Today, we have a mid-century shoot-out between a pair of very popular cameras that were both introduced in 1951, the Argus C-four (as it's written on the barrel of the lens) and the Kodak Signet 35. Both of these cameras were made from 1951-1958, and both cost around $85-90 when introduced (about $850 in today's money).
They are both rangefinders with decent lenses (for the era), reliable shutters with very similar speeds (B, 10-300), manually reset film counter and removable backs for reasonably simple film loading. However, choosing a winner of this shoot-out wasn't that tough even though I liked them both.
As a reminder, here is our judging criteria:
- How comfortable a camera is to shoot.
- How easy it is to use.
- How good the results are.
- How interesting the camera is.
- How much value does it have in today's world?
Comfort: They are both pretty good, which is a rarity for this time period. The Argus C-four seems to be patterned after the Barnack Leica bodies from the late 40's, with some silly Argus C3 stuff carried over, so it's already starting in a pretty nice place - if you're going to steal, steal from the best. The Kodak Signet 35 is pretty unique, and although it feels cramped when you first pick it up, after using it for a little while I found it perfectly fine. The Argus shutter is pretty clacky whilst the Kodak leaf shutter is reasonably quiet. The Signet is lighter than the C-four but the C-four felt better to carry around. Winner: Argus C-four but it's very close.
Ease of Use: Both cameras work pretty much the same way - you load your film, wind it on, set the film counter, adjust settings, focus, shoot. The Kodak requires one additional step: manual cocking of the shutter whereas the C-four cocks the shutter automatically.
The Kodak has a relatively large triangular rangefinder patch, which is novel, although on my copy it's really dim even after cleaning. The Argus rangefinder patch is circular and remains fairly bright today, even with my slightly hazy copy. With 10 minutes of cleaning, I suspect it'd be perfect.
Metering is done manually using your eyes and brain or any other light judgment device. The Kodak comes with a pretty cool slide rule/exposure guideline chart on the back of the camera, though, for those of us still shooting Plus-X, Pan-X, Kodachrome or Super-XX.
The Kodak has some very nice click stops for the speed/aperture rings as well as tabbed focusing (!), which I quite liked. The Argus can be focused with the ridiculous rangefinder wheel that came from the C3 or directly on the lens. There are no click stops with any of the C-four settings, which means it's easy to knock your settings out of whack, something I did a few times during this test. Winner: Kodak Signet 35.
Results: Keep in mind that these cameras are around 60 years old and with the exception of a half hour's effort to clean up the rangefinder on the Signet 35, have never seen a servicing. My expectations going in were pretty low, and I was pleasantly surprised:
Pretty good, I think. Both days I shot with these cameras were pretty overcast, and I was using slow speeds on cameras with slow shutters. I was throwing my apertures all over the place and got pretty decent results throughout.
Here's a comparison of similar subjects at minimum focusing/aperture:
I think I slightly prefer the Kodak's rendering of this scene. The corners aren't as crazed and the center is a bit sharper. Winner: Kodak Signet 35.
Interestingness: The Argus C-four has only two interesting things about it: the stupid rangefinder wheel from the C3 and the fact that it actually has a functioning hotshoe (that still works and fires my flashes today!), which was rare in 1951. Unfortunately, hotshoes are cool but not really that interesting. By the way, I don't have one, but there is an aftermarket modified version of the C-four called the 'Geiss-modified c-four' which has interchangeable lenses, and that's cool as hell. I'd love one of those.
The Kodak Signet 35, on the other hand, is really a pretty camera. It's mid-century modern to the core, and although it falls into the category of "Cameras with shutter/lens assemblies stuck on the front" like so many cameras from the 40's and 50's, it is small and cute and has honest to god design happening. I love the big wind/rewind wheels on the top. I adore the red Kodak dot. I dig the art deco/streamline moderne aesthetic and the Signet 35 is just right up my alley. Your mileage may vary. Winner: Kodak Signet 35.
Value: As of this writing on March 30th, Kodak Signet 35's seem to be going for around $25-30 in decent shape whereas Argus C-four's are around $5-15. I think this that's pretty good value for both of these cameras and I wouldn't spend much more on either. The Signet 35 is better optically and certainly cooler to have on a shelf, even if it's not quite as comfy as the Argus C-four, so I think it's the better buy. Winner: Kodak Signet 35.
Conclusions: The Argus C-four is a pleasant camera. I think it's good looking, and it's certainly comfy enough and easy to use. They sold 300,000 of these things so people obviously liked it at the time. The Kodak Signet 35, however, is just better in most respects. I have no idea how it sold (thanks for failing me, internet!) but since it was the top of the line Signet, I'd assume it didn't sell that well. That's a shame, as it clearly outperforms the Argus C-four in the field and on the shelf.