Third Time's The Charm: The Mamiya MSX-500

Way back in my initial film days of the early 1990's, I subscribed to a number of photographic magazines that helped enlighten me to a world of photographic possibilities, most of which were beyond my photographic reach as a result my finances.  Little did I realize at the time that the current information in these magazines would foster some false assumptions on my part that would only be disproven decades later.

Consider this: at that time, 35mm was about the most capable film format that a person of modest means could afford.  The 120 format was much more of a pie-in-the-sky for a college student at the time that I eventually broke in 1993, but even then at a modest level.  The majority of the format was in a "professional tier," and magazine ads of the times for cameras well beyond my means ran through a lineup of brand names that seemed to be namesakes only in professional medium format: Hasselblad, Bronica, and Mamiya.  

Fast forward several decades and a somewhat more grey quirky guy is peeking through camera listings, when he stumbles across an cheap and attractive Tower 20B.  In a bit of a rangefinder mood, I snapped it up, and upon digging into its history and mysteries, to discover that this camera was made by none other than Mamiya, a name I'd previously associated as a "medium format brand."

Turns out, Mamiya had a robust business in the 35mm format as well, not nearly to the level of popularity as big names like Canon and Nikon, but still quite respectable, before electing to concentrate the entirety of their efforts on professional grade 120 format cameras.  The realization of this caused a needed shift in my paradigms, but helped me put Mamiya products on my radar as an option for 35mm shooting. 

This interesting historical facet however was not enough to make the Tower 20B's shutter work, despite some of my best efforts to restore some glory to the old Mamiya product.  The camera was one of the first of mine to be relegated to the field of the "Cameras of the Dead." Strike One.

A couple of months later, while at a Goodwill, I spotted yet another Mamiya product: An Auto Lux 35, a rather unusual fixed lens SLR.  Upon testing out the shutter and seeing that it worked, I took it home for an extremely modest price.  It was only when I got home that I realized there was no consistency at all with the shutter.  It would fire at what seemed to be 1/125 of a second on one shot, only to fire at "B" on the very next shot with the same settings.  While technically, the camera could record images on film, unlike the 20B, it was certainly only good for experimentation until I could find the time to see if I could fix it. Strike Two.

Fast Forward to the more recent past and another Goodwill visit.  On entering the store, I could readily make out an SLR camera among the small electronics offerings on the distant wall, and upon approaching, I could see it was yet another Mamiya-Sekor product: The MSX-500.

At last, a fully working Mamiya for me. 

Despite having a great price, being in good physical condition, and coming with a Mamiya-Sekor 50mm f/2 lens, I was not terribly enthusiastic about this camera when I saw it.  Not only had I been largely burned by Mamiya products twice before, but I also had no particular interest in buying into a system with an entirely new lens mount.  I did a bit of due diligence and ran through the shutter speeds to at least determine that the camera was at least mechanically sound and functional.  I couldn't scratch the camera from consideration based upon its functional state.

I elected to have a closer look at the lens, and that's when the "Eureka Moment" occurred.  I was surprised to realize on twisting off the lens that it wasn't a typical bayonet mount, but rather a screw mount.  This camera had an M42 mount! I had long needed a better camera upon which to use my beloved Helios 44-2 lens, and this was clearly it, at a price handsomely less than most ebay sellers would have charged simply for shipping!  I now had every bit of justification that I needed to pull the trigger!  I was now the pensively proud owner of the Mamiya MSX-500.

The MSX-500 has a particularly basic top plate arrangment for shutter speeds from which to meter.  Aperture location is similar to most SLR cameras of the era. 

Despite having a working and useful tool to use to get full frame images from my Helios, as well as a companion lens to compare the Helios to, it took a little while for my enthusiasm to build for the Mamiya.  Much of this wasn't so much the fault of the camera but was more the byproduct of the mindset that I was in at that time.  My interests were largely in rangefinder cameras and in doing odd experiments such as converting compact 828 cameras to shoot in square format, so the idea of toting about a rather bulky Nixon-era SLR wasn't quite thrilling to me.  

Once I overcame this resistance, the Mamiya began to win me over more and more, however, helped in large part by the seeming functionality of its light meter. Interestingly, the meter in the MSX-500 is a spot meter (which the S in the model name denotes), which can be helpful in handling scenes with tricky lighting.

On the surface, the MSX-500 doesn't carry the most intimidating of specs.  Armed with a top speed of 1/500 of a second, the camera is seemingly somewhat lucky to have the aforementioned light meter, though it comes with a quirk of its own sort.  This nuance involves the use of typical M42 lenses compared to special "SX" labeled lenses specifically made for this series.  Non-SX lenses are metered in a stop down fashion, while SX lenses have a special coupling pin to the aperture dial that is able to take readings without stopping down.  If switching between the two (care must be taken when mounting or removing SX lenses), these variances should be noted carefully to avoid making mistakes in ones metering.

