For reasons I wasn’t sure I understood at first, the Argus C3 was among the most popular 35mm cameras of its day in America.
Between the different models available during the 27-year run of the C3 series, Argus sold millions of these blocky wonders, making it the most popular American 35mm camera by some measures.
Argus made a number of other cameras, too, and the variations of the C3 were made from 1939 through 1966. It outlasted most of its direct competitors, including a number of Kodaks. Of course, some of this could be due to the low price — only around $30 early in its life cycle, which was, at the time, peanuts for a camera with a coupled rangefinder.
Fans of the Harry Potter series may recognize the Argus C3 as the magical camera carried by first-year Hogwarts student Colin Creevey in the film adaptation of the second book, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” Mine shares the same black and yellowish color scheme as Creevey’s, though most earlier models were all black.
The C3 features a three-element 50mm f/3.5 Argus Coated Cintar lens and coupled rangefinder. Similar to a Leica or Contax of its day, the rangefinder window and viewfinder are separate. The rangefinder is a split image, though, as opposed to being superimposed.
The Bakelite body has metal front and rear plates with leatherette covering and plenty of shiny, American chrome. Argus’ factory was in Ann Arbor, so maybe they had a bit of a 1940s-50s chrome inferiority complex with Detroit relatively close.
The camera’s leaf shutter only has a few speed settings — Bulb; and 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/300 sec. on normal models. The later, “easier,” Match-Matic models have the same speeds but without the markings. The shutter speed dial is on the front plate, up and “camera left” (as you hold the camera) of the lens. It is numbered 4 through 8, part of Argus’ proprietary Match-Matic exposure value system.
The aperture also works abnormally. It’s a ring on the lens barrel with options from 3.5 to 8+. These numbers also fit the funky Match-Matic system.
The earlier models had no built-in light meter. The Match-Matic doesn’t have one built in, either, but it does have an accessory shoe on top and included a meter that fits into it. It’s a cold shoe (though it can evidently be converted into a hot shoe), but a flash can be attached to the side of the camera via a post-and-screw arrangement similar to many other cameras of its day.
The rangefinder is externally coupled — a gear on the front of the camera is driven by teeth on the edge of the lens barrel, and that gear in turn drives a dial marked with the indicated distance and moves the rangefinder prism inside the body. The distance scale is marked in feet, and also has a ring marked “Flash Finder,” which uses a numbered system from 1 through 8 to help determine aperture (the manual keeps calling it “lens opening”) with a flash. The manual includes a guide to adjust for some films and bulb types, but without adjustment it is reportedly configured to work with Kodachrome 25 and Sylvania Press 25B flashbulbs.
The shutter is primed by a lever on the front plate — a big, shiny, chrome teardrop on these later models — and then released by a button on the top plate. Bulb mode is activated by turning the shutter release button 90 degrees to B. For standard shutter speeds, leave it set to I for Instant.
The frame counter on top of the camera has a little lever next to it, called the Film Catch by Argus. Basically it catches and stops both the advancing film and the frame counter after each frame is advanced.
In order to advance the film again, you’ll need to bump this lever/knob to the left a bit to release the ratcheting film counter and advance the film one frame. Turn the advance knob (the one on the top left of the camera) until the catch stops it again. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see the film counter dial turn all the way around, plus one frame.
When you’ve reached the last frame — obvious because the counter won’t make it all the way around — you can rewind the film by turning the knob on the bottom of the camera. You’ll notice the Film Catch lever clicking as each frame passes back into the film cassette.
The accessory meter utilizes a selenium cell, requiring no batteries. It works like older handheld dial-type light meters of its day: adjust the ASA setting to match your film, point the meter at your scene and turn the outer dial until the desired aperture marked on the front half (good luck — you’ll have to figure out which of Argus’ funky numerical values corresponds to what real-world aperture) aligns with the needle. Look to the back half of the dial and set the shutter speed to the indicated number.
There’s a tripod mount on the bottom opposite the rewind knob. Of note: The pressure plate in the C3 is shiny, polished steel. I wonder how that affected photographs in the days before anti-halation layers came into fashion.
My first impression of the camera was, unsurprisingly, that it looked like a brick. Felt like one, too — it’s not light at all. Where the similarities to a brick end, though, is where all the bits sticking out appear.
It’s pretty unique and memorable, at least. I saw several at thrift and antique stores before picking up my Match-Matic. It’s clearly seen a little use, but is among the cleaner examples I’ve seen. Thanks to the model’s popularity and longevity, there are still tons of C3s around and one can be had fairly inexpensively.
Loading film is more-or-less standard, though it’s kind of backwards — the cassette goes on your right instead of your left. Advancing is easy once you get used to popping the Film Catch every time, and it positively stops when it’s gone far enough.
Frame spacing is superb — better than most any other cameras of this vintage I can think of, like the Kodak Pony II or the Kodak Signet 50. I also found that the frames had very sharp corners compared to much older 35mm cameras I’ve tested. Like almost perfectly square.
Using the meter is a bit finicky, but workable. The funky Argus exposure value system is still baffling to me, although the normal speed and aperture values are available, so you could put them on a sticky note on the back if you want.
I wanted to try the camera the way Argus intended, though, so I stayed intentionally ignorant of the real-world values and just used the exposure numbers as presented in the manual [PDF] and hoped for the best. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I actually got pretty good exposures. More than good enough to print, for sure.
I found the rangefinder a little stiff, but I suspect that has more to do with age than design. The external gearing is very steampunk, but I suspect it would work more smoothly without so much exposure to dust and grit, and if it were lubricated at all. I do like that you can use the index finger of your right hand to turn the distance scale ring, using its geared edge for grip, and thus turn the lens as well.
The rangefinder on mine is covered in gunk or vaseline or something … about all I can see through it is blurry light and dark, no edges to focus on. So I used the distance scale to estimate focus for my test shots. I was using ASA 400 film in daylight, so I figured apertures would mostly be small enough that focus would be a little less important anyway. Even if the rangefinder weren’t all gummed up, it’s an awfully small thing to look through. So is the viewfinder — also clouded a bit on mine, but usable.
Remembering to set the shutter with the big, chrome lever tripped me up a few times, but it’s a problem I’ve had with plenty of other cameras and I know it would be easy to get used to after a couple rolls of film. The shutter button is easy to operate and smooth.
The fit and finish on the C3 Match-Matic are really where it’s at. For a budget camera, it’s very nicely made. The corners are nicely rounded and chrome is well-polished. Even the Bakelite is smoother and shinier than most. The non-chromed metal parts are nicely machined. The spring latch on the door, too, is an interesting and attractive design. The leatherette is very nicely trimmed, matched and affixed.
Inside, the film path is smooth, polished Bakelite, too. The internal metal parts don’t share quite the same level of attention to detail as those on the outside, but they are more than functional.
It’s not ergonomic — not even a little bit. In fact, it’s not even particularly comfortable to hold. The controls aren’t too badly placed, though. The camera does feel a little thick in the hands, though — from front to back, I mean. The flats, as you’d expect with so many nicely polished surfaces, are nice under the fingertip.
Visually, the C3 line displays a fascinating mesh of modern and budget features, Art Deco and Brutalist styling. It definitely looks good on a shelf.
Overall, I’m suitably impressed. It’s not something I’d use every day. In fact, I may never use it again. But I can certainly see the attraction and why it was so popular. I can also see how there are still so many around — it’s built like a brick, too.