12.06.2016

Univexed Again! The AF-5, a Jewel of a Camera!

It was a depression era story of the likes of David and Goliath in which a small upstart business with no previous experience in an industry emerges upon the scene to create a surprising splash, selling thousands upon thousands of units and puts forth impressive competition to the industry giant.

And nearly as soon as it ascended, one big logistical decision would lead to its rapid decline.

It is the story of Universal camera, documented in print as well as online.  Had its momentum not been upended by global conflict that cut off its supply line, it is anyone's guess as to how history would have played out for this once popular brand.

The "Univex" AF line was in many ways the bread and butter of the company, debuting in 1935 and bringing low acquisition cost and extreme portability to the masses.  Initially costing under a dollar, successive models that added improvements resulted in modest price increases over the following years, but these value priced cameras were merely a gateway to sell film and developing on Universal's "00" size film, the real cash cow of the operation.  Thousands of these cameras were made and sold, and within a few short years, Eastman Kodak had some serious competition to their value market from Universal folks, whose AF line had sold over a million cameras by the late 1930's.


Add in escalating conflict in Europe and this competition came to an abrupt halt.  Gevaert in Belgium, supplier of the film for the Univex lost their trade lines to the west as World War II began taking shape, resulting in a sharp dip in sales of both cameras and film.  By the time the connection was restored, the damage had been done and the "00" format faded away from view by the early 1950's.

As a result, perhaps more than any other single camera model aside from the 116 format Kodak Vest Pocket 1A, the Univex AF may hold the distinction as the most common camera model seen today for which film in its format can not be reasonably acquired.

Today, the five models of the AF line are coveted by many camera collectors who enjoy their art deco styling and miniature footprint.  But it seems that these sleek little cameras are too often relegated to being display items partially as a result of the film availability issue.  Go ahead and try to "Google" for images taken with a Univex AF camera model.  I have the feeling you'll come away empty-handed.  I know I had no luck at all.  There is no Flicker group for shooters of Univex AF cameras, and no Lomography feature page.



Big camera, small footprint in what the gilded box states as being a "jewel of a camera." Univex AF cameras were all simple and cost effective folding cameras that emphasized portability.  Folded down, a Univex AF model camera carries a very modest footprint, as can be seen when compared to other relational items in scale. 




As someone who has "made" 127 and 828 film, I certainly didn't shy away from the challenge of making something that I could improvise as 32mm wide "00" film.  I did it for the Iris camera, and my curiosity was greatly piqued to see what images taken with the tiny AF camera looked like, so I got my film slitter back into production to create an initial test roll of Rollei Retro 80S from a 120 roll. 

My camera for this experiment was the AF-5, last of the lineup, and presumably the model with the best lens based on price.  I was very fortunate (after getting outbid on several occasions) to get a near mint copy in its original box that gleamed in its bronze hued finish. Having seen how poorly the coatings on some cameras of this line have weathered over the decade, it was quite nice to have such an impressive example of this model.  I wondered if it had ever seen use, given that it was produced shortly before the film supply dwindled.  I might well be giving it the first roll of film it had seen, though given the presence of a spindle inside, it is likely it saw some light initial use. 



The AF-5 came in a lovely presentation box with custom art work.  It's signature upgrade feature from other members of the AF line is the "Precision Lens," seen below.  As it turns out, this wound up to be more than simple marketing talk.  Note the "SNAP" indicator in the image below.  Pulling up the tab near the lens would switch the setting to "TIME" and allow bulb exposures.


There is little to be able to describe in the operation of the AF-5.  It acts largely like a simplified version of the larger folding cameras which it mimics, yet it folds to a preset focusing distance suitable for portraits and landscapes of about 8 feet to infinity from the camera.  There are no aperture settings to adjust.  In fact, the only adjustment possible on the camera is selecting between SNAP and TIME (Bulb) exposures by sliding a tiny notch up or down on the camera face.  Framing can be done by either of two methods: the attached viewfinder, or framing through the pull up frame seen in the top photo. 

Given the simplicity of this model and its diminutive size, I expected little from the cute little folding camera.  I was simply glad that the shutter worked, and took the camera along on its first outing on an impromptu trip to Gettysburg during which I took a few test shots.  After developing, the well exposed appearance of the negatives surprised me. It was after scanning that I suddenly realized that this little camera was actually a decent little shooter! 



The entire line of Univex AF cameras was designed to use the ill-fated "00" film, offered under the "Ultrapan" and "Ultrachrome" lines.  The unique film spools, with 32mm wide film, have a "V" shaped notch key that bears more than a coincidental resemblance to the trademark symbol etched on the front plate of the camera. Negative size is 28mm x 38mm, slightly larger than a 35mm negative.


