In my bag this week No. 13: Mamiya ZE-2 and a book

Mamiya ZE-2 and book
The Mamiya ZE-2 with a crummy Osawa lens, sitting on my recently-acquired copy of Henry Horenstein’s “Beyond Basic Photography: A Technical Manual.” (Daniel J. Schneider)

This week I’ve only got one photo to share, but for once I will talk about more than one thing in it: The Mamiya ZE-2 SLR and Henry Horenstein’s “Beyond Basic Photography: A Technical Manual.”

The Mamiya ZE series are apparently the last series of 35mm SLRs from the company. When other manufacturers were striving not to abandon earlier lens mounts and alienate lens owners, Mamiya was readily embracing new technology. The Mamiya E- and EF-mount lenses (not to be confused with the Canon mount released a few years later) featured a number of electronic pins that allowed the body and lens to communicate aperture information, and later, focusing data.

I genuinely have no recollection of where or when I picked up the ZE-2. Presumably it came from a thrift store and it was probably cheap. I have no special affection for Mamiya and the ZE series cameras don’t seem particularly rare or collectible. Or even particularly good.

It has been on my shelf for a long time, though, so I thought it time to test it out. We’ll see if anything I’ve shot with it comes out. And then it will probably need to find a new home.

The ZE series have quartz-timed electronic shutters that revert back to a 1/90 sec. manual speed when the batteries are dead or missing. I didn’t actually know the batteries were dead until most of the way through a roll of film, so most of my exposures are probably wrecked. My vague distaste for non-mechanical cameras took slightly more solid form when this realization struck me.

The Mamiya came to me with an Osawa 35-70mm zoom lens. I believe I can safely say it is a piece of crap. Wobbly and finicky, even its general design seems kind of terrible. It has macro modes, too. I’m fairly certain it’s another example of an off-brand trying to go a lens too far. You just can’t be all lenses to all photographers — at least not without being a bit crap.

That said, Osawa was apparently related to Mamiya — at least as a U.S. distributor. Some forum posts praise Osawa lenses as being a superb value, so it’s possible this was just a bum model or even that this lens has suffered some photographic trauma that left it broken and uninspiring. It just doesn’t feel good in the hand and it doesn’t operate smoothly or intuitively. I mean, a manual-focus lens is pretty simply in its operation, generally speaking, but this one just hasn’t lent itself to fluid operation in the time I’ve been playing with it.

The body is a bit crap, too, I think. It feels very cheap and plasticky. It’s a good size, though, being similar in the hands to the Olympus OM-G. And it is fairly feature-rich for its day.

The first ZE was introduced in early 1980 and the ZE-2 followed it in December of the same year. The chief difference appears to be that the original gave photographers no control over the shutter speed, shooting only in aperture priority mode. The ZE-2 still uses aperture priority but offers some manual shutter speeds as well, in a standard-style dial to the right of the pentaprism on the top cover. Both versions offer exposure compensation in a dial under the rewind knob from two stops under to two stops over and notched in 1/3-stops.

The advance lever is sloppy and floppy and generally unimpressive. One thing I noticed is that the shutter gets persnickety if the advance lever isn’t pressed back in most of the way. With my Nikons (FM2, F2 and F3) you have to open the lever past a firm detent in order to power on the light meter, which has led me to develop a habit of slipping my thumb behind the advance for readiness and a surer grip; so far the ZE-2 is he second non-Nikon camera to present problems with his behavior.

Its not fancy but the shutter sounds tight and reliable. The controls are plasticky and generally feel lower quality. I don’t know about availability of lenses or repairs. The viewfinder is a bit dim and the focusing screen is disappointingly smooth. I am finding focusing difficult with it.

Looking at eBay prices, I don’t know why you’d buy this over a Canon A-body or Nikon FM/FE/FM2 for not much more. If you must have auto-exposure, a Pentax ME Super with its abundant, affordable lenses is a shoe-in to top the Mamiya ZE series.

On to the book!

It’s not actually in my bag, no. But it is in my bathroom on my desk. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far I’m finding it helpful.

There are some reviews on Amazon that claim the book is useless because it doesn’t address creative aspects of photography. To them I say: Duh. It is clearly labeled “a technical manual” — it’s about getting the most out of your negatives and prints through technical processes such as developing and lighting and printing. You know, SCIENCE.

To those who ridicule its simplistic example photos and design I would say that it’s showing you samples only. If you can’t understand from the material what the book is trying to teach, maybe it’s not right for you. Try the Internet. And if you think it suffers for being dated, what the hell are you shooting film for? It hasn’t changed that much in the last forty years — certainly not enough to render this text irrelevant.

The book is described by author Henry Horenstein as being for photographers who understand the basics but want to refine and improve their output. In that regard it appears to have the potential to be remarkably helpful.

I’m not a great photographer or anything like an expert. I’m writing about my journey through the craft a little at a time, refining and improving. I bought this book at a thrift shop recently because it takes what I know — the basics — and expands on it.

In the first few pages Horenstein starts to describe how various conditions affect your negatives, what negative density refers to and how to tweak contrast and detail as you get to know a film and a developer, and so on. I already know how to develop film — what comes next is learning to do it well.

So to hell with those naysayers in the semi-anonymous Amazon reviews. If you’re like me — solid on basics — you might find something to like here. Horenstein’s “Black and White Photography: A Basic Manual” is also on my shelf and I don’t regret the $2 I paid one bit. I would’ve paid more.