As usual, I was in search of a quick buy. We’d be spending the weekend exploring Midcoast Maine, and earlier in the week I’d come down with some sort of fever to which the only cure seemed the purchase of a medium format camera. Lo and behold, I located a Mamiya 645 1000S in Bristol, Rhode Island for a steal. I made my way to the seller on Saturday and, to my delight, found a near-mint camera with the 2.8/80 and 3.5/150 lenses, complete with a power drive and grip all packaged up in a Pelican case.
After buying the camera, I immediately snatched up the common—and cheap—six-volt battery it takes, and basked in the green glow of the battery check light. Up until that moment, I had only shot with 35mm cameras. This Mamiya represented my doorway onto a higher plane of photographic existence, and I was eager.
Sunday morning, we loaded up the car and headed to a fishing village called Round Pond. Round Pond is a shallow harbor off of Muscongus Bay with mounds of lobster traps and a hilly terrain.
Muscongus Bay was named by the Abenaki people for its “rock ledges” and is relatively uncommercialized. The bay is dotted with some small islands and can be traversed here and there in a kayak. The coast is rocky and on the southern tip there exists Pemaquid Lighthouse, built in 1827 and one of only a handful of lighthouses in Maine to use a Fresnel lens, an assembly of hundreds of prisms which collimate light into a powerful beam, making it visible far off the coastline.
The roads to Round Pond are winding, and as you drive you pass countless boats and farms. Mansard roofs dot the village and a lone, gleaming white chapel’s steeple stands as the tallest point, dwarfing the pine next to it.
We arrive and settle into our in-law suite attached to the back of what I hear is a Round Pond landmark—the house that used to have a garish and outdated glass facade. Now, the house and its accompanying suite are quaint. We feel right at home.
We enjoy a walk down to the harbor and spend time on the docks where an old harbor gas pump with analog digits still shines an ethereal green light. After dinner, I use the Mamiya to make one photo of Kelly, my wife. Early summer evening light spills in through trees. The resulting photo is what I imagined, but Kelly’s eyes are ever so slightly out of focus and I’ll come to learn that focusing the Mamiya is difficult for me. At the time, of course, I have no idea and wind the roll for the next shot to be taken the next day.
[Shots in the galleries below were made with Kodak Ektar and Kodak Portra film]
As of this point in our trip, I’ve mostly enjoyed the camera by means of gazing at it. The 645 1000S is a dazzlingly cool machine. The camera has a metal chassis which borders a beautiful pebble grain body covering. There’s sleek chrome trim on the sides of the camera and smooth, polished sections separate the various pebbled sections. The pebble grain covering is, in my opinion, just about the most beautiful body finishing I’ve seen on a camera.
The M645 series (distinct from the later 645 Pro and 645 AF series) has multiple viewfinder options for both waist-level and prism constructions. My camera has the PD S prism, which offers a built-in meter, ISO knob, and shutter knob (up to 1/1000th of a second), as well as small white “on” button. On the top of the finder (which features the same combination of chrome detailing, pebble grain, and smooth edges), we find the prominent Mamiya logo designed in 1940 by students of the Japan Fine Arts School. The logo, as I understand it, features two crossing lens elements with the letters “S” and “M,” standing for Mamiya’s founders, Sugawara and Mamiya. This logo is, of course, outlined in chrome.
I really love everything about the camera’s design; it features so many tiny details, which are notoriously things I appreciate in the design of any object. You’ve got, by my count, six different styles of knurling across the body, finder, and lens from the blocky, turret-style knurling of the shutter speed knobs to the closer, thinner “reeded” edge of the aperture ring, which itself is discrete from the classic, pyramidal grip of the focusing ring.
The shutter speed knob on my finder uses white paint for speeds above 1/60, a bold red and additional “X” for 1/60, orange paint for speeds slower than 1/60, and then green paint for speeds over 1 second. (The speed I can’t figure out is 1/30, which is neither orange nor red, but rather white like the speeds faster than 1/60th.) I even like the little red “X” on the hot shoe indicating electronic flash compatibility.
All of this is to say that I think the camera looks pretty, and even before shooting it I’m already an admirer.
The next morning, we plan to head to a preserve along the bay called La Verna. La Verna Preserve is a mostly forested 120-acre site that feels carved out from the neighboring state routes and fried seafood restaurants. We arrive at the La Verna parking lot, across Maine 32 from the entrance of the preserve. Our dog, Paxton, is raring to go, as always. I sling my backpack over my back and let my Contax 167MT with its Zeiss 50 hang around my neck.
La Verna enters into an expansive forested area giving way to wild fiddleheads and fledgling pines. The path leads over some old stone walls and eventually along boardwalks that are built over marshy areas. Eventually you can hear the sound of the surf and smell the salt. The path teases, winding parallel to the ocean for a while before opening up to the rock ledges that make up the coast.
The rocks that make up the bluff are massive, and in some spots, they’re folded from when they were deep in the earth, heated to the point of being pliable before eventually ending up here, brittle and under my shoes. Here you also have schist rusting with age, and overturned bedrock revealing striations of sediment.
I set my backpack down to get out the Mamiya. While the camera is not enormously large, it’s also not wonderfully ergonomic or light. My standard setup (the prism and the 2.8/80) weighs about four pounds. I typically use the camera with the Mamiya left-hand grip, unless I am using a tripod. Luckily, Mamiya included mounts for a proprietary neck strap, which (also luckily) I have. With the strap and grip, the camera is wieldable handheld, but for my tastes, it’s still a bit clunky.
The main shooting difficulty is the metered prism finder. The finder clicks into place and links up with the aperture-indicating fork on the lens. Unfortunately, there is some slight give in the connection, which allows the finder to move up a few millimeters. While not a major issue, the give sometimes means the electronic connection between the finder and the body is lost, meaning the meter is also lost.
