Pictured below is everything you’d need to go out for an afternoon of picture taking…a hand held light meter, a pocket rangefinder, and of course the Univex Mercury II.
I absolutely love odd and unusual old cameras, and the Univex definitely fits that bill! The design is originally from the 1930s, and it’s smart Art Deco looks really reflect that. It was an unusual design even at the time–Univex was involved in making movie cameras, and they adapted a rotary shutter from that end of their business for this little 35mm camera. The big bump on the top covers the upper half of that shutter disk. Most 35mm cameras of the day used a leaf type shutter that’s part of the lens, although a few (like the Leica) used a cloth focal plane shutter that moved from one side to the other. The rotary shutter uses a disk with a slot that exposes the film. You can change the “speed” of the shutter by making the slot smaller–it offers up to 1/1000th of a second effective shutter speed, while the disk never goes faster than 1/20th of second. Brilliant!
One result of this system is that the camera has to be a “half frame”–each frame is roughly half the size of a normal 24x36mm frame of film (and they’re vertical format, not horizontal). In order to make it a “full frame” camera, the disk would have been the size of a dinner plate (!). The upside of making the frames smaller is that you get many more frames per roll of film–more than 60 shots in the Mercury! Because of their smaller size, they can’t be enlarged as much as their bigger brothers.
This is the Mercury II, which not surprisingly is a relative of the original Mercury. The original model was produced prior to WWII, but it used a propriety film whose supply was interrupted by the outbreak of WWII. During the War, Univex produced military hardware and after the war introduced the Mercury II. This version uses standard 35mm film, and is a bit bigger as a result. The Mercury also introduced a feature still used on modern digital cameras–the “hot shoe” flash! Univex was the first camera maker to put an electrical contact on the flash shoe, eliminating the PC sync cord, something we can all still enjoy today. Thanks, Univex!
That’s the history…so, how’s it handle? It’s a mixed bag, but overall a nice little camera. The knobs on the front for winding and shutter speed are too close together, which makes it hard to wind. The f-stop scale is tiny and positioned where it’s really hard to read. The viewfinder is small, but useable (I’ve used worse). The focus ring is thin and kind of hard to grasp. The aluminum alloy they used to cast the body is prone to corrosion. There are no strap lugs, so if you want to sling it over your shoulder you have to use the case. It doesn’t have a rangefinder, although one was offered as an accessory.
That might sound like a lot of bad news, but the Mercury has a lot of really nice features too…it feels great in your hands, with a very solid build quality and nice rounded edges. The shutter is very accurate (far more accurate than the leaf shutters that were very common at the time). It can shoot a TON of frames on one roll, which was (and is) very unusual. The lens is an anastigmat, and is quite sharp (and at f2.7 reasonably fast). It also has data plates all over it for calculating depth of field and exposure, which gives you all the information you need for outdoor photography–even if you don’t have a light meter or rangefinder.
In spite of it’s ergonomic drawbacks, I really like this one. It’s a fun, “different” camera that still takes great pictures more than 60 years after its introduction.