Users of film cameras can often be charmed by the mystique and storied histories of their analogue machines. Tales of radioactive lens elements shaped by labcoat-wearing men from Wetzlar or Kyoto in between cigarette breaks have spawned dozens of lenses, cameras and systems which are now considered “legendary.” This means that abstract hype can often determine the value of a film camera as much as its functionality, build quality or any other tangible factor.
This is how a basic, plastic point and shoot which sold for pounds in the nineties now goes for hundreds in 2021. Conversely, the very top of the line SLRs from this very same era are nearly valueless today. Go figure.
History and myth-making have definitely been kind to the Plaubel Makina 67 and its siblings, the wide angle W67 and later 670 models. Despite being a bit of an oddity from a little known German-Japanese manufacturer, these medium format rangefinders command princely sums whenever and wherever they become available.
Titans of photography such as Araki Nobushi, and Martin Parr have used these cameras to achieve their artistic vision at some point in their careers. Notably, Tokyo Lucky Hole and The Last Resort, two of the respective artists’ most famous projects, were made with Makinas.
But when all is said and done, is it actually a good camera? Or is it just another case of the analogue hype train leaving the station for no apparent reason? In fact, it most certainly is good. In fact, I’d go as far as to give it the best compliment of all – the Plaubel Makina 67 is probably the most enjoyable camera that I have ever used. End of story.
Wait, let’s not end it there. Let me tell you just what it is that makes the Plaubel so enjoyable.
What is the Plaubel Makina 67?
The story of the Plaubel Makina 67 meanders through Frankfurt on the way to Japan. Founded in 1902, Plaubel & Co operated as a lens manufacturer and distributor for their first decade. By 1912, the company had expanded their operations into cameras, and produced the first Plaubel Makina in 1912. These cameras were advanced for their time. They were rangefinder-coupled press cameras which utilized interchangeable lenses with built-in leaf shutters.
Even back then, the Makina cameras used the distinctive ‘lazy tongs’ system, which allowed the bellows to collapse into the body of the camera, just like the more recent Makina 67.
The original Makina line continued all the way up to 1960, at which point the marque went quiet.
Kimio Doi, an entrepreneur who owned Doi Camera, a large camera retailer in Japan which had been operating since the 1930s, purchased the Plaubel brand in 1974 and commissioned the company to create a brand new version of the Makina. With a pocketbook stuffed with contacts from across the Japanese photographic industry, Doi set out to use the best Japanese technology to create an evolution of the German press camera. Whilst the new Makina’s design would have a strong German influence, its engineering and production was handled by Konica between 1979 and 1964.
Quality control issues were said to have hampered production so much in the early days, that the responsibility for the Makina 67 production was moved to Mamiya. Unfortunately, more than any other factor, this sealed the fate for the camera line. The updated models, the Makina 670 and the wide-angle Makina W67, were made at the Mamiya’s plant until 1986 amid the financial meltdown of Mamiya. After Mamiya’s bankruptcy, the production of the Makina would never restart.
Intriguingly, after Mamiya reconstituted, the first new camera it released was the New Mamiya 6, in 1989. As a medium format rangefinder with collapsible internal bellows, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the experience Mamiya gained with the Makina influenced the design and production of that camera line.
But that’s enough history, let’s get to the camera itself.
More than most cameras, you can learn a lot about the Plaubel Makina 67 simply by looking at it. With a design that is elegant to the point of simplicity, the Makina is operated with only a handful of external controls and knobs.
With its soap bar shape and smooth surfaces, the Makina looks a little bit like an oversized compact camera. And this is no coincidence. The camera has a slightly surprising connection to the Agfa Optima Sensor series, which you can learn more about here : Functionalist camera design, the Agfa 1035 and the Plaubel Makina 67.
It must be said that the camera doesn’t provide a particularly positive grip. All of its surfaces are completely smooth, and there is no ergonomic shaping on its right-hand side, which would have done wonders in terms of shoring up your handhold on the camera. This deficiency is amended in the later Makina 670 model, which has ridges running along the face of the camera. An accessory grip was also manufactured, but prices are scandalous. £400? Oh, please. Perhaps one day a hero will emerge with a schematic for a 3D-printed grip. Until then, just be wary.
The design is dominated by the lens unit. With its over-sized lens face and uncommon extending bellows mechanism, the camera yells “I’m an old camera” in almost as shrill a tone as a large format camera. Fortunately, I have found that this is something that you can often use to your advantage. In my native London, where people are often squeamish about having their pictures taken in public, I have found the camera to be remarkably disarming. People often approach me to inquire about the ‘antique’ machine, and then often indulge me with a photograph.
Because the camera is so clearly not a modern professional model, people correctly infer that I’m just an enthusiast, which puts them at ease. I’m sure Rolleiflex shooters experience something similar when in public.
