Camera Reviews

Imperial Magimatic X50

My dad had to be in a mighty good mood before he’d spend money on non-essentials. He must have been in a fabulous mood that summer day in 1977 when, on a quick trip to Kmart, he bought me this Imperial Magimatic X50 camera. It must have cost him a whole $10, an outlandish sum for an avowed tightwad!

Image credit: Pacific Rim Camera, https://www.pacificrimcamera.com/

I assume that the Imperial Camera Company manufactured X50s in its Chicago factory as they are all stamped “Made in USA.” This all-mechanical camera takes 126 film cartridges and pin-fired Magicube flash cubes. It’s made of plastic except for a few pot-metal parts, like the pin that catches the film sprocket during winding and the pin that fires those Magicubes. The lens is certainly plastic too. According to camera-wiki.org (here), the lens aperture is about f/5.6 and the shutter operates at about 1/100 second. This strikes a good compromise between outdoor and flash shots, allowing both to be well enough exposed and in focus across a reasonable depth of field.

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By the way, if you like 126 cameras you might also like my reviews of two 110 cameras, the Rollei A110 (here) and the Minolta Autopak 470 (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

My X50 came in a box with a 126 film cartridge and one Magicube, so I made photographs that very day. We spent it at my grandparents’ home on a small lake in southwestern Michigan. I made some photos of my grandmother that I’m very happy to have now. See a couple of them here.

I will always wish, however, that those photos weren’t so blurry. The X50’s shutter button is super stiff and hard to fire, leading to camera shake that obscured the details of my recorded childhood memories. This is Phil, a boy in our neighborhood, and my brother Rick in our driveway. More than forty years on I recall Phil’s blonde mop top and his unbounded energy and enthusiasm, but I can no longer call up the details of his face. I wish my photos of him were some help.

This is Betty, my family’s next-door neighbor for 35 years. She’s holding her own 126 camera, a Kodak Instamatic. It seemed like everybody had cameras that took 126 film in the 1970s and early 1980s. The vast majority of those cameras, like my X50 or Betty’s Instamatic, had no settings to fuss with.

It’s a little hard to tell through the camera shake, but the X50’s lens was reasonably sharp from edge to edge with little distortion. I see no vignetting.

The X50 wasn’t my first camera; a garage-sale Kodak Brownie was. After I got the X50 I never shot that Brownie again. I always struggled to load the 127 rollfilm into that Brownie. There was nothing to loading 126 film into the X50: insert the cartridge and close the door. And thanks to Magicubes I could easily take photos inside with the X50. The Brownie could take flash photos too using AG-1 flashbulbs, but they were too hot to handle after firing. They also required two AA batteries, which I had to buy myself; every penny counted when I was this age. Here’s a flash photo someone took of me at Christmas in 1977.

Magicubes lit scenes fairly evenly. Here are my grandparents at home in the summer of 1981.

Here’s our family dog Missy, posing patiently in 1981. The closer you were to your subject, the more likely the flash would reflect.

I made my last photos with the X50 in 1983. By this time I had learned to squeeze that shutter button with utmost care to eliminate shake. Here are my parents on my mom’s birthday that December. I’m eight and 12 years older now than they were then.

That shutter squeeze was so long and slow that it made the X50 no fun to use. By this time I had collected dozens of old cameras, so I tried a few of them trying to find something I liked better: a Kodak Duaflex II, an Argus A-Four, a Kodak Brownie Starmatic, and even a Kodak EK4 instant camera.

I suppose my dissatisfaction with the X50 led to a lifetime of trying old cameras. It is as if I was on a quest for the perfect camera. After more than 40 years I’ve figured out that no such camera exists. It’s great fun to keep trying anyway.

My Magimatic X50 is long gone and I don’t miss it. But I’m so happy I have all the photos I made as a kid. As blurry as they are, they anchor my childhood memories.

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If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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Personal, Stories Told

We can learn what love is even from the imperfect people in our lives

My grandparents retired in about 1970 to an acre on a small lake in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa liked to watch the sun rise over the lake while he sipped his coffee. They wheeled a mobile home onto their lot and angled it so he could do just that from his breakfast table.

But this isn’t about my grandpa, it’s about my grandma. She was just the kind of woman to make sure Grandpa’s home was placed perfectly for Michigan lake sunrises. She bought his cars. She chose his clothes and laid them out every night so next morning he need only put them on. No matter how hung over Grandpa was she made sure he was up, fed, shaved, dressed, and to work on time.

