The Mamiya Press Camera – With Great Weight Comes Great Versatility

The Mamiya Press Camera – With Great Weight Comes Great Versatility

2200 1238 Chris Cushing

I like things to be small, light, and simple, and these preferences apply equally to nearly any product. My favorite car since the close of the Second World War is the original Golf GTI, and the simple Honda Cub will forever be near the top of my list of favorite bikes. I’ve written here about my love for the diminutive Canonet. Even among my interchangeable lens cameras I’m always trying to reduce and simplify my kit.

I know what I like, and this has informed my buying habits. But recently I found myself thinking big. I wanted a medium format camera.

I own a lot of old Canons and Pentaxes because I like them and I feel comfortable with them. I’ve bought plenty of Volkswagens and Saabs for the same reasons. It’s all too easy to fall into a trap created by force of habit. Sticking to my favored brands should’ve had me buying a Pentax 67, but long hours spent trawling eBay brought something unexpected; a Mamiya. 

Mamiya’s final medium format rangefinders, the 6 and the 7, have long been favorites among hip photo geeks. Their compact dimensions, excellent lenses, and modern meters make them extremely desirable pieces of equipment. But what I ended up with was not a 6 or 7, it was a Press.

The Press shares very few of the 6 and 7’s virtues just mentioned, but it offers an extraordinary amount of configurability that can be matched by very few cameras.

When it first arrived at, I was immediately struck by its formidable stature. Even disassembled in the box. This is a camera the size of a paint can. The grip looks like the flight stick from an F-86 Sabre. The body cavity will nearly fit a whole Minolta 7sII. It outweighs my cat.

It was clear from the start that this camera would place me firmly outside my comfort zone.

I wasn’t even entirely sure how I’d handle testing the Mamiya Super 23. I don’t shoot a lot of landscapes. I like walking and shooting, yet this camera was clearly going to be happiest atop a tripod. After avoiding the camera for a few weeks, intermittently playing with it and trying to master its operation, it dawned on me.

I am nominally a member of the press, and I would be going to the New York International Auto Show to cover a Porsche launch for another site. Where better to test a Press camera than at a press event?

What is a Mamiya Press?

The Mamiya Press family is a series of multi-format, interchangeable lens rangefinders introduced in 1960. The original Mamiya Press and its derivatives are among the last cameras of their type, as 35mm SLRs were quickly taking over the professional and photo journalist market following the introduction of the exceptional Nikon F.

All members of the Mamiya Press system share a few commonalities. All are rangefinders, all have interchangeable backs and lenses, and all boast a large removable plastic grip. The many models differ in the details. The original Press along with the Super 23 feature a movable bellows back which the S and 23 Standard both lack. The Press G is compatible with Graflex G Mount backs. A Polaroid-branded variant was marketed as the 600SE, and used Polaroid packfilm. 

Apart from the Polaroid variant, which got three unique lenses, all of the Press variants can use the same selection of glass. These range from a 50mm f/6.3 to a 250mm f/5.0. For the purposes of this review I used two lenses; the 65mm f/6.3 and 100mm f/3.5. 

All of the lenses in the system have leaf shutters, and the release and cocking mechanisms for the lenses are positioned on the lens itself rather than on the body of the camera. Because of this arrangement there are no interlocks. Advancing the film and cocking the shutter are handled separately for each shot. 

Despite the name, I get the impression that the Mamiya Press was not intended for working press photographers. The camera’s immense size and the rear bellows mounted to most models gives me the impression that the Press was intended more for studio work than for work in the field. Undeterred, I pressed on with my press badge and press camera. 

Surprisingly Deft Handling

I’ve never considered “getting there” to be part of a camera review, but with the Mamiya this factor is worth considering. Before you can use the Mamiya it has to get wherever you’re going, and for me this meant getting the camera in one of my bags. This meant at least partial disassembly every single time I wanted to stow the camera in my Abonnyc bag. 

For best fit, the film holder and lens needed to be removed and packed separately from the body. In a pinch the body could be stuffed in the bag with the film holder attached, but this pressed the camera into the bag, and its rectangular bulk could be felt against my back. 

This of course meant reassembling the camera every time I wanted to use it. After a while I became well-drilled in the process, though it was a multi-step affair. With practice I could affix the lens, attach the release cable, attach the film back, remove the darkslide, cock the shutter and be ready to shoot in about fifty seconds. 

Because the film backs are interchangeable you can actually switch films mid-roll, much like a Hasselblad. I carried two backs with me, one loaded with black-and-white film and one loaded with Kodak Portra. Switching was as simple as slipping in the darkslide, unscrewing two thumb-screws, affixing the alternate back and pulling the darkslide.

