Mamiya 7II - Some thoughts on moving up to Medium Format

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Medium Format with 35mm convenience?

First things first - this is not a review of the Mamiya 7II in the true sense of the word. I don't see any point in duplicating work which others have already done a very good job of, and anyone looking for a thorough evaluation of this camera by someone who knows what he's talking about could do a lot worse than check out Michael Reichmann's review on his excellent website "Luminous Landscape".

Despite the 6x7 format being described as the "ideal format" requiring no cropping, my own experience is that the most pleasing aspect ratio can only be achieved with fairly significant cropping. Maybe this is just a "fashion" thing, as a result of wide screen TV etc, although it seems odd, as cinemas have been around for a long time, making good use of a wide aspect photography.

Why Medium Format?

There is an attempt on Mamiya's UK website to explain why medium format is better than 35mm. Naturally, as Mamiya only make medium format cameras, it completely ignores the disadvantages. It also witters on about the "ideal format". As far as I'm concerned, MF (and the 6x7 format in particular) has the following, fairly obvious, advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages:

- better image quality

- slides are easier to see on the lightbox

Disadvantages:

- equipment is heavier, bulkier and more expensive

- no satisfactory solution for projecting 6x7cm slides

- limited range of film types available, and film is more expensive

- only 10 shots on a roll

- depth of field is less than with 35mm for a given angle of view.

The real selling point of the Mamiya 7 is that it gives you nice big 6x7cm negatives/slides from a camera not much bigger than a professional 35mm SLR. The Mamiya is in the same ballpark for size and weight as my Minolta 600si with 24-105 zoom. It's probably actually lighter than some of the real pro 35mm SLRs. As far as I'm concerned the Mamiya has one advantage over the Minolta - the bigger film size and corresponding increase in quality. However it has numerous disadvantages:

- it's a rangefinder rather than an SLR, so you don't really see what you're getting and focusing is more difficult, using filters is a pain, you have to use accessory viewfinders for the wide lenses etc etc

- close focusing distance is only 1m

- maximum aperture on any Mamiya 7II lens is f4 (I use an f1.4 50mm lens on the Minolta - a full 3 stops faster)

- it's bigger, heavier, more cumbersome to use and more expensive

- more limited range of lenses (no zooms)

- exposure metering is much more basic

- (no autofocus)

I think all of these, apart from the lack of autofocus which I can easily live without, are serious disadvantages. Whether the Mamiya is for you depends on whether you want that extra quality badly enough to put up with the above.

Really all I've said so far is that the Mamiya 7II has all the advantages and disadvantages of medium format, and all the advantages and disadvantages of being a rangefinder camera.

The "Ideal Format?"

One of the claimed advantages of the 6x7 format is that it is the "ideal format" in that it can be enlarged to 10x8 with the minimum amount of cropping. I couldn't disagree more with this. Looking through my best pictures, most are either full-frame 35mm or cropped to be more panoramic than standard 35mm. I think the shape of 35mm negatives is, if anything, not "widescreen" enough. 6x7 is almost square, so I think it's a step in the wrong direction from 35mm as far as aspect ratio is concerned. The good thing is that 6x7 negatives are so big you can crop to whatever shape you like, even genuine panorama, and still get excellent quality.

Mamiya 7II in use

I've tried medium format before. I borrowed my Dad's old Yashica 124G. I took it around Europe with me and only took about 5 pictures with it, the reson being that it's an absolute pain to use. The viewfinder gives you a really dull, reversed image which is practically impossible to compose with.

By contrast, the first time I used the Mamiya 7II I used up my entire supply of film (5 rolls) in under an hour. Unlike the Yashica, the Mamiya is really good fun to use, which I think is bound to result in better pictures.

35mm convenience?

The Mamiya feels good to hold - it makes the Minolta 600si seem flimsy and plasticky by comparison. If you're like me and want something as close to a 35mm camera as possible but with the extra advantage of 6x7cm film, I don't think you'd be disappointed with the Mamiya. It reminded me of my old Contax 137 which I used when I was a student at Cambridge. The Mamiya is barely any bigger or heavier than that camera.

I bought the 80mm standard lens with the Mamiya, thinking this would be an ideal focal length, being a bit wider than the 50mm lens which used to be my only lens for the Contax. In fact I spent most of the day in Cambridge wishing for something slightly wider, so maybe the 65mm would have been better. My rationale for getting the 80mm, though, is that if you're going to go for a wideangle you should get the 43mm, which should cover pretty much any wideangle situation, leaving the 80mm as a standard lens. Not much point having a 65mm as well, I wouldn't say.

So after a day using the Mamiya 7II, I missed the Minolta's choice of lenses a bit, but not much. I didn't miss autofocus at all. I did miss the excellent matrix metering, particularly as with only 10 shots on a roll if you bracket exposure much you are forever changing film.

In fact changing film was the one thing which really bugged me about the Mamiya. I hadn't done it very often with the Yashica, because the camera was so horrible to use! But the Mamiya was such a joy, I was changing film every few minutes. It's about as straightforward as it possibly could be given the design of 120 film, but it's still a long way off being as convenient as 35mm.

The first time I tried to change film I had problems - I just couldn't get the left hand sprocket out. Turned out it was because I had my Manfrotto quick release plate screwed onto the bottom of the camera, which was fouling the sprocket mechanism. This is quite annoying because it means you can't really get any advantage out of the quick release plate with this camera.

Viewfinder

Another slightly cumbersome thing is the viewfinder. It only works properly if your eye is lined up exactly as it should be, otherwise you either can't read the shutter speed info or the split-image goes dull, and the frame lines won't be accurate either. It's particularly problematic when shooting in portrait mode. It's a lovely bright viewfinder. When I finally ran out of 120 film (I bought out Jessops Cambridge branch's entire stock of 120 slide film - not as extravagant as it sounds as they only had one!) I switched back to the Minolta and what I usually regard as a lovely bright viewfinder was decidedly murky in comparison.

Depth of Field

The Mamiya's standard lens is an 80mm. This is probably equivalent to about a 45mm lens on the Minolta, although you can't really make a direct comparison as the Mamiya's images are closer to being square so you have to crop to get exactly the same shape as a 35mm negative. It's not actually quite true to say the longer the focal length the less the depth of field, but in reality one of the effects of needing a longer focal length lens to get the same angle of view is that you have to worry much more about depth of field with medium format than you do with 35mm.

Most of my favourite shots make use of limited depth of field, so this is a feature of medium format as much as a disadvantage. However, the problem with the Mamiya is that because it's not an SLR you can't actually see what effect depth of field is going to have on your photos. You have to guess. As it was my first time using the camera, I didn't have any experience to fall back on so guessing was difficult. Another problem is that apparently the depth of field markings on the Mamiya's lenses are completely wrong. I have not investigated this myself but I'm prepared to take Michael Reichmann's word for it. All this means that to get the best results with the Mamiya is going to take a bit of experimentation, practice and experience.

Results

So is the extra hassle worth it? You bet it is! The sharpness and detail in my first set of 6x7 slides and negatives is wonderful. My Epson 2450 seems to be sharp enough to extract enough detail to do great 16x12 inch prints. And it's nice to know that if I ever wanted to make bigger prints than that, I could get the slides professionally scanned to extract even more detail.

The Bottom Line

I'm really pleased with this camera. It's the sort of camera which needs a bit of care and thought to produce good results, but it's certainly got it where it counts. Before using it, I thought I would have liked a faster maximum aperture. In fact depth of field is so limited even at f4 I don't imagine f2.8 would be as useful as I had imagined. The Mamiya is great fun to use. The handling is so good that it found itself being compared with the Minolta, which has great handling. I would never dream of comparing the Yashica 124G to the Minolta, the handling was just so bad, it's a different type of beast altogether. The Mamiya is a pleasure to use, so much so that you can almost forget you're using a medium format camera. Right up until the film runs out for the third time in 10 minutes!

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