A Perfectly Sized Package
The Makina 67 belies its large size and 1.3kg weight because of its ‘lazy tongs’ mechanism. The mechanism carries the lens unit, whilst also housing the bellows unit of the camera. The lazy tongs tie together the lineage of the Japanese Makinas to the older German models from the 1930s.
Tapping the little red button on the camera’s front panels allows the lens unit and bellows to collapse into the body. This protects the most delicate part of the camera from undue harm, but almost as crucially, it transforms the Makina into an incredibly portable package. Folded down, the profile of the camera is significantly thinner than a 35mm SLR, let alone the hulking medium format studio cameras that it shares its 6×7 image format with.
Despite every other YouTuber now lugging a Mamiya RB or RZ67 around with them for their daily walk to the shops, the reality is that most hobbyists prefer smaller cameras. I find that the Makina fits perfectly inside a 3L Peak Design Everyday Sling. The combo allows you to easily transport a 6×7 camera around on longer walks and trips with very little discomfort.
As a mechanical camera with very few bells and whistles, the diminutive size is very much a key feature of the Makina. More than any motor wind, auto exposure or timer, it’s a feature that has ensured I’ve used the camera more than any other throughout the year that I’ve owned it. I would have no qualms about taking it on a multi-day trip in a small shoulder bag.
And this is where the Makina really shines against its rivals. I would go as far as saying this is one of the key charms of the Makina. Unless you are using a Holga or similar toy cameras, medium format cameras offer superlative image quality when compared to 35mm cameras. Where they differ vastly is in their form factor. This, more than most other factors, will determine your enjoyment of a particular camera or system. With its svelte profile and controls which fall easily to hand, the Makina 67 passes the test in a big way.
So what’s it like to shoot?
Let’s get this out of the way straight away. The Plaubel Makina 67 is a rangefinder camera. That either means that you’ll love it or hate it. Lovers of rangefinders will praise the focusing system as quick, and love the fact that they can anticipate the entrance of their subjects into the composition. Naysayers will point out that parallax error makes it incredibly difficult to accurately compose the scene in the first place. And so on and so forth.
We won’t go into the virtues of these competing design philosophies in this article. That said, all but the most jaded of film shooters would enjoy shooting the Makina 67 for a simple reason: its operation is truly unique. No camera before or since has controls like it. If you’ve fallen into this strange alcove of analog camera subculture, the Makina wins on pure novelty value alone.
The Makina rewards methodical users with a tactile, pure experience. There is no automation to speak of, and the camera emits clicks and clacks in a distinctly mechanical fashion. Whilst many rangefinders combine their film advance levers with a shutter button, the Makina 67 goes a step further.
Film advance, shutter release and focus are all achieved using a dial on the top right of the camera. The focusing wheel surrounds an oversized shutter release button, and requires a relatively short 200 degree turn to go from infinity to the minimum focusing distance of one meter. The design is necessitated by the bellows unit of the camera. Unlike the Mamiya 7 (or virtually any other rangefinder for that matter), the Makina’s Nikkor lens does not have a barrel to grip and focus with. Although the design seems odd at first, it works very well in practice, and doesn’t take long to get used to. I actually find the Makina very liberating to shoot with, as you can focus, meter, shoot a frame and wind on to the next frame all with the camera to your eye.
That said, there are two pitfalls as a result of this design decision.
Firstly, the focus wheel on my Makina is one of the weakest parts of its design. In all their wisdom, the designers at Plaubel decided to use a hard plastic for the focusing wheel, which doesn’t have a great deal of grip. It’s no coincidence that the W67 and 670 cameras replaced this material with a rubberized grim subsequently.
This can be an annoyance though. Fine focus is critical when using an f2.8 lens on such a large 6×7 negative. The issue would not be as acute if it was easier to zone focus the camera. Sadly, this is also rather difficult on the Makina 67. There is a depth of field scale on the focusing wheel. However, it only indicates the hyper-focal distances for f/8 and f/22.
In reality there is precious little depth of field to spare in cameras like the Makina; having previously owned a Mamiya 7 and I was constantly annoyed at the overoptimistic depth-of-field indications on both the 80mm and 65mm lenses. But at least the information is there, so that you can just about zone focus. You don’t get even that with the Makina.
For shooters who require absolute critical depth-of-field and compositional calculations before they press the shutter, the Makina 67 is probably not for you. That said, if those are key considerations, rangefinders in general aren’t up for the task.
On the back of the Makina’s top plate, a short distance away from the focus/winding/shutter mechanism you’ll find a small button that activates the camera’s light meter. The positioning of the button is perfect. You can easily take a metering reference by activating the button with your thumb, before adjusting the focus with your same hand.
