The Argus A-Four is about as simple of a 35mm camera as is possible. But it’s fun to use, and its sharp lens delivers good results. I’ve updated my review here.
Hibbs Ford Bridge
If I could make the time, I’d drive country roads all over Indiana in search of gems like this. They’re out there, lurking, waiting.
Thank heavens for bridgehunter.com, which makes it easy to find old bridges without driving aimlessly for hours. Not that driving aimlessly can’t be pleasant in and of itself. But for those us pressed for time, we can pick any county in the United States, browse its old bridges on bridgehunter.com, and map a route to see the ones that interest us.
That’s just what my longtime friend Dawn and I did in 2015. We chose Putnam County, Indiana, specifically because of its wealth of old bridges, and saw as many as we could in one day. I wrote two posts: one about the county’s iron and steel truss bridges (here) and one about the county’s wooden covered bridges (here).
The Hibbs Ford Bridge was built in 1906 to carry what’s now E County Road 375 S over Deer Creek. I’m betting that this creek is also known as Hibbs Ford. In 2006, this bridge was restored so it could serve another generation.
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Double exposure of my brother, 1985
Kodacolor VR 200 (probably)
My brother ran for the high-school track team. The practice track was behind the school, along a side street. Mom and Dad used to drive over there and watch practice.
It was my senior year. I have negatives from a roll of film I shot that May as I was preparing to graduate. This photograph tells me I was using my Argus A-Four camera. That’s because it’s the only 35mm camera I owned then that allowed me to take a double exposure.
I didn’t mean to take this one. I took one shot of my brother leaning against the fence, and then a minute later took another — but forgot to wind in between. Also, I turned the camera both times for a landscape photo, but the second time upside down from the first time.
It made this double image of my brother, made perfectly symmetrical with a judicious crop.
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.
I’m not impressed that you own a Leica. Or a Hasselblad, or a Nikon F series, or any other fine, expensive camera.
Far be it from me to say you shouldn’t own one. I own a Nikon F2 and an F3 myself.
But if you want to impress me, show me your work.
I never tire of looking at this photo. I made it with my Argus A-Four, a 1950s 35mm viewfinder camera made of bakelite and aluminum. It packs a surprisingly capable 44mm f/3.5 Coated Cintar lens. I paid ten bucks for it.
I paid closer to $100 for my Nikon N2000 and a 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor lens. That’s a bargain compared to a working F2 body. Yet there wasn’t anything I could capture with that 35mm lens on my F2 that I didn’t capture when I recently shot that lens on my N2000.
That’s not to say I enjoyed using the plasticky N2000 as much as I enjoy using my solid, smooth F2. It’s wonderful to experience such a fine instrument. An Argus A-Four feels cheap in its own right; it’s ridiculous to compare its usage experience to that of any Leica. Cameras so fine deserve their devoted and fawning followers.
Yet so many of those followers treat their cameras as museum pieces. If you’re among them, I refer you to the work of John Smith, who shoots his Nikons and Leicas all the time. He makes wonderful photographs of the northern California coast. Check out his blog here.
Some of these followers even look down their noses at cameras they consider lesser. If you’re among them, I refer you to the work of Mike Connealy, who uses simple gear to make stunning photographs. Check out his blog here.
Consider this a challenge to make good work — especially using simple, inexpensive tools.