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Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

I love me some vintage cameras. Take a stroll through my office and you'll find old cameras on display all over the place. They just look cool. Vintage cameras are like vintage cars - they're from a time when visual aesthetic appeal didn't play second fiddle to cost of materials and functionality. Sure, most of these cameras didn't sit in your hands as comfortably as a modern day DSLR with its ergonomic grip and rubber coating, but they looked awesome.

Modern cameras, like modern cars, are designed primarily around the ideas of functionality and comfort. It's no wonder they all look the same - same grip, same shoulders, essentially the same control layout. Once manufacturers have a design that sells, they're afraid to mess with the ergonomics and style shooters have become comfortable with.

But vintage cameras are as varied as snowflakes. Designers were still experimenting with different designs back then. The collective ideas of survey-based marketing hadn't destroyed the art of product design yet. They had beautiful lines, interesting color schemes, and a charming lack of bells and whistles. Vintage cameras are sculptures that should be put proudly on display.

My favorite thing about vintage cameras is that their designs were usually so simple that there was little to break or malfunction. No electronics meant no deteriorating circuit boards. Few precision mechanisms meant fewer things to go out of alignment or timing. So long as you can find a film to fit, many vintage cameras from 100 years ago can still be used. I once put a roll of film through a 1920's era Kodak Brownie. It worked just fine.

A good friend of mine recently gifted me an Argus 40 TLR camera. "TLR" stands for "Twins Lens Reflex." "Twin Lens" because it has 2 lenses - one you look through to compose the image and the other lens to actually expose the film. "Reflex" because it has a mirror in it. Any camera with a mirror in it is a "reflex camera" because one definition of "reflex" is "archaic: (of light) reflected." You can probably guess how they got the name "Single Lens Reflex (SLR)."

I was thrilled to learn that this Argus 40 camera still worked - not bad for a camera from the early 1950's - and that it can accept modern film with a simple modification. It used the now-discontinued 620 film. 620 film just so happens to be the exact same size as modern-day 120 film, just on a thinner spool. So I picked up some old 620 film spools off eBay for $15, re-spooled a roll of 120 Ilford Delta black and white film onto a 620 spool and boom, I had myself a fully-operational Argus 40 ready for shooting.

With no internal light meter, I had to meter manually using a handheld light meter. No problem, that part's easy. The tough part was the focus. It's all done with a crude distance scale on the lens. I had to guess how far away my subject was, then find the corresponding measurement on the focus ring. My estimation of distance was really put to the test.

To try out my first roll of film, I ventured to nearby Old Towne Orange to photograph some old structures there (thought it was fitting for this camera) and finished off the roll at Corona Del Mar beach. I also threw in a photo of our dog for a real challenge.

I love the look this camera creates. The 75mm lens gets a nice, shallow depth of field, the square format is just classic, and the crude-by-today's-standards lens created some awesome lens flare, vignetting, and blurring. The images are gritty and riddled with flaws - just how I like it. Can't wait to do some portraits with this bad boy.

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Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR