I was standing in a dimly lit opulent feast hall surrounded by robed witches and wizards. Pumpkin pasties and cups of overpriced butter beer were served on a table nearby as my hands fumbled over the tightly wound gears of a half-century-old 35mm rangefinder camera, the Argus C3.
‘Twas After Dark Potterfest throughout Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History and I figured it was the perfect opportunity to try out what the internet now calls the “Harry Potter camera.” Photography buffs may also recognize the Argus C3 by the longstanding moniker “brick” for its distinctive shape.
Classes were in session throughout the museum and professors lectured on volatile minerals, post owls, and the strategies of growing catnip. A double-decker bus was even transporting wand-wielding guests around the streets of Oakland.
The Argus’ 50mm f/3.5 lens proved versatile enough to work with in most of those situations thanks to the museum’s spacious interiors. It was even nearly long enough from the front row seats in the Carnegie Music Hall to capture athletic Potter fans running around on stage with broomsticks squeezed between their legs. Though, it would have been nice if the lens was a little wider at f/1.7 or even f/2.8 to help with dimly lit areas inside. Thankfully, I came prepared with a roll of the ultra light sensitive Ilford Delta 3200.
The camera’s split-image focusing rangefinder was dusty and foggy in addition to being quite small so focusing on subjects added to the real chore of photographing in some of the museum’s darker exhibit areas. When I developed the roll of film nearly half of the frames turned out to be out of focus. So if you ever get your hands on an old Argus make sure the split-focus finder is clean and accurate.
Another good trait I learned you should look for in an old Argus rangefinder is a smooth-turning focusing ring on the lens. My particular model was harder to twist than an aged pickle jar lid. Getting the lens to move required forcing the focusing ring and the top rangefinder cog at the same time. I like how this camera has grooves built into its dials for a good grip, but the ones on the cog are like teeth and after a night of shooting my fingers were torn to bits. My film suffered a similar fate as well with ripped sprocket holes in several areas so I guess there are teeth inside the camera as well.
Possible aging issues aside, the only reel beefs I have with the Argus C3 are its minuscule viewfinder and the awkwardness of holding it in your hands. They call this camera a brick for a reason. Literally no effort was made to make it ergonomically viable.
However, the Argus C3’s retro design proved striking enough to catch the eye of many a wizard and witch. So it really comes down to what you might enjoy more: comfort and practicality, or people gawking at your vintage toys. I tend to lean closer to the former, but I will admit that I caught myself having fun several times that night. Partially because I felt cool carrying around the C3, but more because of the challenge posed by adjusting the camera’s fossilized machinery fast enough to capture fleeting scenes.
Finally, I have a bit of advice for the Harry Potter fans who may want this camera because of its more recent association with the doggedly annoying Hogwarts student photographer Colin Creevey and less so because they are camera enthusiasts. DO NOT open the back of the camera immediately after shooting. Dumbledore was wrong in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and he ruined Colin’s film. You can’t look at your pictures with a film camera by opening up the film. You will ruin your film! You must first wind it back into its protective canister and then have it developed.
Like what you see? Argus C3 cameras typically cost around $20-$70. Start the hunt for you camera below: