Sunday, 21 April 2013

Mamiya Twin Lens Reflexes

Kodak Portra 400NC / Mamiya C33 / 80mm f/2.8

"There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive." So began David Attenborough's classic documentary series Life on Earth. I only remember it from repeat showings, although I'm old enough to have seen its sequel, The Living Planet when it was first broadcast.

The 1980s was, on the whole, not a bad decade for television; but David Attenborough's documentaries strode the landscape like a colossus. They were the Half-Life of television programmes, and came around just as infrequently. Please, in a world where no-one can be trusted, please let it be that David Attenborough is not a sex fiend.

A Fairlight CMI - there is no reason why

Just as there are millions of different solutions to the problem of staying alive, there are millions several different solutions to the problem of accurately focusing and composing an image with a camera. The twin lens reflex was an evolutionary step along the path that led from direct viewing with a ground glass screen, through scale focus and rangefinders, and ultimately to single-lens reflexes and electronic viewfinders.

What will come next? Lytro light field cameras? Probably not. Some kind of Google Glass interface where people focus just by looking? Now that every square inch of the entire world is constantly being photographed from every angle, the future of photography will probably be one of editing, shot selection, and presentation rather than actual taking. People will browse Google Earth, winding forwards and backwards through history, rather than going outdoors.

Mamiya TLR lenses have lovely bokeh. This is the 80mm f/2.8 at probably f/4.

TLRs had their heyday in the middle of the 20th Century, a period interrupted by the Second World War; and so, although Rollei launched the popular Rolleflex TLR as early as 1929, I tend to associate the TLR with the 1950s. TLRs jostled with 5x4 Speed Graphic press cameras and Leica rangefinders for supremacy, before being shoved aside by the SLR in the 1960s. By then the TLR was an antique. The basic idea of using two separate lenses for focusing and composing was literal and effective, but awkward, and once Hasselblad launched their SLR system the TLR was doomed. Professions gravitated away from the TLR to the SLR, and remained orbiting around it like a captive moon.

Such as Siarnaq, the largest irregular moon of Saturn. Siarnaq is an Inuit goddess of sea creatures who "withholds seals, walruses and whales from their Inuit hunters", the horrible woman. But from her point of view the Inuit hunters are the baddies and the seals etc are her children. If she's a goddess, why doesn't she just melt the ice and drown the hunters? Why doesn't she give the sea creatures armoured shells, immune to Inuit arrows? Or, better still, give them arms and legs and make them the hunters, so that they could hunt the Inuit instead?

But perhaps the god or goddess that watches over the Inuit is stronger than the goddess of sea creatures, and that is why the odds are stacked in the Inuit's favour, and not the other way around. It has to be said that human supremacy is only a recent phenomenon; for many thousands of years the Inuit led a harsh, dangerous life. Were it not for the petrol engine and the rifle, human beings would still cower in fear from seals, walruses and whales.

Also, twin-lens reflexes or twin-lens reflexi or just twin-lens reflex? Yes, I know that reflexes is the plural of reflex, but in this case I'm not talking about a bundle of reflexes, I'm talking about several individual twin-lens reflex cameras. There's a subtle difference.

Post-the-1950s there were still a few niche markets for TLRs. Yashica continued to sell the popular Yashica Mat into the 1980s, targeting the curious amateur who wanted to shoot medium format with an affordable camera that was a cut above the Lomo Lubitel. Yashica Mats are still popular on the used market for this very reason. They are a cheap, good-quality entry into the medium format world. They have an emotional appeal; they're cute to look at, and for many photographers who went on to buy Hasselblads, they were the first kiss.

The Lubitel itself was a bargain-basement option aimed at students. It seems to have made little impression on the First World until eBay came along in the late 1990s. The few references in Google Books suggest that Ritz Camera imported a batch of Lubitels into the US in 1984 and then gave up.

Rollei's Rolleiflex followed the same path as Leica's rangefinders, gradually transitioning from professional tool to collector's item, before the line came to an end in 2000. Rollei's successor company still sells the f/2.8 model, which - as of 2013 - is the only non-toy TLR still being made. At a price of $5,000+ it targets a very small market.

Mamiya trod a different path, across the fresh snow in mukluks, the traditional shoe of the Inuit. The early Mamiyaflex TLRs were nothing out of the ordinary, but from the 1960s onwards Mamiya took the unique approach of building their TLR as a system camera, with interchangeable lenses, finders, backs, grips and so forth. By the 1970s the Mamiya TLR range was part of Mamiya's extensive medium format line-up, which covered all of the popular medium format frame sizes, from 6x9 via 6x7 and 6x6 to 645. Mamiya still exists, although it is now part of the Phase One / Leaf concern, and sells digital medium format gear.

This is my C33:

Mamiya's TLRs were solidly built and resembled part of an industrial lathe rather than a camera, although in my experience the film winding gear needs a bit of care and attention after all these years. Both of the Mamiya TLRs I own have sticky winders. That's why mine has a non-standard paint scheme - you have to rip off the mock leather coating in order to open up the side, and I decided to paint it white rather than stick the leather back on. Here's what the innards of the winding mechanism look like:

The turny thing with the numbers is the film counter. The other turny things with the pointy bits are called gears. They go round and round. There is also a green pointy thing. How did I fix the winding mechanism? Firstly I looked at it - I literally just looked at it - and then I sprayed WD40 over it, wound it a few times, left it to dry, and then wound it some more and presto, it works again. The whole mechanical thing with gears and so forth is really before my time.

