The Argus C3

I never intended to buy another camera, let alone one as awkward and basic as this. I had liked the look of them, but reading about using one put me off. And then one turned up at the right price, so I thought I could see if they were as odd as they appeared. 

So what you have here is probably the best selling camera with the longest production run ever made. If it wasn’t for the C3 we might never have adopted 35mm film as the default. Leica may have got there first, but selling two million cameras in the biggest consumer market in the world counts for a lot.

What they built was rugged and simple. Not simple to use, but simple to make, simple engineering and simple to fix. So this was no svelte Leica with its precision engineering. This was a large block of bakelite plastic with metal edges, made for easy assembly. The rangefinder mechanism is a self-contained block held on with screws. The front face of the camera is a separate sub-assembly that carries the lens and focusing gear and has an inspection hole to allow the shutter mechanism to be easily connected when the camera is assembled. The rest of the working parts fit onto the front of the camera body behind the face plate. This is automotive style industrial design, meant for a production line. That’s probably how they made so many of them.

The viewfinder is on the right. In the middle is the rangefinder window; its other lens is in the middle of the range dial.

I’m reminded of a motorbike I used to have – a Moto Guzzi Nuovo Falcone. This copied some of the concepts from an earlier model, such as the engine layout, but it was built to be sold to the Army and Police. It was robust and simple. The (car) dynamo was driven by a rubber v belt. You could take the entire top off the engine without touching any other part of the bike. You could get to the clutch and other important bits without draining the oil. It too was not svelte, but it was rugged.

I said that the C3 wasn’t simple to use, and this is what initially put me off. For example, most 35mm cameras have a mechanism that releases the toothed wheel that engages the film sprockets when the shutter is pressed. Not the C3. You have to press a button to release the film, start winding on and let go of the button. The toothed wheel will make one rotation (counting out the width of the exposed frame) and lock again. Asking the photographer to do this dispenses with some extra clever parts at the risk of accidental double exposures or missed frames. You also have to cock the shutter before it will fire. This avoids needing any mechanism in the camera body to tension the shutter on winding-on. It also avoids needing any moving parts passing through the plastic block of the body – the shutter mechanism is on the front of the camera so that is where the cocking lever lives.

The release that allows the wind-on to pull the film through.

There is also the camera’s most striking feature of the external gear train connecting the lens to a focusing wheel under your right forefinger. What this actually does is transfer the rotation of the lens to a dial that pushes a protruding pin on the rangefinder block. So it needs no arm inside the lens mount to register the lens moving in and out. This makes the lens mount a separate sub-assembly for easier assembly. The camera was basically assembled by three people: one worked on the body, one did the front plate and lens and one the rangefinder. Industrial production methods from Adam Smith via Henry Ford. The more I look at it, the more I can see how this camera was designed to be assembled by technicians rather than experts.

The end result is a camera that was tough enough to be used by soldiers and fixed in the field. Tony Vacarro used one right through World War 2.

The lens can be removed and was actually designed to be swapped with a tele or wide angle option. It’s a fiddly affair and I would not want to do it on a beach or while walking. But you can, so that’s far more sophisticated than the simple spec would have you think. Oh, and it’s perfectly possible to focus by twisting the lens and ignoring the focus wheel.

The viewfinder is small. It’s also separate to the rangefinder. None of your illuminated frames or focusing patch here. There is one window to focus through and a separate one to frame the shot. Mine came with a very blurry rangefinder. Someone had obviously had the viewing window apart to clean it and had assembled the two little lenses inside it the wrong way round. A quick check with Mike Eckman’s site and it was back to crisp and clear.

The slower shutter speeds on mine are hesitant, which is common. It’s 64 years old, after all. The fix is fairly simple: take the front off the camera (5 screws) and flush the delay mechanism with lighter fluid. I’m going to wait a bit and see how it goes – if the faster speeds (1/50 to 1/300) are ok then I can wait.

So – how does it shoot? Slowly. The fairly simple lens works well enough. This was the main point of the thing after all – not to buy the most awkward camera possible but to get access to another vintage lens with (supposedly) its own quality of rendering. You get into a rhythm with the camera quite quickly: flick the little switch and wind-on after each shot; cock the shutter lever just before shooting. The shutter fires with a very spring-like ping noise. At the end of the film, rewind it using a knob on the bottom of the camera. The film counter rotates as you rewind, so it’s easy to stop with the leader still out of the cassette. The odd winding arrangements may make it easier to do the Lomo thing. Double exposures should be simple, and it may even be possible to wind back to a previous shot. It’s just that I’m not cool or groovy enough to try this.

I found that I can stop worrying about the shutter – the top three speeds of 1/300, 1/100 and 1/50 appear to work just fine. The camera does space the negatives quite close together though. It’s a good job I have a film cutter I can use instead of scissors. The plus side of this is that I can probably squeeze an extra frame out of the film.

The lens was a pleasant surprise – it was sharper than I expected. The rangefinder appears to be correctly calibrated too.

The lines mark anticipated sea level due to global warming

So I’m actually finding it better to use than I feared. It’s a big lump with steampunk charm, but will probably last me for as long as 35mm film lasts.

Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: