Product review: Mamiya 645 Medium Format Camera

I finaly received a metered pism finder allowing me to do a proper review of this really sweet piece of camera, the Mamiya 645s. In this case I have a 645 1000S, an older version with no autofocus but with a PDs metered findered.

Lense and format being about the same, I'll review the 645 1000S but most apply to the all family.

The Older version, cheap and efficient, the one I'll review here.

A later version, film and digital back friendly, with auto focus.

First things first: why should you be considering one?

Any photographer who aims at top level image and lens quality ends up figuring out that 35mm is a Toyota Corolla, medium format is a Porsche 911 Turbo.

If you care about getting the best possible looking images, print very large, professionally or as a very demanding amateur, you will have your main camera to be a medium format. Your 35mm, even if a Nikon D3X, will be the convenient backup for action shooting. Period.

It comes down to film / sensor size: medium format goes from 60x45mm up to 60x90mm, when standard cameras are 24x36mm for a full frame, and far less for a compact camera.
It's simple: the larger the sensor, the better everything.

Also, most medium format lenses offer a bokeh, sharpness, optical characteristics than destroy any Leica lens for sometimes a tenth of the price.

So why is it that everyone shoots 35mm?

Well first of all, MF cameras are bulky. Second reason, it's ridiculously expensive to shoot digital MF (a digital back, used, entry level, cost 7000$. Just the back, not the camera, lenses...
It is however very very cheap if you shoot MF film; and looks magnificent...but it hits the bottom in terms of convenience: rolls not sold everywhere, cost about 75 cent per shot, only 8 to 16 shots per roll !!!, you need a film scanner, etc...

This is where the Mamiya 645 comes into play: I believe it is one a best compromise for someone to access MF shooting, on a budget constaint, without loosing all the benefits of a smaller more automated 35mm camera: it has a meter, 15 shots in a roll of 120, it's not too big or heavy, lenses are amazing, it's super cheap, and has cool accessories for handling.

For $300 on ebay or else, you can find a 645 1000S (1/1000S speed) in good working condition with metering and a 50mm equivalent f2.8 lens.
It means : for $300 you can get a camera producing images that will make D700 and 5D MKII owners jealous. And you'll look like the real deal :)

Actually it was introduced, back in the day, as a $700 lens + body bundle for photographer to get an affordable access to medium format. At todays prices, not having one is criminal.

- it is a 6x4.5 images camera. It means that it is slightly inferior to a 6x6 or 6x7, but remains far larger than a 24x36. It give you the compromise of more images per roll (15 or 16 depending on film spacing).
- The old cheap version are manual focus with a focusing split screen displaying a central microprism (the round shape with the line in the middle).
- It can shoot up to 1/500s for the standard versions, and 1/1000s on the 1000S version presented here.
- It weights about 1kg all together with a lens
- the film holder can be fully removed from the back, quite conveniently, and can be change for a 220 version if you can still find those films.
- It comes with 4 possible finders:

  • a waist level non metered
  • a classic eye level non metered
  • a PDS eye level centered metered, but non automatic
  • a CDS, pretty much the same that allows shooting in aperture priority mode.

I'll review it with the one that in my opinion gives you the most flexibility and power, the PDS.

When it comes to handling, it is pretty much the worse you can imagine: a metallic cube. And since the shutter is on top and in front, i.e. where fingers naturally fall, you can easily trigger accidentally.
Thank god you can get a handle that you attach like a tripod (cheap easy method), or a grip that goes on the right and also replaces the rewind mechanisme (it then works like a normal 35 film camera).

With a side grip.

Ok enough, I never review the molecular composition of gear, so let's get to the images. It will be compared to a top of the range 35mm: the Nikon F5, a larger format Mamiya RZ67 pro II, and the Nikon DSLR range.
I will try it with the standart stuff, a 90mm F2.8, 50mm equivalent, and agains the 50mm F1.8 Nikon on the F5, and the 110 f2.8 on the RZ 67 pro II.

Depth Of Field where are you ?
The first thing that strikes me on the 645 is the super narrow depth of field. To the point that it can be hard to get some focus depth.
It's awesome for portraits, you nearly get what a Leica 50mm f1 $5000 lens can do. You can extract your subject like wow, and the blur is sweet.

