Argus C3 (the brick) Review

To see images shot with this camera, click the category link at right.

Ugly or beautiful?  I think it’s kind of beautiful in it’s weirdness.  The Argus C3, or “brick” as it’s aptly nicknamed, is an odd camera.  It is very brick-like.  It could serve as a deadly weapon in a street fight, thanks to it’s weight and solid build.  The way all of the dials, knobs, and lens are stuck to the outside of the brick make me wonder what the designers were thinking.  It’s very odd, indeed.

The Argus C3 was made in Ann Arbor, Michigan from 1939 to 1966, and was the best-selling 35mm camera for nearly 30 years. Based on the serial number found inside the camera, mine was produced in 1950.  I’ve read that customer surveys during the time the camera was being made showed that people thought all of the knobs and dials gave it a “scientific” look, which was a positive selling point for the camera.  It certainly doesn’t have the look or feel of a precision camera, but it does look “gadgety” and scientific, and it certainly feels durable.  It was a low-priced camera at the time, and it brought relatively high-quality optics in a solid mechanical build to millions of people.

Word has it that photographer Tony Vaccaro shot many of his WWII photos with an Argus C3.

An interesting feature is that it has interchangeable lenses.  A nice thing about this is that it’s easy to remove the lens and access the shutter blades and aperture for cleaning, if necessary.

I didn’t have to do any repair to mine and it works fine, which attests to it’s durability.  One problem with some I’ve seen is that the rangefinder window gets very cloudy and you can’t see through it well enough to focus.  I don’t know how easy it would be to fix this — perhaps simply opening the top of the camera and cleaning inside the rangefinder could fix it.

I’m writing this review after only shooting one roll of film, so I’ll have to update this after I shoot the camera more.  Something about the design and operation of the camera gave me very little confidence when shooting, though the images turned out better than I expected.  This lack of confidence resulted in very little creativity in my photography, though.  Using the camera seemed like more of a chore than using most cameras, so it didn’t free up my mind to focus on composition and creating interesting images.  I was just focused on getting the camera set properly and getting any kind of shot.

The viewfinder window is extremely small, but I can see the whole image frame even wearing eyeglasses.  The right viewfinder is the rangefinder window showing a magnified view and a split image to focus, and the left one is the viewfinder to frame up your shot.

The right eyepiece is the split-image rangefinder, which is magnified for easier focusing, and the left viewfinder is for framing your shot. The film speed dial on the back is simply a reminder of what film you have loaded -- it serves no mechanical function, since this camera has no light meter.

The focus knob/rangefinder is linked to the lens through a series of gears. The dial also shows the focus distance, for manually setting the focus. To focus you can either spin the lens or this rangefinder dial. On my camera the focus is a little stiff, but you can focus with your index finger on top of the rangefinder dial gears.

Shutter speed of 1/10 to 1/300 second is set with this dial.

The film counter dial counts up from zero. The little knob behind the dial has to be pushed to the left to allow the film to advance, and the counter stops just short of one full rotation, to count up by one exposure each time.

The aperture is set at the front of the lens by turninig the dial using the two small metal pins. f/3.5 to f/16

The body is made of molded bakelite, with mostly aluminum parts. The back swings open on a hinge by pressing the chrome tab on the left side of the camera. You can see the leaf shutter blades here completely behind the lens. This is a bit unusual for rangefinders of the time, which usually had the leaf shutter within the lens. This design with the shutter behind the lens allowed for changeable lenses, and now as these cameras age it's nice to be able to access the shutter blades if they need cleaning, without the need for tools to unscrew a rear lens element.

You cock the shutter by pressing down on the black plastic lever on the front, then fire with the chrome shutter release on top of the camera. The problem with the cocking lever is that it's easy to position a finger just above the cocked lever when shooting, and if that happens your finger can slow down the shutter as the lever rises back to it's original position.

