Vintage Camera Blog
In my professional photography work I almost always use a modern digital camera, but I like to remember where that camera came from. During my own photographic career I have seen the arrival and acceptance of auto exposure, auto focus, electronic controls and now digital everything. I get pleasure from handling a mechanical camera. Over the years I've aquired a good number of older cameras. Most of them work, some of them sort of work, and the others just look pretty.
The Argus Camera Company was not Ann Arbor's first Argus. In 1835, while Michigan was still a territory, there was the Michigan Argus weekly newspaper. It was the precursor of the daily Ann Arbor News, which sadly ceased publication this month. I got my start as a professional photographer at The Ann Arbor News in the early 1980s.
In my opinion, the Art Deco lines of the Argus A make it the best looking Argus camera. It also has a place in history. Arguably, it was the popularity of the Argus A series that established 35mm as a common format. Leica is credited with developing the 35mm format for still cameras, but their high precision and high price made it an elite product. The Argus A was a depression-era camera marketed to the masses, and the masses bought some thirty thousand in the first week of its introduction and half million over the next fifteen years.
Argus cameras came to us by way of a successful radio company called International Radio Corporation. They had even more success with their new camera and so left the radio business to concentrate on cameras. International Radio Company became International Research Corporation, and went from making Bakelite radios to Bakelite cameras. IRC owner Charles Verschoor had encountered the Leica camera in Europe in the early 1930s and decided to make an economical consumer version. The timing was good because Kodak had just introduced the 35mm daylight loading cartridge. Kodak developed the 35mm cartridge for their high quality German-made Retina 35mm cameras. Argus was the first camera made in the United States to use this convenient new film cartridge.
When the Argus A came out in 1936 it sold for $12.50, equal to about $194 in 2009. A similar looking Leica could cost up to $200 ($3000 in 2009), and a folding Kodak Retina cost $52.50 ($813 in 2009). The base model has two position focusing: near and far. Model A2 has a built-in extinction meter. This type of meter is awkward to use but is inexpensive, has no moving parts, doesn't require obsolete mercury batteries, and is better than no meter at all. In this regard Argus was way ahead of Leica which would wait decades before offering a built-in meter. Model A2F has full focusing as well as the meter.
The standard lens is a collapsing 3 element 50mm f4.5. There is also a model AA (Argoflash, 1940 - 1942) that has a non-focusing f6.3 lens.
An interesting feature is the ability to use the camera lens to print photos. Ever conscious of the need for economy, Argus offered an enlarger Model E onto which the camera (minus the removable back) could be placed to act as the enlarging lens. This enlarger used common household light bulbs, featured a "scientifically ventilated" lamphouse and retailed for $12.50.
There are many variations within the A series. For example, the camera pictured is an A2B, which was made from 1939 - 1950, both before and after WWII. The best source I could find for model descriptions is Hrad Kuzyk's "A Modern User's Guide To The Argus A/A2 Camera." I would like to know if my camera is the pre or post WWII model. Well, according to Mr. Kuzyk, it has the lens barrel and uncoated lens and fixed pressure plate of the pre war version, but the shutter speeds and shutter release of the post war. So perhaps it's a trans war, as Argus scrambled to find parts during the war years. It sports shutter speeds of 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/150 along with B & T, and apertures from f4.5 through to f18.
In looking at old advertisements for the Argus, I noticed that the film was referred to as "double-frame 35mm," perhaps because at that time 35mm was generally thought of as movie film, which uses a smaller area of the film per frame. The film came in 18 and 36 frame rolls in 1936. It is interesting that the shorter roll grew to 20 and then 24 frames.
Good sources of information about Argus Model A cameras:
Hrad Kuzyk's "A Modern User's Guide To The Argus A/A2 Camera
There is a nice little informal museum in Ann Arbor with a great collection of Argus cameras and gear on display. It is in the very building where so many Argus cameras were made. The building itself predates Argus, being built sometime in the late 1800s for the manufacturing of furniture. When Argus left the building in the late 1960s it was taken over by the University of Michigan which used it for storage and insect research. Now it is gentrified and has a number of offices both for the University and private businesses. The museum is tucked into an L- shaped lobby on the second floor. Its industrial heritage is apparent.
