With waist-level ground-glass viewfinders and coupled high-quality viewing and taking lenses that focus in concert, real twin-lens reflex (TLR) cameras are fine and capable instruments. Some of them, like the legendary Rolleiflex, became luxury items in their day. They still are.
In the 1950s, to try to capture the TLR cachet some camera manufacturers made cameras that looked like TLRs with waist-level viewfinders and separate viewing and taking lenses. But these were glorified box cameras, usually with fixed focus, fixed exposure, and simple brilliant viewfinders.
Rising above the crowd among these pseudo-TLRs is the 1950-54 Argus Argoflex Forty, as it boasts a 75mm f/4.5-22 Coated Varex Anastigmat lens that focuses down to 3.5 feet, and a nine-blade leaf shutter that operates at 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/150 sec. and bulb.
The viewing lens isn’t coupled to the taking lens, however. The viewfinder always shows everything in focus. You have to guess the distance to your subject and twist the focus ring to that number of feet.
At least the brilliant viewfinder is bright and crisp. If you’ve ever shot a real TLR you’ll find this viewfinder to be small, but except for adapting to it reversing the scene left to right I never had any trouble framing my subjects with it.
You’ll find this camera in three slight variants: one called the Argus 40 and one with no name printed on the body at all. Some of these cameras have black plastic winding knobs instead of the metal one on mine. Otherwise, these cameras are identical, with bodies of Bakelite with a metal back, trimmed in aluminum.
You’ll find a few different Argus pseudo-TLRs that share this body. The most common is the Argoflex Seventy-Five and the later restyled but functionally identical Argus 75. Both have a fixed-focus, fixed-exposure meniscus lens. The similar Argus Super Seventy-Five offers a focusable 65mm f/8-f/16 lens.
I bought this camera because I’ve admired the images fellow photoblogger Mike Connealy has gotten from his for years. He says that his Forty has reliably produced images for him as good as those from more sophisticated cameras. See his work here. When I came upon this Forty for a good price, I scooped it up.
This despite it taking out-of-production 620 film. You can occasionally find expired 620 film on eBay, and the Film Photography Project sells 120 film they’ve hand-respooled onto 620 spools (here). To save a few bucks you can spool 120 film onto a 620 spool in a dark bag. The Film Photography Project has instructions here.
But there’s no strict need for any of that with the Forty, as a 120 spool fits snugly but functionally in its supply end after you trim off the edges of the spool ends (instructions here). You need to use a 620 spool in the takeup end, however. My Forty came with one, and I just asked my lab to return that spool to me after processing.
The Argoflex Forty is smaller and considerably lighter than a regular TLR, making it not too bad to carry in your hands on a photo walk. If you have a strap lying around, though, you can tie it on to the lugs and sling it around your neck or shoulder. That’s what I did.
By the way, if you like pseudo-TLRs see also my review of the Kodak Duaflex II here. Other good boxes I’ve reviewed include the Agfa Clack (here), the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye (here), the Kodak No. 2 Brownie, Model D (here), and the Ansco B-2 Cadet (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
I had some 620 Kodak Verichrome Pan, expired since June of 1980, chilling in the fridge. What a perfect film for this old camera! I spooled it in and took the camera out. As you can see, it makes square photos, 12 per roll.
I started with a quick trip to Coxhall Gardens, a park in Carmel. The Argoflex Forty was an easy companion, performing well in my hands. The shutter button was a little heavy to push.
The big, bright viewfinder made it easy to frame my subjects. I did a reasonable job of holding the camera level, too. I did manage to cut off the top of this statue, unfortunately.
I finished the roll around the square in Lebanon. As I wound the film, it started to bind up a little, becoming hard to turn. What I didn’t know is that the film wasn’t winding evenly onto the takeup spool. After I removed the film from the camera, light leaked a little onto several frames, the ones that peeked past the spool’s end. The effect was worst on this, the last image on the roll.
Unfortunately, I didn’t notice this wonky winding until a couple days later. There wasn’t much to do at that point but send the film right in for processing. Fortunately, only the one above was significantly affected. I could have cropped it out of the other photos had I wanted to.
This shot of the courthouse down an alley was the last shot not affected by this leaking light. Notice what you’re not seeing here: the vignetting and corner softness common to box cameras. There’s good sharpness from corner to corner. Really, if I told you I took these with one of my real TLRs, like my Yashica-D, would you have been any the wiser?
I had a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 in 120 sitting here doing nothing so I cut the edges off its spool ends and loaded it into the Forty. It worked; the film wound with no trouble. Here’s the federal courthouse in Indianapolis.
With its exposure latitude, Ektar has never failed me in any old box camera. It helps a lot that this particular box lets you set exposure. On this Downtown Indianapolis photowalk I first used the light meter on my phone, but it kept giving me readings consistent with Sunny 16 so I quit metering and just used that age-old rule to guess exposure myself.
The Argoflex continued to be simple to use and to return images sharp from center to corners. The lens delivers medium contrast, which seems strange in this era of uber-contrasty digital images, but the look is pleasing.
I finished the roll on a walk along Main Street in Zionsville. It’s my tradition to photograph the Black Dog Books sign. By the way, this time the film wound properly onto the takeup spool. I don’t know why it didn’t on the previous roll.
I did notice some flare or haze in shots where the sun wasn’t well behind me. But that’s not surprising for a camera of this era.
To see more from this camera, check out my Argus Argoflex Forty gallery.
The Argus Argoflex Forty is a surprise and a delight. It’s easy to carry and use, and its lens returns images of pleasing contrast and tonality with good sharpness. It’s also more easily used than most 620 cameras given that it can take 120 film with the spool edges cut off. The Argoflex Forty is a keeper, a great little box for a day when I just want to shoot for fun.