A couple of views though the basic viewfinder of the MSX-500.  The only two bits of information to be readily seen are the +/- exposure indicators of the match needle and the area of spot metering, noticeable in the bottom view as the darker square near the bottom.  The viewfinder also has a microprism assist for focusing.  

Whether using Mamiya SX lenses or other M42 lenses, the camera shooting experience with the MSX-500 is rather basic.  It's pretty much a matter of composing, getting a good meter reading based on the conditions, and then shooting. There are no bells and whistles such as EV compensation or any other niceties seen on some other manual focus cameras of the era - just a meter.  This isn't to say that shooting an MSX-500 isn't an enjoyable process (it is!) but it is a process rooted in the most basic elements of the elements of metered photography. 

I finally got motivated to use the MSX-500 as the fall peak approached in 2016 and after a little bit of intimidation at first use, the camera became a cinch to use.  I started out shooting a roll of Lomography 100CN using the Helios 44-2 lens and proceeded to work through more of the roll using the native SX 50mm f/2 lens.  Before I'd finished with the MSX's initial roll, I stumbled upon a particularly pretty 28mm f/2.8 "Auto Aragon" lens in another Goodwill location and elected to give it a try as well.  What follows are my results with this mid-1970's classic camera. 

The Helios 44-2 was a great treat to be able to mount to a camera that worked properly, complete with good shutter curtains.  The results that came back from the exposures using this lens only serve to reinforce what an excellent piece of glass the Helios is. 

Some close-ups with the Helios taken at the Middle Patuxent Environmental area show excellent snap and color, and only hints of the swirly bokeh.  One thing I'd love from this camera would be faster shutter speeds to use wider apertures with this lens to maximize bokeh.

At the sweet spot of about a 5-8 foot focusing distance, I'm rewarded with the Helios swirl. 

A bit softer contrast in shadowy light, but still some nice ringlets to be seen in the backdrop from the Helios on the Mamiya camera body.

Another shallow D-o-F shot with the Mamiya is this one that I felt worked a bit better in black in white by zeroing out the saturation.  I usually prefer to strictly use Black and White film for monochrome results, but I actually like this. 

Focusing the Mamiya is actually pretty easy despite only modest help via a prism circle.  

There is certainly something to be said about the color rendition of the Helios 44-2. 

As the golden hour approached, I snapped this shot on the way home, with a home made variant of old Burma Shave signs along this remote roadway. 

Two shots taken with the Helios, the above one stopped down and the below one opened up to generate the desired bokeh level.  

Another shot at the Poffenberger Road bridge shows a slight degree of swirl. 

You might remember this conveniently placed pumpkin from my review of the Ansco Speedex.  I managed to put it to use for this review as well.  Both taken with the Helios. 

As much fun as I was having with the Helios, I actually did want to switch over to the Mamiya Sekor SX 50mm lens as well.  This scene seemed like the fitting point at which to do a comparison.  Despite similar exposures, the Helios (above) does seem to render the scene with better contrast and color than the Mamiya lens (below).

A capture of some Frederick County farm scenes in golden hour light does show that the Mamiya lens is no slouch in rendering a sharp and colorful scene either. 

And bokeh on the Mamiya lens is also a pleasant treat of soft areas without quite the harsh and busy feel of the Helios.  

Gold Mine Road, a favorite Fall haunt of mine for quick flicks! 

Yet another shot with the Mamiya lens that I really like. 

At a quick glance, the Auto Aragon 28mm lens gives off a decent color rendition and snap...

...and stopped down in bright light, it seems to provide a fairly sharp image...

...but on further inspection, the left side of the frame shows some very troubling fuzziness.  

Once I noticed this weakness, I couldn't see past it.  This image suffers from the same issues. 

On this rotated view, the bottom of the image appears to be fuzzy.

And here, the weakness is just downright glaring. 

When shooting close up images, the deficiences aren't quite as glaring, but  deliberately out of focus areas aren't rendered with any degree of panache with this wide angle lens.  This said, the image below is likely the favorite of those taken with the otherwise disappointing lens. 

Perhaps best to close with this image taken with the lackluster Auto-Aragon on one of the very last days in which daylight savings was in effect. 

Overall, I'm quite pleased with the purchase of the MSX-500.  Compared with the Praktica FX-3 that was my previous M42 body, this camera is far more dependable and adds the benefit of metering.  I certainly would not recommend against this camera if you spot one, but if given the choice, an MSX-1000 might be more optimal if you wish to shoot more of your photos with wider apertures. Still, for general shooting, the MSX-500 provides dependable performance whether you pair it with its SX series lenses or other M42 screw mount lenses of your choice.  A fun world awaits with the MSX-500.