My first foray into medium format film photography was a Mamiya M645J I picked up from a local camera store in Atlanta.
Drunk on the excitement of finally graduating from 35mm, I walked into the camera store with three fairly new prime lenses from my digital set up, and traded them in for the 645J, which looked like it had fought through Vietnam and won a couple medals along the way.
I was in love.
Loving and Leaving the 645
The quality jump from my very first film camera, the Canon AE-1 Program, to the Mamiya 645 was, to be frank, insane. After my first roll was developed, I knew from that point on I could never return to only shooting 35mm.
For a medium format camera, the Mamiya 645 was super portable and very lightweight; I could throw it on my shoulder or into a backpack and forget it was even there. The model I owned also came with a metered prism finder which eliminated the need for a handheld light meter and allowed for a more streamlined shooting process.
The Mamiya M645J became my go-to travel camera, bridging the gap between the portability of a 35mm camera and the quality of medium format.
All good things come to an end, however, and a few months into heavy use with the 645J, some issues began to become apparent.
Firstly, I found the camera way too awkward to operate for any extended period of time. The boxy design allowed no real space for a proper grip, resulting in a lackluster shooting experience. I attempted to compensate for this by buying a left-hand grip, but I felt that it only exacerbated the issue.
I also found critical focusing extremely hard on the 645J due to the size and limited brightness of the viewfinder. Missing focus on roll after roll began to drive me crazy. and I eventually began searching for greener pastures.
Making the Switch to the Mamiya RZ67
I had read up a bunch on the Mamiya RZ67 and knew it was widely regarded as the poster child for quality and reliability in the medium format world. For a long time it was my ‘white whale’ camera – I really wanted one, but at the time it was financially unobtainable.
After a chance meeting during a photoshoot with a friend, however, I picked up a mint condition Mamiya RZ67 Pro II and 90mm lens for a quarter of what I was expecting to spend. Score!
As a guy who mainly shoots portraits, this camera is a dream to bring on set.
One of the first things I noticed about the Mamiya RZ67 is how nice it feels in the hand. Compared to the Mamiya 645J, which felt like shooting with a VCR, the RZ feels like a glove.
Part of this is due to the waist level finder which allows you to comfortably hold the camera at waist or chest level and look down to compose the frame. This, and the rotating back, which I’ll get into later, is in my opinion one of the biggest draws to the Mamiya system.
I find the viewfinder on the RZ67 super bright, allowing for an easy focusing process and an unparalleled shooting experience. There’s really nothing quite like framing a shot through the huge ground glass.
The rotating back on the RZ67 is an amazing feature of the camera that allows the user to change the viewing orientation from portrait to landscape or vice versa with a simple rotation of the film back.
This allows you to avoid having to rotate the heavy camera body to recompose a frame. It sounds simple but it’s way more useful than it sounds, trust me on this one.
The Mamiya Lenses
I currently own two lenses for my Mamiya RZ67, which is the 90mm Z f/3.8 and 65mm Z f/4 – I must say I’m super impressed with them both.
I tend to shoot in the 3.8 to 5.6 range, and I find that these lenses never let me down. The subjects are always kept pin sharp while also rendering skin in a soft, lush way that I can only chalk up to the craftsmanship of Mamiya glass.
To my knowledge, all Mamiya lenses for the RZ67 system have a leaf shutter, which simply means that the shutter is in the lens and not on the actual camera body.
This allows you to sync flash at any speed you’d like, making it a great tool for studio work. I took the RZ out for a studio session and found this function super helpful – one less thing to worry about while on set is always a good thing!
Safeguards on the RZ67
Let’s take a moment to talk about all of the safeguards built into this bad boy. Firstly, there’s your typical shutter lock which prevents you from firing the shutter erroneously.
Additionally, the camera auto locks the shutter when the dark slide is in, preventing you from firing blank frames. A light even appears in the viewfinder reminding you to remove the dark slide before attempting to take a photograph.
I absolutely love this feature. I can’t tell you how many accidental shots I’ve fired off on cameras in the past by holding the camera the wrong way or brushing a little too hard against the shutter.
Quirks of the Mamiya RZ67
There isn’t much to dislike about this camera, but one thing to note in this review is that the Mamiya RZ67 is completely battery dependent and will not function properly without one.
There is a work around to get the shutter to fire without a battery, but it will only work at 1/400, which renders it not very useful. The necessity of a battery could be a deal breaker for those who seek the reliability of a fully mechanical camera, such as the Mamiya RB67.
Pros and Cons of the Waist Level Viewfinder
Another drawback I found specific to my setup is the limitations of the standard waist level finder. A waist level viewfinder, while my favorite way to compose a frame, simply restricts you from some shots/angles that I’d be able to capture had the camera been at eye level.
This can be rectified by purchasing a prism viewfinder (metered or non metered) but doing so would add a significant amount of weight and cost to the kit.
The only other thing I’ve found not to love about the RZ67 is its weight. It’s definitely not what one would call a travel camera.
If you’re into landscape or street photography, the Mamiya RZ67 will not provide the portability nor the low profile you may be looking for in a medium format option.
I believe my set up with a waist level finder and 90mm lens weighs in at around six pounds – once you begin adding extra lenses, a prism finder and a tripod, it only gets heavier.
Don’t let the weight of the camera turn you away from it, though. It’s not as tiring to carry around as some folks on the internet would have you think!
In summation of this Mamiya RZ67 review, I honestly love this camera. It allows you to produce some seriously beautiful negatives with ease.
Because of it’s slow pace, I’ve found my “keep rate” from any given roll of film to be consistently higher than shoots with previous cameras.
Is this the most user friendly camera out there? Maybe not. Is it the lightest camera on the market? Absolutely no.
Will it give you some of the tastiest negatives you’ve ever shot? Guaranteed.
I recommend the Mamiya RZ67 to anyone looking to get into medium format and is looking for a different shooting experience than your standard SLR style camera. It is so easy to fall in love with and won’t let you down!
Thank you so much, John! John is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his articles here. You can also check out more of John’s work on his website and Instagram.
If you have questions about the Mamiya RZ67, leave them below in the comments, and you can pick up one for yourself at KEH Camera or on eBay!