I'm always on the hunt for cheap cameras. As far as I'm concerned, there's really nothing as exciting as finding a very good camera with a sub $20 price tag. It seems I have developed a craving that makes it impossible for me to drive by a thrift store without walking in to see what they have on the camera shelves. Call it FOMO if you want, but this is one habit I'm in no hurry to kick. No matter what happens, nothing will make me stop the hunt: not even running out of space in virtually every corner of my apartment, and not even having an entire box full of broken cameras — that I hope to someday fix.
Hunting for cameras has its highs and lows. Like everything in life, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. Through my escapades, I'll sometimes find a camera that fully works, a camera that partially works, or one that is just broken. The combinations tend to get interesting when you think about cameras with interchangeable lenses. For those, I might find a camera in great working condition, paired with a malfunctioning lens, or my most occurring type of find, a fully working lens paired with a broken camera. For the prices at which I get these cameras, and the places from which I get them, I really have no reason to complain about the state in which I find them. That's the life, and I've accepted it. After all, broken cameras and lenses make great shelf pieces. And, as a positive, they are more useful when you find another of the same type — they suddenly become a great source of rare spare parts.
Quite recently, I had the two scenarios concerning interchageable lens cameras play out for me on a lot of two SLRs I found through a local classifieds advert. A nice gentleman put up two cameras, a Fujica AZ-1 paired with a 28mm Fujinon lens, and mamiya sekor 500dtl paired with a 35mm Mamiya-Sekor lens, he'd picked up from an estate sale. Although, he didn't know much about cameras, the physical condition of both cameras led him to list them for real cheap. In his world, cameras with that much dirt and grime couldn't possibly function; in my world, it depends. After they were finally mine, and I properly assessed them, I found out the Fujica camera was in a good working condition, but paired with a broken lens; and the Mamiya was broken, but paired with a perfectly working lens.
The Fujica AZ-1, although very dirty, had its shutter and film advance working. It's shutter speed dial was a little stiff, but once you put in the effort to make an initial turn, subsequent turns become easier. Apart from the dirt on the body, the battery chamber contained some heavily oxidized batteries that were stuck. I managed to pry those out, and I cleaned the chamber with some baking soda. The Fujinon lens on the Fujica was however not in great shape. All the dials on it had ceased. Nothing I tried could get either the aperture ring, or the focus ring to turn. The front element was covered in a thick layer of dust, the filter threads were bent, and I couldn't even check if there was any fungus or particles inside. I really had had nothing else to do with it that to toss it on the "I'll fix it later" pile in my collection.
For the Mamiya, the body was just broken — and there was nothing else to it. The first red flag was the missing film rewind crank. After a more careful inspection, it was obvious someone had cracked it open in an attempt to fix it, and probably did more damage in the process, and just decided to leave the camera to die. The camera was just torn apart: the leatherette was peeling, and scrapes from a sharp tool (possibly a lens spanner) had disfigured the surface of the top plate. It would have been nice if there was any hope of it working, but the shutter was just stuck: the button frozen, the advance lever not budging, the mirror just stuck up. I didn't even want to think about attempting to fix it (assuming I could), so I tossed it unto the future spare parts pile. But, all was not lost. Surprisingly, though, the lens on it was very well preserved. A UV filter had saved the front element from all the dust, and all the rings were turning properly. Holding the lens up to light, I could tell there was no fungus or particles trapped inside — I had a winner.
So with a working body on the Fujica side and a working lens on the Mamiya, perhaps, the only consolation for me was that both cameras shared the same lens mount: the M42 screw mount from Pentax. Without overthinking it, I knew the only way I could get the most out of the entire purchase was to pair the Mamiya-Sekor lens with the Fujica body. Simple right? Well, not quite. I quickly learned how quirky the M42 lens mount can be. At best, I personally feel the standardization of the M42 ends at the specification of the screw thread. As for where the thead starts or ends, it seems different manufacturers implemented to best fit the aesthetics of their cameras. Oh, and there's also the issue of the pin that retracts the aperture blades: some lenses have the pin, others don't. Even some lenses have a button that controls whether the pin works or not.
With my new camera-lens combination, the M42 problem was with the screw thread. The lens screwed and fit, but the line that marked the focus distance and aperture remained a little askew to the right. Regardless, the lens still worked and focused all the way to infinity. What more did I need.
Shooting with the Fujica camera and Mamiya-Sekor lens combination was a lot of fun — maybe, only after my OCD got over the weirdly placed distance scale. The Fujica AZ-1 is a very compact camera for an SLR. Regardless of its compact size, it feels quite heavy, being made of only metal. It has a slightly muffled cloth shutter, its mirror doesn't clack all over the place, its shutter release is lockable. There's the standard self timer leaver, and next to it, they managed to squeeze a depth of field preview button. In fact this camera seems to check all the boxes for a camera you should love.
What was more interesting for me on the camera was its speed dial; it allows you to select only a few of the speeds the camera is actually capable of shooting in pure manual mode. Essentially through the dial you have access to the max speed (1/1000), frame freeze speed (1/250), the shutter sync speed (1/60), and a bulb setting. All these speeds work without batteries. If you want the other speeds inbetween, however, you need to stick in some batteries and shoot the camera in its auto exposure mode. Yes, this camera has an aperture priority auto exposure mode that works really well — even with my mismatched lens. Another thing I found intuitive was how the dial on this camera manages to take on four different roles. Depending on where it was turned to, it either selected a shutter speed, put the camera in auto exposure mode, adjusted exposure compensation or allowed you to select the film speed.
The mamiya lens was also great. At f2.8 it was pretty fast, and the results I obtained from it were really beautiful. This camera was one with which I had the most in-focus images shot through zone focusing. Maybe I was lucky, but carefully thinking it through, it seems the 35mm focal length on full frame is just wide enough to have deeper in-focus areas at larger apertures. The Mamiya lens is now going to be permanently glued to this compact Fujica-1, and they are most likely going to be my companions whenever I want to shoot at the glorious 35mm focal length on an SLR.