The Mamiya 645 Pro became my first medium format camera a few months ago when I found a great deal on Facebook marketplace that included the 80mm/f2.8 and 150mm/f4 Mamiya/Sekor lenses. I’ve taken it on road trips to find that it fits nicely in a backpack, carried it around my neck on long walks through my Chicago neighborhood, and have shot it entirely manual all the while, using the sunny 16 rule as my best friend… Stepping up from shooting digital and 35mm on a Canon A1 that I most often use fully programmed, using this camera had a learning curve in more ways than one.
Shooting Medium Format: A Quick Intro
You may already know that analog medium format photography utilizes 120 film, which is physically larger than 35mm and, as such, produces bigger negatives. What you may not know is that 645 cameras are the smallest of all medium format cameras, shooting a negative about 2.5 times the size of 35mm negatives and allowing for 15 exposures per roll of film. If you’ve heard of famous medium format cameras like the Mamiya RB and RZ67, these shoot 6×7 negatives, which are even larger than 645 and deplete a roll of film faster.
That said, all medium format cameras are generally a good deal larger than any 35mm, crop sensor, or full-frame camera you might have handled before. This is a result of their sensor size. The 645 sensor has a crop factor of about 0.625, meaning that its sensor takes an image that is about 36% bigger than the sensors in 35mm cameras, which have a crop factor of 1 as they’re the standard of comparison. A 6×7 camera has a crop factor of .5, meaning their images are twice as big as a 35mm image. A great video explanation of this can be found here.
This may all sound like mumbo-jumbo, but sensor size does have an acute effect on the images that a camera takes and what hardware you need. Difference in focal length is the most obvious technical consideration: a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera and a 50mm lens on a 645 will take very different photos, because the larger sensor will provide a much more zoomed-out field of view. The equivalent of a 50mm lens on 645 is actually 80mm, with the additional “length” compensating for the size of the bigger sensor. The visual effects of this discrepancy are most notable in the depth of field and bokeh of the camera. A medium format sensor is so good at capturing detail in landscapes and taking bold portraits because its depth of field is more pronounced — in essence, it sees more details. Focus far away and you’ll see most everything if your view is unobstructed. Focus up close for amazing clarity, with the background considerably blurred.
Durability, Ease of Use, and Cost
My journey with this camera was a little rocky — when I received it from the Facebook marketplace seller, the shutter did not fire. The battery check verified that it was receiving power, the film advance crank and the mechanism that cocked the shutter both seemed to work fine, and altogether it seemed like the camera should be operating normally. It ended up being a fairly costly repair, but something I was willing to do on account of the deal I got. I paid $400 plus shipping for the camera and lenses, when it’s standard to pay that amount for the body alone. The 80mm/f2.8 and 150/f4 each run in the $80-150 range, something I only realized after getting this nice package deal.
Before buying, I did ask the seller if the camera was in working order but they were only able to say it had been working when last used, before it sat in a closet for more than 10 years. I can’t say whether this particular shutter problem was a result of neglect or just falling into disrepair over time, but I do know that these particular cameras regularly sustain cosmetic damage over years of use. It’s quite common to hear about plastic pieces of this camera chipping and flaking off, or fungus gathering in the viewfinders of certain prisms. Neither affects the functionality, but this is something to be aware of for anyone looking to purchase one. Always ask questions and do your due diligence!
Like many others, I would agree that the most exciting and user-friendly feature of the 645 bodies is their flexibility in customization. You can remove the back of the camera where the film is housed and exchange it for another on the same shoot, perfect for traveling or adapting to light conditions over the course of a long day hike. There are also a number of prism/viewfinder options, the AE ones offering you a built-in light meter and the option to shoot in aperture priority mode, great for landscapes and portraits.
The settings and dedicated features just expand the camera’s versatility — it’s easy to shoot multiple exposures, and you won’t find yourself needing a shutter release cable should you choose to shoot with a tripod for low-light settings. The mirror lock-up switch should eliminate camera shake in most situations, so long as you have a steady enough hand to fire the shutter. The only setting I’d like to have built into the body is an exposure compensation mechanism, but it’s fairly easy to find the AE prisms that have this feature.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Having one of these cameras is really exciting, and I haven’t for a second regretted jumping on a deal when I found one. The great photos I’ve taken so far have been really great, while there have been a fair share of underwhelming ones, too. Some of this is certainly down to my developing skills as a photographer, and I was honestly taken aback by the amount of detail that you can capture in a frame of medium format film. This is a camera, and a format, for shooting deliberately and methodically. Film in general is great for learning to be more particular about your composition and photo choices, but medium format doesn’t quite have the speed and versatility of cameras with smaller sensors. Although its longer focal lengths have ‘equivalents’ in 35mm cameras, they’re still bigger pieces of glass that require steady hands — you don’t want to shoot an 80mm handheld at anything less than 1/125 shutter speed, for instance.
Shooting medium format is trendy these days as film captures the imaginations of more and more amateur photographers, but let me say that buying a Mamiya 645 (or any MF camera) won’t automatically help you take better pictures or become a better photographer. What they will do is make you more interested in what you can do to get better, including learning more about every step of the photographic process, from composing and shooting to developing and scanning (let alone editing!). Don’t buy one and expect to be shelling out magazine-worthy images one after the other, because they don’t have an easy workflow and are very prone to user error. That said, I think the Mamiya 645 Pro is a great camera and makes sense to acquire if you’re a real photography enthusiast who doesn’t mind wasting a good amount of time and rolls to develop your skills.
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