A number of worn glass and wood display cases hold the cameras and assorted photo equipment. The museum is open to anybody who happens to wander in and there is no admission charge. It is a bit dark inside. The location is 535 W. Williams St, Ann Arbor, MI 48103.
The building is owned by two prominent local businessmen, William Martin and Joe O'Neal. They call their enterprise C3 Partners, after the Argus C3 camera. C3 Partners assembled a fairly comprehensive collection of Argus cameras and opened the museum in 1987.
None of these cameras was designed for the professional photojournalist or wedding photographer. Rather, their natural market was the amateur photographer who looked for value.
I had a happy coincidence during one recent visit to the museum. I struck up a conversation with a white-bearded gentleman who worked in an adjacent University office. His name was Bill, and in the early 1950s he worked for Argus in this very building grinding and inspecting lenses for the Argus military periscope.
The C3 has the nickname "the brick." If you hold one it is obvious why: the shape and the weight. It is a solid-feeling, right angled chunk of bakelite and metal with a bit of glass. The C series started in 1938 and ran until 1966. It is the single most popular 35mm camera ever sold. It came with a f/3.5 50mm Cintar lens, which sometimes was very good, and sometimes not. It is possible to change lenses, although you will need a jeweler's screwdriver to do so. A leaf shutter is in the camera body behind the lens. Other lenses for the C3 are not as common as the camera itself. There are German-made Sandmar 35mm f/4.5 and 100mm f.4.5 along with a Japanese Soligor 135mm f/4.5. These companies also made a variety of finders to go with the lenses. The Sandmar lenses were sold by Argus for $60 each without a finder.
The first model C had an uncoupled split image range finder. By today's autofocus standards, focusing an Argus model C was a painful process. First you squint through a tiny yellow-colored rangefinder eyepiece to find the distance to your subject. Then you look at the front of the camera to see what that distance is. Then you set the lens to that distance. Then you do the same thing all over again because by now your subject has moved. And don't forget to cock the shutter before taking the photo.
The model C was followed shortly by the C2 and had the major upgrade of a coupled rangefinder. The coupling was quite obvious: an exterior gear connecting the rangefinder wheel to the lens. The C2 offered 10 shutter speeds in two ranges. Over time this changed to a single range of 5 shutter speeds ranging from 1/10 to 1/300.
The C2 was quickly joined by the C3 which sported a flash sync. This was a two pin push in, pull out bulb flash. There was no mechanism to lock the flash in place (unlike Kodak cameras). One had to learn not to hold the combination flash and camera by the flash alone or the heavy camera could separate itself from the flash in a flash. The C2 was produced from 1938 through 1942. The C3 came out in 1939 and continued, with some variations, through 1966.
One of those variations is the Matchmatic shown here. The Matchmatic came with a meter, most of which no longer work. Back when it did work, it had proprietary settings to use with the camera. I think that if I were shopping for an Argus back in the late 50s I would have skipped the Matchmatic and gone for the standard model with regular shutter speeds and aperture settings.
Aside from a smaller range of shutter speeds, smaller lens selection and the lack of quick lens interchangeability, the Argus did much of what a Leica could do but at a mere fraction of the cost. I read that the Argus had a high "perceived value" in that it had lots of knobs and gears and looked like a serious camera. Except for the meter, the Argus had a reputation as a reliable camera. Lens quality was inconsistent, but if you were lucky, you could take a photo as sharp as that of a Leica.
This camera does have a nice double exposure prevention feature. After the shutter has been fired, the film must be advanced before it will fire again. At that point a red shutter cover is visible behind the lens so the photographer can see at a glance that the film has been advanced and the shutter cocked. The shutter has two speeds: "instant" and "time."
I read online that this model, while designated as a 620 film camera, can accept 120 film as well. I tried to do this but have been unable to wrestle a 120 spool into this particular camera. Perhaps some modification of the camera is required.
An ad from 1953 shows this camera selling for $15.95. That works out to $129 in 2009 dollars. The flashgun and carrying case were extra. The fancier Argus 40 was advertised at $39.95.
