Last year I had finally decided I was comfortable enough with my photography skills that I wanted to make the leap to medium format film. The big question was, with the many choices out there, which one was right for me?
You can see from the title which one I ultimately chose, but in this article I will not only go over the Mamiya 645 Pro in all its glory, but also share my process in finding that this was the camera for me, and hopefully that will help you in your search.
Now, most photographers will turn their nose up at you at the mention of gear talk and say it’s about the picture not the camera, and that may be true, but you can’t count out the equipment you use to get the picture you want. Sure, if you know what you’re doing and you have the eye, you can get a picture with a box camera or a digital camera. It doesn’t matter. But you also have to remember that if you’re going to be doing this for more than a couple days on a whim, you want a camera that suits your style, is comfortable for you to work with, and that gives you the features you need to achieve that style.
With all that in mind, I made a Pros and Cons chart with all of the medium format cameras that I was interested in. These included the Mamiya 7, Mamiya 6, Mamiya RB67 and RZ67, the Hasselblad 500 CM, Bronica ETRS, Pentax 645 and the Pentax 6 x 7. It was a long list, but it’s also an expensive purchase, and I wanted to make sure I was going to be happy with the choice I made.
In the end of my research, I narrowed my list using the criteria I was looking for in a medium format camera.
Criteria 1: Weight
The most important thing for me, because of my health, was to make sure the camera would be comfortable for me to hold. I found out that the Mamiya’s RB67 and RZ67 as well as the Pentax 6 x 7 were all very heavy cameras. So I immediately eliminated them for now.
Criteria 2: Price
Price was the second factor for me. The Hasselblad 500 CM has been a dream camera for me since I was a teenager, but the price tag for one of those systems was just too much for me. So I moved that one over to my piggy bank to be saved up for later. (Yes I still use a piggy bank).
The Mamiya 6 and Mamiya 7 from the 90’s are great cameras, and meet my light weight criteria but they carry a big price tag. So those three cameras were eliminated.
Criteria 3: Film Format
Another factor that helped me to eliminate some choices was the film format that I preferred to shoot with. If you like square 6×6 then a Rolleiflex or Hasselblad may be the one for you. 6×7 shots are nice and big, but you only get 12 shots per roll. Economically that wasn’t for me. So I chose the 6×4.5 format, this way I could get 15 shots per 120 film roll.
Criteria 4: Needed Features
This left me with the Bronica ETRS, Pentax 645, and the Mamiya 645. In the end, I would decide using the features that I wanted in a camera and that would help me make my final decision.
The Bronica ETRS I heard was too difficult to get repaired if a problem occurred and the Pentax 645 didn’t have changing film backs. In the end, the Mamiya 645 Pro really had all of the features I was looking for.
Therefore, I decided the Mamiya 645 was going to be my first medium format camera, but I still had more to decide. I originally wanted the Mamiya 645 Super because it was fully modular and could still be used after the battery died with the speed of 1/60th of a second. But apparently this was the most popular model at the time because I couldn’t find one anywhere. So I found a Mamiya 645 Pro on Ebay so clean I couldn’t pass it up. I wasn’t crazy about the 1992 Plastic look, but after seeing what it could produce I overlooked its outer appearance and fell in love with it.
Created in 1992 (according to the Mamiya website) the Mamiya 645 Pro is a system camera similar to The Nikon F or the Canon F1, meaning there’s many options that can be bought to personalize this camera to your needs.
I, for one, like to have a metered prism finder, but you can also get one without the meter, or even a waist level finder. It produces 15 exposures on 120 film, each at 6 x 4.5cm as its name says. The AE metered prism seen below has three options: AV average metering that sees the light of the entire picture and averages it, SP for spot metering and Auto A-S which chooses between the other two depending on the light of your scene. There is also a dial for exposure compensation.
It has the ability to change film backs with the use of a slide, so that you can remove the back with say a roll of color film exposed mid roll, and replace it with another film back loaded with black and white. You can also buy a back for 35mm film, 220 and pack film if you desire.
The shutter speed dial includes AE (Automatic Exposure) & AEL (Automatic Exposure Lock) when using the AE Prism Finder such as mine. When you choose one of these settings on the dial it locks in place so that you can’t turn it to choose a shutter speed manually. In order to unlock the dial you have to hold down the black button next to it while you turn the dial.
Any M645 mount lens can be used on this camera. There is a coupling pin on the camera that touches onto the lens similar to the Nikon F Photomic. This pin allows the lens to communicate the aperture selected on the lens with the prism finder. The older lenses pictured below that I own are “c” lenses meaning they’re multi coated, and newer lenses are marked with an “s” or an “n”.
There is a switch for mirror lock up to help reduce camera shake in long exposures, as well as a multi-exposure button to do multiple exposures on one frame.
There is a motor drive handle model WG401 that can be attached to replace the rapid winding crank. This handle helps to hold the camera better when viewing through a pentaprism finder. It also can serve as a more convenient way to access your shutter release button, automatically advance and rewind your film, as well as a battery check. The motor takes 6 AA batteries while the camera itself uses a single 6-volt battery or 4SR44, 4LR44 or 2CR1/3 batteries. This does add a lot more weight to the camera and it is pretty loud, but it makes the process smoother in my opinion.
