Monday 9 July 2012

Mamiya RB67: Heavy Plasma

Marine, Brompton Cemetery
Mamiya RB67
Kodak TMAX 100

Off to Brompton Cemetery again, with the lovely Marine, and a Mamiya RB67. The RB67 is a big, heavy medium format film camera which was launched in 1970, and remained in production until the early 2000s, well into the digital age. It shoots large 6x7 negatives and was a popular studio camera in its day, although now that professionals have moved to digital there are lots of old RB67s on eBay, so I decided to see what they were like.

Pontoon Dock DLR

Mine is old and beat-up, but they were built to last. The RB67 is a modular system, conceptually very similar to the venerable Hasselbad, but a lot cheaper and with a much more functional air. There was nothing romantic about them, and NASA never took them to the moon.

Fuji Velvia 50

But if you wanted Hasselblad quality, and didn't want to spend a fortune, the RB67 fit the bill. According to this Adorama price guide (hosted by the incredibly tasteful Nesster) an RB67 Pro-S with a 90mm f/3.8 would have cost $784 in 1979, which would have bought you a very nice Nikon F2AS with a 50mm f/1.4 and $80 to spend on film. Or you could have bought almost a hundred copies of Blondie's Parallel Lines on vinyl. In contrast, a Hasselblad 500 C/M with an 80mm f/2.8 would have cost $1,218, and that was the cheapest Hasselblad system.

Fuji 400H

There were three models. The original was launched in 1970 and remained on sale until 1974. Its replacement, the Professional-S, remained on sale until 2000, after which the Pro-SD took over for a few years, it says here. From 1980 onwards Mamiya also sold the RZ67, which was similar but with electronic shutter and aperture control. Autofocus? No.

Here's what mine looks like:

The camera body is the cube in the middle with "Mamiya RB67 / Professional S" and the peeled-off quality assurance sticker. It houses the reflex mirror, the shutter cocking lever, and the focusing wheels:

In order to turn it into a camera, you have to attach a bunch of things. On the back, the revolving adapter and a film magazine. The revolving adapter is very clever. The camera is designed to take rectangular 6x7cm negatives. If you want to switch from portrait to landscape orientation, you just revolve the back, rather than tilt the whole camera - which is important because it's very heavy and would be hard to hold sideways and tricky to mount sideways on a conventional tripod head. This image from the original sales brochure demonstrates the procedure, which is easy - you just grab the back and twist:

Several different film backs were available - typically 120, but also 220, and there were 645 and Polaroid instant film backs as well. There was also a complicated 6x8 motorised back that went one larger, but only in portrait orientation. The magazines used the Graflex Graflok mount, although this doesn't really help you because there are far more Mamiya backs available than Graflok backs.

Fuji Velvia 50

I have one of the Polaroid backs. I'll write about it another day. It's great fun. You get medium format depth of field with instant film, but part of the image is chopped off:

On top of the cube you have to fit a viewfinder, in my case a waist-level finder, although there were also eye-level prism finders with uncoupled light meters.

From the original RB67 brochure, clockwise from left - the original waist-level hood, the magnifying hood, the unmetered prism finder, the sports finder, the metered magnifying hood. The Pro S waist-level hood has a larger eyepiece that blocks off the opening.

On the front, a lens. Mine has a 90mm f/3.8, which was one of the two standard lenses, the other being the 127mm f/3.8 (they were roughly 40mm and 65mm in 35mm terms).

Although the system resembled contemporary Hasselblads there were some fundamental differences. Hasselblad cameras had the shutter built into the body and the focusing system built into the lens; the RB67 is the other way around. The shutters are mounted in the lens, and the camera body uses a bellows-style focusing system which racks the lens back and forth. You can go really close, even with non-macro lenses, and the RB67 found a niche in product and portrait photography because of it.


Mine is beat to hell but still works. If the shutter breaks, I can just buy another lens. If the film back loses its mojo, replacements are readily available. The only thing that seems to degrade regularly is the light-blocking foam, but replacement kits are available from this chap in Japan. I can personally recommend this chap. I sent him money; he sent me some foam. That's how a relationship is supposed to work. Money. Foam.

In its day it was a real workhorse, but that was a very long time ago. In theory you can adapt modern digital medium format backs to fit it, but the adapter plates are very expensive (£600 or so from eBay), and you end up with a hefty cropping factor, because medium format digital backs are mostly 6x4.5cm or smaller. A used RB67 plus adapter plate plus used medium format digital back is probably the cheapest entry into digital medium format, but digital medium format is one of those things where, if you're doing it cheaply, you're doing it wrong.

6x7 was one of the three major medium format formats, although it never managed to displace 6x6 and was quickly overtaken by Mamiya's own 645 format, which was launched a few years later. In its favour, the aspect ratio is almost the same as a standard 8x10" print or magazine page, which means that you get to use all of that lovely negative when you are asked to shoot the cover of Vogue magazine. Against it, you only get ten shots per 120 roll and the two leading 6x7 system cameras were very bulky. In practice professionals and advanced amateurs gravitated to 645; the negatives were smaller, but on a practical level the difference was tiny, and the bodies were much easier to carry about. Faster lenses, too.

Mamiya also sold a relatively compact 6x7 rangefinder, the Mamiya 7(ii). This still has a following today and is perhaps the ultimate hiking / mountaineering camera if you're into film. Apart from Mamiya, Fuji also sold a range of 6x7 rangefinders, starting with the GW670 in 1985, continuing to the present day; they also sell 6x9 rangefinders, which are perhaps the even-more-ultimate hiking / mountaineering cameras if you can find one for sale.