All this noted, in terms of startup time the Mamiya is substandard.

In use the Mamiya seems to defy physics. The large plastic grip is surprisingly effective at mitigating the camera’s awkward shape. While the layout of the grip does mean cantilevering a lot of weight off to one side, it helps the camera feel a lot smaller than it actually is. Several times I found myself walking around New York shooting the Mamiya like I would any other rangefinder. It wasn’t the Press’ ideal use case, but it could hang in a pinch.

The Business End

To be blunt, Mamiya made no attempt to make its Press cameras handsome. The company’s development money seemed to go into smoothing out as much of the shooting process as possible while maintaining an extremely modular camera design, and in practice they mostly succeeded. While the interchangeable backs make advancing the film and cocking the shutter a two-step affair, the camera streamlines the rest of the shooting process.

Focusing is easy, and the viewfinder is very large and bright – unsurprising considering the amount of real estate it takes up on the front fascia of the body. The framelines are selectable for 100mm, 200mm and 250mm lenses. I found the 65mm lens had a close enough field of view to the full finder (including the area beyond the 100mm framelines) that I was able to omit the awkward spring-base removable finder from my bag. 

The 65mm lens in particular is extremely sharp, which helps to make up for its slow f/6.3 maximum aperture. The lens’ short focus throw and deep depth of field made it easy to walk and shoot with, particularly if conditions were bright. Most of the outdoor shots in this review were taken with this lens, as the lighting conditions indoors at NYIAS made the slow 65mm lens a challenge to use.

The 100mm lens is a more multi-faceted creature. Of the ten or so lenses in the system, this one is best optimized for use with the bellows back. The 100mm can collapse about 2.5cm into the body to allow focusing when the bellows are extended or tilted, though when collapsed focus can only be achieved using a removable ground-glass holder. 

On the floor at NYIAS I primarily used the 100mm lens, and found that it offered a very smooth gradient from the areas of critical focus to the out-of-focus areas. The jump from in-focus to out-of-focus was never jarring, even when shot wide open. The long focus throw of this lens and the large rangefinder patch made it easy to shoot with, even outdoors in the middle of the night. 

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the two lenses was the lack of vignetting. The Mamiya Press is a multi-format system, and I was shooting exclusively in 6 x 9, the largest available format. I actually expected some visible vignetting at the edges and was pleasantly surprised to find that the images are bright corner to corner. An impressive feat for such a large negative. 


The Mamiya Press Super 23 is one of the most complicated film cameras I’ve ever used, and I am far from mastering it. My experiments with the rear bellows have mostly resulted in failure, and all too often I found myself making multiple-exposures that I didn’t intend to make. This is not a camera someone can pick up and use instantly, and without a rigid adherence to process it is easy for even an experienced shooter to make mistakes.

Where the Press shines is its versatility. The lens selection is larger than the wonderful Mamiya 6 and 7 of the 1980s and 1990s, and the multi-format back system is head and shoulders better than the back-masking system employed by the Mamiya 7. With time and patience, there is very little the Press cannot do. Whether you want to shoot 6 x 9 format with an ultra-wide or 6 x 4.5 with a telephoto, the Press can hang. If you are willing to carry multiple backs and darkslides you can even change from format to format between shots. 

While I found shooting the Press to be a struggle at NYIAS, I didn’t really mind. Despite the name this is not a press camera in 2018. Bu it is a terrific tool for any number of other jobs, ranging from portraiture to macro to landscapes. The Press will flatter any work that allows the photographer to slow way down and fine-tune the image. The enormous negatives, solid image quality and versatility all make for an extremely enjoyable camera to use, just don’t try to keep up in the world of New Media. 

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing
  • Sometimes the novelty of shooting a more ‘complicated’ camera. But I wonder whether the novelty will wear off before I reach a level of competency.

    • Andrew- it’s certainly a challenge, but it’s not as big a jump as say, going to large format or glass plate! The Mamiya’s big thing is process. If you are willing to do a thorough pre-flight check for every shot(particularly if you are swapping film types, or attempting to use the bellows back), the camera is very rewarding. If you are in a faster paced environment, like I was, the Mamiya is a real challenge. The auto show was a crash course in the camera’s shortcomings, because the “decisive moment” was often much shorter than the setup time for a single shot.

      If you like shooting landscapes, doing studio work or macros the Mamiya would be a great fit. It’s not so much that it is really hard to use, it’s that it is extremely hard to use quickly.

      That said, I’m glad I attempted to use it in this environment. I tend to use my cameras in higher pressure situations, and they really make a camera’s quirks immediately apparent.