As of 2013 it costs less to buy a new C33 than to have it repaired, so presumably as time goes on the pool of cheap Mamiya TLRs will wither. There will come a time when the last Mamiya C33 seizes up and is put in a cupboard forever, although no-one will have space for cupboards by then. We'll all be living five to a room and it will be a daily struggle to stop the other residents from stealing things.

The TLR range was discontinued in the mid-1990s. As legend has it the company only stopped making them because the tooling was starting to wear out. The December 1989 issue of Popular Photography profiles the C330 in a fascinating feature that rounds up the state of the camera market at the end of the 1980s, here:

At a shade under $1,000 with a lens it's the cheapest medium format camera in the list by a considerable margin - cheaper than the 645 cameras - and half of the price of a Canon EOS-1 35mm film SLR with a 50mm f/1.8.

The list ends with the Canon Xapshot and the Sony Mavica MVC-C1, amongst the first still video cameras sold to the general public. Still video cameras were not the future - in fact they died far harder and more thoroughly than film - but they helped usher in the modern age. Their children are the reason why the $710 Canon EOS 630 further up the article now struggles to fetch $15 on eBay.

The C33 was one of the transitional models, sold between 1965 and 1969 - I also have a C3, which was sold from 1962 to 1965, and was the first of the Mamiya C system cameras. The C33 was followed by the C330, which had a lighter, more plastic body. This mutated into the C330S and C330F, which had very minor modifications (slightly different knobs, and in the case of the C330F a different focus screen). The C3 has a plain focus screen, the C33 has a split-image, and both cameras have a flip-up magnifier which is essential for accurate focus.

There was a slightly cheaper C2 range - encompassing the C2, C22, and C220 - which was similar but had a winding knob instead of a crank, and a fixed back. The C3 models had a removable back that could be swapped out for a sheet film holder (and presumably there was a Polaroid option).

Here's what the body looks like with the lens taken off:

In this case the lens is a 65mm f/3.5, a general-purpose semi-wide. In 35mm terms it's roughly equivalent to a 35mm f/2.8 (in terms of depth of field, rather than speed - it's still f/3.5).

The lenses were upgraded over time. In general the originals had silver bodies, and later versions were painted black, with a blue dot on the shutter cocking lever. Later lenses are supposedly better, but it doesn't matter. None of the photographs on this page would have been improved by a fractionally sharper lens. These cameras are bought by curious people as toys. Incremental improvements in image quality are neither here nor there. If you're buying Mamiya TLR lenses, make sure they're in good nick and the shutters work.

The shutters were mounted in the lens bodies, and typically ran from 1s-1/500, with flash sync at all speeds.

Oh please do keep thy lovely eye / on all poor creatures born to die

Focal lengths ranged from 55mm at the wide end to 250mm at the long end, which is roughly equivalent to 28-135mm in 35mm terms. There were no exotics - no fisheye, no mirror lens, no soft focus, no dedicated macro. There's a neat comparison of the different focal lengths here, which shows off the system's absolutely gorgeous bokeh - it seems that every lens had fantastically smooth background blur that rendered point highlights beautifully.

In terms of depth of field the 6x6 format is essentially two stops depthier than 35mm, e.g. the standard 80mm f/2.8 behaves like a 50mm f/1.4, except that it's much better wide-open than a 50mm f/1.4. All of the indoors shots in this article were taken wide open, my rationale being that if I'm going to stop down, what's the point of using a medium format TLR? I could get the exact same effect with a digital camera just by cropping the edges so that the picture is square. You would never tell the difference.

I say no dedicated macro. Mamiya's TLRs used bellows focus, and the shorter lenses went almost to 1:1. Macro photography with a TLR is difficult. The bellows requires a boost in exposure, and the parallax error produced by the lens displacement is considerable at close distances. To solve this problem Mamiya sold a device called a paramender, which was a tripod baseplate extension that cranked the camera up and down, so that the viewing lens and the taking lens were in exactly the same position. Here's what the bellows looks like at full extension:

Once you factor in the difficulty of calculating depth of field, using the C-series TLRs as close-up cameras is a pain. The Mamiya RB67 SLR also had bellows focus, and is much more practical as a macro camera because it had through-the-lens focusing. Still, looking at price lists in 1970s issues of Popular Photography the C330 would have been a tempting choice; $350 bought you a medium format camera with a good standard lens that could almost do proper macro photography. The same money would have bought a Pentax K1000 and one extra lens, or it would have bought one-half of a Hasselblad 80mm f/2.8 (but no body to go with it).

That's a wooden model of the Balfron Tower, which was designed by Hungarian ex-pat Erno Goldfinger. Goldfinger fled Europe in the 1930s and moved to Britain, having shrewdly married the heiress to the Crosse and Blackwell fortune. After the Germans did their best to smash London to bits in the 1940s Goldfinger decided to make amends with concrete tower blocks and the like. He is a melancholic figure nowadays; Brutalism seemed to benefit the movement's theorisers more than the practitioners, who were stuck with the reality of making their dreams work, in Britain. If he had moved to France in the 1950s the government would probably have created an institute that he could run (with a tortuous abbreviation, such as L'Ecole Pour l'Architecte Technique aux Brutalisme (EpATB), or something). Instead his name is more famous than him, and it's very hard to explain to people that such-and-such a tower was designed by a man called Goldfinger. "You're having a laugh, surely?"

So, if you've learned one thing from this essay, you've learned that you should never cross Ian Fleming. Or he'll muddy your legacy and gradually erase you from history, and replace you with his own creations. Take for example top 1930s light opera singer Frank Scaramanga. Or once-legendary, now-forgotten radio comedian Ernie Blofeld. Or top Silent Hollywood actor Johnny "Shady" Drax. Who speaks of them nowadays?