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.