Product review: Mamiya 645E, shooting medium format for a bargain

A while ago, I reviewed the Mamiya 645 1000S, a old entry level 645 film camera. It came out aiming at beginners in the field of medium format (MF), and it is quite frankly among the best image quality / price ratio you can get. The problem is that it's very old, and finding one that is not worn out with a working meter is hard.

I recently killed mine, the film winding mechanism couldn't tell anymore where was the next frame. The meter, although functional, became 1 stop off. It lasted 30+ years, not bad compared to the average life expectancy of a modern camera !

The lens however, a 80mm f2.8 (equivalent to a 50mm on "full frame" 35mm camera) is still superb, so I decided to got for a post 2000 version of this camera, the 645E.

What does it do
It is literally a 645 1000s with automatic aperture priority mode and a few improvements. In other words, the 645 1000S was suggesting the speed but you have to manually pick it, on this one shutter speed sets itself in auto mode.
Focus is manual, which on a spot metered camera is not an issue since you'll take time to work your shot. You can do multiple exposure and max shutter speed is 1/1000s. That simple, which is great became you can focus on the image instead of figuring out what is in what menu.

So why a 645E instead of a 1000S for even cheaper? 
Well you can find one in mint condition, while 1000S are now pretty much all dead. 

Why getting a Mamiya 645 at all?
  • First of all, look at those images (from the 645 1000s). That's why you want to own a medium format camera. If you don't like that kind of output, you don't want one. If you do, and you wonder why your digital work never feels like that, then you want one. But keep reading, the best is yet to come...

  • As promised, the best part: you can get that for less than a cheap compact camera. Let's be specific here: this camera goes for $300 with the lens. Mint. The cost of buying film and getting it developed is about $0.80 per shot, which means that the price difference between this and a Fuji X100 will get you about 1100 shots. Of course, when shooting film, you also pay a lot more attention to crafting, shoot less pictures and therefore improve your skills a lot faster. "Wait what? But but...I spend $5600 in my Canon 80D MarkXXV and it doesn't look any better ! Actually my B&W and the bokeh are not that nice! Could it be that...they are lying to us? We don't need 22nd century electronics and Active Power Sensor 3000 SPX technology to have beautiful rendering? - ALELOUYA ! Your eyes have been opened my friend. Join us in celebration of actual pictures instead of marketing techno crap !" On a more serious touch, this is a cheap and perfect supplement to an SLR, instead of buying an other accessories, you can get that for a very different experience.
  • Why Mamiya and not Pentax or Contax, who also offer excellent 645 cameras? Well frankly, they are slightly better built than the Mamiya, but Pentax lenses now cost an arm because they launched the digital version, which pulled used lens prices up. The Contax is excellent, but harder to find and more expensive. Mamiya wanted to go entry level with this camera, and while the built quality remains correct, image quality is the same while prices are amazingly low second hand. 
You get the picture: if you are to shoot portraits in particular, you will want to play with depth of field, have nice bokeh and crisp images. Nothing gives you that better that a large sensor / film. Unfortunately, digital sensor are at best 33x44 mm, which is...a joke. It should not even be called medium format. 
Real medium format (60x70mm) leads to enormous cameras with often no built in metering. On the other hand 645 (60x45 mm) offer a format much much larger that full frame SLRs, with comparable size and automation. And it that field, the Mamiya is simply...well the cheapest.

If you want to start film photography, you could go for a Nikon FE / FE2 / FM or Canon equivalent. This would allow you to recycle your SLR lenses. But why? Why when for $150 more you can shoot medium format?

An other very important point, I mentioned that several times here: film photography with spot metering forces you to make decision in exposure and focus, so you actually work your technique. And most digital shooters really need that.

Finally the camera looks exotic, and all the SLR owners with big "I have something to compensate" lenses will be jealous of your edge :)

Here are some exemple from me and other people, with credits in captions: