Pentacon Penti II, a Cheap Golden Half-Frame Camera

With Agfa Rapid/SL ORWO NP20 Film

9 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .

Pentacon Penti II is a tiny, mechanical half-frame camera with a unique film advance plunger, a Meyer-Optic Domiplan 𝒇3.5-22 30mm (42mm full-frame equiv.) lens, a simple 30-125 +B stepless shutter, a flash port, and a match-needle light meter.

It is an upgrade over the earlier Penti 0 and Penti I cameras with a beginner-friendly selenium light meter and an improved viewfinder.

You can find these cameras on sale for $50 online — which is cheap for 2024. Pentis are made mostly of metal and sport coated glass lenses. But it has a downside: you need to load your own film in a special canister or buy pre-loaded expired film (it’s not difficult).

☝️ FYI: I might still have a few extra expired, cold-stored, and unopened ORWO NP20 film rolls for Penti II at my Etsy shop as well as Agfa Rapid/SL cartridges that you can refill at home.

Penti II is the last camera in Pentacon’s half-frame series for the Agfa Rapid/SL cartridges. It was in production for sixteen years between 1961 and 1977, suggesting there were plenty of these cameras around at one point (eBay and others suggest there are still lots today!)

For this review, I used authentic (expired in 1992) ORWO NP20 film made for these cameras. The results are quite grainy; thus, if you’d like to get a sense of how sharp the lens can get or how well it renders colour, see my Welta Penti 0’s lens review (which was tested with Kodak Gold).

Penti II dimensions and build quality.

Unsurprisingly, Pentis sold well (around 800,000 units): they’re incredibly flashy, well-made cameras with decent optics. Penti II sports a nice viewfinder with bright lines and a built-in uncoupled selenium light meter (that needs no batteries).

Given the ubiquity of this camera, I can’t imagine it cost very much at the time. Still, I suspect today’s going price for a vintage Penti II ($50-$100) is well below what they went for originally.

Pentacon Penti II.

Penti II’s shell is thin and light. The back plate weighs 16g (just over half an ounce), which adds to the total 258g/9oz. This is more than the Penti 0’s 216g/7⅔oz, though still small enough to fit in a jacket pocket/purse, measuring 103mm × 70mm × 52mm (with the lens) or 4” × 2.76” × 2”.

Penti II may not look sophisticated or gadgety, yet it’s obviously a well-made camera with quality materials like anodized aluminum and coated optical glass. All the parts fit perfectly together as you’d expect; most impressively, the film back requires no light seals and yet it appears to be perfectly light-tight.

Penti II in use: design and ergonomics.

Aside from its anodized gold shell, a unique feature in itself, Penti cameras use a plunger rod instead of a film advance lever. Whereas most manual film cameras will have you crank a wheel or turn a lever to move to the next frame, Penti II does this as you push a metal rod into the camera body (similar to the Voigtländer Vitessas):

Once you release the shutter button, a small metal rod pops out on the left side of the camera by 25mm/1”. You then need to push the plunger back into the camera, which will advance the film to the next frame. Once you do that, the frame counter wheel on the top plate will click into the next mark.

Pentacon Penti II with its plunger rod out. To advance to the next frame, you’ll need to push it in. The plunger will pop out again once you press the shutter.

The marks on the frame counter wheel only go to 24. If you’ve shot a half-frame camera before, you may expect it to go to 72; however, Pentis use slimmer cartridges that hold less film. I explain how this works in further detail below.

Most mechanical cameras I’ve shot function by storing kinetic energy during film advance or a separate shutter-cocking action and then having it released at once with a press of a shutter button. This is not how Penti cameras work. Instead, you are actuating the shutter with the press of the button directly, which gives it a unique, sturdy feel. This makes shooting at slow shutter speeds (1/60th and below) difficult without causing motion blur. But if you insist on taking long exposures, Penti IIs feature a standard tripod hole and a port for a shutter release cable.

Pent II’s lens controls are a refined take on Penti 0’s dials. Each of the rings now has a tab, which is helpful. Unfortunately, the arrangement of the rings is now more difficult to read as the layouts for the shutter speed, aperture, and focus distance are now harder to tell apart for some reason.

The frame counter on Penti IIs looks exquisite, like a tiny watch face. However, it needs to be manually reset each time before loading film: you’ll need to rotate a small gear just beneath it once you open the film back. Another problem with this counter is that it can’t definitively tell you when you’re out of film. Whereas standard 35mm film will not advance once you’ve unspooled the entire roll, Agfa Rapid/SL film moves freely from one canister to another, showing no resistance even when you’re out of film. Thus, you’ll have to trust that you’ve loaded the exact length of film and advance the film a few extra frames after you hit the “24” mark, just to be sure. More on Agfa Rapid/SL below.