It's a pain when focusing, you can easily get you subject out of the focus range. If you shoot a landscape at 5.6, it's superb, no problem. But try to have on focus depth even in daylight if your subject is close to you ! You can if you open at f16^^

However, once you know how your lens reacts, what film to get for the given light, you'll be enchanted.

Dublin, sunset, overexposed 2 stops agains the sun. Portra 400VC, 1/500s F4.

 India, portra 400VC, can't recall aperture settings (sun hit me too hard)

Compared to the F5
- It will be sharper and more defined to an extend that is nearly insulting for a Nikon F5.
- Depth of field on the F5 is, due to format change, more deeper. At the same time it's much much harder to take a powerful portrait with narrow depth on the F5. Also the bokeh is far superior on the Mamiya lens.
- Metering on the F5 is exceptional, and automated. But a skilled photographer using the PDs finder will beat that. See the first shot, the finder reads light perfectly on her, and suggest the perfect exposure increment. 645= slower but more efficient. Better for landscapes of course for all those reasons : details, size, exposure etc.

--> clearly superior, yet not really for the same purpose. You wouldn't like to compare 2 images next to one another, but the F5 is for action. Not much bulkier, but you loose the benefit of fast focus. The 2 cameras cost the same: but if you care about action shooting, why not going digital? For the rest, get the 645.

Compared to the RZ67 
Now it's trickier. The 6x7 format will give you even more details, definition, an even larger image while printed. It will also allow shocking depth rendering. It's about the same but just a little more in everyway. If you were to shoot landscape, it would be the idea format (disregarding huge large format cameras). But it comes at a cost: the cost of bulkiness. A 67 camera, RZ or Pentax to name great ones, are huuuuuge and heavy.
You have to pick you fight:
- get one for portraits like the RZ, it'll stay on a tripod, be magnificent, super constraining. It's your studio camera, the one you move around at the back of the car, and the best at it.
- or pick a small 67 for landscape, that is miniaturize, like the Mamiya 7II. But ready to pay the price.

If you are looking for one only MF camera, still portable even with a meter, the 645 format is great. Mamiya lenses are terrific (though a pentax, fuji is as good or close to it, sometime better. Well it's the same).

A hardcore portrait taker like me will favor the RZ67...and buy a 645 to be able to carry around some of that greatness.
 The RZ 67 is even more dramatic when it comes to depth and definition.

Here at F2.8

Compared to DSLRs:
It is nearly an intelectual mistake to compare that. But here I go:
- DSLR get you convenience, speed, automation, ease of transportation, ease of post processing, realistic but not so warm and alive images. It also provides amazing low light performance with 2010 and 2011 sensors. I mean, the new Fuji Finepix X100 is just unbeliavable in low light.

- A 645 MF camera will get you far superior images in terms of :
  • tones, especially in B&W where the tone range is much greater)
  • definition and print size
  • depth of field use
  • bokeh
  • beautiful noise
  • simple the feel
It will also give you access to much better lenses for much cheaper. Finally, you will love the object, and get the true photographer feel (that's bullshit, gear doesn't define a true photographer but you still feel like it with a vintage Mamiya). And you'll get the long term value: you can shoot it for decades without an upgrade.

You should have both. We you shoot action, low light, need mobility, take the digital. If you intend to shoot that 1x2 meter portrait of you baby at sunrise, that unreal view over a Patagonia valley, a stunning model, pick the medium format.

In conclusion: 
645 MF camera should be your first choice as a second camera for a DSLR owner would wants to enter the world of high rez high quality photography.

A Contax 645 would do about the same , but I find parts easier to find on the Mamiya.

It will be the perfect learning tool, and a ridiculous price and even more ridiculously great results.

Keep in mind that a film scanner like the Epson V700 or similar will probably add to the total package price; but in the end, it will still bit any DSLR, image and price wise...


  1. Great review! I just got a m645 with 2 lenses all in mint condition from a charity shop here in the UK. Paid the silly sum of £60.00 :-) The light foams needs to be replaced which I will do myself. I also got an adapter from China to fit the 80mm & 150mm Sekor C lenses on my fuji X-E1. With the Fuji excellent sensor and the renowned quality of Sekor lenses, I can't wait to see the results and compare them with shots which I will take with a film. I will post some photos soon!

    1. interesting ! let me know how the adaptor works , i'd be curious to try the 80mm on a X M1