I love film cameras. But the idea that film will ever again be the dominant medium in photography is unthinkable. The technical mastery and convenience of today’s digital machines is just too amazing, and we love shooting RAW. But while I pragmatically bow to the power of digital shooting, I’ll never lose my affinity for analog cameras.
This passion for classic machines informs the majority of what we do here; attempt to illustrate the ways in which these sometimes archaic cameras maintain relevance in the digital age. And it was with this end in mind that on a recent trip to New Hampshire’s White Mountains I chose to bring along a truly ancient camera; the Argus C3.
Some examples of the Argus C3 can be an astounding 77 years old. That’s an old camera. To try to put that into perspective, it’s possible that some of the C3s made in the ’30s could have been owned by 70-year-old photographers who were youngsters during the American Civil War.
Tenuous historical tie-ins aside, all we really care about is whether this thing’s fun to use. So, how did the Argus C3 fare in the wilds of 2016? Can a nearly 80-year-old camera make decent photos? And can its antiquated design satisfy a shooter who’s daily camera is a Sony A7? Let’s find out.
First thing’s first- what’s in the box? Or more accurately, just what do you get when you’re holding an Argus C3?
The C3 is a 35mm film camera made of bakelite plastic and cast metal. Interchangeable lenses sit in front of an in-body diaphragm shutter that’s incredibly simple, reliable, and capable of ten, seven, or five shutter speeds (dependent on production year), as well as Bulb mode. There’s a frame counter, threaded shutter release, film speed reminder, and a tripod socket. A coupled rangefinder handles focusing, while a separate viewfinder allows for composition.
And that’s essentially it. The Argus C3 could rightly be regarded as nothing more than a box with a lens attached to it. Indeed, the C3 was colloquially referred to as the ‘Lunchbox’ in Japan (and ‘The Brick’ in the United States).
But to flippantly call the C3 simple would be a bit lax. The camera’s actually something of a paradox. While on paper it looks downright primitive, and compared with cameras of subsequent decades, it is, viewing the C3 through the prism of the times in which it was created inevitably leads one to regard the C3 as something of a technical marvel. It’s compact, looks rather scientific, and has some decent technology built into an affordable package. Specifically attractive are the coupled rangefinder and the interchangeable lens mount; two features that weren’t commonly seen in contemporary cameras of the 1930s and ‘40s.
That said, the camera invariably reflects the limitations of its day in a handful of noticeable ways. For one, the film advance is separate from the shutter cocking mechanism. This means that preparing the camera to take a photo is a multi-step process the likes of which more modern camera users will have never experienced. Press a lever to unlock the film advance, wind a dial to advance the film, cock the shutter, set the aperture, focus by looking through a rangefinder window and aligning the images, switch to a separate viewfinder window to compose, then shoot- not the most elegant of operations.
Aesthetically, it seems the C3 is somewhat polarizing. During my time with it, onlookers have alternately marveled at its serious, classic charms and railed against its repulsive simplicity. For my money, the C3 is stoically gorgeous. With one glance there’s no mistaking that this is a vintage camera, and even among the ranks of antique machines, there’s nothing that looks quite like a C3.
The contrasting textures and colors of the body complement each other well, with the rippled, black leatherette beautifully augmenting the highly polished chrome castings. The geometric nature of the camera is further emphasized through the use of strong, horizontal lines, and large circular gears, dials and switches add visual pop.
Yes, it’s just a beautiful machine, and one that pulls no punches when it comes to flaunting its industrial design ethos. And I’m not the only one to think so, as the Argus is often featured in film and television when a gorgeous, classic camera is on call; most famously in the Harry Potter series of films.
Out in the wild, the C3 is a tricky beast to master, especially for those not familiar with shooting ancient cameras. The distinct order of operations required to successfully use one creates a shooting situation in which missed shots, missed focus, and accidental double exposures are common, at least for the first roll of film.
Focus can be stiff, especially in the cold, as lubrication begins to harden. The viewfinder and rangefinder window are just a bit too small for easy use, especially for those of us with glasses. And the camera’s sometimes too-small and often knurled controls can make for a torturous time on the old digits.
