Saturday, 23 February 2013

Mamiya M645 1000S / 80mm f/1.9

In a previous post I had a look at 645, the film format. Today I'm going to look at a 645 camera, a Mamiya M645 1000S. It's the little fella on the right, sitting next to a Mamiya RB67:

That photograph was shot in the North Atlantic in late 1943. The Mamiya 645 is taking on fuel oil from the camera on the left. In March 1944 it participated in the sinking of U-358, which was depth charged with only one survivor. War is a grim business. The 1000S was launched in 1976 and was the most advanced of Mamiya's first batch of 645 cameras. It added a 1/1000 top speed to its electronically-controlled, battery-powered shutter, plus a depth-of-field preview. It doesn't have an interchangeable film back, and unlike later Mamiya 645 cameras (or the RB67 in the photograph) there's no way to convert it into a digital camera by fitting a digital module. For the purposes of this post I therefore had to use, gasp, film. Mostly Fuji 160NPS that expired in 2006, exposed at ISO 100.

The 1000S doesn't have a built-in meter. Professional cameras of the 1970s didn't have meters. Mamiya upgraded their 645 range in the mid-80s with the plastic-bodied 645 Super, and again in the late 1990s with the 645 AF, which had autofocus. Nowadays Mamiya still exists as part of the Mamiya-Leaf-Phase One entity and sells digital versions of the 645 AF, and every so often all-in-one medium format digital SLRs. Unlike Hasselblad, Mamiya no longer sells film backs; at some point in the mid-2000s the company quietly abandoned film.

On a physical level the 1000S resembles the RB67, although they're fundamentally different in several respects. The RB67 has shutters mounted in the lenses, which are focused by extending the front part of the camera body with a bellows. With a bellow? No, the singular of bellows is bellows. Mamiya's twin lens reflexes had a similar focusing system. In contrast the 1000S has its shutter mounted in the body, and the lenses are focused in the conventional way, by turning the barrel. Format-wise the RB67 takes ten 6x7cm images from 120 film, the 645 takes 15 6x4.5cm images (which is unusual - most other 645 systems took sixteen shots per roll).

645 was always a little bit controversial. Mamiya intended to produce an SLR system that would combine the image quality of medium format with the weight and price of high-end 35mm gear, using a rectangular frame that didn't require the same kind of cropping as 6x6 in order to fit into a magazine page. But the cameras were still very bulky and awkward and the quality advantage didn't make a great deal of sense for amateurs. Nonetheless professionals gradually warmed to it, and by the time digital swept film aside 645 was the dominant medium format format. Most modern digital medium format is descended from 645, usually with some kind of crop factor.

The 1000S' shutter flash syncs at 1/60th, which is rubbish, although a handful of portrait-style Mamiya 645 lenses had a built-in leaf shutter that synced at their top speed of 1/500. Flash sync is the kind of thing most photographers don't care about until they try and do a backlit outdoors portrait that has a nice blurred background, at which point they care about it a lot.

Looking at old issues of Popular Photography I see that the 1000S sold for about $650 with an 80mm f/2.8 lens in 1982, versus $750 for a Nikon F3 with a 50mm f/1.4 - which admittedly was very high for a 35mm camera - versus a staggering $1,700 for a Hasselblad CM with a film back and an 80mm f/2.8. The Hasselblad's lens and body were no doubt fantastic, but $1,700 would have bought a lot of film in those days. You could have built up a small Mamiya 645 system for the cost of the aforementioned Hasselblad.

On the other hand, if you had kept the Hasselblad in good condition and had it serviced every so often it would still fetch a fair amount on eBay today. Not $1,700 though. Definitely not $1,700 in 1982 dollars, adjusted for inflation - that would be just short of $5,000. Camera gear is generally a very poor investment. Some chap's photographic dream from thirty years ago is now my blog post.

Functionally the M645 is vintage medium format; functional. The shutter speed selector has a détente which keeps the knob from turning unintentionally. There is a self-timer. Mirror lock up. Depth of field preview. That's about it for controls. The teeny-tiny waist level prism is cute but awkward. Compositions which looked great at eye-level sometimes don't look so pretty from eighteen inches down, back-to-front.

There were several prism finders. Mine is a plain prism without a meter. It's sleek, it hurts my face, but it's a lot more practical than the waist level finder. The odd thing is that the controls seem to have been designed with a waist-level grip in mind because they're awkward to reach at eye level. There were also metered prisms, and a metered prism with aperture-priority autoexposure. I prefer a separate lightmeter (an old Sekonic L-308B).

Other than that, the 645 is a light-tight box with a lens on the front. The only 645 lens I have is an 80mm f/1.9, one of two standard lenses for the 1000S. It was the medium format equivalent of the 50mm f/1.4 typically sold as a posh alternative kit lens for 35mm SLRs, although in terms of depth of field it's closer to a 35mm-format f/1.2.

The f/1.9 is unusually fast for medium format. As far as I can tell, it's the fastest medium format lens ever sold to the public, or at least the fastest medium format lens that wasn't an esoteric special model made for government agencies or NASA. Despite this, it was reasonably priced - $289 vs $149 for the f/2.8 version in 1982, about $100 more than a contemporary Nikon 50mm f/1.4.

The speed and focal length mean that it's one of the few medium format lenses that makes a bit of sense when adapted for a 35mm full-frame digital SLR, as a conventional, non-shift lens. It becomes a moderately fast short telephoto, and the people at SLR Lens Review have tested it out on a Canon 5D here. In my experience of using it on film, it's decent but a bit washed-out at f/1.9, sharp in the middle stopped down to f/2.8, and there's a fair amount of barrel distortion, which can easily be corrected. Beyond that I was too busy taking nice photographs to do proper tests. There's no point being a photographer if you just do tests all the time. That makes you an amateur quality control engineer, not a photographer.

The big problem is the bokeh, which is busy, fussy, not a patch on the lovely soft swirly bokeh from the Mamiya TLR lenses. It's not ugly, but it's not smooth either, which is unfortunate because you usually have a lot of it when you shoot at f/1.9. The bokeh is probably why the 80mm isn't particularly fĂȘted nowadays, despite its impressive specification. The 80mm f/2.8 is apparently smoother and just as sharp; the Zeiss 80mm f/2 for the Contax 645 system is apparently better still, although much more expensive. I say apparently so often because there's a dearth of solid information about medium format lenses on the internet. Few people shoot medium format, and they generally don't spend their time posting on message boards. Ultimately I suspect I would be no worse off with any modern digital SLR and a good 50mm f/1.4. Or, if money was no object, a second-hand Contax 645 with a compatible digital back.

My thirty-year-old and probably bashed-about M645 has the occasional light leak, viz the following photo, which was also underexposed by three stops:

There's some debate on the internet as to whether this is a light leak or a shutter problem. After swinging both ways I've come to the conclusion that it's a light leak - it extends beyond the edge of the film. Film runs through the 645 vertically, and I assume that the leak is hitting one of the adjacent frames as it rests under the film back door hinge. I'll have to dig out some foam and fix it.

As in the previous post, I maintain that 645 makes no sense nowadays, at least as a film format. It doesn't have the distinctive character of 6x6 and, with 15 shots per roll, you'll spend a lot of time changing rolls and scanning the negatives and getting rid of the hairs, time you could have spent doing something else. Professionals moved to digital years ago because the real magic comes from Photoshop, which is independent of the capture format, and on a romantic level the rectangular pictures look just like digital pictures; no-one will know that they were shot with film unless you tell them. 645's big draw during its heyday was the lack of grain, but in this respect digital beats it hollow. 645, as a film format, is dead.