In which our hero regales you, dear reader, with a tale about an old friend.
When I was 16 I was rooting around in a closet at my father’s house. I found a bag and began to dig some more. Within this bag was a camera.
To call it simply “a camera” is to do it a great injustice. I should call it “the camera” seeing as how whenever I go shoot I don’t bring camera A or camera B (where A and B are some random selection from the bookshelf where I’ve meticulously arranged my camera collection). I always bring “the camera” (and usually a camera B that suits my mood).
“The camera” is a Mamiya/Sekor 500dtl SLR (single lens reflex). My father got one on his way to Vietnam in 1969. He took family pictures with it while I was growing up and then it ended up in a closet. When I found it, it was at least 29 years old. Everything still worked: the meter, film advance, shutter, shutter speeds… everything. My other name for this brick of a camera is “the workhorse” since it is the camera I tend to take with me wherever I’m shooting.
The specifics: The 500dtl has shutter speeds ranging from 1/1 to 1/500 as well as a B setting. I’ve read that some models can turn past the 1/500 to 1/1000 (there’s a 1000dtl as well which is nearly the exact same camera but… extra shutter speed and a few more bells and whistles) but mine does not. The shutter speed selector also houses the film speed selector (in both asa and din). The settings go from 25asa all the way up to 3200asa.
The metering system is a stop down style TTL (through the lens). To make it go: 1. make sure the battery is good. 2. Kick out the film advance arm. 3. Guesstimate your aperture and shutter speed. 4. Push the film advance arm back against the body and look through the viewfinder. You’ll see a “C” with a plus above and a minus below. Ideally you want the needle to be on the “C.” Hold in the film advance arm and adjust aperture or shutter speed to achieve desired meter and then shoot. (To bring the advance arm back to rest against the body of the camera simply push the button at the arm pivot just beneath the shot counter)
Should you possess a lens that has an automatic switch you won’t need to push the arm back against the body, it should meter properly in the automatic setting. However, it could make the viewfinder darker and thus the C will be harder to see.
With the DTL you have the option of spot or average metering. Along the left hand side of the lens (as you’re looking through the viewfinder) is a switch. If the switch is down the camera is set to average metering (which will meter the entire screen of the viewfinder). If the switch is up the camera is set to spot meter (which will meter only the area within the little circle in the middle of the screen). Also, make sure the switch is either all the way up or all the way down, if it’s shifted to the middle of the two the meter won’t read at all and you might find yourself standing on a busy street trying to take pictures and cursing yourself for not bringing out an extra battery only to find out that the switch wasn’t set right.
A final note on the meter: the camera takes a small round battery (I’ve found that the LR44 size works just fine). However, this battery only operates the meter. The rest of the camera is mechanical and does not require the battery to take pictures. So, even if you find a body with a non-working meter or your meter stops working you can use an external light meter and still use the camera.
For other bells and whistles, the 500dtl has a coldshoe adapter for flash as well as flash sync ports(x and fp) above the spot/average meter switch. This is a pretty bare bones camera, very basic, making it ideal for a person new to photography. But it still works great in the hands of an experienced photographer.
Like I said before, this camera is a veritable brick. It’s constructed of metal; every part of it. You’ll want a good strap to carry it on. Better yet, invest in a good camera bag to stuff it into while you’re not shooting so it’s weight can rest on your shoulder.
As for lenses. The 500dtl takes M42 thread mount lenses. Sometimes the thread mount can be a pain, but if you take your time the lens will attach. Like any other SLR lens, M42 comes in a wide variety of focal lengths (easily found on ebay). I prefer 28mm.
I love the 500dtl. It takes beautiful shots, has a classic stlye, and for some reason it still smells old (oddly the same way it smelt when I first pulled it out of that dusty old camera bag 15 years ago). Over the last year or so, I’ve collected a number of bodies for that fateful day when this one finally decides to die.
Here are more samples of what he can do: