Lemonade from a Lemon: The Mamiya Auto-Lux 35

At what point is a vintage camera review no longer a review?  Perhaps when your main objective is simply trying to get an image under when the camera you have in hand has only a fraction of its functionality.  I would say the following qualifies...

The Middletown Goodwill used to be such a treat.  It seemed as though each visit to this location always brought me a cheap and fun new toy with which to play.  I've gotten a number of lenses from this store, some nice sub $5 point and shoot cameras such as the Samsung Maxima Zoom 105, and even the Mamiya MSX-500.  

In hindsight, it's easy to think I had a perfect string of luck with my cheap scores at this location, but this isn't quite the case.  Even the all-star Home Run Derby hitter eventually lands short of the outfield wall.  Such was the case with this interesting piece.  

It looks like an SLR, and in fact it is an SLR, but not quite in the way that most people tend to think. 

Priced at about $8, and seemingly working at first glance, this seemed like a unique piece to add to the stable.  I had never heard of this model, and never expected to see one available in person again, so it seemed like an easy decision to snap it up while the opportunity existed. 

Mamiya's 1963 vintage Auto-Lux 35 is a camera that looks like an SLR, and feels much like the SLR cameras so many photographers know.  This is because it technically IS an SLR camera. But it has a few modifiers that make it a bit of a downgrade from even the more basic cameras in the SLR camp.

For starters, the lens on the Mamiya Auto-Lux is NOT interchangeable.  This is a Fixed lens SLR camera.  The lens on the Mamiya is a 48mm f/2.8 lens that is at least a full stop slower than the typical "Nifty Fifty" one typically associates with your basic manual focus SLR camera.  

Metering on the Auto-Lux 35 is through a dated selenium cell, prone to diminished sensitivity or downright quitting after decades of exposure to light.  Even when a selenium meter seems to function well, it is best to trust it in basic lighting conditions ranging from sunny to moderate overcast.

Finally, the Mamiya is a leaf-shutter camera, rather than a focal-plane shutter camera.  Not only does this mean that the fastest speed found on the shutter speed dial (mounted as a ring on the lens barrel rather than on the top deck) is 1/500 rather than the 1/1000 or faster typically found on most SLR cameras.

Controls on the Mamiya Auto-Lux 35 are all located in the same general area.  Consistent with most traditional SLR cameras, the outer ring controls focus.  An "A" Auto function to enable shutter priority auto-exposure would have been an option if this was a fully working example.  The leaf shutter on the Mamiya is its most interesting yet problematic feature.  I was quite fond of the sound it made when released. 

This leaf shutter design is also a complex mechanical arrangement prone to failure, particularly as decades of age catch up to cameras with this long-abandoned arrangement. The result is that many leaf shutter SLR cameras will no longer work, or will seem to only work briefly before calling it quits.  My Ricoh 126-C Flex would serve as a perfect example of the tenuous nature of the fragile and tenuous house of cards that is a 40 year-aged leaf shutter.

In the case of this Mamiya, the leaf shutter is pretty functional, with one really limiting factor: it works at only one shutter speed, or B.  Turning the dial among the speeds and firing seems to result in seemingly random results - a setting of 1/500 of 1/125 results in a bulb exposure, while a setting of 1/250 or 1/60 seems to result in a snap of the same speed. I even alluded to this camera in my other write up of the MSX-500.  

But with my intention of trying to get an image out of any camera I have in which I possibly can muster an image, I wasn't going to just toss the Mamiya. I was certainly curious to see what this camera could manage, even with its very restrictive limitations, and I had to admit a real fondness for the sound this shutter made when released, sort of a dull reverberating throb that ends with a snappy finish.  In a realm of SLR shutters that are often so similar in sound, the Autolux stood out in a refreshingly good way.

The Autolux-35's lens is slow, but reasonably good, and gives off a nice portrayal of subjects.  The viewfinder on the Mamiya is particularly nice and features an informative bit of information from the meter that is easy to follow. 

So when I had a couple of hours to wander about through North Baltimore and Druid Hill Park on a variably cloudy spring day, I finally elected to throw some Delta 100 in the long ignored Mamiya and see just what it could do.  With a shutter speed seeming to be about 1/60 (provided I didn't move the ring once I got a consistent pattern) and enough scenes of light and dark, I figured I could capture a good handful of scenes shot both wide open and stopped down.  

In actual usage, the Autolux-35 was particularly enjoyable to use.  Focusing on the matte screen was a pretty easy exercise, while the focusing ring turned smoothly to encompass distances from 3 feet to infinity.  The interior aperture ring wasn't always easy to rotate while trying to leave the shutter speed ring undisturbed, but I managed.  And the multi-syllabic sound of the shutter firing on this early 1960's mechanical misfit was music to my ears.  This was one of those rolls of film that seemed to evaporate effortlessly, helped in large part by the perfect kind of day with which to shoot such a hobbled old camera.

Given its challenging limitations and spotty reliability, I admittedly kept my expectations strongly in check as I took my first look at my developed negatives.  Fortunately however, my worries were frivolous as I noticed a strip of well exposed wet negatives awaiting the scanner.  Upon drying and scanning, I was surprisingly pleased at what I saw from this camera, the full results following below. 

A shot of the Peace Cross in North Baltimore gives off a nice tonality and shows good sharpness. 

A gloomy day still leaves a silvery rendering on the Delta 100 film. 

The clouds gently broke for a while to be able to shoot a few shots stopped down a bit.  This shot at f/5.6 came out quite nice. 

Shot at f/2.8, the Wagner Bust in Druid Hill Park shows some softness away from the center of the image. 

At f/8, the Mamiya's lens is reasonably sharp, but shows some degradation near the edges. 

The old hilltop mansion house in Druid Hill Park sits at the end of century old walkways laid out in the park's earliest days. 

The Columbus Monument looks out from this perch on the northwestern edge of the lake.  

The park's George Washington Statue appears to have suffered some weathering.  Note the fuzziness evident in the lettering near the bottom of the statue.

My favorite shots from the Mamiya however were those taken of closer distance subjects at wider apertures.  This image of an old stairway header to a set of abandoned ponds has great tonality and background diffusion. 

Bokeh on the Mamiya's lens is decidedly nice, even with an off center subject.  A gentle soft swirl like this on subjects is definitely an incentive to use this camera again.

Subjects shot at the closest focusing distance render quite nicely.  Some buttercups on the disc golf offer both a decent sharpness and pleasing softness suitable to the subject. 

That's not a coarse grain pattern on these stairs but rather a very speckled concrete. 

A quick shot of the Martin Luther monument offers up only average sharpness in this situation. 

Tonality and acutance on the Ilford Delta 100 was quite nice on all photos taken through the Mamiya-Sekor 48mm lens.  

Another shot at f/2.8 doesn't offer as much swirl in the bokeh as some others, yet still puts forth a very nice soft effect effect nonetheless. 

After using the Mamiya Auto-Lux 35 even in its limited functionality and seeing the results, I have to admit that I'm surprisingly impressed by it.  Sure I had to dance a bit of a dance that required I sacrifice some creative freedom in the process of doing that dance, but I was at least fortunate enough to have this camera out and about on a day when I could manage to run the full gauntlet of aperture settings to see how the admittedly slow lens performed. 

That all said, I have my doubts I'll ever find a fully functional Auto-Lux 35 in the future, but if I do, and it's at a good price, I'd seriously consider picking it up.  If you have a chance to pick one of these interesting cameras up, I'd certainly recommend it.