But there’s a funny thing that happens with the Argus C3. It’s in no way a perfect camera, or a true shooter’s machine, but as one becomes more familiar with it, these ergonomic hiccups smooth away to a point where we’re barely noticing them. Our shooting style adapts, we begin to enjoy the mechanical-ness of the camera, and shooting becomes almost zen-like.
And it’s when this familiarity blossoms that the Argus becomes something truly special. The same antiquated methodology of shooting which at first causes one to stumble, eventually becomes the camera’s greatest strength. The way it slows everything down is just magical. We’re not shooting with abandon, but rather, we’re carefully observing our scene, examining our light, contemplating the settings of the machine, focusing with care, composing with attention, and shooting real photographs. For those who’ve not experienced this kind of slow, mechanical photography, it’s something that should be high on the priority list.
In the mountains of New Hampshire, it’s common to find oneself marveling at the timelessness of the wilderness. With ancient conifers looming overhead, rivers and streams rushing interminably by, and the first flurries of winter silently coming to rest upon every tree and rock and fern, it’s easy to feel that nothing in the world has ever changed. With a camera like the C3, that feeling is only intensified. Were it not for the iPhone in my pocket alerting me of Instagram updates, it could very well be 1941.
Shots from the C3 pass through a standard Argus Cintar 50mm triplet lens with a maximum aperture of F/3.5, and there’s a range of interchangeable lenses of varying focal lengths. In some instances the lenses are coated, which helps reduce optical aberrations and provide better contrast.
Word in the photosphere is that the C3 boasts a very sharp standard lens. I found this to be only somewhat true. While I certainly made some very nice shots (mostly of my daughter) none were ever remarkably sharp.
Possible factors contributing to the perceived sponginess include an inconsistency of the standard C3 50mm. Over the years examples were made by many companies, including Bausch & Lomb, Graf Optical, and Ilex, and it seems image quality by maker can vary to a great degree. Also worth mentioning is the fact that focusing with the C3 is not the most confidence-inspiring process, and it’s very easy to take out of focus shots.
Shooting at F/8 and smaller apertures, things were nice enough- sharp, but not amazing. Chromatic aberration occurred in high-contrast areas of the frame, but distortion was completely corrected. Bokeh when shot wide-open is nothing special, surely on account of the relatively slow maximum aperture.
All this stated, does image quality in a camera like this really matter? Certainly to some degree, but on the same token I’m not sure the primary draw of a camera like the C3 has anything to do with clinical image quality. In a camera that’s nearly 80 years old, I’m willing to cut it some slack.
No, the real draw of the C3 is something else entirely. It’s a camera that, today, offers a way of seeing things differently. It offers today’s photographer a way of slowing down and experiencing the process of photography as it once was. The C3 is a camera for thinking men and women; shooters who enjoy the journey, and shooters who go about their craft in a more thoughtful way.
Usually, we like to end our reviews with a qualified rationale for whether or not our readers should fork over their hard-earned money for the acquisition of whatever camera or lens we’ve just reviewed. Normally, we parse it out in great detail, specifically advising as to which type of photographer would most benefit from the acquisition of the aforementioned bit of kit. We’re also very careful to point out which type of shooter would be better served in saving their cash.
Well, we’re not going to do that here. And the reason we’re not going to do that is because it doesn’t matter what type of shooter you are. Every photo geek needs to own a C3.
This uniquely timeless machine is something truly special in the photographic world. It’s ancient, capable, gorgeous, and historic. It’s a camera that has withstood the test of time, and only grown more distinguished with age. And if all that weren’t enough, many perfectly functional C3s cost about the same as a month of Netflix. Ridiculous.
So what are you waiting for? Go buy an Argus, and experience photography as it was; simple, thoughtful, and fun.
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I own three of these, and have shot two of them, and I just can’t warm to them. Their weird f stops, the clunkyness and stiffness of focusing thanks to the way the rangefinder is coupled … bleh. I know people who get sublime results from these, but I am simply not among them. I ought to give my third one a chance, as I’m more adept now than I was when I shot my other two. But if I can’t make it return at least passable images I think I’m done with the C3!