    • Beware the dark slide. Don’t forget to remove it after changing backs. Very easy to do if you are used to 35mm. Love this camera! With the 100mm F2.8 your can do astrophotography. The Mamiya Press backs are known for their film flatness because of the reverse curve design. Good article about a classic camera..

  • Great review! The quality of these cameras is really good, but as you say they so so complicated to use. I’ve gone through a whole roll of HP5+ before realising I had the dark slide in. Then there is the lack of double exposure lock. I’m currently working through some film with my Super 23 as a street shooter, not exactly discreet…… but I love using it!

    • Thanks!

      The lens and accessories feel very nice. The body is nice in some places, and a little flimsy in others. I had my other Mamiya apart for some adjustments, and I was amazed at how flimsy the top plate was! It’s just thin sheet metal, not a cast piece.

      No matter, really. It’s a pretty darn nice light-tight-box all things considered.

    • If you don’t have one already it helps to have a dark slide reminder attached to the dark slide. Most Mamiya dark slides for this camera had a big red disk hanging from the pull handle, but you can make something similar.

      • That’s good to know. Mine doesn’t have anything, which is why I forgot it so often.

        Actually, if I tied off my lens cap to it that would work as well… Thanks for the tip!

  • William Sommerwerck April 16, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    My familiarity with this camera is as the base of the Polaroid “professional” system. It’s klutzy — especially when cocking the shutter, and worse when having to move the shutter release cable after changing a lens. (I grew accustomed to leaving the cable dangling, and releasing the shutter directly.)

    While we’re on Polaroid… It’s about time that Fuji either produced a high-quality expose-through-the-front integral film, or an SLR system patterned after the SX-70 that used expose-through-the-rear film. Fuji has made a lot of money from Instax materials, which they never would have had Dr Land’s daughter not asked “Why can’t we see the pictures right away?”, Out of simple respect for (arguably) the greatest scientist/businessman of the 20th century, they owe it to him and those who use the camera he developed to keep things going. Fuji needs to have its corporate arm twisted.

    • Speaking of the awkwardness, the control layout on the 65mm lens and the 100mm lens is not the same. The shutter lock is completely different on both, the focus rings are positioned differently, and the cable release doesn’t poke out at the same angle.

      Much of what you said can also be applied to Polaroid Originals. I like their product, and it makes me miss the products that are no longer with us.

  • Wow, that is big. Nice pictures as usual Chris.

  • This is an excellent practical review of the system! I own a Super 23 and a Universal and I really enjoy using them.

  • Michael McDermott April 19, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    Not too different from my Koni Rapid Omega M which is another big monster with an F-86 grip.

  • So cool, and I love this site reviews stuff I never see anywhere else. Then makes me want to buy it!

  • As an “old timer”, I can attest to the fact that this was a much used and much loved camera by wedding and industrial photographers…I worked at a studio back in the 70’s where I had to fill in during slow periods, working in the commercial lab they also owned. I had to do a lot of processing and printing from one industrial guy that favored this camera, and the work was dead-on sharp. I always thought the wide angles seemed very rectilinear too. If you find one in good shape for a good price, it’s worth using!

  • Great review, thanks! I want to get either this camera or the Fujica GW690. Any preference? I love medium format, have a little Zeiss Ikon Nettar and a Mamiya RB67.

    • Michael J. Van Hoecke May 22, 2019 at 5:31 pm

      Hello Dave — I am not Chris, but maybe I can help some. If you do not like to do closeups on large negatives, lens changes, film back changes, even format changes, then you may be the man for the Fujica “Texas Leica.” The Fujica shares the same pros and cons of good 35mm rangefinders except two. They have a leaf shutter and only the very earliest models had interchangeable lenses. A good Fujica viewfinder is bright and you can interchange Nikon diopters for the FE/FM2/Nikomats if your eyes need help. In Japan where I live, I just bought a very nice used Mamiya kit with 65mm lens for about $150 American dollars plus tax.
      I also considered the Fujica 6X9s but they don’t have the failsafes and used ones cost twice as much. Components on the Mamiya may break and can be replaced easily. I travel with two lenses and two backs and you would have to have two Fujica’s along for similar redundancy on any long trips. If my rangefinder goes blind, I can still use ground glass for set shots. As far as glass, the 100 and 65 lenses Chris mentioned tend to be contrasty and sharp provided there is no fog, mold, crazy scratches or lubricant somewhere in the elements. The 50mm I had was similarly contrasty and unbelievably sharp. The 75mm lens rendered very much like the Fujicas I have used. Those Fujis with their EBC lenses add lovely tonality to sharpness. If you like shades of grey, you will possibly be drawn to the Fujica look. If you like quick street shots or fast anything, then perhaps all the preparation needed for the Mamiya would slow you down.