And there was the Pentax 6x7, which deserves its own paragraph. The body was physically clumsier - it was a giant pumped-up Pentax Spotmatic, along the lines of the Soviet Kiev 60 - but had a sierra hotel range of Takumar lenses. Including the standard 105mm f/2.4, which was almost all the lens you needed. Top shutter sync was only 1/30, which was problematic for the very photographers most likely to use it - wedding and portrait shooters, with their standard backlit sunlight / fill-flash shots. But 105mm f/2.4 in 6x7 format, cor. Diane Arbus used one towards the end of her life and the Pentax 67 has always had an artier, more tasteful reputation than the relatively agricultural RB67. Walk into a camera club meeting with a Pentax 67 and you'll be treated like a God. Men will respect you, women will disrobe for you. The clouds will part for you. Your clothes will fit you. Nothing stands in your way, when you have a Pentax 67.

London Pleasure Gardens
07 July 2012
Not much pleasure that day

The RB67 system's only disappointing aspect is its lens range. The lenses were all apparently very good, but the range is very conservative and biased towards portrait focal lengths and moderate apertures. There were only two wides, a 55mm (roughly 28mm in 35mm terms) and a 65mm, both of which had manually-operated floating elements. The standard lens was either a 90mm or a 127mm; they were also the fastest lenses, at f/3.5. The range topped out at 500mm. Apertures hovered around f/4.5. The exotic lenses consisted of a 37mm f/4.5 fisheye, a 140mm f/3.5 macro, and a 150mm soft focus, which came with a set of perforated metal discs that you slotted into the lens in order to soften up the image. The range was revised over time. Today I am terse Ashley Pomeroy instead of verbose Ashley Pomeroy. Verbose Ashley Pomeroy isn't here, Ms Torrance.


In 35mm terms, the depth of field was roughly equivalent to f/1.8-2.8 across the range. I can only speak for the 90mm f/3.8, which is pleasant wide-open, with smooth bokeh, no obvious vignetting, a bit of softness in the corners, not much.


What's it like to use in the field? I took mine to Brompton Cemetery, and I was going to have a look at a new arts venue called London Pleasure Gardens, which is To The East. As luck would have it, I went just as the 2012 Bloc Festival was due to take place. It had a really good line-up of bands that didn't get to play because the organisers were a bunch of muppets, and the event was cancelled after one day. So all I got to see was some cleaners, and this:

They let all those people down, but worse, they let Orbital down. And Gary Numan. Looking at the site from the DLR during the daytime, it's obviously not large enough for an Orbital gig, let along a whole festival. EDIT: And a few weeks later the place went bust! Serves them right for putting an arts venue way out yonder. You have to use the Docklands Light Railway to get there, because it's not on the underground, and once you've seen it there's nothing else in the local area, except for Pontoon Dock DLR station, which has some striking columns.

Still, the RB67 is a stereotypical studio camera, big and heavy, with no lightmeter and no automation, designed to be set up on a tripod and shot over and over again with the same flash settings over and over again and again. You have to remember to wind the film on, cock the shutter, line up the shot, press the button... and nothing happens, because you forgot to take out the dark slide. The dark slide is a sliding metal guillotine that keeps light from hitting the film if you take the back off mid-roll.

And you have to wind the film yourself. There's a multiple-exposure-prevention tab which stops you from taking accidental multiple exposures (the original RB67 didn't have this; it was added for the Pro S). Mine is a bit iffy, so I leave it off, which explains this:

With only ten shots per roll you have to make each shot count, which lends itself to measured shooting of landscapes and formal portraits but isn't so good in a fashion-type setting. Just as the model is getting warmed up you have to change rolls, so it's more appropriate for ice maidens than raging beasts. For every image on this page there were dozens more than I might have shot, but didn't, because I was fiddling with the magazine. Actual fashion photographers of the 1950s, 1960s had lots of prepared magazines and an assistant to change them; famously Richard Avedon, who used Rolleiflex TLRs, had several entire cameras loaded with film (and an assistant who would toss them at him).

The waist-level finder lends itself to upper-body shots rather than tightly-cropped facial portraits, simply because of geometry - you have to tilt the camera upwards if you're shooting someone's head, which means nostrils. Nostrils aren't pretty. If I had designed the human head I would have put the nostrils right on top, near the back, so that people could walk along riverbeds with only the tops of their heads showing. Thus allowing them to sneak up on animals. It makes no sense to put two similar organs right next to each other.

It's not easy to carry around. I settled on a kind of cradle carry, as if it was a baby or a shotgun. I have no idea how the security forces would react on seeing a Mamiya RB67 if I took it to the Olympic Village or Central London or anywhere that posh rich people congregate.

No marks for guessing this is Velvia 50

Despite its physical complexity the RB67 is a doddle to use. You set the aperture and shutter speed on the lens - and with the heavy body and slightly delayed shutter you can shoot at quite slow speeds - and pull the shutter button towards you. The cranking becomes second nature. Snakes have nostrils on the tops of their jaws so that they can breathe whilst eating food, why not people? Ditto whales.

Does the RB67 have a point in 2012? On a rational level, no. They're available cheaply second-hand because professionals dumped them a few years back, when digital SLRs started to pass six megapixels or so. Only the toppermost of the poppermost use medium format film now, and they can afford Hasselblad (or, in another direction, Contax). For the rest of us a second-hand RB67 is a fascinating glimpse into the past, and there is something fetishistic about using a medium format SLR with a waist level finder and windy things. On another level the 6x7 format is, paradoxically, a limitation - the 6x6 square format is inherently distinctive, whereas with 6x7 people simply assume you used a digital SLR. That's why I haven't cropped the borders from the images in this post. It's so that you can tell they were shot with a film camera.

Even so, it has a waist-level finder and interchangeable film magazines for £200 or so. The Nikon D800 doesn't have that, no siree.