My photography career started with film. Black and white negative film, and an old Pentax spotmatic. I “switched” to digital with a Minolta Maxxum 7d, and shot pretty much exclusively digital from then on- up until about 6 months ago, when I got the itch again…
Now I knew I wanted to get a MF kit, as it’s hard to justify the extra work of 35mm film, given the quality of full-frame digital (ducks the angry rolls of tri-x being thrown). Medium Format, OTOH, is a whole ‘nother beast… I also knew I wanted a rangefinder just because, well, I love rangefinders. That narrowed down the field a bunch – leaving basically the Fuji MF rangefinders and the Mamiya 6 or mamiya 7 in serious contention. I took the plunge and got the Mamiya 6 (I chose the 6 over the 7 as I prefer the 6×6 negative rather than the 6×7). Now after about 6 months of using it, I think it’s about time to write a proper review.
be forewarned – this is not an “Controlled Environment, Pixel Peeper” type review. I’m not going to run rolls of test film against brick walls, or post MTF charts. This is merely my overall impression of the camera after half a year of regular use (just about enough time to really get “comfortable” with a piece of gear!)
First off, for anyone thinking of getting one of these cameras – if you’ve never used a rangefinder before, there’s going to be a learning curve. Rangefinder camera’s are different than SLRs in that you are *not* looking through the lens to frame/focus – you look through a separate window. This window does not change with the focal length of the lens the way an SLR viewfinder does (in other words, your view doesn’t “zoom in” when you attach a longer lens) There are simply “framelines” – a glowing box/outline that shows what will be in the frame for a given focal length. On the Mam6, these light up automatically depending on which lens you have mounted. Focusing is also a totally different beast – instead of looking through the lens and subjectively evaluating if the image is in focus, the rangefinder uses a “patch” in the middle of the viewfinder, which superimposes 2 images over each other. when they are “out of alignment” the image is out of focus – you simply adjust the focus until the overlaid images are lined up – taking a lot of the “guesswork” our of manual focusing.
Out of focus:
Despite the differences (some might say limitations) there is a lot to like about rangefinder framing/shooting:
- Once you get the hang of focusing it can be much faster and more accurate than a SLR. You don’t have to subjectively evaluate whether the image in the vewfinder “looks sharp” – if it’s lined up it’s in focus!
- No “blackout” – since there is no mirror flipping up to block your view at the moment of exposure, your view through the window is never interrupted. May not sound like a big deal, but once you’ve gotten used to it, it’s really nice!
- framing outside the lines. With an SLR, what you see in the vewfinder is what you get in the frame – you can’t see “outside of the frame”. With a rangefinder, the frame does not take up the whole area of the viewfinder – the the area contained by the brightlines. This mean that with the camera up to your eye, you can actually see the area outside the actual frame of the photograph. To me, this is the single greatest part of rangefinder photography – you can see the scene through the camera wholistically – chosing which parts to include, and which to cut out. You can see elements *before* they actually move into the frame, and you can see the area around your frame to determine if you need to make a minute adjustment to composition etc… It’s hard to describe, but it is incredible. After shooting with a rangefinder for a while, going back to an SLR feels like putting blinders on – like shooting down a tunnel with no peripheral vision.
Now on to the actual meat of the review:
The Mam6 is a solid piece of kit. Tight tolerance, nothing loose or sloppy. It feels like a brick of metal in the hand. Size-wise it is fairly comporable to a 5D, but it actually “feels” a lot smaller. A lot of this is due to the “collapsing lens mount”. The mamiya 6 is essentially a “bellows” camera (albeit with a sturdy shell on the outside to protect the bellows) – pressing the button on the left side of the lens mount allows the entire assembley (lens and all) to collapse *into* the body of the camera by a few inches. Particularly with the 75/3.5 lens mounted & collapsed, the camera’s “depth” shrinks quite a bit allowing it to slip into a narrow/small camera bag. I find it much easier to carry around as an “all day” camera than the 5D. Here it is side by side with the 5D+50/1.8. The 6 has the 75/3.5 normal lens mounted, and the lens mount collapsed. (for reference the image at the top shows the camera with 75/3.5 with the mount exteded – note the difference!)
And here it is in my everyday shoulderbag along with the 150/4. To give a sense of scale, that is a pocket moleskine in the side pocket…
Not exactly a “pocket camera” but when you consider that this is a *medium format* kit – it’s pretty amazingly compact.
The camera also just “fits” well in the hand. The grip is nicely contoured and comfortable. Despite it’s somewhat “boxy” shape, it is extremely comfortable to hold/shoot with. The controls fall well under the fingertips – the left hand focuses and sets aperture, while the shutter speed dial is positioned in a way that it can easily be rotated with the right index finger without removing one’s eye from the VF. When combined with the meter which shows the shutter speed in the vewfinder, it makes it possible to adjust exposure without ever taking your eye away from the camera. The focus is smoothly damped and the rangefinder works well with a decently sized focusing patch and nice bright framelines (which light up automatically depending on which lens is mounted)
as with any fully-manual camera, controls are simple – aperture is set on the lens, there is a top dial for shutter speed/ISO(ASA) with EV comp lever under it, a film advance lever (single stroke) and the shutter button. that’s it.
Having TTL metering, the Mam6 has a Aperture Priority mode, enabled by turning the shutter speed dial to the red “A” on the dial. In this mode, the camera will meter to the aperture set on the lens. As I understand it, the metering system is a center-weighted average. There is also an AEL mode, which is also aperture priority, but has the added feature of “locking” the exposure at a 1/2 press of the shutter – very useful! The meter shows up along the left hand side of the viewfinder – the currently selected shutter speed is shown solid, while the metered speed will blink above or below it for over/under exposed.
