Argus C3 Package with new found respect, well sort of

Discussion in 'Classic Manual Cameras' started by Dan Deary, Aug 21, 2014.

  1. In the early ‘70’s while in the Army I use to use “the Brick” as a paper weight—that’s what I thought it was good for. I am somewhat hesitant to post this as, the infamous Argus C3, is not highly regarded in photographic circles, even loathed by some. Yet I am drawn to this camera because of its history, its impact on photography in general and dare I say it, its unique look and design, as frustrating as it is to actually use it.
  2. The Three Amigos
  3. What peaked my interest was that I saw an advertisement from a Life magazine, dated Oct 1956 It reads: “To the man who can afford to spend $460 or more on a fine camera (But Would Rather Not” It compares itself to a Camera “A” package(perhaps a Retina) consisting of a camera with a 50mm normal lens plus a telephoto and wide angle lens =$457. A Camera “B” package, very likely a Leica, with the two extra lenses=$771. The Argus C3 Package that includes flash, case and two Sandmar lenses, 35mm and 100mm respectively=$189.40. It then states: “You save money without the loss of picture quality.”
  4. I remembered I had such a package which I acquired though garage sales or camera shows over many years. I confess I never used them. In fact I had a total of three C3’s, one of which was my wife’s camera when I first met her 30 years ago. She was self taught, learned instinctively to open the lens when cloudy and close it down when bright. She also used filters “because I like blue skies.” The other thing that impressed me was that she traded her Instamatic to someone for the C3. Now that’s smart and that’s one of the reasons I married her.
    Another reason for my interest, was that I live about 40 min away from Ann Arbor where all the C3’s were manufactured and there is a wonderful, small Argus museum that I recently visited that is very informative and details the Argus history with their many different cameras from 1936 to 1969. I also became aware of Tony Vacarro’s(later a Life magazine photographer) WWII photos taken with an Argus C3 as an infantryman in Europe and he stated he used this camera because “It was indestructible.”
  5. The C3 was brought to market in 1939 and remained in production in several variants until 1966. It had been preceded by the Argus A in 1936 and later the C2 in 1938. The design was inspired by the Leica. A Belgian designer and engineer Gustave Fassin was primarily the originator of the A and C models. According to the Argus Museum “ Over 2 million “Bricks “ were sold…. . The C3 holds the position in photographic history analogous to the Model T Ford; it has been called the most popular 35mm camera in history.” This coincides with the introduction of Kodachrome in 1935. I would speculate the that the C3 was responsible for the popularity of the 35mm format over any other camera. At the museum ,it also stated the 50mm Cintar, a cooke triplet was very similar in design to the Leica Elmar(not really as the Elmar is a Tessar design) but the quality control in production was less stringent, which may explain some bad raps. Most reviewers will say from f/5.6 on the lens is adequate or even very good. In surveys of consumers, the C3 sold well because it looked “Scientific.” If you Google “Argus ads” you will find most of the ads were placed with the publications of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, a brilliant marketing move.
  6. The C3 Brick is a very basic, no nonsense camera with its own quirks that many found wanting. The brick shape is a little daunting and does not feel comfortable to hold and releasing the shutter is a challenge because the cocking level gets in the way of fingers when the shutter is released. The sturdy and heavy body is made of chrome and Bakelite(They don’t make plastics like that anymore!!) The shutter release is so stiff that camera movement is likely. The two rear windows of the viewfinder and rangefinder are poorly designed although the rangefinder is brighter than my Leica III. Accuracy is questionable though. There are 5 to 7 shutter speeds(depending on what variant you have) 1/10 through 1/300 sec. It is hard to believe they are all accurate. On the 50mm Cintar on the front, aperture settings are made by directly looking into the lens so that you get a visual of the lens opening. A bit inconvenient, and if you use a lens shade even more so.(The lens shade also impedes the viewfinder and rangefinder windows.) The Sandmar lenses have all the markings on the barrel. Advancing the film is by winding knob having to push a lever briefly before advancing, some have torn film with this design. Having written about all its shortcomings it is hard to believe it sold so well and was so popular. Perhaps the scientific look was its charm. It may also be because it was a great camera to learn the basics to move on to more desirable and sophisticated cameras. My wife of course loved it because it produced far better pictures than her Instamatic and was proud that she learned some camera controls.