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One of my first results from this unusual little camera, hastily shot, but actually looking a lot sharper than expected.  The big disappointment is the debris on the negative, which still took me another roll of trial and error to pinpoint its cause and avoid it. 

In fact, the camera's one big flaw was not the lens nor the shutter, but the bellows.  These were free of leaks, but, when folded down, pushed into the path of the film, depositing debris onto the film, particularly if I wound the film with the camera folded up.  It was admittedly a bit distressing to see the potential for the amazing results from this tiny portable camera that would be only be hampered by dirty results from the film advance.  At first, I hesitated to clean the inside surfaces of the bellows, instead electing to try to wind the film with the camera open, and avoid closing it between shots when possible.  I cut down and spooled a few more rolls for use locally as well as on a summer journey to Maine.  

I couldn't resist trying a handheld "time" exposure.  Had I managed to hold it steady, the image wouldn't have been too bad. 


Shock.  And Awe! Ok, emulsion deposits aside, this tiny and basic camera puts forth a shockingly sharp image, when used within its capabilities.  Fine lines are clearly defined in the center of the image but even heading towards the borders, there is still modest sharpness to be seen from the simple lens.  Though I don't typically like the thought of excessive digital manipulation, I had to try retouching the image - my result is below.




Just as with the Univex Iris, maintaining a steady hand is important to image quality.  I had fortunately kept the camera open after the last "dusty" exposure, so this image doesn't suffer that fate, but there is the blur of haste on my part.

But when the dust is countered for, and you hold the camera steady to take an image, you get some truly amazing things from this remarkable little camera.  The amount of definition in the growing corn stalks in the foreground is just amazing to me.   The light fall off at the corners provides the perfect dramatic touch.

And then just as soon as I get a stellar result, I'm back to mediocrity.  Keeping the tiny camera stable can be a real challenge.

So, you could say I'm at a complete loss for words for how astonished I was at how this shot turned out.  The tight grain structure of the Rollei Retro 80S film combines with the surprisingly decent Univex lens to create an image that, at first glance, appears to have been taken with something much larger in size. 

Univex grab shot.  After snapping the previous shot, I was caught by lowering arms of a railroad crossing.  The Univex, still open on the seat beside me, tempted me into snapping what would seem to be an ill-fated shot of the train thundering past.  Oddly, it didn't turn out so badly at all!  The glow from the bottom is from a handling error on my part of the film prior to developing.

More light leakage on this image, but not the fault of the Univex.  I still included this image because it again shows the potential behind this small camera. 

In Maine, I switched to using Ilford Delta 100, another favorite film of mine.  Unfortunately, my camera movement demons got the better of me for this shot.  

Delta 100 seemed to be a bit "fast" for the Univex in brightly lit settings, rendering some highlights that bleach out after scanning.  Still, the detail the film and camera provide are still quite an amazing thing.  Framing is a challenge on the small camera, though I did poorly with the horizon here. 

I had cleaned a bit of residue off a tank part prior to loading the 00 film into the reel. Big mistake, as some of this transferred onto my fingers, and then onto the film as I loaded it.  A bit of motion blur, but not as bad as other shots, and some really interesting tonality once you look past the offending prints. 

Held sharp and steady, the results here show some of the surprising tendencies of this camera.  There is some loss of sharpness seen in the soldier's face, but overall, the results defy the size and makeup of this camera. 

In shady settings, the Univex has little hope of getting a well toned image.  Still, it does give a pretty admirable try.  The ropes of the hammock are pretty well defined through the small lens. 


I also shot some Retro 80S while in Maine, and when the camera was steady, it delivered some of the best exposure and tonality that I've ever seen from this film.  The detail and toning on the ripples of the water is excellent.

Completing the last of the roll of Retro 80S back in Maryland, I was presented with a lovely July afternoon in which to snap this shot that serves to simply sum up why I love this hobby so much, and all of its potential quirkiness.

The AF-5 could have been an absolute game changer for the more casual of shooters who desired a surprisingly sharp image in a tiny package.  The Univex brand had already a wide distribution in the United States, and the AF-5 combined an amazing amount of portability with a shockingly decent piece of glass that can create surprisingly good images when used with a good choice of film.  

I had expected my experiments with this camera to be a "one and done" exercise that would yield some rather pedestrian and barely passable results.  I was in complete disbelief at what this diminutive camera could actually do.  As such, I expanded my reach with this camera to actually go through the challenge of shooting (and developing!) color with it, the results of which are being posted separately.  

Every time I think I can't be surprised by what a small camera can do, I'm proven wrong.  In the case of the AF-5, I could not be more thrilled to have been proven incorrect.  This really is, as its box states, a JEWEL of a camera, whose main challenge (and admittedly a fun challenge at that) is getting a winning shot with each exposure.