It’s a very intuitive system overall, and enables quick manual metering. I generally shoot in fully manual, but I’ve had good success shooting in AEL, pointing at the part of the scene I want to meter, 1/2 pressing to lock exposure, and then recomposing and shooting. Frankly for “fast moving” photography such as street etc… the meter is good enough to just “set it and forget it” especially given the exposure lattitude of b/w neg. film. In A (and AEL) mode, EV comp is controlled by a little lever under the shutter speed dial. Honestly I’ve never used it – I’m either always in manual or AEL-meterlock-recompose mode!
Changing lenses is the same as an SLR, but with a catch. The Mamiya 6 uses a Leaf shutter system, as opposed to the focal plane shutters in most SLRs. This means that the shutter is actually *in the lens* instead of in front of the film plane. The obvious ramification to this is that if one removes the lens, the film plane is exposed (since there is no shutter to block it!) which would prevent changing lenses while fim is in the camera. Luckily the Mam6 solves this rather elegantly, by having a “dark slide” that covers the film while the lens is removed. There is a little knob on the bottom of the camera that enables the dark slide, and a switch that releases it (it snaps back automatically). The camera also has a series of interlocks which prevent you from “doing anything bad” during this process. In other words, when there is film in the camera, the lens-release button will not function unless the darkslide is enabled, and once a lens is mounted, the shutter will not fire until the darkslide is withdrawn. There is a little warning light in the upper right hand corner of the viewfinder which will blink to let you know if something is set incorrectly when you press the shutter button. This may sound complicated, but in practice it only adds a few seconds to the process of changing a lens which becomes:
- turn knob to enable darkslide
- press lens release button, remove lens
- mount new lens
- hit the switch on the bottom to remove the darkslide
- shoot away
The bad news is that the Mamiya 6 system, only has 3 lenses. The good news is that it only has 3 lenses. For me, they cover just about everything I want – moderate wide, normal and moderate tele. The added advantage is that once you have all 3, there is no worring about “oh I need lens X and lens Y”. It’s actually rather freeing, in a strange way. And don’t worry about said 3 not being up to snuff – these lenses are good. Really, Really, Really Good. If you are coming from a 35mm system, the quality will blow you away. The lenses are:
This is the “normal” lens, just shy of 50mm equiv. in 35mm terms. Beautifully sharp and contrasty across the entire frame, straight from max aperture. I tend to favor normals, so this is my “default” lens. Also helps that it is the smallest of the 3, and collapses nicely in to the body, making the camera wonderfully portable.
Stunning. An absolutely gorgeous portrait lens (appx 100mm in 35mm terms), razor sharp, with a beautiful falloff and incredible bokeh. The images from this lens are truly jaw dropping. I have heard some complain that it is difficult to focus, but I haven’t had any problem, so YMMV.
28mm equiv. Don’t have this lens, but from what I’ve heard it’s the best of the 3 (which is almost scary considering how good the other two are). Saving the pennies for it now 🙂
I’ve shot with quite a few camera systems, and I can say unreservedly that the Mamiya 6 is my “”favorite” system overall. It may sound crazy, given the limited nature of the system overall – but it’s just one of those cameras that “gets out of the way” and lets you get the shot. From the smoothly damped action on the focus to the quiet “snick” of the shutter, to the cleverly collapsing lens mount, the camera is simply a pleasure to use – it practically “sings” in the hand. Needless to say, the quality is superb as well (as one would expect from a medium format system). Of course it comes with all the caveats of a rangefinder system, but it comes with all the benefits as well. It seems to hit kind of a “sweet spot” with a combination of simplicity, usability and portability that really just *works*.
Another wonderful aspect of the system for shooters who use strobe/flash lighting is the fact that the leaf shutter of the camera allows syncing at all shutter speeds. Unlike focal-plane slr users who must spend outrageous sums (and endure huge power losses in high-speed-sync modes) on system-dedicated strobe units to allow flash sync beyond their native sync speed, the Mamiya 6 will happily sync with any strobe right up to it’s maximum shutter speed of 1/500 sec – simply wonderful when working with lights outdoors for dropping down the ambient!
In a lot of ways, it’s hard to exactly pin down the appeal of this camera. I recently read a review of the E-P1 which called it “a camera that you buy with your heart, not your head” (to paraphrase). I think in a lot of ways the Mamiya is similar. It’s certainly not as versatile as an SLR system, and in these days of high-volume shoots and fast turnaround times, it would be ludicrous to imagine using it as one’s primary camera. But when I’m walking out the door in the morning, it’s almost always the one I grab. It’s the type of camera that is simply *enjoyable* to use, the one that is just “comfortable”.
While I absolutely love the 6 as a whole, there are some nitpicks, nothing major but just some things to be aware of.
- the 1/500 max shutter speed can be limiting if you want to shoot wide open in bright light. Course you can use ND filters, but that gets cumbersome etc… (although the tradeoff to this is that you get that full 1/500 when syncing with a flash, which more than makes up for it in my mind!)
- the meter readout can be difficult to see when wearing glasses.
- the rather large minimum focus distance on the lenses can sometimes be limiting.
If you shoot sports, this is not the camera for you.
If you shoot wildlife, this is not the camera for you.
Nor is it for weddings (well maybe) or events, or product photography (no close focus).
That being said – this camera is a unique product that is simply magical in it’s own way, and if it suits your shooting style will quickly become one of your most-loved pieces of gear.
UPDATE: My Mamiya 6 is currently in the shop for a broken film advance mechanism. Apparently this is a not-uncommon issue with the 6, and something to be aware of before purchasing one. Personally I wouldn’t let it stop me (and it doesn’t change my opinion of the camera) but just for full disclosure…