35 mm photography has been around a good long time, with the earliest cameras dating to about 1905. The narrow film allowed for “candid” cameras that were much smaller than the large- and medium-format cameras in common use. But the format didn’t really take off until 1934 when Kodak first spooled the film into the little metal canister we all know. It dropped right into Kodak’s original Retina camera in full daylight. (I have a later Retina camera; see it here.)
Other camera manufacturers quickly adopted this cartridge, but Argus was first to exploit it for everyman when it introduced the A in 1936. A simple camera made of Bakelite plastic, at $12.50 (equivalent to about $203 today) the A wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t out of reach. Other models based on the A body followed quickly. 1939 brought the A2B, which added an extinction meter to help the photographer set exposure. I was curious about both the A and about extinction meters, so I went shopping for an A2B.
See the extinction meter there, inside the oval area between the viewfinder and the rewind knob? The meter contains a series of gray filters, each one darker than the last. You peer through them, looking for the darkest one that still lets you see light, and then set the aperture and shutter speed according to an index atop the camera. Unfortunately, the filters in my camera were in poor shape, making the meter difficult to use. Notice also the collapsible lens barrel. To take pictures, you twist it and pull it out.
Argus ceased production during World War II, and when production resumed small changes were made across the A line. The easiest way to tell a prewar and postwar A2Bs apart is by checking the fastest shutter speed – it was 1/200 sec before the war, 1/150 sec after. So mine’s from after the war, but no later than 1950 when Argus quit making As altogether. It cost $29 in 1945, equivalent to about $365 today. My A2B comes with a coated 50 mm f/4.5 lens and a Wollensak Alphax leaf shutter. It offers two focusing zones: 6 to 18 feet, and 18 feet to infinity. Focusing the A2B is not intuitive. For 6-18 feet, extend the lens barrel and twist it until it locks, with the Argus logo parallel with the camera’s face. For greater than 18 feet, twist the extended lens barrel so that it is unlocked.
I understood focusing exactly backwards when I loaded a roll of Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros into my A2B. Fortunately, my A2B was in a forgiving mood. My photos came out just a little bit soft, with a dreamy quality about them. The softness shows up more when you click through to see these photos larger on Flickr.
I drove over to New Augusta, a community near my home that used to be an independent town, to photograph its church. I shot Sunny 16, but given the A2B’s old-style aperture scale I set it between f/18 and f/12.7 and hoped for the best.
This photo of the church’s sign and door came out acceptably sharp. I probably forgot to set the lens for close focus, and since I understood focusing backwards it led to the shot being properly focused.
This shot of a cash-advance business in a strip mall came out sharp, too. I was probably standing about 18 feet back, where the lens would be sharp regardless of how it’s focused. I’m not often bothered when I’m out using one of my cameras, but seconds after I took this photo the manager stormed out quite upset that I was photographing his storefront. I explained what I was doing, but he remained agitated. He kept interrogating me, so I just walked away.
The A2B doesn’t prevent multiple exposures, so after each shot it’s a good idea immediately to wind to the next frame. I got three double-exposed shots in a row on this roll. What’s strange about it is that I took three shots of my office building, then drove down the road and took three shots of a rest stop on the Monon rail trail, and the first three shots are on the same frames as the last three. I’ll never figure out how I did that.
The A2B was a pleasant enough shooter, and I was pleased with the images I got back despite my problems with focus. But for a day of fun shooting with a simple 35 mm camera, I’d reach for my Argus A-Four or my Kodak Pony 135 first because of their improved ergonomics and greater control. Many classic-camera users would disagree, as the A has a bit of a cult following. If you’d like to try an A, they’re plentiful on eBay and the wonderful Argus A/A2 Camera Page is an excellent source of information, including a great user’s guide that explains all the models and how to use them.
Do you like old cameras? Then check out my entire collection!