135compact.com       35mm cameras       SL Cartridge      Beirette electric SL400

This is a camera for SL film cartridges, a format for ordinary 35mm film in easy to load cartrdges. When the Kodak company in 1963 introduced, together with a series of simple point-and-shoot cameras, their cartridge, called Instamatic, the Eastern German photo industry searched for a reply. Like the Instamatic, the cartrigde should just be dropped into the camera and advanced to the first photo, no fiddeling with the film leader to get it engaged, no rewinding. They found the solution by partly copying the Agfa Rapid system. This system has a long history.

Photography on 35-mm cinema film started in 1925 with the Leica. Photographers bought bulk film and filled special cassettes with it. There was no casette standard yet. Kodak finally created in 1934 the film type 135, which did not become common in Germany until after 1945.

So Agfa's older 35 mm cameras used their own cartridges. They first built the Agfa Memo with the Ansco Memo cartridge system from 1927, but then developed a similar cartridge on their own. The camera was called Karat and the cartridges were marketed under this name. As a film manufacturer, Agfa supplied its Karat film ready-made, in sheet metal cartridges without a core. A bit of the film stuck out of the cartridge which had to be dropped into the camera and advanced. It slid automatically into an identical take-up cartridge which was removed when all photos were taken. The previous supply cartridge was then used as a take-up cartridge. The cartridges contained film for 12 exposures in ordinary 24 36 mm format. After WW II the 135 cartridge became common, so Karat film was no longer made.

When in 1963 Kodak launched the Instamatic system, whose cartridge was protected by several patents, Agfa was unable to develop a comparable system on a short term. So they re-released the Agfa Karat cartridges slightly modified under the name Rapid. The innovation was a nose on the cartridge for sensing the film speed. Like the Karat, the Rapid cartridge had no core. The film tab was cut straight and specially embossed to create a twist with which it was supposed to thread itself reliably into the receiving cartridge. Because it could happen that the film type and the label on the cartridge did not match, the end of the film was labelled, which was done by small punched holes that formed letters. There was also an indication that exposure had already been done. Today the cartridges still can be reloaded easily and Rapid cartridges even fit into Karat cameras. .

The SL cassettes, launched in 1965, match the size of the Rapid (without the film speed indication), but they were made almost entirely of plastic and contained around 0.56 m of 35 mm film. There were cameras for different formats: 24 36 mm (12 exp), 24 24 mm (16 exp.) or 18 24 mm (24 exp.). Cassettes and film were made by Orwo. There were the black-and-white films NP 15, NP 20, NP 22 and NP 27, the daylight slide films Orwochrom UT 18 and UT 20, the colour reversal film Orwochrom UK 17 and the colour negative film NC 19.

Beirette was a name applied to a long sequence of compact 35mm viewfinder camera models, made from 1958 to the end of the 1980s in East Germany by Beier, later named VEB Kamerawerke, Freital. The SL cartridge film series started in 1965 with a "k" series, the series with "SL" in its name started in 1973, there were SL100 - SL400 models. Production of SL cameras and film stopped around 1989 with the end of the GDR.

The camara presented is a Beirette electric SL400, the top model of the series, launchd in 1978. It takes 12 full format photos per cartridge. It has a CdS meter.

The camera's main features are:

Meritar 2.8/45 lens, F2.8 - F22, closest focus 0.55m (!)
Priomat shutter: B, 1/30s - 1/125
Cable release socket, CdS meter
Size:  115 x 70 x 70 mm, Weight : 240 g

Front. Big finder.
Back view. Film counter, counts backwards. Slider for film advance.
If exposure is fine, a red (!) lamp is visible in left part of the finder when half pressing the shutter button.

Camera top. Hot shoe, cable release socket and big shutter release.

A very stylish camera. Distance setting by turnig the front element of the lens, DoF scale.
Under the finder: ISO setting.

Camera bottom. Opening machanism for battery compartment. Tripod socket.

Battery compartment. Takes two PX625 battery, replaceable by V625.

Film compartment open and cartridges. The feeding side is to put to the right.

Camera back and film plane open, feeding cartridge taken out. Note the little silver "finger" sticking in the film plane, it hooks into one hole and advances the film to the left.

A "leather" case in ready position.

Case closed.

The camera is easy to use, just drop the cartridge into its compartment, make sure that at least 2cm of the film are on the film plane, close the camera, advance to the first photo and that's it. Do not forget the ISO setting. To take a photo, first set the speed ring to one of the according weather symbols. Set the distance on the front of the lens. Then turn the big ribbed ring counterclock-wise to the end, a white dot should meet a little arrow. Take the camera to your eye, half-press the shutter and turn slowly until a red light just shows. Do not turn further! Press the shutter to take your photo. Action the advance slider for the next photo.

As there are no slow speeds, there are limits in low light. However there is a B setting, a tripod socket and a cable release for night photos. The meter system has limits on very bright days, depending on film speed you won't find the point when the LED lights, it's on all the time. Just set 1/125s and F22 and shoot. Modern film will give usable results. The lens is fine, so pictures were very good. Close focussing is much better than on other cameras.

The only problem is film supply. You need 2 cartridges to get your camera working. There is still largely expired ORWO SL film for reasonable prices. The film itself might be hardly usable, but you can buy 2 films and there you are with the necessary cartridges. As mentioned above, the strips should be 56cm long. So you can use 12 exp film, 24 exp film which gives just 2 strips or 36 exp film which doesn't give 3 strips, but 2 longer ones or 2 normal ones and a shorter one of 8-10 exp.

Cutting and feeding has to be done in absolute darkness or in a sleeve. Prepare a measure strip of 56cm, a cartridge, scissors and your film to be fed. Cut the smaller part of the film leader, clip the edges and unroll the length of your strip. Then feed the strip into your cartridge. Done. Keep the rest of a 24 exp film in its original cartridge for the next time. Do not forget to clip the edges again or your film might jam. With 36 exp film you can cut 2 strips of a bit more than 70 cm.

If you do not cut too close to the end of the original 135 cartridge or canister, you can use it for processing in an ordinary lab. Return to the dark or your sleeve with a strip of adhesive tape and tape your exposed film to the film bit still hanging out of your 135 film canister. Then respool slowly and give it to your lab.

When you have taken your photos, advance 2 more times. If you made longer strips, you can continue advancing and shooting, the camera works without counting. Good luck and have fun!

There are other SL cameras as the Pentis and there is even a Lomo Smena SL model.