I’ve been a big fan of Ethan Moses’ work for a while. If you’re not familiar, he’s the design wizard behind Cameradactyl, makers of fine 3D printed grips and frankencamera bodies. He also built an insane 20×24 instant camera system. Who am I kidding, if you’re reading this, you’re probably well familiar with him. While I’ve enjoyed his work from afar, I’d never plunked down any of my hard earned cash for his wares.
But in 2022, I made a bit of a promise to myself to only buy new cameras, or at least cameras where my money is going to someone involved in their manufacturing. So when I saw the In An Instant video hyping the Cameradactyl Rex, it seemed like the perfect time to take the plunge.
As a really quick overview, the Cameradactyl Rex is a camera body that takes Mamiya Press lenses, able to shoot directly onto Instax Wide film with the Lomograflock without the cumbersome focusing shim, as well as 120 film with a Mamiya RB back. So you could use Instax to proof your film shot and not have to refocus.
This is not a full review of the Cameradactyl Rex system. I haven’t had enough time or run enough film through it to really be able to review it. But I’ve already learned quite a bit about it. It’s an intriguing system, so if you’re interested in learning from my initial fumbles with it, here they are.
It’s not an idiot-proof system
This might not come as a surprise. Mamiya medium format cameras are generally geared at professionals, and couldn’t care less about people who don’t bother to read the flipping manual. As a simple enthusiast using a whole new camera system, I should have been prepared to be humbled. I added to the challenge by using a Mamiya 100mm f3.5 lens straight from eBay, unsure if it worked or what condition the glass was really in. My first shot was… let’s say, underwhelming.
How did I bungle focusing to infinity on my first shot, the biggest gimme in all of zone focusing? Was the lens at fault, was the Rex not designed for this lens and I missed the memo in the product listing? The answer was user error. It turns out that the 100mm f3.5 is a retracting lens, something indicated by a cryptic “Normal” sticker with a diagram of how to extend the lens. A panicked Instagram DM to Ethan later, I had the lens extended and was able to get the rather pedestrian test shot in focus.
You can use it inside without a flash
When I first committed to getting the Rex, I wasn’t sure how versatile it would be. The Lomograflock is a great 4×5 accessory, but having a camera bound to a tripod means I would realistically only ever use it on dedicated photographic excursions. The Rex held the promise of using it handheld.
When it arrived, I was a bit snowed in by a recent storm, so if I wanted to play with it, I had to take a lot of shots indoors. Mamiya Press lenses top out at f2.8, but since I didn’t want to spend upwards of $500 on a lens, I settled for the much cheaper aforementioned 100mm f3.5. To my surprise, I was often able to take shots inside with reasonable shutter speeds. A lot of this has to do with Instax’s 800 ISO. Wide open I was able to shoot at 1/60 with decent window light. With quiet leaf shutters, that’s pretty manageable without hand shake becoming an issue.
Framing takes some practice
While the Rex comes with a ground glass to let you focus your shots, when you’re using it handheld, realistically you need a viewfinder. Ethan helpfully made ones for the common standard lenses in the Press system, even providing an adorable drawing of how to use it (by the way, the entire Rex manual is hand written and worth the price of the camera by itself). Even still, you need to get a feel for how to properly frame the camera. Plan on your first two packs of film to have some miscues. I found it most challenging using the camera vertically. And without parallax compensation, shots within five feet or so mean you have to guess a bit.
I ended up getting a different lens after using the 100mm for a while, and it came with one of Mamiya’s viewfinders. It’s a fantastically solid piece of kit, with manual parallax compensation. Even still, it also requires a bit of an adjustment, since the Instax negative is about 6×10 versus the 6×9 frame lines.
Focus at your own risk
My current favorite 35mm camera is the Rollei 35. I’ve never had a camera that gives me pure joy every time I hold it up to my eye. It’s a zone focus 40mm f3.5 lens, and while I generally only consider shooting it at f8 and up, I’ve become really comfortable at estimating distances and have more keepers than I thought when I first got it.
While the 100mm lens has about a 40mm equivalent field of view, it’s a very different beast to focus. I knew this going in, and figured I’d have to be more rigorous than the person-people-mountain focusing I can pull off on the Rollei. I used my iPhone’s Measure app to get a distance, dialed it in on the lens and basically front-focused every time.
Even backing up when things get more merciful and stopping down to f5.6, I was still just missing.
Now I know this is not the ideal use case right. I’m sure I’d have a much better hit rate outside stopping down to f16. But I live in northeast Ohio, so about a third of the year we’re inside, and that’s where I wanted to test it. In the end, I was having some shutter issues with the 100mm lens, so I opted to return it and get the 75mm f5.6. While it makes it a little less applicable inside (only enough windows light on sunny days to really use it), the difference is night and day.
It’s not a handheld portrait system
The Rex has many wonderful strengths, but handheld portraits are not among them. The focusing issue I mentioned above contributes, although with a flash you could comfortably shoot stopped down and it wouldn’t be too bad. But the bigger issue are the designs of the Press lenses themselves. There’s a reason most of the other Mamiya system cameras use bellows, they let you get really freaking close. I used to own a Mamiya C33 and that thing could do near macro. The Press lenses, though, were designed for a rangefinder system. As such, the closest focus you get is about 1 meter. On the 100mm that’s good for about 1:10 reproduction, in my view the best choice for portraits. The 127mm will give you more compression, but you can only focus at 1.5 meters. Here is the 100mm at minimum focusing distance.
So head shots are out of the question. You definitely can do portraits with this camera, but I’d use a tripod and the ground glass for it. While I haven’t had a chance to use it as such, I’m really looking forward to testing the 75mm for environmental portraits, since it has a wide 30mm equivalent field of view, but can still pull off some nice compression. It’s not the Rex’s fault these lenses weren’t designed for close focus, but compared to something like the SX-70, or the Mint RF-70 for a more direct comparison, it loses out on a bit of the fun factor.
Everyone will ask why the picture is upside down
People are used to instant photos that have the chemical pouch on the bottom of an image. I’m sorry, you’re going to have to explain this is just how the camera works. You’ll get used to it.
The Rex finally lets Instax Wide sing
I’ve listed more than a few caveats about the Rex here, but let me be clear, it’s an amazingly fun camera. Instax can soak up all the detail these Mamiya lenses throw at it.
While you have to operate with very limited dynamic range, Instax colors make it worth getting it right. Blues lean into the cerulean hues to make them extra dramatic. Reds have a little extra saturation to make them pop, it’s just a great contrasty look. Underexposed skin tones can go a little green, but then if you’re missing exposure by over a stop, they’ll probably go to black anyway. And unlike volatile, if beautiful, Polaroid chemistry, Instax is stable enough that you don’t have to baby it. While you have to learn how to get the most out of the Rex, the stability of Instax film means you’re at least dealing with one less variable. I can’t tell you how many SX-70 shots have had me questioning whether they were metered poorly by the camera or were exposed by 0.5 seconds too long.
For all these reasons, I feel like I’m still getting to know the Rex as a camera and figuring out how exactly I want to use it. I used it only once on a tripod, so I need to explore its capabilities there. Heck I’ve only used it outside twice due to snow storms striking exactly when I get a free moment. I’ve also not shot any 120 film with it, so I think more than a few rolls of Acros are in the Rex’s future. None of the things I’ve learned in these first few packs of films has diminished my excitement for the camera, or for the ingenuity it took to make it. After I really run it through it’s paces, I can’t wait to put together a full review.
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