I was pleasantly surprised by the viewfinder on my Penti II. It has a decent eye relief, which lets you see the bright lines with the glasses on. Bright lines work by combining light from two separate windows, making the overlay consistently legible in the viewfinder. This is a lot better than the thin black or brilliant lines you’ll find on most cameras.

Pentacon Penti II from the back. The the black round viewfinder piece is more comofrtable on this model than on the early Penti 0; it features bright lines and a battery-free selenium light meter display.

The match-needle light meter shows up as a travelling needle on the left that you’ll want to match with the gap in the bright line. It’s easy to see and it can be quite useful, and appeared fairly accurate on my copy. Still, I found myself relying on the Sunny 16 rule most of the time.

I didn’t get to use flash with my Penti II, but it’s good to know that it’s possible. This camera will need to connect to one via PC sync cable and could be mounted in the spring-loaded coldshoe socket. Which isn’t ideal, but the previous model, Penti 0 couldn’t even do that as it required old-school “slow” bulbs to have enough time for the shutter.

Last but not least, Penti II guts are housed in gold-anodized aluminum with a stamped dimple texture for easy grip. Note that this isn’t the same as gold plating or gold paint. Anodized surfaces are typically less shiny than gold but last longer than the other methods, which is why these cameras still look so good despite their age.

ORWO NP20 (exp. in 1992) with Pentacon Penti II. Exposed at EI 50, developed in Ilfosol 3 1:9 for eight minutes.

Agfa Rapid/SL film cartridges.

If you develop film at home or like to bulk load, you may prefer to shoot fewer than the standard 36 frames on 35mm film. If it’s a half-frame camera, it may be better to load even less to avoid getting stuck with the same emulsion in the camera for months. Agfa Rapid/SL film cartridges hold 12 standard frames or 24 half-frames, which may be a solution for you (I appreciate it).

Agfa Rapid/SL film cartridges use regular 35mm film (just shorter strips); you need to load two of them into your camera: for the feed and the take-up. In Penti cameras, the film travels from the left spool (when looking at the camera’s back) to the right.

This format was popular at the time because it was more compact and easier to load than the 135 canister. Instead of fixing the end of the roll to a take-up spool, all the photographer has to do is pop two canisters in and close the lid. This system also illuminates accidental double exposures.

ORWO NP20 (exp. in 1992) for Agfa Rapid/SL film loading system.

However, clever, automatic devices found their way into film cameras in the mid-1960s, point-and-shots got incredibly small, and the demand for Agfa Rapid/SL film cartridges died.

It’s a little tough to find Agfa Rapid/SL film for Pentis today, which is why a more practical solution would be to load your own in a changing bag.

☝️ FYI: I might still have a few extra expired, cold-stored, and unopened ORWO NP20 film rolls for Penti II at my Etsy shop as well as Agfa Rapid/SL cartridges that you can refill at home.

Still, for the purpose of “historical accuracy” (or just for fun), I tested my Penti II with an ORWO film that expired 32 years ago. As expected, the factory-made film is less cumbersome to load and use with the camera. It’s very grainy, though still sharp, so I do have some observations about the lens:

ORWO NP20 (exp. in 1992) with Pentacon Penti II. Exposed at EI 50, developed in Ilfosol 3 1:9 for eight minutes.

Meyer-Optik Domiplan V 30mm F/3.5 lens’ image quality.

Pentacon Pentis aren’t just for show. They have decent optics that are on par with the mid-range standards of the time.

My copy rendered images sharply in the middle at most apertures with noticeable softening in the corners. The lens showed absolutely no vignetting and produced soft, swirly bokeh.

Its best aperture is probably 𝒇8, which is also good for zone focusing as there’s no rangefinder or through-the-lens view in this camera.

ORWO NP20 (exp. in 1992) with Pentacon Penti II. Exposed at EI 50, developed in Ilfosol 3 1:9 for eight minutes.

How much does Pentacon Penti II cost and where to find one.

These cameras are a deal. If you don’t mind spooling your own film, enjoy the compact half-frame format and have fifty bucks, you can’t go wrong with a Penti II.

These cameras were made in Germany, and most of them remain in Europe, where they can be found for even less. Still, I had no trouble getting one shipped over to Canada with minimal fees within a week.

By the way: Please consider making your Welta/Pentacon Penti II camera purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!