Classic Cameras: Mamiya 645 Pro

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Over the years, I’ve dabbled with many cameras and many film formats. I’ve used pretty much everything from 8 x 10" view cameras to half-frame 35mm cameras and ended up settling on 6 x 7 for the majority of my work. Somehow, though, after all of this time, I managed to skip the 645 format entirely. I didn’t do this intentionally; it just never seemed to fall into place. The cameras and lenses are larger than those for 35mm, but the film format is smaller than 6 x 7. It’s either a happy medium or an awkward compromise, depending on how you look at it. Recently, I became hooked on the idea of working with longer, telephoto lenses while shooting handheld, and also working with closer subjects and tighter compositions. I knew I didn’t want to drop down in format to 35mm—I wanted to keep a more square aspect ratio than 3:2, and knew I wanted to continue using 120 film… but I was also very wary of working with the huge telephotos made for Mamiya’s 6 x 7 systems. Enter the Mamiya 645 Pro.

Angeles National Foreset

I’d known of Mamiya’s extensive 645 system for a long time, and admit to being curious about working with it for a while, but for some reason or another I never felt the urge to incorporate yet another film format into my workflow. After getting this desire to change up some lens choices, it seemed like the perfect time to try something new altogether. Long story short: I acquired a Mamiya 645 Pro body, along with the FK402 AE prism finder, a couple of backs, the C 110mm f/2.8 N lens, the C 300mm f/5.6 N lens, and a 2x teleconverter. It’s a bit of a unique starter setup, but that’s one of the pluses of working with such a wide-ranging and readily available system—you don’t need to start with the basics.

Stairs and Hedge

For the purposes of this review, I want to focus on the camera body, backs, and viewfinder, but before completely ignoring the two really wonderful lenses, it’s worth re-emphasizing that they are the reason I now own this camera system. I’ve written a couple of times about why I love the Mamiya 7 II so much, as well as the Mamiya RB67, but one thing I couldn’t do easily with either of these cameras is photograph something far away with a long lens from a handheld position. The Mamiya 7 II and its rangefinder design simply isn’t suited for that kind of shooting, and the RB67 is heavy enough with the standard 90mm lens, let alone the 500mm f/6 lens that weighs more than 5 lb itself. And the same situation is true for close-up shooting; rangefinders aren’t ideal for nearby subjects and the RB67 is still heavy and big. The Mamiya 645 addresses both of these problems by being much smaller than an RB67 and, since it’s an SLR, it’s better for close-up and faraway shooting, compared to a rangefinder. For these reasons, I managed to talk myself into investing in the system.

Cacti

Like most medium format film cameras, the 645 Pro is a modular system camera. At its core, it’s a lens, body, back, and viewfinder of some kind, but you have a huge choice of lenses, seven different viewfinder choices, five different focusing screen choices, a series of different backs, and then you can further trick out your camera with various grips or winders, depending on your handling and shooting needs, as well as various bellows, tubes, and even different cable release types.

Burnt Stump

My initial impression working with this new-to-me camera was how small it was. A very relative term, meant in comparison to 6 x 7 cameras but, even when compared to larger digital cameras, the Mamiya 645 isn’t too big of an object. It has a more distinct box shape and is far less ergonomic than your average DSLR or mirrorless camera of today, but it’s not unmanageable. The main frustration I have with it, though, is the lack of an integrated grip. Even though I praise the modular design, the camera is fairly uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time, and this is due to its shape rather than the weight. One of the reasons I struggle to handhold the camera is due to my preference for shooting in the vertical orientation—when shooting horizontally, the issue is less prevalent. There are accessory grips that can be added, but they bring bulk to the whole camera setup, as well as the need for additional batteries to power the motorized winder, which are things I don’t want to worry about. Ergonomics aside, the smaller size leads to more portability, which was a treat when traveling with this camera. The boxier shape also makes it easier to pack than typical T-shaped camera systems.

Balcony and Mop

In terms of operation, the camera is just about as straightforward as any film camera from this era could be. Shutter speeds range from 4 seconds to 1/1000-second and there are A and AEL modes for easier aperture-priority shooting. With the FK402 AE prism I picked up, the selected shutter speed isn’t displayed; just a green light to indicate it’s safe to handhold, or a red downward arrow to indicate the shutter speed may cause camera shake. The FK401 prism, on the other hand, has more sophisticated metering and a more intuitive display, but I liked the lighter-weight design of the FK402, along with its built-in diopter. Besides the shutter speed dial, the camera body itself really only also offers a multiple exposure switch, mirror up switch, battery check button, hot shoe on the side, and the shutter release button, with a self timer position, as controls. The film speed is set on the film back, which makes it a simpler process when switching between backs of different film speeds.

