Mamiya ZE-2: Don’t waste your money, probably

The Mamiya ZE-2 and some other stuff
The Mamiya ZE-2 and some other stuff I had with me. The notes are actually for another camera — I’m not sure I took any for the Mamiya. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Mamiya ZE-2 is a mediocre little SLR I picked up at a thrift store, partly because it was cheap and partly because of the name badge.

Actually, I’m not really sure what drew me to it. It probably was partially the nameplate, and must’ve been the price — I wouldn’t buy something i didn’t know more about for more than about $10. I don’t regret buying it, but I’m not excited about it, either.

Given the name, there’s a reasonable amount of information available about the camera today, but some details are still unclear. I’ll do the best I can to describe it accurately.

Mamiya ZE-2 front view
A front view of the Mamiya ZE-2, by itself. The Osawa lens seems to have been original equipment. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The camera

The Z-series was the last line of 35mm cameras Mamiya made. The series was introduced with the ZE, which featured the first electronically-coupled lenses from a Japanese manufacturer and a quartz-timed electronic shutter.

Mamiya ZE-2 film speed dial
The film speed selector, exposure compensation setting and rewind knob of the Mamiya ZE-2. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Introduced about six months after the original ZE, the ZE-2 was a modest revision, adding manual shutter speeds where the ZE had none.

The metal focal-plane shutter requires batteries to operate correctly. The manual speed dial has speeds from 1 second to 1/1000 second, plus Bulb and X. Without good batteries, or when set to X, the shutter operates at a mechanical 1/90 second.

Also on the dial are Auto and AEL. Auto sets the camera to its aperture-priority auto exposure mode. AEL — or AE Lock — utilizes the automatic function, but locks the exposure when the shutter button is half-depressed.

In Auto mode, half-pressing the shutter release merely enables the light meter, but it will continuously adjust the shutter speed until the instant the button is fully depressed. There is a tiny, red button that pops out when the shutter speed dial is set to Auto, and must be depressed to unlock the dial again and set any other speed.

Mamiya ZE-2 shutter controls
The Mamiya ZE-2 shutter speed dial and shutter release, and the film advance lever and frame counter, are on the right-hand shoulder of the camera body. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The viewfinder includes a shutter speed display with marking for 1/30 through 1/1000 seconds; a red LED next to each illuminates to display the shutter speed indicated by the auto-exposure system. At the top of the scale is an “M” — the LED next to it illuminates at any manually-selected shutter speed — and at the bottom is “LT.” It’s not clear what “LT” means exactly, but I suppose it could be mean “Long Time.”

The focusing screen has a diagonal split-prism in the center, with a microprism ring around it. The viewfinder is reportedly 0.85x magnification, with 94% coverage (measured with a 50mm lens set to infinity focus).

The light meter is a center-weighted type utilizing silicon photodiodes, which requires four SR44 batteries to operate. The batteries sit lined up side-by-side, in a holder that slides into a slot in the bottom plate. There is no power switch aside from the half-depressed shutter release.

Exposure compensation is available by way of the film speed dial. Lift the ring to set the film speed (from ASA 12 up to 3200), or press the small button between the pentaprism housing and the film speed selector to adjust exposure compensation. Exposure compensation locks at zero, and is infinitely adjustable from two stops over-exposed down to two stops under-exposed, with detents at each full stop.

Banjoist on the mall
A banjoist, one among what can sometimes be hundreds of buskers, plays for change on Denver’s 16th Street Mall as shoppers and lunch-goers meander past. (Daniel J. Schneider)

There is nothing remarkable about the rewind knob or film advance, or the frame counter (which resets automatically when the film door is opened). The shutter release button is threaded for a standard cable release.

The hot shoe on the pentaprism housing is compatible with Mamiyalite ZE flash units, and when the flash is attached the shutter is automatically set to the 1/60 flash-sync speed if the shutter speed dial is set to 1/60 or faster; slower than that, and it will operate normally with the flash syncing automatically. The manual recommends using the 1/90 second “X” setting for flashes other than Mamiyalite ZE flashes.

Mamiya ZE-2 battery holder
The Mamiya ZE-2 battery holder is a complicated and annoying affair, taking four SR44 batteries. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The entire Z series used a new lens mount with Mamiya’s E or EF lenses, which utilize gold contacts to relay aperture information between the lens and body. The self-timer seems to take about 9 seconds, and whirs loudly and mechanically before, during, and after the shutter’s operation.

One truly innovative feature is a first-of-its-kind shake warning, which sounds a buzzer if the shutter speed selected by the auto-exposure system is too slow to be hand-held. Selecting a wider aperture or using a tripod are recommended by the manual. This warning should activate any time the auto-exposure system displays “LT” in the viewfinder.

The bottom plate features a fairly standard spool release button and 1/4-inch tripod mount socket, as well as contacts and a coupler for a motor drive.

A full range of accessories, including a power winder and lens adapters for earlier m42 thread-mount lenses, and the Mamiyalite ZE flash, was produced by Mamiya.

In 1984, Osawa — the company responsible for all of Mamiya’s worldwide distribution and a lens-maker in its own right — filed for bankruptcy (or the Japanese equivalent, at least). Mamiya responded by killing production of all 35mm cameras, ending the Z-series after just four years. Of course, they continued to make the medium-format cameras they remain famous for.

