Cameras, Photography

Argus A-Four

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Argus A-FourLet’s get the details out of the way first, because few are to be found anyway. The Argus A-Four (or, as the camera proudly declares across its face, argus a-four) was produced from 1953 to 1956. It takes good old 35 mm film. Its plastic and aluminum body holds a coated f/3.5 Argus Cintar lens stoppable to f/22. Its three-leaf Gauthier shutter fires only at 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/200 sec. You have to manually cock the shutter before you can take a photograph. In the photo at left, the shutter is cocked – see the little metal arm sticking out on top of the lens barrel? You set aperture, shutter speed, and distance; pull that lever over to cock the shutter; and then press the black button. Click!

I had an A-Four in my first camera collection and liked it. I shot a couple rolls with it, and even developed one roll myself and made contact prints (with the help of an experienced friend). It was the first camera I owned that let me set aperture, shutter speed, and focus, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was fortunate any of those photos turned out. (You can see some of them here, here, and here.) But I loved it. While I had maybe a dozen cameras when I bought that A-Four, I didn’t really think of myself as a collector. Shooting that first roll with the A-Four changed that. I was hooked.

So I was glad to come across this A-Four for ten bucks on eBay.

Argus A-Four

It came with a leather carrying case. The bottom flap had broken off – just like the one on my first A-Four, making me think it was a common flaw in the case’s design. It also came with a flashgun and one Sylvania P25 blue-dot bulb. (Sylvania’s slogan: “Blue dots for sure shots.”) The flashgun is powered by two C batteries.

Argus A-Four Argus A-Four

The camera, however, is all mechanical. Before it arrived, I found some Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros black-and-white film on clearance for a couple bucks a roll, so I bought several, thinking they’d be just right for my vintage Argus. I had downloaded an A-Four manual from butkus.org and it included a page showing how to set aperture and shutter speed for common films of the day. It’s really very clever – for most color films you lined up the shutter and aperture to yellow dots on the lens barrel, and for most black and white films you lined them up to red dots. The idea was that if you used the dots you would get properly exposed shots under most conditions. All you had to do shot to shot was guess the focus, from 3.5 feet to infinity. I wasn’t sure the dots would work with the Neopan 100 Acros – I didn’t know how fast those 1950s films (such as Tri-X, Plus X, and Kodachrome) were in comparison. So I shot using the Sunny 16 rule. And let me tell you, I had a great time.

I started in my neighbor’s front yard. He and his wife are master hosta growers. They are heavily involved with the Indianapolis Hosta Society and routinely travel to shows and conferences about this herbaceous perennial. His lush yard is well known in hosta-loving circles. Every summer I’ve lived here, tour buses pull up in front of his house on one or two Saturdays and people get out and wander around his yard. Check it out.

Hostas

I got in close to this big boy. My neighbor has little metal signs next to each hosta proclaiming its variety, but it’s all Greek to me.

Hostas

I also tried an available light shot in my living room, six feet from the picture window on a sunny day, with the camera wide open at the slowest shutter speed. I cropped the photo because I bungled the framing. These are peonies from the bushes in my front yard. The shot could be crisper, but then again I was holding the camera in my hands.

Peonies

I also took the A-Four to the Mecum Spring Classic car auction. I was quite a sight with the A-Four and two point-and-shoot digital cameras in my hands. I am simply delighted by this photo of a 1967 Ford LTD headlight.

67 Ford LTD

I am almost as chuffed about this shot of a 1968 Dodge Coronet R/T taillight. I got it in color with my Canon PowerShot S80, too, but the camera did all the work. With the A-Four, I had to at least stop down to f/11 (as the sun had gone behind a cloud) and guess the distance to the subject. It makes me feel like a real photographer, by golly.

68 Dodge Coronet R/T

Finally, here’s a photo of a 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396. I’ve always loved this body style. I like this photo best at its largest size because it shows what this lens and this film can do together. Not bad for a ten dollar camera.

1968 Chevy Chevelle SS

Do you like old cameras? Then check out my entire collection.

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43 thoughts on “Argus A-Four

  1. Lone Primate says:

    I admire someone who can get that into film. I wanted to, but I found it so disheartening not knowing till I’d spent $$$ what came out, what looked blurry, and having to spend the money and time waiting… shooting 24 or 36 frames when I wanted to shoot hundreds… when I had that film SLR in the late 80s, it mostly gathered dust. I didn’t have the chops for it; I had to wait for digital to really get started.

    In spite of that, or maybe because of it, I can really appreciate what you’re doing here. Those B&W shots are agreeable and eye-catching (the most satisfying work I ever did with my film SLR was in B&W… unfortunately, it was also the most expensive!). I like that faint blue cast in the photos… is that in the nature of the type of film you were using? That slight suggestion of silver or platinum to them makes them more appealing that something absolutely greyscale in every aspect.