Angeles National Forest

As a complete package, I wish I could say something along the lines of being surprised at how much I enjoy using this camera but, honestly, it’s not a surprise to me. I’ve long been a fan of Mamiya and the 645 Pro is no exception. I love that, like the Mamiya 7 II, the 645 Pro is a viable option for handheld, travel-oriented shooting. I trust the metering performance enough, and the total size and weight of the camera is practical for bringing along for day outings with just a tote bag or small camera bag. I also love that, like the RB67, the 645 Pro is a precise and wide-ranging system with a huge array of available lenses and accessories to personalize it for the type of shooting I like to do. Compared to the 6 x 7 cameras, though, the 645 Pro is a happy medium and something I can see using in instances where size and weight is limited but precision is still required. I do miss the larger 6 x 7 negative, but it doesn’t feel as dramatic a difference as moving from 35mm to medium format. I’m happy to have moved into the 645-film format with such ease; I love the intuitive features of the Mamiya 645 Pro, but also enjoy the distinctions that make it a solid alternative to many other medium format cameras out there.

Joshua Tree National Park

Have you ever worked with a Mamiya 645 Pro? Or another 645 camera? What are your thoughts on this smallest of the medium format formats? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section.

19 Comments

I used Mamiya 645 pro long time ago. Recently I am tired of the digital cameras and wanted to go back. But where to have my films developed, E6 kind? Do you have any suggestion? Thanks.

Hi Allen- it depends a bit on where you live and if there are still professional labs around. Here, in New York City, we have pretty easy access to a variety of labs to drop of E-6 of nearly any format and have the film back the same day. I believe the same is true or similar in most major cities in the USA, but outside of cities you'll want to mail your film to a lab. One option B&H has is a prepaid mailer: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/18646-REG/Fujifilm_Slide_Processing_Mailer_for.html . You'll need one for each roll you shoot, but it's as simple as dropping your exposed roll in the mail and getting your processed film sent back.

I owned a photo studio from the 1973 to the late 90s, my studio camera was a Hasselblad and field cameras were Mamiya Universal (6x7), well the Hasselblad was turning into Hassle Blah with too many repairs, so my studio camera became a RB67 what a fantastic camera. Beatie made a motorized 70mm back for it and I still have the entire setup. Then I went to the Mamiya 645 system for location shooting and yes the modular setup is fantastic, I even had the 35mm back because I took it on vacations. Stroboframe made a handgrip for it with vertical flip, that coupled with the flash attachment made for a beautiful setup, and I did build muscle carrying that around. There is some lovely quality to the Mamiya lenses that is hard to describe, the clarity and the honest expression those lenses allowed me. Thanks for the memories.

Thanks for the comments, Cabbar. I think you're right about the lenses, and I think that's really what's drawn me to Mamiya for so long regardless of the system I'm using.

I had a Mamiya 645 pro TL for a few years. It was a very solid camera, easy to use and reliable. I've considered re-buying it multiple times for the quality and form factor. But my Mamiya 7 was always a better camera, so I sold the 645 to invest in a full Mamiya 7 lens package. ALSO - I'm sorry if I offend, but I'm not terribly impressed with the photography showcased here, I don't think these do the camera justice. I seriously wish you had showcased some portraits and color film in this review...

Thanks for the comment, Dalton. I know the feeling of debating between the 7 and 645, and couldn't resist having both in the end. I'm not sure how portraits or color film would reflect differently on the camera itself, but no offense taken. I'm not the most avid portrait photographer, but for color film I did recently review the new Kodachrome film and shot with my Mamiya 7: https://bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/hands-on-review/film-review-kodak-120-ektachrome-e100-slide-film

And by "new Kodachrome" I meant to say "new Ektachrome." I must have been daydreaming of a re-release of Kodachrome for a moment.

The Mamiya 645 is one of my bucket list cameras, besides the RZ67. In July 2013, I bought one of my bucket list cameras, the Canon New F-1.

Thanks, Ralph. I think you'll fine the Mamiya 645 as being a perfect compromise between the two extremes of a manual 35mm system and a massive 6 x 7 SLR. It's definitely a fun format to try.

