Today is the 4th of July, and while I’m no history professor, I at least know that this is the day we Americans celebrate the resistance and subsequent victory over our alien invaders way back in 1996. Without heroes like Will Smith and Bill Pullman, we’d all be dead now, or worse, slaves to our extra-terrestrial overlords. So with somber remembrance, let’s take a moment to thank the brave men and women (and Jeff Goldblum) for all that we enjoy today – camera collections included.
With the stars and stripes in mind, the CP crew has put together a list of five amazing American cameras that are worth owning, shooting, and collecting. These cameras cover every price point, and are some of the best photographic machines to ever spring from the nation that brought the world jazz, the Macintosh, and bouncing around on the moon. Take a look, and let us know which American camera is your favorite in the comments below.
Argus C3 – 1939
We begin our list with the most economical American camera around. In fact, this camera is very close to being the least expensive vintage machine that’s still fully functional today. Often they can be found for under $10 – pretty amazing, considering they work so damn well (we reviewed it here).
The Argus C3 is a 35mm film camera made of bakelite plastic and cast metal. Interchangeable lenses sit in front of an in-body diaphragm shutter that’s incredibly simple, reliable, and capable of ten, seven, or five shutter speeds (dependent on production year), as well as Bulb mode. There’s a frame counter, threaded shutter release, film speed reminder, and a tripod socket. A coupled rangefinder handles focusing, while a separate viewfinder allows for composition.
And that’s essentially it. The Argus C3 could rightly be regarded as nothing more than a box with a lens attached to it. In fact, the C3 is so dead simple that it was colloquially referred to as the ‘Lunchbox’ in Japan (and ‘The Brick’ in the United States).
Being from the 1930s, there’s nothing super exciting on the spec sheet. But that doesn’t matter. The real draw of the C3 is something else entirely. It’s a camera that provides a way of seeing things differently. It offers today’s photographer a way of slowing down and experiencing the process of photography as it once was. The C3 is a camera for shooters who enjoy the journey, and shooters who go about their craft in a more thoughtful way.
It’s gorgeous and capable even at more than 70 years old, so whether you buy one to shoot or just keep on a shelf, it’ll serve its purpose well.
SX-70 Land Camera – 1972
If you’re going to own only one Polaroid camera, this should be the one. The masterpiece product of famed inventor Edwin Land (second only to Thomas Edison when measured in number of registered patents), this camera changed the entire landscape of American camera culture. To think that this thing came out in 1972 – it must’ve been mind-blowing.
I love it for its remarkable design – when folded closed it’s an unbelievably compact and elegant assemblage of brushed chrome and leather, and when deployed for photo-taking it’s unlike any camera in the world. This visionary design is paired with equally impressive engineering, making the SX-70 a camera of many firsts. It was the first folding SLR. It was the first SLR instant camera. It was the first instant camera to use automatic-developing integral film (this meant no waste to clean up, as all process chemicals are permanently stored in the print). It was the first instant camera capable of shooting five photos in ten seconds.
Optical prowess follows – the SX-70 uses a 4-element 116mm F/8 glass lens that makes stunning images. A split-image rangefinder equipped viewfinder allows for manual focusing as close as 10.4 inches (26.4 cm). An advanced automatic exposure system is capable of shutter speeds ranging from 1/175 of a second to more than 10 seconds, and this exposure may be manually adjusted via an exposure compensation wheel on the front of the camera, putting quality photos in the hands of masters and beginners alike.
There are a number of models available, some in different colors, some with Sonar focusing. I hold the opinion that if you’re going to own an SX-70 you might as well own the original. Look for the brushed aluminum with tan leather and no tripod socket (accessories are available). And if you want one that’s completely refurbished with a warranty, look no further than my friends at Brooklyn Film Camera.
Kodak Ektra – 1941
Kodak’s Ektra 35mm camera is something of a flawed masterpiece. It signifies the last real push from any American company to produce a full-featured, high quality, complete system 35mm film camera. By most measures, it’s a phenomenal machine that easily rivals any of its contemporary competition from the likes of Leica and Contax, who were then the two big players in the rangefinder system game. But its high price and complicated design (coupled with bad timing) hindered sales, and the camera faded quite quickly into the realm of “good tries”.
Special features not found in most other cameras of the time include a zoom-capable viewfinder, magazine film backs, a fast top shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second, and more. The entire range of Ektra lenses featured coated glass, something even Leica and Zeiss couldn’t claim. And these lenses were quite excellent (and the gorgeous aluminum cases in which they came are stunning).
Enticing for completists and collectors, the Ektra system only consists of the single Ektra camera and six lenses, which makes acquisition of a concise and complete system possible. For shooters, things are trickier. The shutter mechanism on the Ektra is notorious for failure (especially after sitting for 25-or-so years), so it’s important to buy an example that’s fully functional or be prepared to send it off for repair.
That said, the Ektra is a stunning and gorgeous camera that deserves to be preserved. And since only approximately 2,500 of these ever existed (how many have been lost since the ’40s?) it’s a truly collectible Kodak machine.
Buy it on eBay (if you can find one)
Kodak Bantam Special – 1936
Another Kodak, but what do you expect? The brand from Rochester, New York was the quintessential American camera company for more than a century. And this camera, designed by a man named Walter Dorwin Teague whose design firm is still operating today, is one of the most beautiful cameras ever produced.
The Bantam Special is a folding film camera that set the high water mark for gorgeous camera design. Its cast aluminum body is coated in stunning black enamel, giving it the look of a fine musical instrument. The folding design enables it to close to a remarkably slim package (approximately 4 x 5 x 2 inches), and the perfectly capable lens and shutter combinations (of which there are two or three) are capable of making very fine images.
The big Achilles’ heel here is that the camera was made for Kodak’s 828 film format, which offers an approximately 30% larger image area over 35mm film, and doesn’t feature the sprocket holes of that more successful format. Unfortunately, 828 is no longer produced, however it’s possible to find respooled Kodak Tri-X in 828 format, though it’s rare and expensive. For these reasons, the Bantam Special is mostly relegated to the shelves of collectors.
Buy it on eBay
Graflex Speed Graphic Press Camera – 1930s, 40s, 50s, etc.
The Graflex Speed Graphic cameras are the quintessential press cameras of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. These machines are what every pressman worth his salt was shooting, and they’ve become synonymous with that golden era of journalism. It’s the kind of camera that is recognizable anywhere as a serious machine for serious shooters, and many famous photographs have been made with them.
If you’re looking for your own Speed Graphic, look for a true Speedy with the 1/1000th of a second maximum speed focal plane shutter. This offers the greatest versatility and allows use of barrel lenses (lenses without in-built shutters). The cameras are capable of shooting many formats, but the most common is the 4 x 5, for which there are still ample film stocks being produced today.
If you’re interested in shooting one of these massive beasts, make sure you buy one advertised in good shape, and preferably get an owner’s manual as well. These cameras are complicated, troublesome, and finicky, especially for new users, but shooting one is like nothing else in the world. And if you’re not quite that brave, well, they look great on a shelf too.
Buy it on eBay
And that’s our list. Hope you liked it. Happy Independence Day. Go eat a hot dog in honor of that drunk crop-dusting guy who flew into the core of the alien mothership, and saved us all. Yeah, he wasn’t the best dad. But by god was he a hero.