To say the Mamiya Universal is clunky and hard to use is an understatement. But it is not completely un-useable, you just need to find the flow of the camera. The Universal isn’t a bad camera, underrated, hard to use yes, but a good camera. The whole Mamiya Press/Universal/Polaroid 600SE had one thing in mind, replace the large format press cameras with roll film. The trouble with them is that they took too much out of the large format handbook than the roll film handbook. Special thanks to John Meadows for loaning out this camera for this review!
Format: Multi-Format, back dependant
Lens: Interchangeable, Mamiya Press Mount
Year of Manufacture: 1969
The best part about the camera is that it is a true modular system, like the 35mm system SLRs, the Universal can be completely customized to suit whatever you need it to do. You have plenty of options for the film medium 120/220 (in the same back to boot) in all the major exposure sizes for medium format film (6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, and 6×9). You can also mount a 2×3 sheet film back and a ground glass screen for focusing or a Type 100 Polaroid film back. For this test I shot with a 6×9 back, I feel that the camera would operate much better with a 6×7 back as it gave the photographer the same aspect ratio of 4×5 through a smaller negative size it brings the camera back to its roots of being a press camera. The Universal is also backed by a solid line of optics, after shooting with Mamiya-Sekor glass when I reviewed the RB67 I found the optics to be sharp and spot on. And the camera is a lot more portable than the average 4×5 press camera and the grip on the side helps with a trigger to fire off the shutter.
The one major issue that I alluded to in the introduction was the overall design of the camera. It’s as if Mamiya wanted to attract large format press camera users with a smaller form factor camera that offers all the steps of a 4×5 in a roll film camera. Personally, if I had the choice, I’d just throw a roll film back on my Crown Graphic and not look back. Let’s break it down; the Univeral is much more like a 4×5 camera than a roll film camera for the following reasons. There’s no dark slide interlock; you can shoot a whole roll of film and have nothing on your film because you can still trigger the shutter even with the dark slide in the film back. Advancing the film you have to disengage a safety catch, pull the film advance slightly release the catch and advance away (2-3 pulls), if you keep the catch disengaged, you will advance too far. Advancing the film also does not cock the shutter you have to do that in a separate step. Composing your images is difficult, now I’ve used plenty of rangefinders before but in this case, Mamiya could easily put the rangefinder/viewfinder closer along the sight line of the lens and run with it that way. And finally, you really need a steady hand with this camera, even shooting at 1/60″ I got noticeable camera shake even at 1/125″ you have to treat it like a sniper rifle, exhale and pull the release.
Mamiya had the chance to design a great camera, the Universal and Press models could have been a major player in the press camera market, but they got too much of the design wrong. Instead of making it easier to operate so that press photographers can pull off more images, they pandered to the large format market making the camera more familiar. If I want to shoot 4×5, I’ll grab my Crown Graphic and enjoy the long process of composing, exposing and setting up the shot. If I’m shooting roll film, I want a little more speed. I don’t know yet, but maybe the Koni-Omega will be a better camera (once I get mine fixed).
All Photos Taken at Black Creek Pioneer Village, Toronto, Ontario
Mamiya Universal – Mamiya-Sekor 1:4.5 f=127mm – Fuji Acros 100 @ ASA-100 – FA-1027 (1+14) 9:30 @ 20C