To activate the finder’s meter, you have to push a small white plastic button on the finder. This will activate the meter for fifteen seconds before automatically shutting off. In truth, the button is not the most obvious in terms of placement or build. It’s small, light, and placed just in front of the large shutter speed knob. These are probably quibbles, but they definitely impact the ease of shooting handheld.
And other than these few quibbles, the camera is nicely built and easy to use. The shutter speed knob on the camera or the finder—if you’re using a finder with a shutter speed selector, the finder’s selector takes priority—is large with nice, resonant clicks for each speed. The film wind is super smooth and very easy to turn. The aperture rings are straightforward, as is the focus.
I particularly like the main shutter button. Though there are two (a rectangular one with ridges on the top of the body and a traditional circular, threaded button on the front), I prefer the front button most of the time. It’s on the front, bottom, right corner of the camera and makes the act of focusing and shooting seamless. The top release is intended for shooting vertical frames.
At La Verna, the shooting goes well, so I think, but when I get my film back, I realize that some of my frames overlapped and some frames were affected by light leaks. Older cameras, like these, do suffer from deteriorating light seals and in my haste to leave 35mm behind, I forgot to check and replace them. Thankfully, the majority of my shots with the camera are leakless and not overlapping.
I take some shots of the geology, Kelly, and the coming clouds, and just like that, I’ve finished my first roll. We make the trek back to the car, head to some tiny seafood place on New Harbor, and then quickly make our way to Pemaquid Point. If La Verna is beautiful because of its isolation, Pemaquid is beautiful because of its settlement.
The Point is flatter and less segmented compared to La Verna. There are fewer loose boulders and the bluff slopes for hundreds of yards down into the Atlantic. It’s easy to stand close to the lighthouse and see how dwarfed people are near the waves. The tower itself is stout and not too tall. Its stones are painted white and its lookout is black iron. Next to the lighthouse tower there is a tiny red house called the oil house harkening back to a time before electricity when the light was still lit by oil or (later) kerosene.
At Pemaquid Point I easily burn through another roll. Shooting with the Mamiya is a methodical process for me, especially compared to the auto-wind Contax cameras I’m shooting otherwise. I hoist the finder up to my eye, check the exposure, make my adjustments, wind the roll and cock the shutter (done with one 360-degree rotation of the lever), focus the hefty lens, and finally take the shot. Later, when I’m finally able to see my photos and compare them with the 35mm shots I took with my Contax cameras and accompanying Zeiss lenses, I can make a better judgment about the Mamiya’s value to me.
My initial thoughts are, damn, I missed focus on some easy shots, and, secondly, these images look a bit flat. When it comes to the focus, that’s obviously on me. At some points, I focused to infinity thinking my subject was far enough away only to realize I misjudged the distance and was shooting with too wide an aperture to save me.
But as far as the optics go, that’s a bit more complicated. I don’t think it’s that the Mamiya lenses are poor performers, but more that I’m used to a different visual profile. I really favor Zeiss lenses because, to my perception, they produce contrastier, more saturated images—two characteristics I prefer in my own photography.
The Mamiya lenses I’ve used with the M645 seemed to have rendered tones more smoothly, which to my eyes looks flatter than I like. Colors are softer (compared to a Zeiss lens with the same film stock). I sense a bit of vignetting around the corners, but nothing egregious (and probably a positive as far as character goes). Mamiya claims these M645 lenses are “razor-sharp.” I’m not entirely positive this is the case when compared to newer lenses, though that’s probably to be expected.
I ended up shooting with the camera later in the summer at Montauk and then this winter in Massachusetts and I admittedly prefer the results of those outings better than my initial ones. For the later photos, I used Ektar rather than Portra, which likely contributed to my preference for them. With a bit of post-processing, I truly appreciate many of the images I’ve taken with the Mamiya 645. Overall, though, the lens qualities do not inspire me to reach for this camera over many of my other options.
Even so, the camera is undeniably feature packed with its double-exposure switch, mirror lock-up, DOF preview lever, shutter lock, timer, and flash-sync ports. As far as ease of use with a bounty of options, this is about as good as they come in medium format outside of far pricier options.
Though the camera doesn’t feature an interchangeable back (which, in my book, is a plus to save on size), the film compartment is super easy to open, the magazine is super easy to load, and the magazine effortlessly pops in and out of place.
The common 2.8/80 is essentially equivalent to a 1.7/50 on a 35mm negative (meaning the depth of field and the angle of view you’ll get with this lens on the Mamiya will be equivalent to using a 50mm f/1.7 lens on a typical 35mm camera). That’s a solid starter—fast and classic. With shutter speeds that go from 1/1000th of a second to a whopping 8 seconds and then bulb, you’ve got room for easy long exposures and night photography.
All in all and for the price, the Mamiya M645s represent one of the best first forays into medium format photography, especially for the photographer put-off by TLRs or zone-focusing cameras of yesteryear. In the Mamiya 645 1000S, you find a highly capable machine packaged into one of the best-looking exteriors anywhere.
But if you don’t end up buying a Mamiya 645 after reading this, at least go explore the crags or plains or fjords near you with the camera you already own.
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Well done Drew. A couple of tips from a guy that shot medium format commercially thru the 1990’s: Yes, MF requires a more deliberate approach than 35mm. Your perceived lack of sharpness may have multiple sources. Shooting MF demands good technique. For starters, a solid tripod should be used. Secondarily, using mirror-lockup helps. That big flippin’ mirror causes camera movement. And thirdly, keep in mind that although the 80mm has a comparable FOV to a “normal” focal length 50mm on 35mm, it’s still an 80mm. Meaning, you should probably not handhold it at less than 1/125 second.