She adored that man. She would have moved a mountain for him had she thought he might want it. If he were then to wrinkle up his face and say, “What did you do that for?” she’d move it right back.

I’m lucky to have made a few photos of her when I was young. I can thank my dad for it. The summer I turned 10 we went to visit and on the way we stopped at K-Mart for something. Dad dashed in and we waited in the car. It was very unlike my extremely frugal father, but he came back out with gifts for my brother and for me: an inexpensive 126 camera kit, one for each of us, complete with film and flash cubes.

Here’s a profile I made of Grandma that day. We were down by the shore, sitting around and talking. Yes, Grandma smoked. All of the adults in the family did.

My grandparents smoked too much. They also drank too much and swore too much. They were codependent with their youngest son, who was lost to alcoholism and drug abuse. In part because they kept paying to fix the messes that son made, they constantly robbed Peter to pay Paul to keep up with their bills. They vocally didn’t like Mexicans or African-Americans, although those would not have been the names they used for them.

But our time at the lake set the standard for me on how to be with your family, and how good simple family times can be. We often sat at the shore and talked for hours, we kids drinking pop and running around, and the adults drinking beer and wine.

They bought a pontoon boat so we could putter around the lake doing much the same, except with our fishing poles along, lines cast lazily into the water. The lake was full of bluegill and sunfish, easy to catch by the dozen.

In the evenings Grandma would make a big pot of something and we’d eat as we were hungry. We’d all squeeze in around their big dining room table and play penny-ante poker or Kismet, which is a dice game similar to Yahtzee. When the whole extended family was over we’d have ten or twelve people in each game, with other family members waiting for someone to be dealt out so they could be dealt in.

Grandma was up a lot filling everybody’s drinks. Some evenings she’d get out the hard liquor and make screwdrivers or Harvey Wallbangers. If she was really feeling it she’d get out the blender and make minty Grasshoppers. We kids would stick to pop, of course.

Then Grandma would be up with the sun to fillet the fish we caught and fry them all up for our breakfast. She always fried some potatoes too, and made toast, and served applesauce. We’d all sit around the table and eat until we were stuffed. To this day I sometimes crave fried fish for breakfast.

From about the time I made this photograph my brother and I spent a week or two at the lake each summer, just us with our grandparents. Grandpa had gone back to work as a draftsman for a small company in the nearest town. We’d all pile into their Bronco in the morning to drop Grandpa off, and then we’d go running around. We mostly did mundane things like shop for groceries or pick up mail at the post office, but Grandma liked the back roads and the long ways and these errands often filled our days. We usually stopped at some out-of-the-way tavern for lunch. Grandma knew all the taverns with good cheeseburgers in five counties.

After we picked Grandpa up we’d go back to the lake and Grandma would make dinner. As we sat around the table, Grandma and Grandpa would tell their stories of days gone by, often late into the evening. They told the same stories over and over again, sometimes adding new details of the 1950s when Grandpa was building his career and they were raising their family, and of tough times during the Great Depression. They lived in great fear of another depression, and were resolute that if another one came they would figure out how the whole family, all the sons and daughters and grandchildren, could live together on their acre at the lake and make it through.

My grandparents were far from perfect. But I felt deeply connected to my family through them. I belonged with them, I belonged at the lake. It created a foundational security in me that continues to serve me well.

Eventually childhood passed, I went off to college, and I saw my grandparents infrequently. Grandma wrote me from time to time and always slipped five or ten dollars into the envelope. Whenever I felt a little lost or lonely I’d call her. Long distance was expensive so we didn’t talk for more than a few minutes, but she was always so happy to hear from me and spoke to me as if nothing I wanted was beyond my grasp. It was like taking a long drink from a deep well.

I didn’t make it through college before both of my grandparents died, both in 1987, both aged just 71. Grandpa passed in January after a long illness and Grandma died suddenly in December. I still miss them both, but I especially miss Grandma.

When I had my own family, I tried to create good family times in the same ways my grandmother did: over food and conversation and simple shared experiences. As much as I could, I had my sons’ grandparents and their uncle over. We had no lake, no smoking, and far less alcohol — but, I hope, the same firm foundation of belonging and love and connection for my children.

I wrote a remembrance of my grandfather here.

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