I've not had to make any adjustments on mine, but I believe that the round silver piece in the center with the two holes comes out to access an adjustment screw for the rangefinder. And it looks like removing the film counter dial and the two small screws would allow easy access to the rangefinder for cleaning and more serious repairs.

Here you can see it has a nice ten-blade aperture.

Shown here next to her prettier sister, the Argus C3 Matchmatic. The Matchmatic is nearly identical except for the tan leatherette, different knobs and a hooded lens, but it uses an odd system of shutter speed numbers (4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ) and aperture numbers (3-1/2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ) that were matched to an accessory light meter that snapped into the shoe on top of the camera. I don't have a meter for mine, but would love to find a working one. I think it's very rare to find a meter that still works, but I'd like to have even a non-working one just because they look cool. The Matchmatic gained in popularity after it appeared in the second Harry Potter movie (with the side-mounted flash), and at least for a while some Matchmatics were fetching very high prices on ebay.


10 Comments on “Argus C3 (the brick) Review”

  1. Rob says:

    Hi Rick,

    Thank you for sharing. I just bought my Argus and ours are identical in every feature which is interesting because there are so many variations of this camera. I am having a hard time deciphering if it is a C2 or C3. The knobs, 7 shutter speeds with non color markings, lens labeling, cylindrical shutter release conflict with what is on the internet about the camera. Regardless it is a great piece of history which works just like it did in the 40’s or 50’s.

    Thanks again.

    Rob

    • Rick Schuster says:

      Hey Rob,
      That’s a good question about C2 vs C3. I hadn’t really realized how similar they are — it seems the only difference might be the addition of two holes on the left side of the camera to plug in a flash. I had to take another look at mine to verify that it is in fact a C3. So if you have the flash sockets, it’s a C3. If not, then it’s a C2.
      I should add that info to my article above.
      Thanks for commenting.
      -Rick

  2. Samantha says:

    I have a matchmatic as well that I may be using for my photo class this spring. I read that you were able to look up the serial number on your camera to see when it was made. Where is the serial number located on the matchmatic and where would I go to look up when it was made? I was also wondering if you had any suggestions on where to find a light exposure meter for it that actually functioned?
    -Samantha

    • Rick Schuster says:

      Hi Samantha.
      My Matchmatic has a serial number stamped right on the bottom. There’s some info here about figuring out when it was made: http://argusinfo.net/DatingGuide/DatingYourArgus.htm
      I’ve only seen a few of these, but none of them had light meters that worked. I’d love to find one someday. But you’d probably be better off just buying a hand-held lightmeter. Or learn about the ‘sunny 16′ rule and guess your exposures. There’s got to be information out there somewhere on how the numbers on the dials correlate to actual shutter speeds and apertures, but I’m not finding any info right now. Let me know if you find anything.

      • Jessica says:

        All 3 of these links should help you if you havent found any information yet about the shutter speed. Or they might help someone else who stumbles upon this.

        -http://www.thephotoforum.com/forum/film-discussion-q/221520-1940s-style-photos-argus-c3-help.html

        -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwJixBHP2Cg

        -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4GfNxtOIGI

      • Rick Schuster says:

        Awesome, Samantha. Thanks for the links.

  3. Daniela says:

    I just bought this camera but i need to do some minor repairs to it, do you know where i could do it?

    • Rick Schuster says:

      Hi Daniela. I’d say to do them on your desk or workbench, but that would be kind of smart-alecky. But in seriousness, if the repair seems minor, I’d do some online research and figure out if you can do it yourself. A camera like this, which is not terribly valuable, is a great way to learn some camera repair, and learn more about how the camera works. If you wreck the camera, you’re not out too much. If you’re wondering about who could do the repairs for you, I really don’t know. But I have a feeling a repair person might charge more to fix it than the camera’s worth.

  4. Phil S says:

    The “When Was My Argus Camera Made?” site has moved and the current link for it is:

    http://argusinfo.net/DatingGuide/DatingYourArgus.htm

    If that can be updated in the posts on this page it would be great! Thanks!


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