SL System (where SL stands for Schnell Lade in German or Speed Loading in English) was an eastern block derivative of the Agfa Karat system and a counterpart of Kodak Instamatic and Agfa Rapid systems.
The SL System was created for amateurs hoping to take pictures quickly and easily, without entering into the technical aspects of operating a camera.
The system was built around a new SL cassette, patterned after the Agfa original. Films in the Karat cassette were reintroduced in the GDR by the VEB Filmfabrik Agfa Wolfen company together with the Penti camera in 1958 and were made until 1960s; compatible cameras of this period included Penti and Beirette k series. From 1964, after the East German Agfa factory had been renamed into the ORWO, the cassette was called the ORWO Penti cassette (due to legal reasons), the Penti cassette could be however offered in the Eastern Block countries only because of patent limitations.
The Instamatic system introduced by Kodak in 1963 revolutionised amateur photography, as Instamatic cameras could be loaded and operated quickly and easily, with no demand for any particular technical knowledge from the user. This, in turn, immediately created continuously growing popular camera market. East German camera industry, trying to pick up the gauntlet, undertook a trial around 1964 to acquire a license for the new Agfa Rapid camera system, still under development by the West German company Agfa AG Leverkusen then. As Agfa AG refused to sell the Rapid license, East German camera and film industries decided jointly to negotiate a license agreement with Kodak. These preparations were stopped by the GDR authorities in 1967 though, as the Political Office of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) wanted to avoid excessively strong technical dependence on Western Block countries. It was decided, the camera and film industries would develop a new "Anti-Kodak System" instead, comprising of a fast loading film standard and dedicated compact cameras.
The original Penti cassette was then modernized and renamed into SL in the late 1960s. The SL cassette was made of plastic (the Karat and Rapid ones of metal), did not have a spool and was loaded with some 56-60 cm of a standard 35mm perforated film, which was enough for 12 pictures of the 24x36 mm size, 16-18 pictures 24x24 mm or 24 pictures 18x24 mm. This quantity was considered sufficient for daily use of an average amateur, allowing frequent film changing, hence quick developing of taken pictures and possibility of switching between different film types more often. The SL system used two cassettes - the film was transported from original factory cassette into a second, empty one, in which it was taken out from the camera, with no need for rewinding. Due to spool-less cassettes, SL system cameras were easier to load than usual 35mm cameras of that time as there was no need to fix the film at the take-up spool; one just needed to put beginning of the film into the receiving cassette slot. Unlike the Instamatic and Rapid systems, the SL cassette lacked any form of automatic film speed setting in the camera and so the film speed had to be always set manually by the user (if possible).
|NP 22 film by ORWO, in SL cassette|
image by Justin Jakobson (Image rights)
SL system films were made by the ORWO company in Wolfen, GDR. The production range included in different periods e.g. NP 15, NP 20 and NP 22 black and white panchromatic films (the numbers refer to film speed in DIN units), NP 27 black and white superpanchromatic film, UT 16, UT 18, UT 20 and UT 21 color slides for daylight, UK 17 and UK 20 color slides for tungsten light, as well as NC 16, NC 19 and NC 20 color negatives. SL cameras could also be loaded with the original Karat cassettes, as well as new West German Agfa Rapid cassettes.
Cameras offered in the SL system were designed as maximally easy and intuitive to use viewfinder compact cameras. The most simple and the cheapest cameras - as the Certo SL 100 - were intended for beginners and children, thus did not have practically any control of exposure parameters. More advanced models, e.g. Certo SL 110, Beirette SL 300 as well as the Soviet Smena SL, offered more or less control over the camera, while suggestive symbols placed on their shutter speed, aperture and distance scales helped in estimating settings appropriate for given shooting conditions - e.g. drawings of sun, light clouds or heavy clouds for exposure and a portrait, a group of people or a building for distance etc. The most advanced SL models offered semiautomatic (Penti II, Beirette electric SL 400) or fully automatic (Pentacon electra) exposure control. A fairly unique camera of the SL System was the Certo SL 110, which used one cassette only and the film needed to be rewound. Another interesting camera was the Certo KB 24, a twin variant of the Certo SL 100, which could use both 135 and SL film types, although it was not formally enrolled in the SL System.
An East German company Elgawa produced a SL series of flashes in the 1970s, advertised as particularly suitable for cameras of the SL-System - the series included SL 2 bulb flash (also named L2), as well as SL 3, SL 4 and SL 5 electronic flashes.
Prices of SL cameras in the GDR in early 1970s varied from 20 to 200 Marks, depending of model and so anyone could buy a camera appropriate for one's financial possibilities or photographic skills. The SL-System did not become very popular though and died slowly somewhere in the 1980s, giving field to modern automated compact cameras.
Cameras of the SL System:
- Beirette SL 100
- Beirette SL 100N
- Beirette SL 200
- Beirette SL 300
- Beirette electric SL 400
- Certo SL 100
- Certo SL 101 color
- Certo SL 110
- LOMO Smena SL
- Pentacon electra
- Pentacon electra 2
- Penti I
- Penti II
- Pouva Start SL 100 / Pouva SL 100 / Start SL 100 later renamed as Beirette SL 100
- Wurst (1964) refers to the ORWO-Penti-Patrone as the commercial name, as opposed to the Agfa-Karat-Patrone; ORWO-Penti-Patrone is also used by Brauer (1966), while Stapf (1963) still calls it Agfa Karat.
- Karlsch R., P.W. Wagner: Die AGFA-Orwo-Story, 2010. p. 156
- Karlsch R., P.W. Wagner: Die AGFA-Orwo-Story; op. cit., pp. 155-156
- Names "Schnell-Lade-Kassette" or "ORWO-Schnelladekassette" are used in camera manuals or advertisements already in 1967, although not the abbreviation "SL". It is unclear if they were of the same plastic construction as the "real" SL cassettes.
- 60 cm according to Büttner (1974, 1975), while approximately 56 cm according to Wurst (1979). Cyprian (1977) recommends reloading the cassettes with 70 cm of film.
- Büttner (1974, 1975) repeatedly writes of 18, although the Certo KB 24 and SL 110 camera manuals mention only 16.
- Some web sites state the Rapid cassette is not compatible with the SL cameras, but actually it can be used without any problems.
- Brauer E.: Fotooptik; VEB Fachbuchverlag, Leipzig, 1966.
- Büttner G.: SL-System; VEB Fotokinoverlag, Leipzig, 1974.
- Büttner G.: SL-System; VEB Fotokinoverlag, Leipzig, 1975.
- Cyprian T.: Fotografia w szkole [Photography at school], WSiP, Warsaw, 1977.
- Karlsch R., P.W. Wagner: Die AGFA-Orwo-Story, Verlag für Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin, 2010, ISBN 978-3-942476-04-1.
- Stapf H.: Fotografische Praxis; VEB Fotokinoverlag, Halle, 1963.
- Wurst W.: Das Fotobuch für alle; VEB Fotokinoverlag, Leipzig, 1969.
- Wurst W.: Die Penti Schule; Fotokinoverlag, Leipzig, 1964.
- Wurst W.: Fotobuch für alle; VEB Fotokinoverlag, Leipzig, 1979.
- Wurst W.: Fotobuch für alle; VEB Fotokinoverlag, Leipzig, 1981.