It’s not digital. It’s not autofocus. It’s made of nasty plastic. And yet. It costs less than half your top Canon or Nikon, and its image quality blows them out of the water. How does it do it, and what, exactly, is it?
The Mamiya 7ii is that rarest of beasts, a medium format rangefinder. To look at the first half of the equation first, medium format means it uses film that’s six centimetres (2¼ inches) wide, giving a negative or slide that’s a whopping 6cm x 7cm. That’s nearly five times the size of the sensor in your top-of-the line, full-frame digital SLR. Because film still has an edge over digital in terms of tonal gradation and shadow and highlight detail, this camera delivers quality that even a medium format digital camera can’t match – let alone a Canon 1Ds Mark III or Nikon D3x.
Medium format cameras have traditionally been regarded as studio cameras, capable of producing superb images but big, heavy, and useless without a tripod. This is where the rangefinder comes in. Unlike an SLR, with a rangefinder you don’t actually look through the lens to frame the photo. The viewfinder is a separate window, calibrated to match the view through the lens. This means that, unlike an SLR, the camera doesn’t need to incorporate a mirror box, which adds a whole lot of bulk to the middle of the body. The mirror bounce also adds noise and vibration to the operation of an SLR, and a slight shutter delay. Documentary photographers and photojournalists have long prized rangefinders – in particular the famous Leica M series – because they’re fast, quiet, smooth and discreet. While the Mamiya is not exactly small, by medium format standards it’s compact, and noticeably lighter than a serious SLR. A Leica on steroids, if you like.
The lightness is partly a result of the body construction, which is frankly flimsy. But that’s just the body. The main story with the Mamiya is the lenses, and because these house the all-important diaphragm and shutter, it’s not so important to have a sturdy body. And the lenses are quite simply the best, not just in terms of their all-metal construction, but also their optics. There’s a choice of four wide angles and two telephotos, all of them fixed length – rangefinder photographers don’t really do zooms, or even telephoto lenses very much. The camera usually comes bundled with an 80mm f4 standard lens, which translates to 40mm in 35mm equivalence.
But who on earth uses film these days? Quite a few people as it happens, from artists to studio professionals, and there are still lots of labs that process it properly. Film has a richness and depth that you just don’t get by stringing electrons together in a chip, a little like the way vinyl has seen a revival over CDs in recent years. The downside is it’s not at all cheap. A roll of film for this camera costs about $10 and gives you ten shots. Throw in another $10 for processing and that’s $2 a shot. And then there’s the scanning. But all this can be worked to advantage, instilling a discipline that is sorely missing from digital technology and its attendant ‘spray and pray’ mentality. The expense and the stubbornly manual controls force the photographer to be conservative, to really judge the shot and then fire a handful of frames. The art lies in seeing the picture before you shoot it, not hoping to find it later amid a sea of rejects on your computer.
In any case, with a body and lens kit costing less than US$4,000, you can burn quite a bit of film before you start to match the price of the aforementioned Canon or Nikon flagships. That said, unless you’re an ultra-purist the Mamiya is not a replacement for a digital camera. There will be plenty of times you’ll just want to snap something you can download straight away. Many photographers use it in tandem with a small digital camera, such as the Panasonic GF1 (see previous post) whose 20mm lens matches the angle of the Mamiya’s 80mm perfectly. Take as many test shots as you like on the digital, then move in for the clincher with the Mamiya.