I have been interested in cameras since my pre-teen years, and built my first darkroom from a discarded refrigerator box when I was 12 years old. My collecting interests are mostly the popular and especially low-cost cameras of the 1930s 1940s, and 1950s. At this point I have about 130 cameras. Some day when I have time I must look up each one, and attach a tag giving the make, model, year, and interesting information. I especially like folders, Retinas, and Nikons. I also have an interest in the history of astrophotography.
My first 35mm camera was a (rangefinder) Argus C-3. It taught me the benefits of cartridge 35 mm film. It was a low-priced camera with a coupled rangefinder mass-produced from 1939 to 1966 by Argus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. The camera was the best-selling 35mm camera in the world for nearly three decades, and helped popularize the 35mm format. Due to its shape, size, and weight, it is commonly referred to as “The Brick” by collectors.
The C3 was constructed primarily of Bakelite plastic and metal castings. The design featured an unusual and simplistic diaphragm shutter built into the camera body, so the camera could make use of interchangeable lenses without the need for a complex focal plane shutter. The rangefinder utilized a separate viewfinder from that of the regular viewfinder and was coupled to the lens through a series of gears located on the outside of the camera body.
By virtue of its low price and reputation for rugged durability, the Argus C3 managed to outlast most of its American competition and fend off precision German-built cameras and the cheap high quality Japanese cameras that began to enter the American market in the 1950s. Eventually the design simply became too outdated and clumsy and production ended in 1966 after sales had slumped. Sales of the C3 slumped many times during its production life, and each time Argus announced they were going to discontinue the camera, dealers and photographers would rush to buy what they believed to be the last of the cameras, leading Argus to reverse their decision to end production several times.
Although the design is now over 65 years old, the C3 retains a strong following due to its simplicity and durability, as well as nostalgia value. Used C3s are cheap (about $10) and plentiful, and their simple construction makes them relatively easy to repair.
Zeiss Ikon Contaflex
My first “good” camera was a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex I, which I purchased in about 1958 when my first child arrived. The optics were excellent. When it was introduced in 1953, the Contaflex SLR was the first 35mm SLR equipped with a between-the-lens leaf shutter. The advantages were compactness and synchronized flash up to the maximum shutter speed. The inconveniences were limited lens interchangeability and mechanical complexity. In particular, no Contaflex model had a rapid return mirror, and all suffered from a limited range of lenses, from 35mm to 115mm focal length. It was equipped with a fixed Zeiss Tessar 45mm f:2.8 lens with front-cell focusing and a Synchro-Compur shutter. The Contaflex was produced during the time when German optics and camera technology dominated the market, and were the world standard for quality and value.
Color slides were the technology of choice, and I took many hundreds. Although the Kodachrome slides have survived 50 years with minimal degradation, the Ektachrome slides have not done well. Most have turned into red mush. I have scanned all of my (3000) slides into the computer to stop the aging and degradation process, and to make retrieval, retouching and viewing much easier.
I was happy with the Contaflex for about a decade until a friend of mine showed me his new Nikon F with Photomic head. I immediately had to have one, although they were very expensive. I was tired of using a hand-held light meter to take pictures of the kids, and wanted the advantages of a built-in light meter. The original standard pentaprism viewfinder did not contain a light meter. Later viewfinders were offered that included a meter, the Photomic series. The first Photomic had an independent photocell, then Nikon introduced the Photomic T (superseded by the Photomic Tn), which featured through-the-lens metering. The final metering prism for the Nikon F, the Photomic FTn, had a center-weighted through-the-lens design, which became the standard metering pattern for Nikon cameras for decades afterwards.
I also wanted interchangeable lenses to experiment with wide-angle and telephoto lenses. And of course there was the famous Nikon quality. Because of the quality, Nikon became the camera of choice for professional photographers. As evidence of the high esteem achieved by Nikon, an F body still brings about $100 on eBay. Over the years I have purchased each major upgrade in the Nikon product line, including the EM, Nikkor X, FTN, 6060, Coolpix 995, Coolpix L-11, Coolpix 18, and D40-X. Nikon cameras have a reputation for being extremely resilient to damage or mechanical failure. The F became known as “the hockey puck”. I had occasion to test the reliability of the 995. It has taken about 90,000 exposures and still functions perfectly.
The person who perhaps did the most to establish the durability, quality, and versatility of the Nikon system was the American photographer David Douglas Duncan, who was the foremost combat photographer of the Korean War. In gratitude for this, Nikon gave the 500,000th F to him.
I remain a loyal Nikon user today and use all three Nikon digital cameras. I appreciate the fact that Nikon has retained excellent compatibility of its lens systems, and I interchange the lenses among several of the bodies. As each of the nine Nikons was superceded by the next improved model, I would add the old model to my “museum”. The only exception was a Mamayia 1000S 6X6 cm that I bought for taking “good” pictures and for wedding pictures. Now I use the Nikon D40-X for that.
One folding camera that has always interested me is the Kodak Retina. The one I have is a model IIIC, manufactured from 1961 to 1964. “Retina” was the name of a long-running series of German-built Kodak cameras. Retinas were manufactured in Stuttgart by Nagel Camerawerk, which Kodak had acquired in 1931, and sold under the Kodak nameplate. Later versions included the addition of flash synchronization, wind levers rather than knobs, a range finder, and a selenium light meter. Retinas were noted for their compact size, quality, and low cost compared to their competitors and retain a strong following today. The original Retina, introduced in 1934, was notable for being the first camera to use the modern 135 film cartridge. The Retina line continued through the 1960s with a variety of folding and nonfolding models, including the Retina Reflex SLR.
The Retina was a favorite with adventurers and explorers because of its small size, ease of changing film, and quality. Sir Edmund Hillary took a Retina on his first trip to the summit of Mt. Everest for these reasons.