June 6, 2013

Review: Mamiya RB67 - A Tank With Grace

About once a week I get emails from other photographers asking for my opinion on various camera models. I am always happy to help other creative folks but I am not going to deny it gets tough writing the same thing over and over again to an audience of one person at a time. As such, I have de ides to capture my thoughts and impressions of some of the cameras I tend to use most often so I can refer people to a pre-written review when the question comes up.

I think it is only fitting to start with my most recent camera procurement, the Mamiya RB67.

In my particular case it is a RB67 Pro SD which is as I understand is the most current rendition of the RB67 line. The difference between the Pro SD and previous models are mostly minor so if you are looking into getting one of these I wouldn’t put a whole lot of energy into finding one version over the other.

I bought mine off of Craigslist for $300 from a guy who said he had ambitions to shoot wedding portraits with it but never got around to it. I don’t think more than ten rolls of film had gone through the camera as there was not a scratch on it. It came with a body, one 6x7 back, a waist level finder, and three lenses; a 65mm “c” type, a 127mm K/L lens, and a 180mm K/L lens.

The day I brought the camera home I immediately put the 180mm lens on eBay as I have zero desire to use a telephoto lens with this camera. I never once even shot a roll of film with it. From there I turned around and bought a flash bracket left handed grip off of KEH so I could hand hold the camera a little more easily.

Long before purchasing the RB67 I had heard grumblings from other photographers about how big this camera is. I always dismissed them as just being wimpy. After all, my workhorse for years was a Mamiya C330 TLR which is no slouch in the size department either. It took me about one second to realize however that all those photographers weren’t kidding!

The Mamiya RB67 is huge and heavy. So heavy in fact that hand holding it is difficult for any length of time. If you are going to insist on using the RB67 without a tripod as I often do, you better be in a position to put it down often. It didn’t take me long to nickname the RB67 the “tank killer” because I feel like I am picking up an artillery shell getting ready to load it into an anti-aircraft battery every single time I pick it up.

Despite the fact that the RB67 is, shall we say, big boned, the overall working mechanics are quite well thought out and surprisingly intuitive. There are two over-sized focus knobs on either side of the camera body that are impossible to miss by touch. The mirror cocking lever is over-sized and molded to fit the base of a camera operators thumb. The f/stop and shutter speed dials on the lens barrel are clearly marked and have significant “click” when adjusted.

Then there is the focus and viewing screen…

To put it mildly, it is by far the clearest, brightest, most glorious viewing screen I have ever used on any camera ever. I was shocked when I first looked through it and quite frankly it has made me spoiled. Everything else seems dim by comparison. Even in low light, finding that “snap” when bringing an image into focus is easy with the RB67.

I think it is worth noting that the RB67 is a purely mechanical beast. There is nothing at all electronic on this camera, not even a light meter. I find this both a blessing and a curse. On one hand it makes the RB67 both incredibly robust and very reliable. No need to carry extra batteries or worry about some small electrical component shorting out on you. On the other hand it can become the reason for a fairly steep learning curve considering the RB67 is rich with features and very much an all manual experience.

Like an old pocket watch, everything on the RB67 needs to be in sync and to operate the camera you must perform certain actions in the proper order or your picture taking tool simply will not work. Even after owning the RB67 for over six months I still find myself every so often forgetting to remove the dark slide between the camera body and the film back. Or sometimes I will forget to reset the mirror and advance the film (these actions are performed with two separate actions). Still, other times I will forget to focus both the bellows and the floating lens element. Sometimes this results in an image that just simply isn’t as technically proficient as it could be. Other times it means the camera will not work at all.

With a little practice none of this is all that difficult. Just don’t ever expect to use the RB67 like a point and shoot. The experience is much closer in spirit to using a large format view camera.

From my experience what one looses in operational speed is more than made up for with that big lovely 6x7 negative. At first I didn’t think I would be all that impressed with the 6x7 format. I was very used to 6x6 and that little bit of extra real estate couldn’t be that big of a deal right? WRONG! The depth and clarity found in a 6x7 negative is astounding and it is a true breath of fresh air being able to print on 8x10 without either cropping the negative or wasting a big chunk of your paper. 6x7 is often referred to as the “ideal” format because the aspect ratio closely matches standard paper sizes.

A particular favorite feature of the RB67 for me is the bellows focusing mechanism. Unlike most medium format systems (or most cameras these days really…) where one focuses by turning an internal helical glass element on the lens, the RB67 focuses by literally moving the entire lens barrel in and out.

This has two distinct advantages. First, lenses for the RB67 tend to be relatively inexpensive because the have less moving parts. Second, the design allows the photographer to focus very close. I am talking macro close. The only downside is the photographer needs to take constant care to adjust for exposure. The further the lens is from the film plane the more exposure one needs and you must compensate with either a slower shutter speed or a wider aperture.

I think it is also worth noting that if you are a photographer who wants really fast lenses (and by fast I mean wide open apertures) the Mamiya RB67 may not be the camera for you. Most RB67 lenses max out at f/4.5 and the fastest I am aware of opens up only to f/3.5. Still, due to the large negative format, shallow depth of field is very much a possibility with the RB67 and the image quality is easily on par with the likes of top quality Zeiss and Nikkor glass.

Now it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the Mamiya RB67 without mentioning the rotating back. After all, that is what the “RB” in the model name stands for - rotating back. The engineers over at Mamiya did something truly unique with this feature and speaking as someone who has shot square negatives most of my life I truly consider it a godsend.

When making the decision to shoot in either a landscape or portrait orientation, rather than turning the entire camera on its end (no small feat with this beast let me tell ya) all one has to do is rotate the back ninety degrees. The frame lines in the viewfinder will automatically change depending on the orientation of the back. In practice it works beautifully.

Now a lot of people have said that the RB67 is a camera very difficult, if not impossible to shoot hand held. Heck, I might have even implied it myself with all my rumblings about the camera’s girth. I think it was this notion that prevented me from buying an RB67 for a very long time. I mean let’s face, the slow apertures on every lens combined with a heavy and boxy camera body does make the task seem very daunting. However, I myself am simply not a tripod guy. I will use one when I have to, but overall I find the restrictive and annoying.

I can safely say that hand holding an RB67 is not that difficult. Sure you will always be aware of its presence (don’t even think about dangling this camera around your neck) and it certainly doesn’t have the ergonomics of an SLR but thanks to a well dampened mirror and a leaf shutter on every lens I have managed to hand hold down to 1/30th of a second with very little, if any, camera shake. Don’t let all the Internet chatter scare you. If you decide to buy an RB67, give hand holding a try.

So in summary, the Mamiya RB67 is…

Good For: Studio work. Landscapes (just make sure to bring a tripod). Close-Ups (near macro). Anytime you just really want to have a big giant negative from roll film.

Bad For: Anyone with weak arms. Any photographic task that requires you to be discreet.

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