    Another aspect of the C3 is lens interchangeability. Because of the primitive arrangement with the rangefinder and the lens through gear coupling it makes changing a lens a bit of an ordeal and I suspect most did not bother. Describing the ordeal takes more time than actually doing it. It is not something to do on the fly or out in the open for fear of losing parts. With practice I am able to do it in just over a minute. Some might take two minutes. The problem is aligning the lens, the idler gear and rangefinder through the outer gears. It helps to have a little OCD.
  7. Here is the Argus Instruction for removing and replacing the lens which I shortened for brevity:
    1. Set rangefinder wheel to 3 foot position.
    2. Unscrew idler wheel cap and remove idler gear by lifting straight up.
    3. Unscrew lens from front plate—it may take a little effort.
    4. Screw new lens into front plate clockwise and seat it firmly.
    5. Turn focusing mount counterclockwise until first tooth of focus mount gear is in position to engage idler gear.
    6. Turn rangefinder wheel to infinity position.
    7. Drop idler gear in place—make sure it still maintains infinity setting.
    8. Turn rangefinder dial wheel to 3 foot position and install idler wheel cap.
    There you have it. Any gifted child could do this. Most adults wouldn't bother.
    The Sandmar lenses are coated, F: 4.5, look reasonably well made with 10 blade irises. However the barrels are made with light metal that tarnishes easily. Both were made in occupied Germany by Enna-Werk. There is not a lot of information about these lenses but the 100mm tele has 4 elements. I could find nothing on the 35mm. Both have Argus imprinted on the barrel. Fortunately both of mine came with original lens shade and cases. Apparently other manufacturers, like Soligar, made additional lenses later.
  8. And the Telephoto
  9. All images of the water tower, our favorite subject, were from a tripod mounted camera to eliminate any camera shake. All images were scanned with an Epson flatbed 2450 using Vuescan, admittedly not the best for 35mm film. The film was Fuji Superia X-tra 400 developed commercially.
  10. The normal lens.
  11. The Telephoto
  12. There were intermittent, perhaps 5 out of a 24 exp roll, unexplained light leaks that were vertical about 4 mm wide in every roll. After some deduction in exposing another role of film using black tape alternatively covering the viewfinder both rear and front I can say there is some internal reflection from the front viewfinder and/or rangefinder window that travel to the rear hinged back. Putting additional sealer of some kind around the rear eyelets might solve the problem. Incidentally if you Google "Argus C3 light leaks" you will get a number people who celebrate the light leaks and love the look. Most of them are worse than mine.
  13. Another light leak
  14. Aside from the light leak issue the C3 performed better than I anticipated especially with the additional lenses. I did not go to the darkroom to enlarge any images and I suspect on an 11 X 14 print, even an 8 X 10, I would see the lenses’ shortcomings. I also suspect that most who shot slides through the years were generally pleased with results. The $189.40 Package back in 1956 was about ¼ the cost of a similar Leica package. In that day the average American probably found the Argus C3 to be more than adequate for the price
  15. Another example
  16. The best part I can say about the Argus C3 that it does work which is more than I can say about my 3 Russian cameras. If I had no other choices I could live with this camera after I fix the light leak. I could also live with changing the lenses too. But using this camera is sort of akin to asking if you had 20 acres to plow would you rather plow with a mule or a John Deere tractor? Both would do the job although with the mule perhaps with less finesse and precision. However the tractor has less personality and character (not to insult any John Deere fans.) Of course it is not the quickest camera to use either and there is more thinking involved in setting the exposure, cocking the shutter, focusing, and winding the film.(Did I mention there is no double exposure prevention?) You could argue that the extra concentration will result in better pictures. Some will argue just the opposite. As I think about it, the Leica III that I have from the same era comes close to having the same level of “fussiness” as the Brick (but oh does it feel great in your hands!).
    A final thought: How is it that every successful camera design gets copied, ala Leica, Rollei,and Contax but no one ever copied the 3C? I think I know why but I will leave it to you readers to to come up with the answer ( I doubt that Gustave Fassin will be uttered in the same breath as Oskar Barnack.)
    As a side note, Jack Parr was so enthralled with his beloved Leica that he named his German Sheppard “Leica.” I am not sure I would ever name my dog “Argus.” If I ever got a mule, maybe.
  17. Looking at some of the early Kodak Instamatics, I'm not entirely sure one can say the C3 was never imitated.

    I'm guessing that the C3 was already so cheap that a serviceable imitation would not have been much of a bargain.