      And now that you are most probably totally confused, perhaps someone else will weight in.

  • A very productive photographic outing, and I certainly enjoyed the results. The Porsche composition [13] is masterful. It makes me want to experiment with my father’s Fuji 6×9, which I briefly used a long time ago.

  • I was not sure if i loved this camera or not. I used mine with the 100 2.8 lens & the Polaroid back. I loved the view finder & the look i got shooting it at f2.8 but i did not like the weight & size. But now that they no longer make the fuji fp100c i really do miss using it. I also bought the Mamiya super 23 with plans to convert it to use instax wide film, with a lomography instax back, but they stopped making them also.

  • Michael J. Van Hoecke May 22, 2019 at 5:04 pm

    These cameras are inexpensive enough to play with. Their versatility also makes them fun. Ideas? Mount a 90mm f6;8 angulon in place of the standard 90 mm Mamiya Tessar. Flat-top the body to make it smaller and cool, then use the ground glass to focus. Or, make your own wire viewfinder and zone focus/hyperfocus the flattop and 65mm lens for quick grab shots at festivals. Also, use the 65mm or 90mm lens with the rear bellows extended for closeup work. Or, buy the relatively cheap extension tube and use an old 90mm or 100mm lense helicoid to make your portable telephoto lense. Bag space is limited with these cameras and a disassembled telephoto will use less space and increase macro capability. Note: you will have to use the glass or zone focusing if you do this. I learned a lesson from toting around the equally heavy Pentax 6×7. Use a wide camera strap to help distribute the weight. If you are not using the grip, the strap will also save wear on your film backs that are usually held by one hand while framing photos. Last of all for you Holga fans, get a Mamiya plastic body cap, put a cigarette sized hole through it, make a small pinhole in coke or beer can metal, and caulk it into the body cap. You now have an almost free wide-angle pinhole lens.


  • So late to this party! But this article started me down the road to the mamiya press 23. I’ve put down the mamiya 645 and now use the press for everything – macro, portraits, landscapes, it does it all in many formats (6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7 and 6×9 (with the appropriate back)). If you’re willing to take your time to make that (hopefully) perfect shot, this system will deliver. Bulky, but not really THAT heavy (compared to RB67, or a loaded mamiya 645 kit), at least not for this farm girl. Really reasonable prices for system components, too (though some are getting hard to find). Thanks for a great review!

  • I have recently bought standart 23, with 6×9 and 90mm lens and the grip. Oy is the thing İ was whishşng to take detailed pictures of the crowd in a square like spaces. Where multi compositions and faces can be detached and can be seen in the same scene. It was lucky that O met the one in a sell site. Then O bought 75 mm lens then again luckily bought Multi format black holder. Recently bought the 127 mm lens. My equipment is ready. I am happy with. I beleive this larger midformat film cameras should used for spesific scenes. Otherwise it is nonsens to carry this heavy luggage. O also ön some film slrs and fixed focal 35 mm from mini to midsize nice cameras. And some Soviet interchangeble lens rangefinders. Nice days.

    • Sorry for the mistake spellings. Jere O cortect tem. I have recently bought standart 23, with 6×9 and 90mm lens and the grip. It was the thing I was whishing to buy to take detailed pictures of the crowd in a square like spaces, where multi compositions and faces can be detached and can be seen in the same scene. I was lucky that I met the one in a sell site. Then I bought 75 mm lens. Then again luckily bought multi format black film holder. Recently bought the 127 mm lens. My equipment is ready. I am happy with them. I beleive this larger midformat film cameras should ne used for spesific scenes. Otherwise it is nonsens to carry this heavy luggage. I also have some film SLRs and fixed focal 35 mm from mini to midsize nice cameras. And also some Soviet interchangeble lens rangefinders. Nice days.

  • Wilson Laidlaw May 7, 2024 at 7:54 am

    Hamish, have you got any suggestions for a neck strap for the Super 23. I had hoped that the clip into slot type strap for my Rolleiflex 3003 would fit but the lugs on the Rolleiflex have a wider slot than those on the lugs on the Mamiya Super 23. As an elderly arthritic, I am finding the camera with the 6 x 9 roll film back rather heavy on my very gnarly hands and a neck strap would make the camera feel a bit safer to lug around. This is particularly when I am on my mobility scooter, where I need both hands to drive and work the power/forward/reverse levers. Wilson

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing