Back to Film With a Mamiya 645 Pro – First Impressions

by Mike on April 13, 2011

(first film image I’ve shot in a looooooong time)

As I recently mentioned, I just picked up a Mamiya 645 Pro system from Adorama to satisfy my growing interest in shooting film.

In my search for a great film system on a budget, medium format was the obvious way to go, because you can buy entire outfits for less than $300 if you shop around a bit – a bargain compared to anything digital.

Mamiya’s 645 cameras produce negatives that are 56mm x 41.5mm in size, with a 4:3 aspect ratio. By comparison, 35mm film is 36mm X 24mm with a 3:2 aspect ratio.

This means that the image-sensing area on a piece of film in a 645 medium-format system is 2.7 times the size of 35mm film cameras or full-frame DSLR’s like the Nikon D3S and Canon 5D Mark II.

All things being equal, the bigger the film (or digital image sensor), the better the image quality. However, I don’t regard medium-format film as being superior to digital – they’re just different.

However, film equipment does have the advantage of being insanely cheap, so I won’t be taking much of a depreciation hit if and when I sell my 645.

I paid more money for a used Canon 28mm f/1.8 lens than I did for my entire Mamiya system, which included a body, 80mm f/2.8 lens (equivalent to 50mm on a 35mm body), viewfinder, and back.

Additional lenses are insanely cheap, with many¬†under $100 in great condition! And it’s not like they’re junk lenses – most medium-format lenses are pretty high-quality and were widely used for fashion/commercial photography.

And since the Mamiya 645 system is modular, I can just throw out individual parts as they break/wear out. Camera bodies can be found for under $200, and just about everything else (lenses, viewfinder, film backs), can be found for under $100.

Back to the Mamiya.

My adventure started on Friday at Adorama, where I picked up an original Mamiya 645 – a mechanical block of metal and made my Canon feel like a toy.

However, that 645 was suffering from some mechanical problems, so I returned it on Sunday. Adorama took it back with no questions asked or bull$hit restocking fees, and knocked a few bucks off the price of the 645 Pro to compensate me for the film I burned through trying to figure out what was up with the 645.

So folks, check out Adorama if you’re in the market for a used gear. They have a pretty huge inventory of everything from point & shoots to large-format view cameras. And unlike Craig’s List, they’ll give you a 90-day warranty and won’t jerk you around should you decide to return something.

The 645 Pro, like most medium-format cameras, is fully modular, even more so than a typical SLR camera. For example, there are about a half-dozen different grips and power-drive film winders you can buy, and a few different viewfinders. You can also swap out film backs to keep film pre-loaded, and to switch between different types of film in the middle of rolls.

However, the camera is ultimately pretty simple because everything has a physical knob or dial. While riding home on the train with no manual, I figured out the whole camera in no time at all. In fact, it took me less than a two minutes to take the whole thing apart and put it back together, and just another minute to get my film loaded and ready for action.

Now it really is funny how much things change with a film camera.

I’ve had plenty of days when I’ve come home with 500+ digital images, most of them crap of course. I don’t even have 500 photos on my Flickr account!

So, I was loaded up with Kodak Portra 400NC, and went down to the Brooklyn waterfront to get some pictures of the sunset.

First brainfart – I meant to purchase Portra 400VC, which is a more vibrant and saturated film. NC, as you can see from the picture at the top, is pretty subdued in terms of color.

So I’m down by the water, and I’m ready to go. However, I’m definitely moving much more slowly than I normally do. I’m spot metering different areas of the sky multiple times, carefully leaning on a railing for stability (I lost my tripod’s quick-release plate on the way, found it on the way back), and most definitely taking my time before I click.

When you’re shooting film, you can go through money pretty quickly if you overshoot. And I overshot. As it turns out, the picture up top is one of the first three I shot. I should have stopped right then and there! But I finished the roll of film (15 shots), and packed up to go home.

And then the sun disappears over the horizon, and the sky just gets bright red and orange – the moment that was truly worthy of burning through the film.

I shot this on digital, but I could have nailed it with film had I not wasted my entire roll shooting the preceding subdued, droll scene:

So I expect film to be a serious educational tool for me. It’s really forcing me to slow down and really think before I click the shutter.¬†Also, picking up film is a lot of fun because you really never know exactly what you’re going to get!

Expect more film talk to come soon – it’s quickly becoming a major positive force in my photographic journey.

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