Wow, does that bring back memories.  My best( High School) friend's father was a professional photographer on the weekends and from 9 to 5 on the weekdays was a custom printer for a Color Lab in Staten Island.  We used to assist him at weddings and this was the camera he used, with a Rolleiflex TLR as a backup.  Man, the enlargements you could make without graininess were incredible.  My friend and I received a fabulous photographic education from his father (God rest his soul).

Needless to say, I've always wanted one, but, as a high schooler back in the early 70's could never afford one.  Even today, A medium format camera, like the Hasselblad, eludes me due to the $$$.  Be that as it may, thank you for taking me back to a great time in my life.

I'm happy to have stirred some nostalgia, Joseph. I know what you mean about the system being pricy, but, relatively of course, the value of the Mamiya 645 today is one of the main points that drew my attention. Compared to buying a digital camera of any quality, you could get a Mamiya 645 with two lenses for the same or less. It all depends on your budget for film in the end, though.

Nice article. Very interesting to read a 'review' in present tense of a system that dates back 40 years or so.  I had a couple 645s that I used primarily for weddings and portraits, but really came to like them in the field.  I like the style of work that larger formats and 'slower' cameras encourage, and the quality was excellent.  I remember going to a Mamiya presentation where the rep was showing slides via a 6x4.5 projector and it was breathtaking.  I wish I kept at least one, but then again perhaps I'd have less patience with film now.  

I agree, Jim. I'm happy with the 645 as being an in-between camera for now. I wish I got to experience a 645 slide projector, though. I remember seeing a 6 x 7 slide presentation in college once, but it would have been great to have had more access to these larger format projectors to look at my own work.

I used to own RZ67 and it was my favorite camera. I had to sell it, because I was planning to move to another country and couldn't take such a big camera with me. I decided to change it to Fuji 645, but I never get attached to that camera. A year ago I got Mamiya 645 and I think it's my favorite camera now. I still love the quality of RZ and design of the camera itself more, but 645 pro offers such a good compromise in terms of image quality and size of the camera. I can always find space for it in my luggage. I would like to try Contex 645 one day, but it's too expensive to buy for a hobby. 

Definitely agree with what you said about portability and the Mamiya 645; it's been a great camera to bring on the couple trips I've taken with it. I almost had a chance to get a Contax 645 a number of years ago but passed on the deal, I still regret not getting a chance to work that camera. It looks really incredible.

Shot for years with a pair of Pentax 645's - before (rather unwisely in retrospect) ditching all of it and going back to 35mm for awhile.   Now mostly a Fuji digital shooter but did pick up both a used P645 and a Pentax 6x7 - can't seem to get 'that medium format' out of my mind.  The Mamiya RB/RZ systems were alwasy out there but never made the leap.  

Thanks for the comment, Russ. Even though I ended up going the Mamiya route from the beginning of my medium format journey, I definitely remember eyeing the Pentax 645NII for quite a long time. I really love the look of that camera, and how they kept it consistent when moving over to digital. Same with the Pentax 6 x 7 cameras, it was a tough choice between RB67 and the Pentax...both are great options.

Recently I purchased my first medium format camera. After extensive research, I narrowed my sights down to either the Mamiya 645 PRO TL or the Mamiya RZ67 PRO ii. I have been shooting for over 10 years, primarily digital, but with some 35mm experience throughout. I am familiar with film, as I use cinema film cameras such as the Arricam ST and LT rather frequently for work. With this being said, I am familiar with film and more importantly I am familiar with large, cumbersome cameras. I ended up purchasing the RZ as I was not afraid of the extra size and weight, I am more focused on the image quality, and I am much more fond of the 6x7 aspect ratio as opposed to the longer 645. I am very happy with my decision. That being said, in an ideal world I would love to own both cameras. The RZ is for creating very specific and planned out images. The 645 on the other hand is a camera that you can bring with you just about anywhere without too much difficulty. That, combined with the few additional frames you will get on a roll of 120 are what make the camera much more friendly to being more versatile and shooting more candid moments.

Lovely review! The Mamiya and medium format communities are incredible and I am very excited to get more involved.

Thanks!

@sam_fiorentino

Thanks for the comment, Sam. I definitely get the feeling of it being a tough choice between RZ/RB 6 x 7 cameras and the 645 options...which is why I ended up with both. I think if I had to go back to a single camera, though, I'd do the same as you and go the 6 x 7 route; I agree with it being a nicer aspect ratio and there's no denying the image quality. But, since getting into both formats, I'm happy with the flexibility of the smaller 645 system for sure.

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