Applying mime makeup
An local mime helps an apprentice with her makeup on Denver’s 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Lens

The ZE-2 came to me with an Osawa 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom lens on it. The focus ring is a little loose, but it works otherwise.

Osawa 35-70 mm lens
The Osawa 35-70 millimeter zoom lens with macro setting. It wobbles a little, but is a very useful focal length range. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Information on Osawa lenses is rather sparse, but the company was the worldwide distributor for Mamiya, and known to make their own budget-friendly lenses for Mamiya’s 35mm cameras. They also may have manufactured lenses for other Japanese resellers such as Quantaray, Soligor and others.

Given this camera was almost certainly originally purchased in North America, it’s even possible that the Osawa lens was the one purchased with the body by the original owner.

This particular lens features a macro mode, accessible by depressing a silver button on the zoom ring and rotating it about 1/8 of a turn past the 70mm position. I did not test this mode, but close focus appears to be around 8 inches.

I have very few other zoom lenses (in fact, as of this writing I’m not sure I have any others), so using it was relatively novel. I found myself stepping right back to my first Photojournalism class, for which we were required to use only prime lenses, or set our zooms only (and exactly) to common prime focal lengths like 28mm, 50mm, 85mm, etc.

I wasn’t memorably impressed with the lens, but it’s at least as decent as any other off-brand I’ve tried. I didn’t notice any terrible lack of contrast or sharpness, nor any serious distortion of chromatic aberration. It’s a fine walking-around lens.

Really bad exposure
A really bad exposure at the 2015 420 smoke-out in Denver’s Lincoln Park. I knew the film was expired, but I didn’t know how expired — or realize that my batteries were dead. (Daniel J. Schneider)

In my hands

This isn’t a bad camera. It’s really not. I’m just putting this out here right now because I didn’t really enjoy it and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Escalator off 16th Street Mall
An escalator at Denver Pavilions, and the 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)

It feels solid enough in the hands. It’s probably made mostly of metal, which is nice. The shutter speed dial is definitely plastic, and it feels cheap. A shame when the rest of the controls all feel quite solid.

The leather covering is very, very neatly cut and fitted. It almost seems as if it were molded directly into the body of the camera, which does it make it feel very nice.

Film loads like you would expect, all the controls are in pretty much the same place as on any other mid-level SLR of the 1970s or 1980s.

The film advance is a little difficult to get your thumb behind when it’s pressed all the way in, but its travel isn’t overly long. It ratchets ahead fairly quietly and snaps back enthusiastically if you let go at the end of the wind.

The little lock button on the shutter speed dial is too fiddly for my big fingers. The knob itself is a little stiff, at least on my ZE-2, and the molded sides aren’t grooved aggressively enough for me to spin the knob with just one finger like I do on my Nikon FM2n. The film speed and exposure compensation dial work well, however.

Sidke the banjoist
Sidke, 21, is a Denver native. Here she plucks a mean cover of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up.” (Daniel J. Schneider)

The viewfinder is fairly bright, and the focusing screen is satisfying. The meter display, however, consists of tiny markings cut into the black masking on the right side and are useless in low light. You can see the LEDs blinking, but not the marks they are blinking next to.

I suspect it has to do with age and use, but the shutter release contacts — the ones that detect a half-press — don’t seem to work all the time. Sometimes this means the auto-exposure isn’t activated and the shutter seems to use the mechanical 1/90 second speed when this happens. You have to watch for the LEDs in the viewfinder to know it’s on.

I tested the ZE-2 in the spring of 2015, when I was in heavy testing mode and chewed through a dozen new cameras in a couple of months. Consequently my test frames were all made on lunch breaks and aren’t very interesting.

The first roll I shot with it was some very-expired Kodak Gold that came from unknown storage conditions. It was probably 25 years out of date and might’ve baked for months or even years in that time. Consequently, the images are hideously underexposed and violently color-shifted toward magenta. I’ve included one example of the horrible results for the sake of posterity — most of the roll was unusable no matter how hard I worked in Photoshop (which usually is not very).

Purple tulips
Purple tulips grow in a flowerbed outside the World Trade Center Denver — now called Energy Center Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

For reasons I can’t fathom, I apparently tested this camera without making a single note in my Moleskine. I remember it, but only just. There’s simple nothing stunning about it. It seems reasonably competent, and feels reasonably good in the hand. It does not fail to do what it was intended to do.

It doesn’t stand out as noteworthy, however, either. I really can’t find anything to strongly recommend it. It takes too many batteries and uses too-uncommon a lens mount. I’ve got to say that if this camera’s features fit your needs, you’d be better off with a Pentax ME-Super, or something from the Fujica ST-series or Olympus’ OM-System — all of which are solid performers with far more (and more varied) lens options.

In fact, the only thing I can think of that this might have over any of its competition — things that matter, anyway, because I don’t care about the anti-shake warning — is an ASA 3200 setting on the film speed dial. And even that isn’t enough to tempt me.

This camera is for sale, by the way — cheap!

420 rally in Lincoln Park
Due to April 20 falling on a Monday, the annual “420” marijuana rally — a permitted event in Civic Center — wasn’t able to include the actual date, taking place only on April 18 and 19 due to a recent ban on expanding festivals in the city’s largest parks. Instead, Denver revelers smoked up in Lincoln Park, across the street, on state land for 420 in 2015. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
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Mamiya ZE-2 35mm SLR camera
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