Box Camera Deluxe or TLR Lite - Part II - The Argoflex Forty

Variety is the spice of life in the world of medium format film photography. There are capably crafted SLR bodies as well as handy portable folding cameras.  There are timeless and treasured TLR cameras and basic budget-conscious box cameras. And then there are the interesting animals that tend to eschew the classifications above. They are neither truly TLR nor box camera, yet in some ways they are both of these.

Often referred to as "Pseudo-TLR Cameras," I tend to prefer a tad more delineation of the genre's nomenclature to the include the more depictive terms "Box Camera Deluxe" and "TLR Lite."

And what is interesting is that despite one these terms seeming to sound more derogatory than the other, you will find that this is hardly so.  I picked up an example of both of these sub-genres, each costing under $20, and am posting simultaneous reviews of each for your reading and viewing pleasure.

Resistance was Rediculous.

First things first: I LOATHE the 620 film format. Kodak's "idea" to create a "new" format identical in size to 120 but with a spool that can only fit in a 620 camera is just the sort of propietary format decision that I hate.

I am not opposed to reinvention and innovation. I can really like a "reinvented" format like 828 that, despite a film stock width identical to 35mm, offers benefits in both a measurably larger image size and a smaller form factor than the 35mm thanks to the smaller film rolls.  But I saw no such benefit from 620, so I elected to swear it off, both on the matter of stubborn principle, and so that I didn't have to stock film rolls in both formats, one of which was technically obsolete.

But my resistance turned out to be rediculous, as I began to trod down a slippery slope of which I was not even aware. And that slope's name was Verichrome Pan.

Verichrome Pan should certainly be among the contenders for the top three Kodak films of all time. Devised in 1956 as a successor to Orthochromatic Verichrome, and as the alternate to Plus-X in all formats larger than 35mm, the film had a tendency to be very gracious with regards to exposure latitude, which made it the easiest film to use in a range of cameras that were not the most technologically advanced.

Despite not being made for decades, the film also has a serious reverence among many present day film photographers who are able to shoot and develop Verichrome that is 50 years or older and still manage some amazing images.  I was first amazed by VP on one of my Autographic experiments and have kept an eye out for affordable stocks of this phenomenal film.  I have picked up this excellent film in the 828, 120, 116, 122, and 127 formats... and in 620.

That's right, 620. While I would concentrate on snapping it up in the formats for which I had cameras, it was seeming as though I was always spotting Verichrome at great prices in 620 format. Since I could still easily cut down the film to other formats or re-roll it onto 120 spools, it made perfect sense to add it to the stable. And then I one day realized I had a lot of 620 film. Conundrum.

I realized that my self imposed moratorium on 620 cameras maybe, just maybe, needed to have an exception made.  Besides, the person who collects old cameras will often willingly look for any excuse to add a new piece to their collection, and I could hardly claim that I was any different from most vintage camera collectors.

I didn't give a massive amount of thought to just what camera would constitute the "620 section" of my collection, other than to determine that I likely wanted to skip folding cameras, since I had plenty in 120. Instead, I wanted to get a camera that was essentially made only in 620, and initially figured I might pick up what just might constitute the "trademark" 620 camera: the Brownie Hawkeye. It was a neat looking camera that clearly echoed its mid-century origins, but there was one ethical problem I had with it, it was a Kodak product, the very Kodak whose "innovation" led to the creation of this rediculous format of 620 in the first place. Conundrum again.

Sure, I had a number of Kodak cameras that I savored, and obviously, my pickup of a used Hawkeye wasn't sending money into Eastman Kodak's pockets, so there would be no deposit that would signal that I was OK with Kodak making a bogus new format, given that this happened over half a century ago, and 620 had since bowed out with 120 remaining. But the hapless rebel in me still resisted a Kodak 620 pickup, and kept my eyes open for something else unique to 620.

As it turns out, I wouldn't have to look for long, as I soon spotted the perfect 620 pickup, made by none other than Argus.

While bearing some resemblance to a TLR, the basic operation of the Argoflex Forty is a bit more similar to a box camera. 

The Argus Argoflex 40 could not be a more perfect example for me to make lemonade from my 620 format lemons. It is a rediculously cheap but capable camera that is commonly found online for under $20. In the Grey area between "TLR Lite" vs "Box Camera Deluxe," it tends to fall in the latter category, but it is on the extreme end of that deluxe category. Whereas some box cameras may have a perk such as an adjustable aperture, shutter speed, or distance range, the Argoflex 40 has all three! The shutter speeds are modest in range, and the lens is an f/4.5 triplet that might be described simply as "adequate," but there is no denying that the Argus 40 packs a lot into an economical package, and a remarkably compact package at that. Despite little to no actual space being saved by the marginally smaller 620 spools, the Argoflex is noticeably smaller (and lighter) than your typical 120 TLR. But it is not a TLR, and not even a "TLR Lite," and in comparing this with the Silverflex Model S, I would come to find that really isn't a bad thing.  It really isn't.

