Mamiya U — an Ultra-Rare Compact 35mm Film Camera

9 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .

I came across Mamiya U compact 35mm film cameras by chance back in 2020. Its unusual design — a square window cut out within a plastic sphere for a round lens with a stark blue ring — screamed ‘80s Terminator chic.

Unfortunately, every single copy sold had a disintegrated shutter button, amongst other issues. These cameras didn’t last, yet I still wanted one — badly enough to stalk the market for over two years. Finally, in late 2022, I got an opportunity to purchase a mint-condition Mamiya U, which is the subject of this review.

A brief history of the Mamiya brand.

Mamiya Seiichi (間宮精一), a Japanese inventor and camera designer, founded Mamiya Optical Works (マミヤ光機製作所/Mamiya Kōki Seisakusho) together with his partner, Sugawara Tsunejirō (菅原恒二郎) in 1940. As you’d imagine, World War II, which was happening at the time, was a disruptive force for camera manufacturers, especially near 1945, when Japan capitulated. But despite those changes, Mamiya’s company managed to source enough orders to continue work on their medium format film cameras.

Mamiya Seiichi feature in the July 1951 issue of Asahi Camera.

To this day, the eighty-three-year-old brand remains famous for its professional and semi-pro 120-format film cameras and not much else. Though Mamiya has undergone a series of transformative changes in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, it is still known as a medium format imaging system designer. Today, it is owned by Phase One, a professional digital camera manufacturer.

That is not to say that Mamiya has never attempted to diversify its product portfolio.

Their furthest foray from the core product line was fishing equipment. This, of course, had ended by the time the company got consolidated into its current form; so has its continuous efforts to make 35mm film cameras since 1948 — when Mamiya permanently shut down that format in 1984. This makes the U one of the last 35mm film cameras Mamiya had ever produced.

 ☝︎Further reading:カメラ設計技術者の経験から 間宮精一” — a blog that featured the “Asahi Camera Magazine” 1951 excerpt above.

Mamiya U design and build quality.

Mamiya U looks like a mid-level point-and-shoot from the 1980s. And it is. First released in 1981, this camera came with a relatively fast Sekor 35mm 𝒇2.8 lens and a quiet leaf shutter with speeds of 8-500th/s. All exposures are automatically set for ISOs 25-400. Plus, there’s an onboard flash.

The camera may look dull at first. A black rectangle. But on closer inspection, the semi-sphere bulge for the lens barrel may strike as an interesting choice — reminiscent of an earlier Olympus design, the XA. The square cut-out inside the semi-sphere is another curious design decision, and so is the lens, surrounded by a stark blue ring.

To my eye, Mamiya U looks like a prop from a 1980s sci-fi flick. Awkward, blocky, and provocative. An even more audacious-looking version of this camera is in silver trim: “The Death Star.”

Safe-guarding the shutter button with a piece of balloon rubber.

It’s a shame that shutter buttons are always missing on these cameras. What I got in front of me is pretty much an exception to the rule, making my copy a rare sight to behold.

Another weak point of this camera is its battery door. It relies on flexing a plastic flap, which dislodges after prolonged use — that’s exactly what happened to my Pentax PC35AF (it had an identical battery door design).

Out of respect to this camera, I taped a piece of rubber from a party balloon over the shutter button to ensure its continued existence as I tested it. Thank you to whoever suggested that technique to me earlier.

Thankfully, the rest of the camera is not nearly as flawed. Most of its exterior is made of plastic — except the film door. Nevertheless, it’s well put together and looks like a quality product. Aside from the shutter button, all moving parts feel solid; metal components are incorporated throughout for additional support when necessary (i.e., the film rewinder crank on the bottom plate).

Mamiya U controls and ergonomics.

Aside from its amusing appearance and the ludicrous shutter design flaw, Mamiya U cameras aren’t particularly outstanding.

In addition to the camera specs I listed above, the manual lists a bright-line viewfinder with a .55x magnification factor (it’s blocked when the camera’s lens is covered; to uncover the lens, you’ll need to slide a switch on the top plate towards the yellow shutter button). The bright line material isn’t very good (my copy has some significant flaking) — and there are no parallax line marks.

Mamiya U with the original shutter button intact.

If the camera’s internal meter decides that there isn’t enough light, it’ll beep loudly and show a warning red light in the finder — similar to Pentax PC35AF . At this point, you can either proceed with your photo knowing that it may have motion blur or pop the flash using the switch on the front plate.

The flash on this camera uses Guide Number 12; it takes eight seconds to recycle and should last approximately 150 discharges from two AAA batteries. Thankfully, flash use is optional on this camera as it will not illuminate your scene unless you deliberately set it to do so.

The 12-second delay timer is the last automatic feature on Mamiya U.

Loading and winding film to the next frame requires cranking a thumb wheel — though I have to admit that it’s one of the best — advancing film with the thumb wheel took no more effort than with a typical advance lever.

And finally, the focus: which will have you exercise your zone-focusing technique with four marks in meters (1 — 1.5 — 3 — ∞) or the familiar icons (👤 — 👥 — 👥👥 — 🏔).

Mamiya U with Ilford Delta 100.

Mamiya Sekor 35mm 𝒇2.8 lens and image quality.

Mamiya U is a flawed camera, so much so that there are few of them left in complete working condition. And its optics are no consolation for a perfectionist: whenever the camera picks its widest aperture, it can render a wild glow around highlights.

The glow appears to result from uncorrected spherical aberrations and its intensity is uniquely powerful. The only lens that renders distortions similar to this one (that I know of) is mounted on Voigtländer Vito C / Revue 35XE.

Understandably, this look isn’t for everybody. However, its uniqueness only contributed to my obsession over this camera.

Mamiya U with Ilford Delta 100 (with fill-flash).

This Sekor certainly has a wild side. Along with its spherical aberrations, at 𝒇2.8, it also shows some softness/swirling in the corners. Speaking of which, the bokeh this camera produces is rather nice:

Mamiya U with Ilford Delta 100 (with fill-flash).

That is not to say that Mamiya’s 35mm Sekor lens can’t be sharp. In bright light, it can render stellar images with tons of contrast and definition:

Mamiya U with Santa Color 100.
Mamiya U with Santa Color 100.

Having plaid with this camera for two months, I am genuinely sad to box it. It’s a simple, fun-to-look-at, and fun-to-use package with a lens that can render things beautifully (if you know what you’re looking for).

Mamiya U with Ilford Delta 100. Significant flaring in this image which appears to have been interrupted by the lens barrel’s square cut-out (at the top of the photograph).
Mamiya U with Ilford Delta 100.
Mamiya U with Ilford Delta 100.

But, alas, I need something I can use daily without worrying about destroying a piece of disappearing history in the process. Perhaps I’m overthinking it. Do you have a collection piece you’re too afraid to shoot in the field?

How much does Mamiya U cost, and where to find one.

Mamiya U cameras aren’t expensive. Some go for $30; others can go for $150. The challenge is to find one with a fully-intact shutter button. Although, I may be overthinking that part as well: if the camera works, the lens alone is worth a try — especially when they are so cheap.

By the way: Please consider making your Mamiya U camera purchase using this link  so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!