    Be that as it may, I imagine that if the C3 were made now we'd see Chinese imitations.
  18. Nice writeup very informative. I have one of those
    cameras, but since the rangefinder is off, I didn't bother
    to shoot with it. Maybe if I could get it fixed, I'd shoot a
    roll or two. Nice examples from the brick.
  19. Thanks for the info and nice pics. I just got one of these last week. I had no idea the lens could be changed. I just now removed the lens and cleaned the rear element. The only problem with my copy was that the viewfinder and rangefinder windows were extremely cloudy. Another thread on this forum informed me that the lenses could be cleaned by simply removing the round spring clips holding the lenses in, through the back of the camera, and dropping the lenses out. Took less than 5 minutes.
    Kris, the rangefinder can be adjusted without taking the camera apart. Seems pretty straightforward. The button in front of the accessory shoe is the vertical adjustment and there is apparently a screw under that that is the lateral adjustment. Here's the link to Rick Oleson's page on the C3, scroll down about halfway for the rangefinder adjustment. (link)
  20. My first real 35mm was ab argus c-3.
    I was sucessful even with Kodachrome 10.
    I realized it's limitations. but at that time I didn't miss close up ability.,
    when a young friend had his -- usually apart japanes rf stolen.
    I gave him the c-3. My only argus uis an af.
    when the need to do more close-up work became important I bought a slr.
    but the c-3 worked well for me and saved many good images.
    I think it is becaue most people will not put forth the effort
    to learn photography that do everything o( af ae p&s)
    or do nothing like plastic lenes 110 and 126 " box" style cameras became popular.
    It was a different time.
  21. An excellent read, Daniel, well-researched and equally well-written. I can't get serious about the C3 as a user, but it's unique and loveable, beloved of we tinkerers, and historically significant. Your various images demonstrating the lenses are both decorative and informative. Many thanks for your time and trouble.
  22. This is a camera that for me isn't quite good enough to fool with, but not quite "bad" enough to try just for the hell of it. Someday I might pick one up just because of its history.
    Kent in SD
  23. Great write up on the lesser known additional lenses, at least lesser known to me. Thanks.
    some discussion at Red Necks, White Socks, and an Argus C3.
    No we don't fit in with that white collar crowd
    We're a little too rowdy and a little too loud
    There's no place that I'd rather be than free
    With my red-necks, white socks, and Argus C-3
    It's also a great camera to do double exposures on. ;)
  24. Nice post. I have an Argus C3 that I paid too much for at a garage sale ($10), but which works well, and I've taken it on some trips as a backup film camera, and then never had to use it. When I have used it, it worked well.
    I too live not too far from Ann Arbor, and have visited the Argus Museum.
    I'm nitpicking, but.... One thing you wrote: "would you rather plow with a mule or a John Deere tractor? Both would do the job although with the mule perhaps with less finesse and precision."
    I don't know about a mule, but I've plowed with horses, following along behind a single-row walking plow, and repeatedly had modern farmer who were watching tell me they couldn't plow that straight with their modern gear. I suppose that, just like using vintage cameras, the results depend on practice and the user's skill with the tools.
  25. The C3 was my first real camera -- fond memories.
  26. Oh yeah! Double exposures, as JDM points out, were easily obtained with the C3, whether intentional or not. Here is a scan of a double exposure of my high school friend Mark Leonard smashing a pumpkin on his own head, circa 1960. I made the print back then on a poor quality enlarger that three of us shared. We used the same 50mm lens from the C3 for the enlarger lens. We knew that reversing the lens would produce better image quality, but could not figure out a method for adjusting the aperture without disturbing focus if we did. The print shows a bit of hypo staining, but not bad for fifty some years later.
  27. Excellent post. Very nicely done. You'Ve shown the camera in all it's raging glory. Sure it'S possible to take great pics with the C3 and many did. I think you nailed it that the most people didn't bother with changing lenses and probably used slide film kept the bar low enough. I've always wanted one and decided recently to buy one although as a gift for a very young girlfriend with a creative twist ( leans toward LO_O ) to give her the real thin. Unfortunately the one received (I paid way too much) didn't work at all the shutter was jammed and parts of the RF were missing too. I still want one for her, but that experience cooled my jets for the moment.
    The comment about all successful cameras have their imitators is an interesting point. I can't speculate other than they carried their market(share) and when the whole market went east they lost just like the other western camera constructors.

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