Thursday, December 20, 2007

riding the tram with an old camera

Portland Aerial Tram

So I rode the tram again the other day. The thing's about a year old now, and the novelty's worn off. Normally I wouldn't have bothered to ride it, much less post photos of it, but I was taking another old vintage camera for a spin, and the real point of this is to show off the results. So let's just agree we've all done the obligatory collective eye roll about the tram, and another eye roll about the whole South Waterfront thing.

Portland Aerial Tram

The camera I used is an old Argus C3 Matchmatic, which was made between 1958 and 1966. If you've never seen one, you'll want to go look at the photo. There really isn't anything else quite like it. Two-tone leatherette and a bunch of shiny gears, and shaped almost exactly like a brick. Some people call it ugly, but I can't agree. As soon as I saw one on the antique store shelf, I went "ooh, cool" and decided I had to have it. I basically got it because it looked cool, and because it's a bit of vintage Americana. I'm no chest-thumping flag-waving patriot type, of course, but in the camera world, buying American is a form of rooting for the underdog. As is buying anything that isn't Japanese, German, or Russian, come to think of it. In addition, Arguses are cheap and plentiful, and (supposedly) relatively easy to fix if they break, and they don't break all that often. That's a desirable trait in a 40-50 year old camera.

Portland Aerial Tram

I didn't get it thinking it would actually take decent photos. It doesn't exactly look like it would, does it? I figured I'd run a roll through it out of curiosity, and I suppose also on the principle that I'm a camera user, not a collector, and I don't buy things just to put in a display case or whatever. But surprisingly, I actually like the results. A while back I saw an interesting comment about this, to the effect that it's a rather inconvenient camera to use, so there must be some other reason Argus sold millions of them, and kept making them from 1939 all the way to 1966.

Portland Aerial Tram

The standard lens on a C3 is the Coated Cintar, 50mm, f/3.5, which is what I've got. Not everyone realizes the C3 is an interchangeable lens camera. Despite its popularity, only a handful of lenses were ever marketed for it. Possibly this is because changing lenses is a bit of a chore. First you have to unscrew and remove the gear that couples the rangefinder to the lens. Then you unscrew the lens itself, and put the new lens on in its place. When putting the coupling gear back on, you have to take care that the rangefinder and lens are in sync, so that infinity on one means infinity on the other. Otherwise your focus will be all wrong, and you won't know it until you get your photos back. There's a short but apparently complete list of Argus lenses here, and photos of a couple of the more common ones here.

South Waterfront from upper tram station.

There's surprisingly little info on the net about the C3 lens mount, and I've never seen anyone selling an adapter to use Argus lenses on other cameras, despite the vast availability of cheap Arguses with perfectly decent lenses. So here's what I've been able to figure out. The screw thread is quite narrow -- I measured it at 34-35mm, although as a pre-WWII American design it might not be metric at all. 1 3/8" is just shy of 35mm, so that might be it. I didn't get a good read on the thread pitch, but it looked like it was greater than the usual 1mm. I've seen the lens registration distance (i.e. from the back of the lens mount to the film plane) given at 40mm, which is big for a rangefinder, but on the small side for an SLR. If 40mm is right, the only digital cameras you could use lens on and get infinity focus (assuming an adaptor existed) would be Four Thirds SLRs from Olympus, Panasonic, & friends. Oh, and a Leica M8 would probably work too, if you're made of money and actually plan to use the M8 instead of squirreling it away in a vacuum-sealed display case or something. So that might be a problem, but I noticed that the Cintar, at least, is so narrow that you can actually slide the whole back end of the lens into an M42 screw mount. So with a bit of mechanical skill (which I lack), one might be able to cook up a recessed lens adapter, hopefully without requiring mirror lock-up.

I also haven't seen adapters to put other lenses on Arguses. You'd lose rangefinder coupling, naturally, but it'd still be fun to stick a long telephoto or zoom or fisheye (for example) on the front of an Argus and see what you can do with it.

South Waterfront from upper tram station.

It's worth noting that next year marks the 70th birthday of the Argus C and C2, the C3's predecessors, and 2009 is the 70th birthday of the C3 itself. That'd be a great opportunity for the nice folks at Cosina Voigtlander to do one of those historical reproductions like they do. In recent years they've issued Bessa cameras in Leica screw mount, Contax & Nikon rangefinder mounts, M42 SLR mount, and most recently Leica M bayonet mount. Doing an Argus C3-mount Bessa could be a logical extension of that idea. Well, if you could convince enough people to pay a couple of hundred dollars for a new and rather more convenient camera (with a warranty) instead of an old $15 Argus. I'm not holding my breath, I just think it'd be kind of cool, that's all I'm saying.

Downtown from upper tram station


eeldip said...

is that the lens or the film turning everything purple?

i love the wacky color on those.

atul666 said...

I used some el-cheapo drugstore film for this, so it might be the film.

The el-cheapo one hour photo hut might be to blame too. I considered adjusting the colors in GIMP, but I decided I kind of liked them the way they were.

artcoach said...

I like the artistic quality of the color. Can't beat those old cameras. Keep posting


Anonymous said...

I recently saw an advertisement in a bus shelter near 28th and SE Belmont with a hot model holding an old Argus C-3 that I meant to get a picture of for my blog. My Mom had an Argus C-3 camera that she let me use when I was first learning photography. What I notice about these images are how sharp they are. The camera was the shape and weight of a brick but it did have a very high quality lens. I should shoot a roll through my Moms camera to post on my blog just for old times sake. If you are going to be using old cameras you might want to consider looking for an old light meter like a Weston that is still operational(if you can test it against a light meter or camera meter that you know works). Ed who has been running Hollywood Camera on Sandy since 1953 is a good source to look for one but he isn't cheap and his gear is sold 'as is'.

atul666 said...

I've got a couple of old light meters, and sometimes I even remember to bring 'em along. Although the tram ride wasn't one of those occasions.

Actually the C3 Matchmatic has an optional accessory lightmeter, which I don't yet have. It might be useful to have that particular meter, in addition to being fun and historically correct. Argus, you see, got the notion that f-stops and shutter speeds were too confusing for the typical, casual camera user, so they tried to simplify things a bit. As I understand it, the light meter gives you a number, and you just set your aperture and shutter to that number and you're good to go, basically.

If you don't have the Matchmatic meter, you'll need to translate its settings into normal camera-ese. There's a great online manual for C3's here, including handy shutter & aperture translation tables.