I’ve been using cameras for half my life and I felt like I knew my way around any basic system, until I discovered medium format. The upgrade in resolution was an entirely new beast I was eager to tackle. I scoured the internet to decide on what I should use as my first medium format system. I ended up choosing the Mamiya M645. Not only was 6×4.5cm regarded as the most welcoming format in the world of 120 film, but the Mamiya M645 was cited often as the most welcoming entry-level 6×4.5 camera. And now I’ve been shooting it for over a year.
Hunting for the new camera was like being a kid in a candy store, except it was eBay on my computer in my house during quarantine. I scrolled for hours on end to buy the parts to the system individually, since I knew it would be cheaper this way. I ended up spending a small sum of $250. This got me the camera’s body, a 55mm F/2.8, a 150mm F/4, and a 120 film back. I was ready to “rumble,” as all of the cool photographers say.
I went on to use this camera to document two of the most pivotal moments in my “coming of age” years. It’s become a sentimental piece at this point. That’s not to say that there is bias behind my views on this beast, it just means that the camera will likely be by my side for many more years.
When I first encountered the camera in person, I was awestruck. Maybe because I’ve only held small SLRs before; but, the sheer size of this monster was daunting. It dominated my other systems by its sheer size. The leather on the outside was peeling a bit, but for $250 this was nothing that a little glue couldn’t fix.
Mamiya made a lot of 645 medium format cameras over the years. My particular model is the M645. Although the differences between this camera and those like the M645 Super, Pro, Pro TL, and 1000S are subtle, there are definitely differences. To start, this body is almost completely manual. It does require a PX28L battery, or its current equivalent, a 28L 6-Volt battery, to power its shutter. Without any battery, the shutter defaults to 1/60th of a second. With the battery, you can shoot anywhere between 8 seconds and 1/500th of a second, along with a bulb mode. The camera also offers a convenient battery check light to make sure you’re not over exposing all the photos you think are going to be at 1/500. Trust me, it’s useful. Compared to other models, this body is a little slower. Perhaps Mamiya’s excuse could be that it’s the first of the lineup, which is fair. Other, newer, M645 models finish their shutter choices at 1/1000.
Once I had all of the pieces and the camera was ready to fire, I went out to buy and load a roll of Kodak Portra 160.
And the pictures turned out awful.
At this point, I only had the 150mm lens by my side. It was slow and bulky. Not only did it tire me out on a photo walk; but I felt that even during blue hour, the F/4 lens just couldn’t handle the light. It was a slow lens. The pictures were either blurry from the seismic slap of the mirror, or under-exposed because I didn’t have enough light. Once I was able to get used to a system that held that much power and size, my medium format pictures underwent a much-needed upgrade compared to round one.
Once I got used to the mirror slap, I felt comfortable enough to not use a crutch, like a tripod, without feeling helpless without it. Of course, by the time that rolled around I learned of the camera’s mirror lock feature. A simple switch on the side of the camera slapped up the mirror before the film was exposed to light to ensure there was no shake, no motion blur, when taking the photo. I was annoyed, but, I was happy to have the feature included. I’m quite happy it’s a flip of a switch as opposed to a button. It’s in a spot that my hand runs into all of the time when taking photos. If I were to accidentally flip up the mirror in between shots, there goes my accessible viewfinder until I take the next shot. So, the agency behind the switch makes me grateful for finding this system as a beginner in medium format photography.
Spending more time with the camera, I grew accustomed to the fun features I wasn’t as familiar with coming from 35mm SLRs. For one thing, loading the film was entirely new. I had to put the camera down, remove the 120 backing, roll the light proof paper around and feed it through the “take-up spool” teeth. It was new, but exciting. As every photographer can agree, trying something new results in a lot of crap work. But those small moments of success are really what the art is about. Welcome to film photography.
Around the time of getting used to this camera, COVID-19 steadily became a greater threat. Throughout the summer of 2020, I had nothing but time: stuck inside, confined to my house, scared of the virus. So, I was able to put an astronomical number of rolls through the Mamiya. I would strap a mask on and walk around my neighborhood, trying different compositions at three times the resolution than I was used to with a 35mm camera.
I truly became accustomed to this camera when it was my companion on a road trip around New England. After taking COVID safety measures, two of my friends and I planned a route to hit New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont while doing online school. It was one of the most unique experiences of my life. We slept in tents, random airbnbs, and motels too expensive for their own good (when we were desperate).
This camera subsequently summited Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the Northeast, on my back. The camera is extremely heavy. It made our hitchhiking, regular hiking, and all around shenanigans more difficult than they could have been. I captured some of my most colorfully gorgeous, compositionally eloquent work yet. The upgraded resolution allowed me to see in a way that I would’ve never been able to with the dingy rangefinder I was also carrying with me. I shot through more than ten rolls on that trip, truly feeling bonded with the system. And now I have a crisp 11×17 of my own work hanging on my wall.