The flash is a two prong push-in pull-out type but is not compatible with the 35mm Argus C3 camera.
For your $15.95 you got a simple non-adjustable two element 75mm f/11 set-focus (app. 5 ft to infinity) Lumar taking lens, which will give you 12 6x6 cm. images on a roll of 620 film.
The camera pictured is a Ciro-flex model B, probably made in 1947. It has a 3 element coated 85 mm f/3.5 Woolensak Velostigmat taking lens and an Alphax shutter with speeds of 1/10 - 1/200 plus B and T. Earlier model B cameras have an uncoated version of the same lens. Later model B cameras have a bright fresnel focusing screen instead of ground glass.
Model A came out in 1942, followed by model B (logically enough) immediately after World War Two. Ciro eventually had models B through F for sale at the same time. The differences involved the better Rapax shutter, a better lens (83 mm 4 element f/3.2 Woolensak Raptar) and flash sync terminals. The top of the line model F has the better lens, shutter and flash sync terminals for both X and M flash.
Ciro made a simple camera for a modest price with a decent lens. My camera is not in working condition, but online users claim it can give excellent results, especially in the middle apertures. An advantage for those who wish to use their vintage camera is that the Ciro-flex uses readily available 120 film. In 1948 this model B sold for $69. A scarce Rolleicord would have sold for $157. In 2009 dollars this works out to $618 and $1400.
The Ciro-flex had a few high-end features, such as a depth of field calculator, cable release socket, tripod mounts (yes, two of them), focusing screen magnifier and sports finder. Film advance was done with a knob while looking through the ruby window and there was no double exposure prevention. In the late 1940s and early 1950s 6 cm. roll film camera makers had to choose between 120 format or Kodak's 620. In spite of Kodak's dominance, Ciro opted for 120, giving the user 12 6 x 6 cm exposures per roll.
Ciro put up a good fight, but ultimately could not compete with the high quality German TLR cameras or the high value Japanese cameras. Production moved from Detroit to Delaware, Ohio before the company was purchased by Graflex in 1951 and moved to Rochester, N.Y. The Ciro-Flex F became the Graflex 22. The camera was discontinued in 1957.
A well-illustrated discussion of American roll film TLR cameras can be found at:
Go to http://twoliver.ctzphoto.com/cameras/ciroflexf.html for a detailed description of the Ciro-Flex model F.
The Ricohflex was their budget 120 film 6 x 6 cm format twin lens reflex camera. It had a decent 3 element 8 cm f3.5 lens with a Riken shutter offering speeds of 1/25, 1/50 , 1/100 and B. At least some of the lens elements appear to be coated. The taking and viewing lenses are geared to move their front elements together - simple but effective. A depth of field scale is on top of the viewing lens. The apertures are marked to f16, but will go at least one stop beyond that. Film advance is done with a simple knob and ruby window in the back. There is no double-exposure protection. There is a flash synch connection, but it is an older ASA type which requires a hard-to-find adaptor.
An unusual feature was the ability to use 35 mm film. This required a special optional module. The sports finder was also unusual. The front shade of the viewfinder has thin lines cut through it which form a frame when looking through a hole in the rear shade. The technique requires the viewer to keep both eyes open and allow the two images to merge. It takes a bit of practice. There are frames cut for square format 120 film and rectangular 35 mm framing.
Changing film requires the user to remove a film insert. This can be awkward in the field but does permit swapping the 120 roll film insert for a 35 mm film insert.
The Ricohflex VII came out in 1957 but is little changed from the 1950 Ricohflex III. If there is a Ricohflex I or II, I've been unable to find it. There is a Ricohflex model B from 1941, so perhaps Ricoh decided to use III instead of model C. I do find models IV and VI along with the VII pictured.
Ricoh also made copiers. In 1955 they introduced their Ricopy 101 and since then have become a dominant name in the copier market.
The Baby Box Tengor is a half frame camera, yielding 16 3 x 4 cm negatives per roll of 127 film. This is on the small side for contact prints, but by this time it was possible to get enlargements. Zeiss offered a line of simple enlargers that could double or triple the size of the print. Film advance is manual with a pair of ruby windows (and a metal slider to block light) on the back. The half frame sequence is achieved when a frame number first appears in the lower window, then, after exposure that same number is advanced to the upper window for another exposure.
