Mamiya 7 - Good & Ugly

I get a lot of e-mails regarding the Mamiya 7 camera, which I use extensively for my travel and landscape shots. I feel that many people assume that having the same camera as me is going to make their images better, which I misleading. But for those that are intrigued by the camera and want to know what I think about it, I'm going to give you the low down here and now.


Q. Why did I choose this camera over other Medium Format systems?

A. Because first and foremost, I wanted something with maximum resolution and lightest weight. I do a lot of traveling and it's important that the camera is light and that the lenses are light too. Try out many other MF systems and you'll soon see why the Mamiya is great for compactness and light lenses.

Q. What is the resolution like?

A. It's a rangefinder system, so the lens designs were not compromised by having to 'work around' there being a mirror in the way. The wide angles in particular extend right into the camera body and are a few mm close up to the film plane. The distortion in these lenses is almost non existent. Point the camera down and the horizon is at the top of the frame - straight as an arrow. No barrel distortion.

Q. Are the lenses fast?

A. No. This is the real downside - depending on what you are shooting. With maximum apertures of f4.5, they are a few stops slower than other MF systems. This is because Mamiya couldn't guarantee precise focussing with a rangefinder MF system. For instance, a standard lens in MF land is 80mm or 90mm. Now think about the DOF (depth of field) you have on a 90mm lens in 35mm land.... it's not that deep is it? If your focussing is slightly off, chances are that at f2 you're going to notice it. So the best compromise is to make the lenses slower. So that's the downside. Slow lenses, but on the bright side, because they are slow lenses, they're not that bulky / heavy / big. A plus point. Ideal for travel.

Q. What is a Rangefinder anyway?

A. A rangefinder is a system where you do not look through the lens. You actually view through a side window an 'approximation' of what you will get. The problem with this is that focus is achieved by overlapping two paralax images onto the same spot... this requires some mechanical calibration so that when the images are overlapped correctly, the lens is actually in focus.

Q. So why use this system if it doesn't allow you to see through the lens then?

A. Because it makes the system more compact (no mirror in the way), you also get to see the scene at the point of exposure (no mirror flipping out of the way for a moment obscuring your view) and the system is also very, very quiet (no mirror to make a big slapping noise). The Mamiya 7 System has the shutters placed inside the lenses, making the shutter tiny - and therefore less prone to vibration. So images are often sharper than systems with large shutters that are 6x7 in size!

Q. What are the other limitations of the Mamiya 7?

A. Close focussing is terrible, due to limitations gaining accurate focus with a rangefinder system. No decent telephoto support either - the biggest telephoto you can get for it is a 210mm lens - at f8 !!!! and it's not even coupled to the rangefiner - so you have to guess the focus point.... bit of a silly lens unless you intend to use the camera for landscape work.

Q. So what do I like about the camera?

A. I keep coming back to the camera time and time again. I swear at it, curse it while I'm using it, feel I'm missing shots with it, but each time I get the films back and look at those sharp 6x7 transparencies on my light table... I instantly forgive it its weaknesses.

A. I also actually like composing the shot through the rangefinder window. Because it is an approximation of what is there, I have to 'visualise' more in my head what I am wanting to create - no bad thing.

A. I tend to use it in manual mode all the time for landscape work. I have a Sekonic L-608 light meter which I use for zone system metering, so I can determine where and if I should use a grad filter. So I tend to slow down with the camera and think more about composition.

A. I also love the 6x7 aspect ratio.

A. I also love how quiet the camera is when out shooting street scenes. Even though it's big, it doesn't attract as much attention as a small SLR does.

A. I also find placing the grads on the camera to be a non-issue. I compose, I check how much area the sky is using - if it's using a 1/3rd of the scene, then that's how far down I put the grad. Because the grad is so close to the front element, it's diffused anyway. I only use the hard grads. The soft grads are no use to MF or 35mm shooters because the lenses are small. For Large Format, the soft grads are worth holding onto.

A. I find the camera great for the landscape work I do. I have my process with this camera nailed down now, and am comfortable with it. I can take it anywhere with me and its been up the side of glaciers in Patagonia, on an ice field for a week (it uses small batteries), and its been completely soaked in New Zealand and it still worked the next day once all the water evaporated off all the lens elements.

Q. What don't I like about the camera?

A. No close focussing.

A. No decent telephoto support

A. Slow lenses

A. To change lens, I have to pull a curtain over the film via a dial underneath. Can't take any pictures until the curtain is released and I *always* forget to release it once I've changed lenses.

A. It's poorly made, bits keep falling of the camera.

But I keep coming back to it. But be warned : it's not for everyone.