The camera uses a dedicated electronic shutter release cable, but if you connect the right hand grip/motor drive shown above, you can use a regular threaded cable release. There is also a left handed grip that can be purchased and attached. I may look into this in the future because I am left handed.
Once I received the camera, I was a little disappointed to find that it was still significantly heavy for me, and I have yet to find a waist level finder for it, so it is a little difficult to lift it to my eye and hold it there for a shot.
I ran a test roll through it and when I got the scans back I was blown away by my first encounter with medium format film. I couldn’t believe the detail it gave. I was so used to using 35mm film.
In the pic below you can clearly see the veins in the tree.
Next, I decided to test it out in town, to see how I could handle the weight of the camera. I took it with me to Tradition when I was going to test out Ilford’s new Ortho Plus 80 film. I tested the camera with a roll of Kodak Tmax and Ilford Ortho Plus 80 and I loved the results, although I did find the camera was heavy for me to carry around.
Since the Covid-19 quarantine, I have not been able to take the Mamiya out in town to take pictures, so I decided to try out some still life shots. So I set it up on a tripod, draped a black velvet sheet across a table and up the wall behind it for a background, and I set up a couple different still life shots.
I wanted to take these shots using natural light, but that caused me to have to open the aperture wide giving me a shallow depth of field. As you can see in the picture above, this caused some of the items to be out of focus.
Now, in the picture below, I ordered some sunflowers with my groceries during the quarantine just for this session. I wanted it to look like a still life painting so I gave it soft focus and slight underexposure to make it look like a painting. I really like how it turned out.
The next pictures of the last sunflower left alive I shot on Ilford HP5 and metered using my handheld Sekonic meter. I metered for different spots of the flower to bring out different areas. So the first one I metered mid tones. The second photo I metered the pedals so the middle came out dark and the third shot I metered the middle so that it appeared clear. I think I will frame these as a tryptic.
I am happy with my choice in the end. I have an addiction to vintage film cameras, in case you haven’t noticed by now, so I know this isn’t the only medium format camera I will try, but for now, I am glad to have the Mamiya 645 Pro in my arsenal. My only complaint about it is the weight of the camera, and the loud noise the power grip makes when rewinding and loading the film. Other than that I have truly enjoyed using it.
I hope this article has helped you in your decision making process if you are shopping for your first or next medium format camera, and if you are reading this to decide on the Mamiya 645 Pro, I hope it answered what you needed to know. If you have any more questions please leave them in the comments and if you’d like to see more, take a look at my YouTube video that accompanies this article. Until next time, stay motivated and keep shooting.
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10 thoughts on “The Mamiya 645 Pro – Finding the right medium format camera”
Hello, thanks for sharing. Which is the film you used for the colour sunflower still life ?
Thank you. That was Fuji Pro 400 H
Great article! I found your site through Mike Eckman’s recommended reading, and this certainly won’t be my last visit 🙂 I got a 645 Pro last year with the 80mm f1.9 lens, AE metered prism finder and motorized winder grip, but I sold the grip soon enough (and got about 10% of my total purchase price back which was a nice bonus). Without the grip the camera is not as ergonomic to hold and the shutter is in a weird place (bottom right front surface?!) but the grip added too much to the weight especially with all the batteries, and like you I found it too noisy.
Re choosing a camera, one additional factor which I think is important to a lot of people is the SLR/rangefinder/TLR choice(and since you clearly did your research I’m sure you considered it too, even if you didn’t explicitly mention it). I noticed the cameras you listed as being among your top choices are all SLRs or rangefinders, but not TLRs (perhaps because you don’t fancy the 6×6 format as you suggest later in the article?) which of course is fair enough.
If you’re left-handed you could check out Exakta cameras if you haven’t already, most of them have left-handed shutter release. And the brand has a lot of history (arguably the inventors of the 35mm SLR) and a great range of relatively inexpensive lenses to choose from 🙂
Thank you. You’re right I forgot to mention that I think because i talked about the format It slipped my mind.
I have always wanted to try an exacta. I didn’t know they were left handed. I will have to look into getting one. Thanks 🙂
Hi Aly, like you I have health issues and wanted a light weight 645 so I ended up with the Mamiya 645E. This was the lightest (so I understand) of the Maymia range being mostly plastic built. It doesn’t have the ability to change backs or finders but I dont need them. It has a built in meter in the finder and I can pre load a spare film insert to reload if I need to put a new film in but only after I finish the current roll of course. It suits my type of casual walk around photography and the light weight is a blessing! There is also a non powered winder grip but they seem to be pretty scarce here in the th UK. Oh and I’m left handed as well!! Happy shooting. Johnny.
Hi Johnny. Thanks so much for sharing that with me. I started this blog and my YouTube to find fellow photographers that are dealing with limitations. So far not many have spoken up so I am glad you did.
I didn’t know about the 645 e. I will have to look into that one. Take care. Happy shooting 🙂