The Baby Box was introduced in 1931 at a price of $4.00. That works out to about $57 in 2009 dollars. The first version had a plain leather front, but by 1934 it had a decorative hexagonal plate around the lens. The model was discontinued entirely by 1938.
The viewfinder keeps with the simple theme, having a a pull-up wire finder in front and a folding stamped metal eye piece at the rear. In all but the earliest models the shutter won't fire unless the wire finder is pulled up. This worked to my advantage when I was bargaining for this camera in an antique store in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. I didn't know about the need to have the finder deployed. I showed the shop keeper that the shutter didn't work and thus got a price reduction. I had fallen for this diminutive camera and wanted it as my souvenir of Bulgaria with or without a working shutter. Just how diminutive is this camera? I measure it at 3 x 2 x 2.5 inches.
The Nettars were designed with the price-conscious in mind. The line was introduced in the late 1930s and continued into the late 1950s.
The model shown here is a postwar example and takes 12 square
It appears there was a 1937 version of this camera with a f/4.5 Novar 75mm lens. I also see a 6 x 4.5 version, which should get 16 exposures per roll. In fact, looking around online reveals many lens, shutter and viewfinder variations around a Zeiss Ikon 515.
More folding Zeiss Ikon cameras can be seen at The Camera Site.
As stated above, you can find Nettar 515/2 cameras with a variety of lenses and shutters, but a model 515/2 will always have a big 6 x 9 cm format on 120 film. A British catalogue from 1937 shows this combination pictured (Nettar 515/2 with Tessar f/4.5 and Compur shutter) selling for about £10 while a Nettar 515/2 with a Nettar f/6.3 lens and Derval shutter could be had for a mere £3 15s. According to online currency converters, that £10 would equal seven days wages for a building trades craftsman in 1935, and is worth about £370 in 2009 currency or about $600 U.S. dollars.
The Tessar lens is justly famous for its quality. The name comes from the Greek word "tessares," meaning "four." The lens has four elements in three groups with a cemented doublet of plano-concave elements at the rear. A diagram of this cemented doublet with the words “Zeiss” and “Ikon” forms the Zeiss Ikon logo.
A variety of dates can be found for this iconic model. Some sources say they first appeared in 1901 and were produced until 1963. Other sources say they ceased production in 1951. There is not a good record of production dates, making it hard for collectors to date specific cameras. At any rate, they were manufactured over a long period of time and there are lots of them out there in a wide variety of sizes. The rotating back was introduced in 1923, and those models are known as the RB series B. All cameras have the distinctive "stovepipe" hood and Graflex's single curtain vertical focal plane shutter. This unusual shutter has four slits marked: 1/8, 3/8, 3/4 and 1-1/2. This refers to the slit size in inches. There is another mechanism that sets the tension, ranging from number 1 to 6. A chart on the side of the camera shows the various combinations and the resulting shutter speeds, for example, slit size 1/8 and tension number 6 gives an exposure of 1/1000 sec. while at the other end slit size 1-1/2 and tension number 1 produces 1/10 sec. There are 24 possible combinations, with exotic speeds such as 1/135 or 1/440. The slit size cannot be reset unless the reflex mirror is returned to its down position. In order to take a second photo at the same shutter speed the photographer must rewind the slit size mechanism. A contemporary photographer would not regard this cameras as a fast shooter. Graflex used this same shutter in their Speed Graphic cameras, although by 1947 those cameras had a leaf shutter in the lens in addition to or in place of the focal plane shutter.
The model pictured is the smallest size at 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 sheet or roll film. Other sizes are 3-1/4 x 4-1/4, 4 x 5 and even 5 x 7. Except for their size, all these cameras look pretty much the same.
My model has the standard Kodak No. 31 Anastigmat f4.5 5-1/2 inch lens. This interchangeable lens has 4 uncoated elements and a beautiful 15 blade aperture which stops down to f/32 and came with a shinny black felt-lined metal lens cap.
A wealth of information about Graflex and Graphic cameras is to be found at: http://www.graflex.org/.