Why you may ask? It has to do with the hands down best feature of the Argoflex.  This camera has the BEST viewfinder I have ever seen in a camera. Okay, so I may have already said something similar about the Bell and Howell Electric Eye 127, but the Argus does for waist level viewers what the B+H does for eye level viewers. Looking into the viewfinder of an Argoflex reveals a sparkly world rich in color and pristine details. It literally makes you appreciate the beauty of the scene laid out before your camera and yourself, and makes you want to capture it in all of its beauty.   It is easy to make out framing of even the most minute details, unlike many TLR finders which leave you best guessing and hoping for the best.

Unlike the Silverflex which gave only faint hints of what it was framing, the Argoflex leaves no doubts, even when confronted with glare-heavy overcast skies.

The "cost" of this certainty in framing results in another kind of guesswork for the user. Whereas a decent TLR will take away the guesswork of the focusing distance of your subject with its matte screen, this Argus made camera will leave you to test your distance estimation skills.  Admittedly, this can be daunting at first, but gets remarkably easier in time. And to the victor of distance estimation go the spoils of one of the best waist level finders to be found.  Not a bad trade off to say the least.

The lens speed and shutter speeds on the Argoflex are admittedly modest, but are just enough for most situations, while the "B" setting is a great plus. 

Focusing is simply done through estimation.  Here the lens is set to focus at a distance of 8 feet.

Shooting an Argoflex Forty is reasonably no-nonsense once one gets comfortable with the estimation of focus.  Just as with a TLR, the image in the viewfinder is flipped horizontally, which will make it a bit more challenging to follow moving subjects, but with a top shutter speed of 1/150 of a second, there are certainly limitations inherent in using this as a camera for moving subjects in the first place.  

Ironically, though my growing stock of Verichrome Pan in 620 format was my justification for getting the Argoflex Forty, neither my first nor second roll through the camera was on this venerable film stock.  I elected (or so I thought) to play it safe on the first roll and re-spool some slow speed expired Orwo NP 15 through the Argoflex.  With a speed of 25, I expected the results to be stable, but as it turns out, the emulsion was decomposing, leading to less than desirable results in light areas.   Below are a few samples from the inaugural roll.

Not a bad result for the first try - good tonality and nice sharpness from the triplet lens. 

Impressively sharp, but the light blotches are quite bothersome. 

Much of the roll exhibited some very problematic issues, that while admittedly giving a novel distressed look, aren't quite what one wants in their first roll through a camera they are testing.

One of the less problematic exposures from the first roll shows a decent amount of promise, and definitely encouraged me to try again.

The first results, while a bit distracting to observe, did certainly give me enough faith to try another roll of film through the Argoflex.  This time, I elected to try some 5 year old TMAX 100 which a site visitor had been kind enough to send me.  This roll gave me significantly better results. 

Great exposure and some very pleasing tonality and sharpness are evident in this view, that was also taken on the Silverflex

As late afternoon light casts longer shadows, the Argoflex easily framed and captured this scene.

Unlike the Silverflex, I was pretty readily able to frame the distant archway in my bridge shot, though the results are still a bit off.  Still a good rendering. 

A closer focus rendering portrays just as I hoped it would. 

Handling the Argoflex still requires a bit of a steady hand.  This scene is blurred from my haste in taking this scene. 

However, when such care is taken, the Argoflex can leave a very rewarding image. 

The bulb setting lets the Argoflex come out after dark, and when tripod mounted, the results are impressive. 

SPEECHLESS! After the above shot, I turned around to see this scene, and elected to take a stab at it.  The results belie that they were taken with a sub $20 camera. 

The afternoon commuter train on my varied commute kicks up some mist near the tracks, and the scene is still frozen pretty well by the limited shutter speed range. 

Is it the film or the camera that is making great sky renderings like this.  This was taken without a filter, though to me the results seem to indicate they were taken with a yellow filter.  

As with any camera, contrasty scenes are a challenge.  The Argoflex is no exception to this, through it did as well as most cameras would do in this setting. 

Yes, this camera lacks "on-screen" focusing like a TLR, and its shutter speeds top out at a pretty anemic 1/150.  Thus, yes, the Argoflex Forty is more of a "Box Camera Deluxe" than a "TLR Lite."  However, it was far more enjoyable to shoot than the Silverflex, and is handily more portable than a fully featured TLR camera.  And the results, when used within its limitations, can be nothing short of exceptional.  

This is a camera that is fun to shoot, and which is capable of results that make you eager to see the outcome of the next roll.  After only a short time, this camera has propelled its way into a certain "Top 10" status in my collection, and could actually be worthy of "Top 5."  It's a throwback for sure, but one in which photography again becomes both fun and rewarding. And when it comes down to it, that is what matters most to me.