    Sunny 16 rule, huh? Never heard of that. I doubt I’ll be able to make much practical use of it but it’s cool to learn it. :)

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    • You know, LP, I wasn’t any good shooting film until I’d shot digital for several years and learned a little about composition. There’s just no substitute for the instant results you get on a digicam. Now I can frame a shot with a film camera and have an idea that what I’m doing is going to look right — as long as I didn’t bugger up the focus.

      I don’t see the blue cast in my photos. And I don’t really know much about this film; after all, I got it on clearance! I do like how well it renders the chrome on that headlight shot. Honestly, I’m just astonished by the results from this camera.

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    • Thanks for stopping by! Arguses were almost as common as Kodaks back in the day, so it’s not surprising you recognize this camera.

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    • Todd, I hope you’ll look into whether your old cameras work and maybe run a roll through a few of them! Well, for cameras for which you can still get film, anyway.

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    • One thing I’m learning is that even an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera can take great photos. It’s more about the photographer than the equipment!

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      • Jim,

        I believe my 35 mm photos are better than my digital photos “on average” because of two things:

        1) Control. My film cameras give me greater control over focusing and depth of field than the digital cameras I own.
        2) Money. The fact that each photo costs something makes me more thoughtful about composition than my digital photography.

        Make no mistake, I always have a digital camera with me (Canon SD880) but for special times of day or photos, I reach for a film camera also.

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  2. These are wonderful. There is a look to film that can not be duplicated with digital and I don’t care what Photoshop actions or filters you use. That’s a cool little camera too. I’ve still got an old Poloroid and now you’ve inspired me to try to find film for it. :)

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  3. srqpix says:

    I would love to try out some old film cameras but the cost of it all would be a bit much right now. Maybe one day soon I hope.

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    • It certainly does depend on your finances, but you can pick up good old cameras on eBay for under $30 shipped. The Canon Canonet series are often good choices, or try the Olympus Trip 35. I usually buy my film at Wal-Mart; I can get it that way for $2 a roll. I use Snapfish.com for color processing and can get prints and digital files for about $6.

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  4. My favorite is the picture of the peonies, but they’re all nice. The Argus is a nice-looking camera; cameras today don’t seem to have the character that the old ones had.

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    • The peonies themselves were mighty nice — they filled my living room with fragrance! Everything seemed to have more character in days gone by.

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  5. great photograpahs they are so beautiful =)
    the headlight photo is my fave
    you are a brill photographer,you have an eye for certain things
    x x x loulou x x x

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  6. Nice post! Thank you for sharing–I learned with film as well, but have never used an argus a-four. I love the adventure of not knowing what you’re getting. The headlight shot is gorgeous.

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    • Thank you! I shot film for 30 years — badly, I mean frightfully badly — until I got my first digital camera a few years ago. It was the instant feedback (and a little reading about composition) that improved my photos immeasurably! Now I can go back to film and have a half a clue about what I’m doing.

      The headlight shot is composed as I planned but the sunburst was lucky happenstance. The sun came out from behind a cloud just as I clicked the shutter button. I feared it would wipe out the photo, so I shot again at a slightly different angle to avoid the sun. Here’s that shot: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mobilene/4665033778/. But when the photos came back from the processor, the sunlit one was clearly superior.

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  8. akivsboemi says:

    reminding me about my old cameras, who’s in bad shape. all of them…
    but, it’s very very very nice picture!!!!!

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  9. Pat says:

    My Dad just recently passed away and one of his possessions is an Argus a-four….which looks to be in decent shape….with the same case as yours, but it’s not broken. I’m trying to sell it and appreciate the good description you gave….and nice photographs too!

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  10. Michael Richardson says:

    Jim,

    I just inherited an argus a four and would love to get it up and running. Can you email me so we can talk about it?

    Thanks,

    Mike

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  11. Tom Wikoff says:

    I recently found your blog while doing research on the Argus a-four. Your photos were fantastic by the way. I recently took possession of an a-four which has been in the family since the mid-50s and was used to take many pictures during both the 50s and 60s some of which I actually still have. The “rediscovery” has me excited and I want to try taking some pictures using the camera (yes, it still works). What kind of film would you recommend? I’m guessing that the ASA of films commonly made at the time this camera was sold was probably in the 25 to 50 range. I doubt there’s any comparable animal out there now. I’d like to try b&w as well as color.
    Thanks, Tom

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    • I have shot exactly three rolls of film in my a-four, two b/w and one color. I like this camera with b/w film (I used Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros) and not at all with color (Fujicolor 200). The b/w results you see here; the color results all seemed washed out and poorly saturated.

      This camera doesn’t have any sort of exposure system so in a way it doesn’t matter at all what ASA film you use. I shot Sunny 16 with this camera — on a sunny day, f/16 with the shutter speed the inverse of the film speed, and keep stopping down the more cloudy it gets. Or you can get an exposure meter and feed it your film’s ASA/ISO and let it do the rest of the work.

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