adox 300 is not (and was never) really as useful as Adox’s engineers may have hoped. And there’s the price. When new, the nicely built Adox 300 and its novel, highly-engineered film magazines was quite expensive.
Perhaps this combination of high cost and niche utility is why the Adox 300 sold poorly and was discontinued after just a few years, and why the planned Adox 500, a more advanced version of the 300 with interchangeable lenses, an improved viewfinder, and rangefinder focusing, never entered production.
In the hands, the Adox feels nice. It’s larger than most similar cameras of its day, which can probably be attributed to the need to fit the interchangeable magazines into the camera. But despite the size, it doesn’t weigh much more than comparably specced cameras. It fits in the hands nicely, and feels balanced with its compact, stubby lens.
All of the camera’s exposure controls (shutter speed selector, aperture ring, and focus control) are located on rings around the lens barrel. Like many camera’s of its era, the Adox 300 works with the Exposure Value (EV) control system. What this means is that the aperture and shutter speed rings are actually linked, and move in reciprocal increments.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work.
The photographer would take a meter reading to determine the appropriate shutter speed and aperture for the scene’s light. We can then set our rings to those settings by pressing a button on the aperture control ring and setting the rings independently. After that, if we desire a different aperture for a certain depth-of-field, or a different shutter speed to capture motion or freeze our subject, we can change either setting and the reciprocal setting will change automatically to retain a proper exposure.
This system works well in situations in which the light doesn’t change much. And when it does change, we can change our settings individually to fine tune our exposures.
The EV system controls work in conjunction with the camera’s built-in selenium light meter. Point the camera at the scene to be photographed, press the meter activation switch on the upper left-side back of the camera, take a meter reading, and set our speed and aperture. This built-in meter is not linked to the camera’s shutter speed or aperture, so it’s there simply to give us an idea of the available light. (Incidentally, my camera’s light meter does not work – a common occurrence with selenium meters.)
The viewfinder is essentially two pieces of glass, with nothing else to offer. There’s no information display, no meter reading, it doesn’t even have frame lines to show the camera’s image area. It quite literally is simply two pieces of glass. The rearmost piece of glass is quite small, too, and framed in metal. It scratched my glasses quite badly – very annoying.
There’s a cold shoe on the top of the camera to mount a flash, which I never used. A shutter release cable socket sits in the middle of the nicely knurled shutter release button, which I never used. And there’s a self-timer mounted in the shutter of the camera, which I never used.
Focusing is handled by scale focusing. The ring around the lens can be spun easily to the distance markings (mine are listed in meters, while other Adox 300s have distances listed in feet). Since there are no focusing aids, such as rangefinder or focusing screens, we need to be good at estimating distances. I was able to do this pretty well, though that could change entirely if I’m shooting after a bad night’s sleep.
The lens is nice, typical of Schneider-Kreuznach lenses of its era. It’s sharp and resolves details very well, especially in the center of the frame, while leaving some classical softness to creep around the edges. Close-focused images actually present some interesting bokeh when shooting wide open, and when the lens is stopped down to f/8 in bright light, the image is sharp from edge to edge.
One important note for anyone seeking to actually use this camera, and a lesson I learned after shooting my first roll, is that when the roll of film is finished, often we will be midway through actuating the advance lever. This happens with cameras all the time – we reach the end of the roll and the shutter advance lever locks halfway through its cycle. Usually, this is no big deal. We simply press the rewind button on the camera and rewind the film, or the camera does it automatically for us if we’re using a camera with automatic film advance and rewind.
With the Adox 300, however, things are more complicated.
Because of the camera’s interchangeable magazines, when the film advance lever locks halfway through its cycle, the camera is entirely locked up. We can’t remove the magazine to rewind the film. The solution is a tiny lever on the back of the camera. We push this lever up, and we’re able to complete the camera’s cocking cycle. After that, we can open the camera and remove the magazine.
It’s a small detail, but it had me totally stumped for a few minutes when I’d finished my first roll. Suddenly the Adox 300 was no longer a camera. It was a mechanical puzzle box from some ancient, inscrutable lost civilization. Luckily, I had the owner’s manual in my office.
My time with the Adox 300 has been enjoyable and surprising. But the feeling that I’m left with is one bordering on disappointment. I wish that the camera had been more successful so that Adox had continued with their line of cameras. I wish that they’d made the Adox 500, because an Adox 300 with rangefinder focusing and interchangeable lenses would have been a legendary camera. Alas, this was not to be.
As it is, the Adox 300 is a weird and interesting camera. It offers old-world build quality with a splash of uniqueness brought through its implementation of a rare and novel feature. It’s a rare camera, ideal for collectors and people who love to own and shoot the most unusual machines. On top of that, it’s also a good image-maker. Its lens is sharp and offers classic, imperfect rendering, and the camera’s size, weight, and design land it happily in the hands.
All told, the Adox 300 is a beautiful, interesting camera. Simple as that.
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