I carried with me the 55mm lens, equivalent to a 35mm lens on a 35mm system when compared to a 645 system. Its largest F-stop was F/2.8, which was unfortunate (though not as unfortunate as the F/4) when the sun started to set. But I realized during travel that you choose your battles. On my system, I had an eye level viewfinder. Mamiya also offers a waist level viewfinder, but my brain wasn’t prepared for the directional inversion that came with its lefts and rights. My eye-level viewfinder was a gem. Unfortunately, there was no light meter. I learned that was pretty common, especially when looking for a cheaper option, in viewfinders with this camera, although viewfinders with built-in lightmeters are available. I learned with medium format that the viewfinder is so much more pleasant to look through than a 35mm. It’s sharper and easier to focus. It feels like Christmas for my eyes each time I switch systems. To wrap up the conversation of added pieces that are needed for this camera along with the body, I must speak about my irritations.
The fact that to load this camera with a roll of 120 film you need to detach the “film-back,” is unbelievably irritating. Imagine this: you’re hiking, harnessing your inner Ansel Adams and you suddenly shoot your 15th shot (only with 645 shooters, sorry 6×7). Now, you must sit down, open the film door, take out the film back, unload your film, load a new roll, and put it back in. With other systems like the Pentax 67 or Mamiya c330, loading is a breeze: a simple pop of the film door and a stretch of the film, just like most 35mm cameras. With this Mamiya, it had a vendetta against the impatient. On top of all of this, I could complain about the poor design of camera strap holders, but that seems like a battle that could only be won in the ’70s.
The M645 does have a multiple exposure feature. There is a neat little knob on the side that isn’t the easiest to turn, preventing any accidental multi-exposures, something I dealt with in the past in many different cameras. No one likes wasted exposures. On the same side is the latch that will bring the mirror up, mentioned earlier, along with the film advance crank.
My biggest gripe with the Mamiya M645 is the poor placement of its shutter buttons. The system has two separate shutter buttons, one on the bottom right of the lens mount, and one on top of the body next to the viewfinder. They’re basic shutter buttons: you press it, it fires. Simple.
However, since I always seem to forget there are two, I accidentally expose a negative while walking to my next composition. There is seemingly no safe and comfortable way to hold the camera without entering the danger zone of a wasted exposure. That zone is, truly, a scary place. I’ve learned to sacrifice my hands’ comfort for the safety of one of my extremely limited exposures. Ah, the joys of medium format.
That complaint lodged, I do appreciate that the camera has a shutter lock. This comes in handy when a relative wants to see the beast at Thanksgiving, or photographer friends ask to inspect it when looking to upgrade. Regardless of scenario, a quick turn of the front shutter button will lock both buttons, perfect for travel, whether camera in hand or in a bag.
The camera most recently accompanied me on an annual vacation which I take with my hometown friends. Along with the earlier road trip through New England during which I first bonded with the Mamiya, having the camera for this latest trip was, in hindsight, something for which I’m super grateful.
At this point, I’d been using the Mamiya for over a year. During this trip my camera shot through five rolls of medium format film. I flitted from Ektar, to Portra, to Cinestill, and shot my camera at every peak, tree, or lake that I thought was interesting. It had been a year since I summited Mount Washington with the Mamiya for the first time, but adventure called and we made our way back to that same forest. We explored reservoirs, hikes, local restaurants, and shops. Finally we summited Killington Peak, one of the most challenging hikes I’ve ever gone on, with this five pounds of camera on my back. My closest companions and I watched the Vermont sunset in an abandoned fire watch tower. There we sat, with only one exposure left. I shot it when I thought the time was right. In a way, I was grateful I was able to put the camera down and digest the sunset. But I’m also ecstatic that this beautiful camera that I’ve come to know was able to lay its lens on the breathtaking view at least once.
Overall, the Mamiya M645 is an incredible camera. Rarely have I had any problems with it. It offers a similar aspect ratio to a 35mm camera, but with a bigger negative, making it truly the perfect non-threatening system for someone looking to upgrade from the smaller film format.
It has its quirks, like every camera has, and although these will take some getting used to, some of my proudest images have been made with this camera. And while I do think I’m almost ready to graduate from 645 (maybe to square format or 6×7), for now, I’m more than happy with this system. To more adventures with my Mamiya, seeking New England sunsets.
Buy your own medium format camera on eBay here!
Looking for your own first medium format camera? See James’ list of the best beginner models here!
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Welcome to medium format! I shoot mostly 35mm with my Contax 139Q which I love, and I also shoot medium format with my Mamiya RZ67. I can shoot either 6 x 7 or 6 x 4.5 by changing the back of the camera, so it is a two for one! The process, and the images are different, even when I shoot the same scene, with the same film, exposed identically. Different image entirely! And some of my favourite images have come from that camera!