I have found the gallium photo diode meter to be pretty accurate for a camera that was new in the late 1970s. One of the specifications of the designers was that professionals should be able to meter accurately when using slide film with the camera, and they appear to have succeeded. The metering zone is easy to predict, because it perfectly corresponds to the rangefinder patch at the center of the viewfinder. This means that you have a spot meter of sorts. For this reason, it’s easy enough to find a meter reading in the shadows to make sure you achieve a good exposure on color negative film which tends to benefit from slight over-exposure. Likewise, it’s easy to use the zone system with black and white film or slide film to protect yourself from blowing out highlights
Within the viewfinder, you’ll either see a green central circle for accurate exposure, or red + and – signs. These will light alongside the green circle if you are over or under exposure by ⅓ of a stop.
Metering is helped by the exposure controls on the front of the camera. The lens is surrounded by two large concentric tabs, one for shutter speeds and one for aperture. These tabs operate the bespoke Copal #0 shutter that controls the exposure of the Nikkor lens. Because the aperture is step-less, you can dial in exposure very accurately. Simply set your desired shutter speed and then dial in the aperture until the meter indicates that your exposure is correct. You can then adjust the settings as necessary, to balance depth of field and exposure time to suit your artistic preference.
The best thing about this system is that it’s fairly discreet. You could easily opt to leave the battery out and use the Makina totally meter-less. Your reward would be a large, bright viewfinder with no distractions whatsoever. It’s a thing of beauty.
Many Makina 67 users use their cameras like this, not out of choice, but necessity. Sadly, the meter is one of the bigger weaknesses of the three cameras. A series of intricate wires gets stretched every time that you extend the lens to its shooting position. Over time, this causes many of the meters inside many of these cameras to fade out. It’s not unlike the cables that connect the lenses of compact cameras to their circuit boards, which over the next five years will increasingly break the hearts of their proud owners. Fortunately for Makina users, the light meter is not linked to exposure in any way, so it will continue to take photos long after the meter stops doing its job.
Unlike many of the most popular rangefinder cameras and medium format systemns, the Plaubel Makina 67 has a fixed lens – a lovely 80mm f/2.8 Nikkor.
Famously, Yasuo Uchida, chief designer for the project who led on the Makina project, wanted the camera to have a Konica lens. Kimio Doi, the new owner of Plaubel and the man writing the checks, had already commissioned Nikon to design the bespoke optic to form the centerpiece of the camera. Tests were done with a prototype unit and the debate ended there and then.
The Nikkor lens fitted to the Makina is truly fantastic. The way that the lens renders scenes is beautiful. The 80mm lens represents Nikon’s last entry into the medium format game. Which is a shame, because clearly they didn’t have any problem translating their 35mm and large format know-how to this format.
The image format and focal length leads to a perspective that is slightly wider than normal which lends itself well to both storytelling and situational portraiture. Combined with the small footprint of the camera, this means that the Makina is a very enjoyable walk-around and travel machine. In 35mm terms, the 80mm f/2.8 equates to a rough 40mm f/1.4 equivalent, in terms of focal length and depth of field.
Although f/2.8 sounds pedestrian in 2021 when Leica and Nikkor and new, Chinese lens makers sell f/0.95 lenses, you have to remember that this camera shoots ten 6×7 medium format negatives. That is a full stop faster than the Mamiya 7 which was released decades after the Plaubel. Wide open, you’re working with a focal length that is effectively a 40mm f/1.4 equivalent. This is more than enough to totally blur out your subject at short and medium distances. Even at narrower apertures, f/4 down to even f/8, you can achieve the significant subject separation.
Ongoing social distancing rules in Britain mean that I haven’t been able to take as many portraits as I would like to. The quick snap of my brother, published below this paragraph, highlights the beautiful rendering of the lens, and what it’s capable of at wider apertures. To my eye at least, the lens resolves plenty of fine detail whilst being gentle with skin imperfections. I can’t wait for the summer so that I can try the camera with some slide film.
The above photo of some boats in Finsbury Park was taken at f/8. You can see that the boats fall gently out of focus, highlighting well how little depth of field is available in medium format cameras. In terms of out of focus areas, the lens has a beautifully smooth rendering. Backgrounds fall away with little fuss, and you’ll rarely see busy bokeh, or double lines. Colours seem vivid and slightly warm, even considering the drab weather that we’ve had in London over these past few months. Of course, your choice of film will have more of an impact on these factors.
By f/16 the camera can provide near-to-far depth-of-field, and I haven’t tended to use the camera at its minimum aperture of f/22, which is where the sharpness will undoubtedly be limited by diffraction.
Whilst the Makina is undoubtedly well-made and solid, it certainly isn’t infallible. There are dozens of mothballed photography forums that allude to the Makina’s mechanical frailties. The bottom line is, with careful use the Makina should go on and on for years. That said, a single slip of the finger could easily land you with an expensive repair bill.
