Mamiya, known for making a variety of excellent professional medium format cameras, once made budget 35mm SLRs, too. The 500TL is one of them.
On paper, the 500TL isn’t a bad camera. It was even a solid match for the Miranda Sensorex and Pentax Spotmatic, its chief competitors when it was released in 1966.
Unfortunately, while it has some interesting features and is well-built, it comes off as kind of kludgy and half-baked, at least to me.
Overall, the 500TL is a very simple, all-manual camera. The TL line was Mamiya’s first to feature a through-the-lens CdS-cell light meter. The 1000TL offered a self-timer and 1/1000 top shutter speed that the 500TL lacks. Later DTL models included dual light meters — the spot meter and an averaging meter — with a selector switch to the left of the lens mount.
The light meter, interestingly, is a spot meter. The original plans for Asahi’s Spotmatic called for a spot meter, but an averaging meter was what made it out of the factory in the end. Mamiya TLs have a small patch in the bottom-center of the viewfinder that indicates the meter target.
Much like a Nikon, pulling the film advance lever out about 30 degrees enables the light meter, and once snapped out, the advance lever serves as a stop-down lever, too. Pushing it back in against spring tension stops down the lens for metering, and provides depth-of-field preview. When you’re done, the center hub of the advance lever is a button which, when pressed, releases the advance lever so it moves back to the closed position.
A big, rounded shutter release button, with a standard release cable thread, and a big shutter speed selector knob accompany the advance lever on the top right of the camera. A film speed selector with markings in both ASA and DIN is incorporated into the shutter speed selector, and offers speeds from ASA 25 to 800 (DIN 15 to 30). Shutter speeds from 1/500 second down to 1 second, and Bulb, are available.
A very simple rewind knob with a flip-out crank lever is alone on the left shoulder of the camera. Below it, on the side of the camera, a small lever pulls up to release the back cover. If you’ve ever loaded film into a camera, you’ll find this one easy to load and unload.
A universal m42 screw mount permits the use of a wide variety of lenses. On the side of the lens mount housing are two PC sync sockets for X-sync and FP-sync. Flash-sync shutter speed is 1/60 second, marked in red on the selector knob.
In the viewfinder, above the metering patch, a centered microprism spot is the only focusing aid. The light meter display is a match-needle type with a large (backwards) letter “C,” the center of which indicates correct exposure. Plus and minus symbols above and below indicate exactly one stop over or under correct exposure, and the needle is capable of indicating two stops over or under accurately at a point beyond either symbol equivalent to the distance between the symbol and the center of the “C.”
The bottom cover has a standard 1/4-20 thread tripod socket and the take-up spool release button, which stays in when pushed. The battery cover has room for a single SR44 battery behind it.
On the front corners you’ll find heavy-duty strap lugs. The 500TL includes no other features, not even an accessory shoe, although one can be added with a simple adapter.
I bought the 500TL at a thrift store with no lens, so I tested it with the Hanimex 35mm f/2.8 that I used for the first roll through my first Spotmatic.
The reality is that there’s nothing wrong with the 500TL. It’s so basic there’s simply not a real opportunity for it to not be adequate. The biggest annoyance I can think of is the spot meter, which really makes it more accurate — just requires a little more thought about where you’re pointing it when metering.
Where it falls short for me is in the look-and-feel department. It’s blocky, and not in the cool, retro way of the Argus C3.
It’s almost as big as a Nikon F2, but thicker from front to back. It fills my big hands up, but manages to be uncomfortable with its relatively sharp corners. It’s weight feels more like the result of hastiness and imprecision than necessity and engineering.
The shutter speed selector is difficult to turn, and the film speed selector is fiddly. You have to really pull up on the outer ring to adjust the film speed, and it’s tedious. I found the viewfinder dim, and I felt focusing was difficult because the microprism patch is very small and seems to have fairly low contrast in comparison to others I’ve used.
The multi-function advance lever is actually pretty cool, but it’s not intuitive. I didn’t understand it at all until I’d read about its functions online. One more thing to recommend the 500TL: it’s fully mechanical, using a battery only to operate the light meter.
Everything else about the operation of the camera is unworthy of a detailed report — it’s all just fine. Adequate. Perfectly, boringly, adequate.
The pictures it takes, too, are just fine. This is not a review of the Hanimex lens, either, which is responsible for far more of the images’ quality than the camera body itself. A camera is just a light-tight box with a method for introducing controlled bursts of light, and the 500TL does that part perfectly well.
I know a lot of these found their way to the U.S. by way of soldiers headed to or returning from Vietnam in the late 1960s, as they were for sale in lots of base exchanges. They’re a dime a dozen now, figuratively. Literally, they sell for less than $10 with lenses and cases.
If all you need is a solid light-tight box, this one will do fine if you’re on a McDonald’s dollar-menu budget. If you’re not — even if you’re only on a Chipotle or Panera budget — get a Pentax K1000.
Here are some more of my test shots, made with expired Kodak Gold and a roll of Agfa APX 100.