Published 24 April 2019
After trying out the Hasselblad and looking up how much they cost, I realised I needed a slightly cheaper entry into shooting medium format. I cruised the web and came across an abundance of brands and formats, so I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task. The thing with buying vintage cameras is you’ve got decades of technology to choose from and it seems like every model has a dedicated legion of fans.
By chance I was talking to Dia’s mum Puloma about cameras and turns out she used to have a 35mm Mamiya ZE-2 that lost an argument with an airport floor back in the 80s. I got reading in to Mamiya’s history and the company was founded in Tokyo in 1940 as マミヤ光機製作所 - Mamiya Optical Works - and their first camera was the Mamiya Six, a medium format rangefinder that produced 6x6cm negatives. Several models followed, including the Mamiyaflex C twin-lens reflex (TLR) in 1957 and the (mostly studio bound) 2.7kg monster RB67 in 1970. Mamiya released the M645 system in 1975, with lenses from a 35mm wide angle to an epic 500mm telephoto. The negatives are 6x4.5cm, which leads to a compact(ish) camera and things are slightly more economic as you get 15 shots per roll of 120 film compared with 12 from a 6x6, 10 from a 6x7 and 8 from a 6x9. I had found my camera, now to get bargain hunting.
I bagged a M645 1000S with a Sekor C 80mm f/2.8 (50mm equivalent at 35mm) from eBay and opened it up on Christmas Day back in England with the family. This model was from 1976 and featured a few upgrades from the original M645 released a year earlier. The maximum shutter speed was increased from 1/500s to 1/1000s in addition to a self-timer and depth-of-field preview lever. Along with the fast shutter, the features that caught my eye were a mirror lock up lever (to reduce vibrations on long exposures) and the option for a metered prism.
I popped in some Kodak Portra 400 film, a 4LR44 battery and set out to explore with Dia. When you’ve got 15 shots per film it’s important to make it count, so a few shutter misfires are a bit concerning. I switched out the battery for a new one from Boots and problem solved (no more bulk-buy cheap batteries). Ready to take on the world, or at least Manchester, with a few rolls of 120 film what could possibly go wrong? Not reading the manual, that’s what.
On the lens is the ‘A.M. Lever’, which switches between ‘Automatic’ and ‘Manual’. Naturally, I thought I was shooting in ‘Manual’ as I was setting the shutter speed and aperture then checking the exposure with the viewfinder. Makes total sense, but that’s not the case. When using the metered prism this switch should be set to ‘Automatic’ so that the lens remains wide open until the shutter fires. If the switch is set to ‘Manual’ then the aperture changes with the dial and the light meter is tricked in to thinking the current setting is f/2.8, which can lead to overexposure at higher apertures. It took those three rolls getting developed to figure this out, film photography is definitely an iterative process.
Once I got the right battery loaded and the exposure sorted I realised just how good this camera was. The 80mm lens is super sharp and the negatives are perfect for producing high quality prints. It’s compact for a medium format system but still very much a tank of a camera (weighing at 1.7kg) so a good strap is recommended if you’re taking it for a stroll. Shooting in the street tends to get you some strange looks and sideways glances, but is always a good conversation starter. Over the last few months I’ve been using this camera I have realised it’s best suited for moments you know will be printed or viewed in high resolution – either streetscapes, landscapes or fashion. When I travel you’ll find me with the Mamiya in my bag until needed and my Pentax K1000 slung over my shoulder ready to go.
Sample Photos: Mamiya M645 1000S with 80mm f/2.8 lens and Kodak T-Max 400 (images 1-4) and Kodak Portra 400 (Images 5-10). Developed /scanned at FilmNeverDie, Melbourne.