Written by Andrew Welsh
If you love instant film photography, you may just own an Instax camera or have gone as far as a custom skinned SX-70. However, you may not know the best system, hands down, for manual control instant photography is the Mamiya Universal Press. (Find the Mamiya Universal Press at KEH Camera or on eBay.)
Benefits of the Mamiya Universal Press
If you’ve ever shot an instant film camera, you’ve had to compromise on one or more of these features:
- 100% frame coverage
- Centered on the lens
- Faster than f/4 lens
- Calibrated rangefinder (or autofocus)
- Manual exposure control
- External flash control (strobes on triggers etc)
- Ability to carry by hand
The only camera that meets all of these needs is the Mamiya Universal Press.
The coveted Polaroid Land 180 and 195 cameras have slower f/4.7 lenses, and no flash connectors, unless you mod the lens or camera. The inexpensive and ubiquitous Land Cameras (250, 350 etc) are 100% automatic with f/13 lenses, requiring a direct flash, long exposures, fast ISO 3000 film and/or bright direct sunlight, and a battery compartment modification to use AAAs.
All other medium format systems besides the Mamiya Universal Press (Hasselblad, Contax, Pentax, Bronica etc) cover only a fraction of the frame. The next nearest “good choice,” a Mamiya RB/RZ, has a good portion of the frame permanently blacked out, and it weighs at minimum 5.5 lbs/2.5 kg, difficult for most people to carry around. The only medium-format camera with full coverage of the 4.25″x3.25″ frame is the Mamiya Universal Press. Plus, it can be carried by hand.
While 4×5 cameras also have 100% frame coverage, they have their own limitations. The ones with easy focus- SLRs – are very large and heavy. The lighter and manageable ones have more difficult focus (ground glass or rangefinders paired with slow lenses). Because the 4.x25x3.25 format is only a portion of the 4×5 frame, making composition is challenging or time consuming, because the Polaroid backs are off-center. For landscapes or slow, carefully posed portraits of still subjects, a 4×5 system is okay, but less than ideal for instant film shooting in regular portrait situations.
Shooting Kids, Weddings, & Portraits with the Mamiya Universal Press
I love documenting my children using instant photos. This gives us real prints to hold onto over the years. I’m also impatient and don’t want to wait for developing and scanning of a roll of film… I get the quality of film in mere minutes! Before I store or display the prints, I scan them with my Epson v700, for sharing and backup.
Here are some of my most favorite photos of my kids using the Mamiya Universal Press. In here, I show the range of lighting abilities the camera has, with an example of bounce flash, direct flash, remotely triggered strobe in a softbox, interior lighting in the evening, and natural daylight.
Outside of my family, the Mamiya Universal Press is perfect for client work. Besides being a conversation piece at a wedding, shooting instant film allows you to hand your clients a beautiful print in just a few minutes. Everyone appreciates the specialness of having a real print in their hands, despite the digital age’s proliferation of photos.
About the Mamiya Universal Press
First made in 1969 through the 70s, the Mamiya Universal Press is a 100% manual camera with multiple interchangeable lenses and a universe of options for film backs, living up to its name. And, like anything Mamiya, it is built like a tank, and weighs like one too. Fortunately, there are still many cameras going around, and professional repair shops are still able to fix them.
If you want to pick one up, most kits available on eBay include the ubiquitous and easily obtainable Sekor 100/3.5. Other lenses that are occasionally available are 75, 90, 127, 150, and 250mm. The viewfinder has built in frame lines for 100, 150 and 250mm, and all lenses are focus-calibrated. A wide 50mm lens exists, but is rare.
The lens you really want with this system is the 100mm f/2.8. It’s worth every penny for the extra bokeh you get in your images, as well as faster shutter speeds.
Now, you may be interested in buying this camera, but maybe are concerned about future-proofing it. The beauty of the Mamiya Universal Press is you’re not just limited to just one type of film.
The Mamiya Universal Press has backs available to shoot:
- 120 and 220 roll film (6×7, 6×9 and less commonly 6×4.5 or 6×6)
- Polaroid 4.25″ x 3.25″ in pack film (“peel apart” film like FP100c, FP3000b, Polaroid 669 etc)
There are also special backs with modifications that allow you to shoot:
- Impossible Project / Polaroid Originals (IP/PO) Type 600 or SX-70 film
- Instax Wide film
- Nate at Instant Options can mod a Belair Instax Wide back (if you can source one!)
- 4×5 sheet film (with some vignetting)
Some modders have even hacked a whole Instax Wide camera onto the back of the Mamiya Universal Press to obtain automatic ejection and a centered frame.
Available Instant Films
Currently (spring 2019), the only freshly manufactured instant films of any kind are:
- Fujifilm Instax (mini, square and wide sizes) (Find on Amazon)
- Polaroid Originals (aka Impossible Project) (600 and Spectra sizes). (Find on Amazon)
The 600 type film, Instax wide, and peel-apart FP100c/3000b/Polaroid etc are all the same size – 4.25’x3.25”. Instax Mini and Square are smaller.
Fuji will make Instax in the foreseeable future, and it’s relatively inexpensive at about $0.75 USD per photo. Polaroid Originals/Impossible Project film is here to stay, and has its own charm, at about $3 USD per photo. The last peel apart film made, FP-100c (also Fujifilm), ceased new production in early 2016. Thankfully, there was a recent successful Kickstarter, by the same people who made the Impossible Project film, to manufacture new peel apart film sometime in mid-2019, and initially will run close to $10 USD per photo. There are still sources online for other peel apart films, such as the ISO 3000 B&W FP-3000b, as well as rarer, older, and riskier (funky colors, dried out pods etc) films made by Fuji and Polaroid like FP-100b, 667, 669, etc.
Overall, this photographic system by far is the most versatile, flexible and future-proof system, even as available film formats change rapidly. Paired with FP100c or FP3000b peel-apart film (still easy to find as of spring 2019), you can make large format quality images in combination with the 100/2.8 lens, and quickly switch to your favorite medium format stocks to shoot 120/220 film. Nothing beats the look of excitement on people’s faces when you hand them a beautiful instant print right there.