I’ve owned two Argus A2Bs, one of the earliest cameras to use Kodak’s 35mm film cartridge. I can’t say I loved using them. I’ve updated my review here.
“Isn’t this roll of film done with yet?” I said aloud suddenly, to nobody. Oh good heavens, is it possible that I didn’t wind the film on right and it hasn’t been advancing? Because I certainly don’t want to shoot the whole roll over again.
That’s when it hit me: I had not at all enjoyed using this camera. It had frustrated me from the first frame.
To hell with any unshot frames. I rewound the film.
Meet the Argus A2B. That I disliked it surprised me, because I have another A2B (review here) and I enjoyed shooting it. But that was five years ago, when my camera preferences were still forming. Would I hate that camera, too, if I shot it now?
Before I get to why this camera and I didn’t get on, here’s some history. The 1936-51 Argus A series of cameras has a fascinating story (read it here) as the first affordable camera for Kodak’s 35mm film cartridge, new in 1934. The A2B is from 1941-1950 and added an extinction meter and exposure calculator over the original A.
The various A-series models offered slightly different lens and shutter combinations. Running changes were even made within a series. The original A2B offered a 50mm f/4.5 uncoated lens set in a four-speed Ilex Precise shutter (1/200, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25 sec.), with a plunger-style shutter button. In 1945, the shutter became an unknown type, still four speeds (1/150, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25 sec.) and the shutter button became a lever. Some postwar A2Bs even featured a coated lens. This A2B’s features make it a prewar model; my other one is from after the war.
The A2B has some quirks that some find endearing and others find annoying. One quirk is the collapsible lens barrel, which controls focusing. In, the camera focuses between 6 and 18 feet; out, it focuses beyond 18 feet. Twist the barrel to extend or retract it. When retracting, twist so tabs on the barrel fit under flanges on the body. This holds the lens in. The photo above shows the lens extended.
The other quirk is a weird aperture scale with stops at 4.5, 6.3, 9, 12.7, and 18. Whatever aperture my light meter or Sunny 16 guesses told me to use, I set it a hair off the next higher aperture on that scale. The extinction meter on this one looks to be in good shape, but it is tiny and thus difficult for my middle-aged eyes to use. For that matter, the viewfinder is so small as to be almost unusable, too.
I thought old-school Fomapan 100 would be just right for this old-school uncoated lens, so I loaded some and got to shooting. And then all of the A2B’s quirks kept taking me right out of the photographic moment.
I did get a few solid shots from it, such as this one of the public library in tiny Kirklin, a little town on the Michigan Road about 45 minutes north of Indianapolis. This is a Carnegie library; see others from around Indiana here.
I wished for a carry strap on the A2B. It’s coat-pocket small, but who wears a coat in July? Fortunately, I own a couple pairs of cargo shorts that let me carry even bulky cameras, but I didn’t always already have them on when I went out shooting. So it took me a solid couple months of using it here and there to get through as much of the roll as I did before I threw in the towel. This pavilion is in Elm Street Green, a park in Zionsville.
The whole roll came back from the processor suffering from muddy contrast, which is characteristic of these old, uncoated lenses. I tweaked contrast on every frame in Photoshop. On this and a few other frames, I also played with the shadow control to bring out details in dark areas. This shot of Margaret at Elm Street Green is technically the best shot on the roll: decent contrast and passable sharpness at snapshot sizes.
I spent an afternoon in Rochester in northern Indiana at a Michigan Road board meeting, and had the A2B along. We met across the street from the Fulton County Courthouse, a grand Romanesque Revival structure. I couldn’t back up far enough to get the whole thing in the frame. And the tiny viewfinder made framing it more challenging than I like. Also, any shot where the sun wasn’t fully behind me suffered from flare. The more sun, the more flare. That’s to be expected from an uncoated lens. The flare made some shots unusable. I suppose if I shot this camera all the time I’d get used to checking the position of the sun.
On the way home from Rochester I stopped in Burlington for dinner and shot this scene. I hadn’t looked online yet to discover the ranges to which the two lens positions focused. So I left the lens extended, shot mostly distant subjects, and hoped for the best. I was absolutely within 18 feet for this shot, but it’s reasonably in focus. I did enjoy the plunger shutter button and the self-cocking shutter, which are unusual features on a camera of this era. All I had to think about was exposure. If the viewfinder were more usable, I would have composed this shot better.
A handful of shots on the roll came back foggy and blurry, as in this photo of an angel statue in the cemetery near my home. I couldn’t tell you why this happened. Shrug.
Another quirk of using the A2B: the film won’t wind unless you first slide to the left that little knob below the frame counter atop the camera. The frame counter on mine is so pitted as to be useless, which is part of why I had no idea while shooting whether I’d shot the whole roll yet or not.
Also, the A2B offers no double-exposure protection, so you probably ought to always wind after shooting to ensure the frame you’re shooting is not yet exposed.
See more from this A2B, and from my other A2B, in my Argus A2B gallery.
The Argus A cameras have a small but devoted following. Don’t count me in. But this remains a historically significant series of cameras and therefore worthy of being collected and used.
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Argug’s A-series of cameras, into which the Argus A2B fits, was one of the first cameras to take advantage of the 35mm film cartridge. Kodak’s original Retina camera was first, but it was considerably more expensive. The Argus A2B brought 35mm photography to everyman.
Argus introduced the A in 1936, two years after Kodak introduced the 35mm cartridge. A simple camera made of Bakelite plastic, at $12.50 (equivalent to more than $200 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 the company made small changes across the A line. I’ve heard, but can’t confirm, that prewar A2Bs had a 1/200 sec top shutter speed, and 1/150 sec after. But it’s possible that the switch happened earlier. In any case, it’s a later A2B, but no later than 1951 when Argus quit making As altogether. It cost $29 in 1945, equivalent to more than $350 today. This 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.
Another A2B found me, one from before the war with a 1/200 top shutter speed.
This Art-Deco-y detail is on the back of every Argus A-series camera.
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 to unlock it.
Other Arguses in my collection include the A-Four (review here), the Argoflex Forty (review here), the C3 (review here), and the Match-Matic C3 (review here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
I understood focusing exactly backwards when I loaded a roll of Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros into my postwar 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 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 wind right 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.
I next loaded some Fomapan 100 into my prewar A2B. While I didn’t love my postwar A2B, I did not at all enjoy the prewar A2B. I’m not sure why; they’re substantially the same camera. But I was glad when the roll was over.
This one was in desperate need of a CLA, or at least a good lens cleaning.
Or perhaps Argus improved the lens in its postwar cameras, and this prewar lens was just prone to ghosting and flare.
The extinction meter on this A2B was shot, too, so I used a light-meter app on my phone to find good apertures and shutter speeds.
To see more from this camera, check out my Argus A2B gallery.
I’m glad I experienced the Argus A2B for its important place in 35mm photography history. But my curiosity is satisfied: I didn’t enjoy this camera. 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.