Comparing the Leica IIIF to the Argus C3 is a bit like comparing a 1930’s Ford to a 1930’s Mercedes. They are both rangefinder cameras but they were marketed and sold to completely different photographers. The Argus is a mass produced assembly line built consumer product that was marketed to the what we would probably now call Prosumer market. It wasn’t a vacation point and shoot camera by any means, but it isn’t a precision instrument in the way a Leica IIIF is. The Argus is classic American industrial design in the best and worst sense of the word. Both cameras are steeped in history however, and just because it’s not a rare camera you shouldn’t dismiss it as crap and lump it in with many of the other lesser cameras of the era. It’s a very capable picture taker, just in more steps than most people are accustomed to.
I won’t delve into the prices when produced or any other history that is well documented I’ll just get started in comparing the shooting experience of the two cameras and discuss the similarities and differences.
Maximum shutter speed on the IIIF is 1000th of a second, the Argus is around 300th. If you’re using sunny 16 rule (neither camera has a built in meter) that means you’re slightly over exposing with 400 speed film at f16 on a bright sunny day. Could be a problem if you’re shooting slide film. Do they still make slide film at ISO 400? My advice is use 100 speed film on sunny days and 400 on dark ones. Or split the difference and shoot at 200. Clearly the advantage goes to the Leica, or does it? The Leica has TWO knobs!!! One for slow speeds (under 1/30th) and once for 1/30th and above. It sounds more complicated than it is, and honestly how often are you shooting below 1/30th of a second. The slow speed dial is on the front keep it set to the red 30 and use the top dial like most cameras until you need a slower shutter.
Both cameras lack a thumb cocking lever that most of us have come to know and love. If you think your Canon AE-1 slows you down and makes you more contemplative you should try a camera with a knurled film advance knob, no light meter, and no click stops for lens aperture. Contemplate away. The only way to get more zen with a camera is to get a large format ground glass camera and a dark cloth. The argus throws in a few more steps. You must hit a nub that resets the film winder to advance frames. This keeps you from accidentally double exposing, or tricks you into double exposing or not exposing at all, sometimes in consecutive steps. You also must manually cock the shut with the lever located on the front of the camera. When the shutter releases (a nice firm crisp shutter release BTW) you’re greeted with a nice twangy spring sound letting you know the shutter has released. The Argus has a simple leaf shutter which in my opinion is the best type of shutter made for a rangefinder unless you need more than 1/500th of a second. It keeps you from burning holes in your fine silk shutter curtains (which is about the price of a used IIIF to get replaced). That lovely Leica snick sound comes at a price.
Both cameras have separate rangefinder and composing viewfinders. The beauty of this design is very accurate focusing, even with a 135mm lens (try that on a M2 or M4). But you have to move your eye slightly after focusing meaning you risk losing that decisive moment you might be after when walking around Paris in a overcoat like you’re HCB. This is why zone focusing in street photography was a common practice in the Rangefinder era. Neither camera is a speedy focuser, lets be honest. But neither of us is HCB or Winogrand either. Cats don’t move that fast. Get over it.
Really what it boils down to is if you want a classic rangefinder experience you can certainly get it for under $50 without resorting to Former Soviet Union cameras (which I also love so that’s not a put down). If you want a Leica experience for under $500 you could probably get it with a IIIF assuming you get a good working one for a fair price. Both cameras offer a unique experience and are capable of taking fantastic photos, as are most cameras. Maybe the real question is why do we have to own so many cameras? How many decisive moments have passed us by in the time it took me to write this article or for you to read it?