What It Takes: Universal Mercury II


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 shoot that very night. Here is a selection of shots from the B&W test roll. To see all the black & white test shots, see this album:

Credits: dinospork

As you can see, the 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. For the color roll, this album:

Credits: dinospork

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.

written by dinospork on 2012-02-20 #gear #tutorials #color #camera #lens #repair #tipster #focus #cleaning #vintage-camera #shutter #glue #leatherette #regular-contributors #what-it-takes-series #mercury-universal #rotary-shutter #cat-hair #test-b-w


  1. blu132
    blu132 ·

    Awesome! Keep it going!

  2. sammi80
    sammi80 ·

    Great article. Well written.

  3. dinospork
    dinospork ·

    @blu132 @sammi80 Thanks! @c41 stay tuned!

  4. jeffr
    jeffr ·

    awesome and great idea! i really enjoyed the read!

  5. paappraiser
    paappraiser ·

    Bringing a camera back from dead is great. I have done it a few times. Mostly from bad cameras from online auctions as well. Mostly not because I wanted to but because the camera took a crap a few weeks after I got it.

  6. luciasrose
    luciasrose ·

    love the idea

  7. danielmstarr
    danielmstarr ·

    I have this exact same camera in storage somewhere. thanks for posting this; I now have a new project for the weekend!

  8. danielmstarr
    danielmstarr ·

    Incidentally, I was once told that cleaning the metal housing on cameras like this with Naphtha is a good way of restoring the finish, or at least getting the gunk off. Of course, it's highly toxic and flammable, but this is a beautiful camera we're talking about here!

  9. dinospork
    dinospork ·

    @danielmstarr I was thinking maybe I'd hit it with a polishing pad using a Dremel, like they do with old Airstreams, but the next time I feel like playing with toxic petrochemicals, I'll give that some thought. It would probably be faster.

  10. lighthouseblues
    lighthouseblues ·

    Great work to rescue that beautiful old camera, and the photos are great too, specially the bw!

  11. superlighter
    superlighter ·

    I like the article the camera and the b&w pictures!

  12. dinospork
    dinospork ·

    @superlighter @lighthouseblues @luciasrose @paappraiser @jeffr Thanks all for your kind words!

  13. paappraiser
    paappraiser ·

    Naphtha or lighter fluid is a great cleaner... Everclear is my current favorite. Yes 190proof corn liquor. .

  14. dinospork
    dinospork ·

    @paappraiser I've heard of using Ronsonol (lighter fluid) to free up gummy degraded grease...I need some for my Argus C3 to free up the aperture ring. As for Everclear...is there anything ethanol can't fix?

  15. paappraiser
    paappraiser ·

    @dinospork ethanol is a magical wonder.. I use it to clean all my glass.

  16. szzs
    szzs ·

    Nice camera!
    I think camera repair need a lot of time and patience but it's worth it!
    I have a little square format Zeiss Ikon Taxona in pieces... The shutter didn't work well. I found the faulty little gear wheel and I tried to repair it. Now I need time to assemble. It's easy to dismantle but weeks or months after it's hard to put the little parts together...

  17. dinospork
    dinospork ·

    @szzs Sometimes it requires patience and time. Other times, it's just about wiping off the dirt, loading film, and going for it. This was definitely not a camera that tried my patience. Once it showed up in the mail, I think it may have been 90 minutes before I had it ready to rock & roll, and most of that time was taken up by photographing what I was doing as I went.

  18. marjanbuning
    marjanbuning ·

    wow! good job! stunning color photo's

  19. herbert-4
    herbert-4 ·

    Mercury cameras are exquisitely engineered to great durability. The only thing is that they are solid pure aluminum and the outside corrodes easily, but it will always work and the lens is very sharp. The rotary shutter dictates the size of the frame. The spinning blades would make full frame 35mm camera too big. The circular housing on top of the body contains the blades. Your great grandchildren coulding be using this.

  20. permafrost
    permafrost ·

    I just found a Lumière camera today, one that folds out. Seems to work but I have to test it. I always think that things from way back make new things look like from way back (does that make sense) but I got quite the reality check from you in this article. I will still try and shoot a 120 BW film... I think that's the film it takes anyway :))

  21. dinospork
    dinospork ·

    @permafrost figure out how it works, clean off all the glass, remove as much dust as you can from the inside, make sure the shutter opens and closes and that the film advances and give it a whirl. Since it's a folding camera, definitely make sure there aren't any obvious holes in the bellows, as well. Do you know if it's 6x6 or 6x9? If it's 6x9, be aware that any negative carriers you have for scanning are not likely to work, and that you'll get fewer than 12 shots on a roll of 120 film.

  22. camilton
    camilton ·

    Thank you for this post, I went to my grandfathers house today and he pulls a box out from behind his chair telling me he thinks I might be interested (I'm an Art Education and Fine Arts major minoring in photography). I open the box and find a Mercury II! I was amazed that the shutter even worked! He even had the photoflash unit with it although no bulb.

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