In the first installment of my regular series What it Takes, I transform a dirty but unusual old half-frame camera from a grimy mess into a fantastic photographic workhorse using nothing but some elbow grease and a spot of glue. Read about the transformation after the jump.
Before delving into the story of this camera, I thought it would be good to talk through my ground rules for this series, in case you missed the intro article. The idea here is that I’ll get a camera, spending as little as possible, and restore it to basic functionality. In lining up cameras, I’ve arrived at the following rules:
- Total cost for the camera has to be less than $50. This will be inclusive of shipping, tax, spare parts, etc needed to get it working.
- If I have a choice between a grimy old camera and a nice clean camera for the same money, I’ll take the grimy one.
- Basic functionality means that the shutter opens (closing is optional) and the film advances in such a way that pictures come out. While I’ll try to get each camera working as designed, this is the basic threshold that I have to get each one past before I’ll start shooting. Even if I have to load sheet film and use a lens cap as a shutter, I’ll get pictures out of every camera. If a camera is in good shape to begin with, I’ll find a way to make it better.
With that out of the way, let’s get to it!
The first camera I’ll show off here is a Universal Mercury II, which was made post-WWII and designed with a rotary shutter. Mercury cameras were the first to feature a hot shoe, a feature which became standard on most cameras, and is still used today. I got it from an online auction site for $22.99 with free shipping from Gibsonville, North Carolina.
It showed up looking like it had been stored in a cat bed for the last 30 years, covered in greasy dirt and animal hair. My first order of business would be a quick clean-up of all the optics, using some cotton swabs and lens cleaner (the kind they give you for cleaning your glasses when you visit the optometrist).
From there, my biggest challenge was figuring out how everything worked! The design of this camera was not only novel when it was originally produced, it’s still unlike any camera I’ve ever used.
The aperture was pretty easy once I found the index mark under all the cat hair. The focus was a bit more intimidating, since it was so precise (14 fixed settings from 1’6" to infinity), but couldn’t be visually verified since there’s not a coupled viewfinder. Rangefinders were an accessory for this camera, and I didn’t have one. Luckily, they provided a handy guide to focal depths right on the camera, and the ranges were unbelievably wide! At f/8, focused to 10 feet, everything from 5’1" to infinity should be in focus!
With lens and aperture settings tested and explored, I moved on to the shutter. After a lot of fiddling, I figured out that the shutter has to be cocked using the left dial, and then the speed is set using the right dial. You can only change the shutter speed after it’s been cocked, and the camera is designed not to allow double exposures. Because the shutter speed is a product of the gap between two plates in the round housing, the shutter sounds the same regardless of the speed setting, so I couldn’t even guess if it was accurate at all, but I could see that it was working, and that the film advance was moving when I was winding the shutter. Based on rule #3, this thing was more than ready to shoot, so I loaded it up with 35mm film and closed the back.
Another cool feature of the Mercury II is the exposure guide incorporated into the camera back. By moving the three dials based on conditions, a reasonably accurate shutter/aperture combination can be figured out, just in case you have trouble remembering your Sunny 16.
One last issue that was bothering me, though, was the peeling leatherette. I got out the E6000 (glue) and pasted it all down to get it out of my way. E6000 is great for stuff like this. It’s used for jewelry repair because it’s strong and dries clear, and it works just as well for piecing the loose bits of a camera back together.
Because this is a half-frame camera, I knew that I had a marathon testing session coming up, with 45 frames or more per roll of 24 normal exposures, so I got to shooting that very night. Here is a selection of shots from the B&W test roll:
As you can see, focus was a big issue with this camera. When it was good, the pictures were great, but I definitely hadn’t gotten the hang of the focus settings yet. Still, it was a load of fun to shoot pictures with, and I got stopped on the street multiple times by people wanting to know what it was, so once I got through that first roll, I went right into my color test:
I really think this camera is best suited to black & white, and I love how it made some of the street scenes look like shots from the 40s. Color shots were not very vivid, but that could be due to using expired film. At any rate, it was a blast to shoot with, and it will definitely become one of my go-to cameras for night shots and black & white.
This is exactly the sort of rough-looking camera that is cheap and simple to rehabilitate. It was really something that anybody could do and, despite being 50 years old, this camera will produce excellent pictures for years to come.
Photos and words by Dan Arnold. Dan lives, writes, and accumulates cameras in Vancouver, Washington and works in Portland, Oregon. Read more of his series What it Takes.