Mamiya Universal Press

The Mamiya Universal Press: the Swiss Army Knife of medium format cameras. With the exception of its unique 3×4 Polaroids and 100/2.8 for 6×9 options, there is something better made and better suited for your application. But even for me, there is a limit to the number of cameras a man can carry at once and this does well to cover nearly all situations and formats. And when it doesn’t work for your application, a light cheap metal box begs to be remade as you need.

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So it’s good these are usage notes and not reviews. Were they reviews, I’d feel compelled to give you a score or rank and if any camera defies that methodology it is this one.  A full write up will follow, but I’ve decided to do my summary notes for as many cameras as my time presently allows, and then go back and provide a full write up.

Lenses I own in this mount:
65mm 6.3
90mm 3.5
100mm 3.5
150mm 5.6

In short -

Composition – Good.  Similar in brightness to the Koni but not as easily cleaned.  Parallax corrected, but no width/angle of view correction; three focal length options (100/150/250) must be manually selected.  Base length is not as wide as the Koni.  Worse, finder magnification seems low. Film memo tab recomposition trick (for perfect framing) depends on the back used.   Ground glass option for complete precision.

Ergonomics – Boxy.  Requires the grip for something approaching ergonomics, but I leave it at home most of the time.  The Universal is the most useful hack of a camera, but it feels like the kludge that it is.  On this camera, I find that I prefer a right hand grip and made one for it.

Format – Whatever you want.  Only useful camera to use all of a 3×4 Polaroid.  6×9 out of the box. 6×12 and 4×5 hacks might be possible.

Packing – Not bad.  The camera is a vertically oriented box and strips down nicely; none of the components have easily damaged protrusions (except maybe the RF coupling pin at the lens mount.  I don’t worry too much).  The 65mm lens is virtually flush with the camera and the 90mm when collapsed is very compact.

Weight – Lighter than it looks, then heavier than it seems.  I swear it makes no sense: the camera looks heavy, then feels light in the hand – that makes sense: it’s mostly air and the metal is cheap aluminum.  A rollfilm back doesn’t add much.  Neither does a grip.  The lenses are not heavy. But then it comes out feeling like a Koni Omega.  A straw broke something along the way.

Low  Light – Leaf shutter and grip are pluses. The RF has its limits in poor lighting, but the 2.8 aperture for 6×9 is a rare option.  Even so, you should always carry a Delta 3200 or pushed TMY-2 loaded back; the 100/2.8 is neither common or cheap and if you find yourself in negative EVs as I often do, 2.8 isn’t fast enough.  A Nikon SB-30 in auto makes this into a 6×9 point and shoot.  I used this with Astia to great effect on Halloween 2011 in Manhattan. But for available light only, the magic of a leaf shutter 2.8 lens is dampened (and because of shallow DOF undermined) by a middle of the road RF/VF. Flare from light sources can be an issue, but I’ve seen much worse. Never forget: the first step in low light focusing is to focus by scale and then bring the camera to your eye.

Rain -  All mechanical, no bellows.  Strips down pretty easily, but as a result of being held together by a handful of screws and loose tolerance, it fogs very quickly in humid/rain situations.  Also note that this applies to the final model of the Universal which has screws to remove the front plate.  Earlier models are not so readily taken apart or reassembled as they require shellacking (maybe Elmer’s?) very very thin metal upon metal to close up after accessing all the glass surfaces.  At that point it won’t seem so bad because you will have already creased the metal front plate when removing it.  Lens breakdown may be needed in extreme situations – and because of its mechanical simplicity, this is the camera I take into Brooklyn fire hydrant parties or tropical storms.  Be prepared to desolder the flash wire connection to the PC jack or just yank the thing and ignore flash on a good, but not great, available light system.  On second thought, don’t do that.  After that, you can remove elements as needed to defog.

Polaroid – A reason to buy the camera.  Ignore the Polaroid 600 series; a locked down version of the Mamiya.  Usually commands a higher price (as a collectible and for idiots wowed and nostalgic) for the Polaroid name with fewer system options.

Backs – Glory hallelujah.  2×3 Graflock if you’re lucky enough to find the G adapter for a reasonable price.  While Graflex RH backs might have flatness issues, most Mamiya backs will work.  That alone gives you tons of RB backs, all modern and some even more than others – the 6×8 motor back (one piece version) works just fine.  Hitting the advance lock tab works to crank the film. As there are RB67 digital backs (e.g. CFV-39) there is no reason you can’t work digitally. Being “stuck” with the Press M adapter (available in both orientations) is no great loss – as long as you can find the backs – you will have all the flatness you need, multiformat versions, and one rare model provides unified lens cocking and film advance.  The Polaroid (Fuji Instant FP series) option takes advantage of the huge hole that is the “rear standard” and finally, with sufficient machining skills, you have a 3+ x 4+ inch back to play with.

Interchangeability – This camera begs for hacks.  RFs have been cut off for compact ultrawide point and shoots.  4×5 extensions have been tried.  The breech lock mount – short in FFD – is wide enough for anything designed to be used photographically.  Lenses are Copal 0.  Lenses are remarkably similar to related TLR cameras, v’ha’meivin yavin.  All in all, a great platform for your project, whatever it may be.

How and When – so often I can barely describe the criteria.  6×9 is 6×9. Ain’t nothing like it.  I’m working with the GL690 at the moment, but frankly due to Polaroid fun and 6x”whatever” this has been my most used medium format camera.  It’s all about usablity:  forget Zeiss this and MTF that for pictorial purposes.  It packs well, gives me 3.5 and 2.8 if you want, and did I mention 6×9?  Of course I did – it’s the format of the demigods.  Alternatives in my arsenal include the Fuji 690 (giving up interchangeable backs), the Horseman 970 (giving up the ruggedness and speed of helical focusing, include all the 2×3 RF coupled technical cameras here) and the Bessa II (well, this is small enough to come along regardless, but of course is fragile, collectible, has no interchangeable backs, red window advance, and a squinty finder). None of those do 3×4 instant either. (No, the spacer backs for the Horseman don’t count.) In a very real way, the Mamiya Universal is in a class by itself. (No, the Graflex XL doesn’t count. They’re all broken.)

Value – Good, but be wary of the accessories.  They are hard to find outside of Buy-It-Now eBay sellers who may charge what you paid for the camera body for an infinitesimally small widget. Ideally bought as a package with everything you need; either with a G adapter or an M adapter and a number of backs sufficient for your needs.

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