Bellows are delicate. Ask any large format photographer. It would not take a lot of effort to open pinholes in the bellows, which would lead to infuriating light leaks across your negatives. Considering the cost of 120 film (RIP Pro400H by the way), light leaks are the last thing that you want to see when the negatives emerge from your development tank. Sadly, this isn’t the only concern.
As I said above, the light meters are known to fail over time. This is more of an annoyance than a major issue, because the camera is fully manual, and could even be said to suit the purist meter-less approach quite well.
The fragility of the film winder is much more worrying. Even when operated slowly and gently, the Makina’s winder does not fill me with confidence, especially as you approach the end of the roll.
Repairers still work on the camera, even if they don’t enjoy doing the work. When I bought the camera, the repairman beguiled me with the tale of woe involved with servicing these unique rangefinders. Apparently, even routine operations such as replacing the light seals requires a partial disassembly of the camera. As such, repairs are not cheap, so it’s best to treat the camera with the reverence that any 40 year-old mechanical tool would demand.
Caring for your Makina 67
It would be easy to come away from this review assuming that the Plaubel Makina 67 and its siblings are expensive repair bills waiting to happen. But that doesn’t need to be the case. A few mental notes will help you to significantly prolong the life of the camera by avoiding unnecessary wear to the mechanical parts.
Firstly, the focus. When you close the camera’s lazy tongs, make sure that the focus is set to infinity. Why? Because it’s the focusing position where the tongs are at their minimum extension. This means that when you close them away, the tongs endure significantly less strain than they would if the camera is closed at its minimum focus distance of one meter. There is a secondary benefit. If you begin with your focus at infinity, you will only ever focus the camera in one direction, which should help you avoid hunting back and forth for the correct focus.
Next, the winding mechanism. This is a known weak point of the original Plaubel Makina 67. In fact, for the final model, the Makina 670, the mechanism was changed to a double stroke, to reduce the strain with each wind on. The key thing to remember here is that it’s not a Leica M. Wind it slowly in a smooth motion, or you can ratched it gently each time. Don’t pull it back for max extension and then let it go. Guide the lever back with your thumb.
When loading film into the camera, place a finger on the roll as you wind it onto the empty reel to maintain tension. This should ensure that the camera doesn’t struggle with those final shots on the roll.
The bellows are well-made, but delicate. Keep your hands off of them at all costs. Once you extend the lens unit out, you can use your left hand to stabilize the camera, either by resting it on the base plate, or the bottom of the lens unit itself. This second option allows you to easily manipulate the aperture and shutter speed tabs on the lens to achieve the correct exposure. This technique also alleviates the desire to grip the lens like you would on other rangefinders.
Return the focus to infinity and close the camera up when you’ve finished taking each shot. This will protect the bellows from the elements, and your own cack-handedness, if you’re anything like me.
Following these simple tips should keep your camera shooting for many years.
Value is in the wallet of the beholder. And whilst it’s hard to call a £2,000 film camera ‘good value,’ hear me out for a second.
If you’re searching for an analogue rangefinder, you are already fishing in a small pond. And if you’ve found your way to this page, you have undoubtedly heard of some of the Makina 67’s rivals. Here’s why the Makina out-competes its competitors.
Firstly, let’s tackle the evergreen Leica M6 – you may have heard of it. If not, it’s a mechanical rangefinder with a light meter. Sound familiar? Two years ago, the Makina 67 was orders of magnitude more expensive than an M6, but in 2021, that is no longer the case. In Britain, £2,000 is unlikely to even get you an M6 body anymore. That’s before you even look at picking up a lens. If you decide to go for a Leica lens, that’s another £500 at very least. For this money, you could get a Makina with its superlative lens, beautiful build quality and medium format negatives and still have enough change to buy dozens of rolls of 120 film to go along with it.
And let’s be clear, no 35mm lens is going to outperform a medium format lens such as the Makina’s Nikkor. Even its medium format rival, the Mamiya 7, is more expensive, the newer 7ii significantly so. These are nice cameras, but totally battery-dependent. Build quality wise, they do not feel as if they will last the test of time to the same extent that the Makina will.
‘An Opto-Mechanical Masterpiece’
Expensive and delicate, it’s easy to feel nervous about investing in a Plaubel Makina 67. And yet, I can’t think of any camera that I enjoy shooting more. Period. Whether that is enough to warrant such an investment is something that will vary from person-to-person.
Its no-frills functionality and novel design language meld together to create a camera that demands use. The fact that it can fit into a small bag without issue only adds to these demands. If you are shooting professionally, the long minimum focus distance and compositional disadvantages inherent with rangefinder cameras may be an issue. But for a hobbyist or traveler who is looking to simply shoot for the fun of the process, the Plaubel Makina 67 stands tall against its competitors, without a shadow of a doubt.
While its frailties mean that it cannot be the ‘opto-mechanical masterpiece’ that its brochure claims, for me at least, it comes pretty damn close.
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