I have a deep affection for this little bit of Bakelite, aluminum, and glass. The first argus a-four I owned, in the 1980s when I was a teenager, was the first camera I ever shot that let me set aperture and shutter speed. It generated the little spark for photography that, in my 40s, would finally burst into flame.
I put several rolls of film through that a-four, including a roll of bulk-loaded Plus-X that I developed in my high school’s darkroom. The photo below came from a roll of drugstore Kodak color film that I shot around my neighborhood. My brother made this shot of me leaning on the family car. It was the summer I turned 16.
I set aperture, shutter speed, and focus for my non-photographer brother — this is a viewfinder camera with no onboard light meter, so you have to guess and then set all of those things before every shot. You also have to cock the shutter by pulling the cocking lever atop the lens barrel. You’ll never make a quick shot with an a-four. But in the 1950s, when this camera was new, it was a solid step up from the box cameras amateurs otherwise used.
As my first marriage crumbled away I did a few regrettable things, including selling my entire camera collection. I owned a couple hundred cameras then, mostly junk excepting that a-four and a handful of others. My life eventually settled down and I started collecting again. I searched for and eventually found another a-four. I took it along to a muscle-car auction with some Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros loaded. Just check out the resolving power and sharpness of that 44mm f/3.5 Coated Cintar lens.
This a-four hasn’t given me such great results on every roll, however. It seems like one roll turns out great and the next not so much, kind of like Star Trek movies. This was a not-so-great roll as too many shots turned out soft. I don’t think I focused wrong on so many shots, and I used apertures of f/8, f/11, and f/16 most of the time, so I should have had plenty of depth of field. It’s not so evident at blog size, but if you look at any of the photos at full size you’ll see that softness. Unfortunately I burned my last roll of Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros for these results.
The a-four’s viewfinder isn’t precise. When I made this photo every bit of that arch was visible in the viewfinder.
The camera is roughly the same size as a compact SLR like the Pentax ME or the Olympus OM-1, but is much lighter. The shutter button is awkwardly placed, but after a few shots you get used to it. The winding knob is this camera’s big usability disappointment. It’s too close to the body to really grab it, so to wind it on you make a whole bunch of short turns with just your fingertips. Mine turns stiffly, as though it could rip through the film sprockets.
When I finished the roll and started to rewind, the film immediately tore. I’d been meaning to buy a dark bag anyway, so I bought one, put the camera in, spooled the film into a black 35mm film can, and sent the film to Dwayne’s. They processed it no problem.
The lens is also prone to flare when the sun isn’t behind you. Or perhaps the lens is dirty. This a-four was on display in my home for nearly a decade and who knows how much grease and dust landed on the lens over the eyars. A swab dipped in rubbing alcohol, applied gently, would have been a good idea before I shot this camera. I regret not at least checking its condition.
The shutter’s 1/200 top speed makes it challenging to shoot fast films on sunny days. I shot Tri-X 400 in this thing once and even on a cloudy day my external meter wanted exposures this camera can’t give. I shot everything at smallest aperture and fastest shutter (f/16 and 1/200 sec), relying on Tri-X’s famous exposure latitude to cover. Pro tip: use films of no more than ISO 200 in this camera.
The argus a-four was Argus’s answer to Kodak’s Pony, and unfortunately the Pony bests it slightly in every way. Its shutter is slightly faster, its lens is (in my experience) sharper and less prone to flare, and it’s a little easier to use.
Yet the whole roll through, I felt good when I brought this a-four to my eye. It connected me with my photographic beginnings and that just felt great.
To see more from this camera, check out my Argus a-four gallery.
I’m going to move on from the argus a-four, however. I’ll never shoot it again. Yet my first a-four introduced me to photography’s possibilities, and for that reason this camera has a special place in my heart. I reserve the right to change my mind.