Getting Into Medium Format on a Budget: Fstoppers Reviews the Mamiya RB67

Getting Into Medium Format on a Budget: Fstoppers Reviews the Mamiya RB67

Getting into medium format is quite costly. It’s difficult to know if the investment is going to be worth it and if it’s going to match your current workflow. Medium format has a tendency to slow you down, kind of like film. When I tried my first Phase One, I couldn’t afford one. So I went with the cheapest alternative I could find, the Mamiya RB67 Pro-S. Here’s why I’m glad I made that move but also why it doesn’t replace a digital medium-format system.

If you are on B&H trying to find a brand new RB67, let me stop you right there: you won’t. The very first model was released in 1970, followed in 1974 by the Pro-S, and then the Pro-SD in 1990. The differences between the three are not major. The latter will let you use 8x6 backs and thus can take larger lenses (L mount). The Pro-S improved on the original one by adding a mechanism that prevents from releasing the shutter if the film is not advanced. It also comes with a few minor tweaks, but the reason why I went with the Pro-S is that I wanted the cheapest option but one that would prevent me from shooting double exposures without me knowing.

Build Quality

The build quality cannot be compared to anything recent. It’s pretty much all metal with a few touches of plastic. It feels extremely solid in hand. Only the viewfinder seems a bit flimsy compared to the rest. The downside to its ruggedness is the weight. At close to 6 pounds with a 127mm lens, it’s not your Nikon D810 or Canon 5D. Shooting handled is possible, but all day would quickly become a pain.

An important note regarding the RB67 is that it’s all mechanical. It’s one of the reasons why I chose it over the RZ67. No need to have batteries in your bag, you can grab your camera anytime and shoot. But no battery also means no integrated metering system. You’ll have to measure everything with a light meter or alternatively with a phone app. If you have never shot film, this may be a bit strange at first, but it’ll help you practice guestimating an exposure in a pinch.

Performances

I’m not sure we can talk about performances for a film medium-format camera. If you are looking for the camera with the highest frame rate on the market, the easiest to work with raw files, or the highest ISO range possible, let be honest, it’s not a camera tailored to match your needs.

On the other hand, if you want large negatives, the pleasure of hearing the big mirror slap after each exposure, the feeling of working to get a picture and not just snap away, this is definitely an option you should consider. 6x7 negatives are quite big and a bit easier to compose than 6x6. The waist-level viewfinder is incredibly refreshing and will make heads turn around when shooting in public areas.

Working with the RB67 takes a bit of getting used to at first, and this will hinder your working performances. The focusing has to be done manually as there are no electronics in this beast. The viewfinder is bright and large enough to make it easy, or at least easier than on a digital 35mm DSLR. But then, moving the camera around to frame your shot using the waist level viewfinder, you'll notice that the image is inverted as there is no prism. Finally, once your frame is done and the camera is focused because it's using a below system to achieve focus, you'll have to control that your settings are still working. When your subject is close, the below will be almost if not fully unfolded and less light will reach the film. Meaning, you'll have to manually compensate for the loss of light. For many, it will be more of a pain than anything, for others, it will feel like working to get the shot.

Can It Replace Digital Medium Format?

I personally didn’t buy this camera to shoot film, but rather to shoot medium format. I had tried a Phase One XF IQ2 50MP and loved the look I could get out of the larger sensor. Although it’s becoming cheaper every day to get into digital medium format, I didn’t want to buy a CCD system. I thought that a film camera could do the trick until I could splurge on a full-frame 645 CMOS camera.

Being a portrait, commercial, and beauty photographer, I didn’t shoot tons of paid shoots with it. First, because I don’t feel confident enough to shoot any commercial work on film yet, and second because I don’t feel it’s practical enough for my workflow. Because yes, it will slow you down, from start to finish. Loading film is easy but not as quick as a memory card, achieving focus and advancing film are done manually, and finally processing the film takes a while too. And then, you only end up with a negative that you must scan or print — and that is if the negative is any good.

So sure, the end result is sublime. I love the creamy transitions and bokeh I can get out of such large negatives, and the shallow depth of field is amazing. Although I do not regret my purchase at all, it’s just not the same as shooting digitally. The RB67 Pro-S is fantastic and helped me in many ways to grow as a photographer. Going back to the very basics of your photography is fantastic. However, it won’t take the place of my D810 or avoid me renting a Phase One XF IQ3 100MP for commercial jobs.

Price

Pricing will vary widely between the RB67 you’ll find online. I bought my Pro-S with a 127mm f/3.8 and two backs for around $300-350. However, depending on the lenses and number of backs included, it may be a bit more expensive. Some RB67 also come with a prism finder instead of the traditional waist-level viewfinder. Just be sure to look closely at the pictures before buying and only get one from a trusted seller.

What I Liked

  • All mechanical camera
  • Affordable
  • Fun to shoot with
  • Waist-level viewfinder
  • Leaf shutter lenses
  • 6x7 negatives

What I Didn't like

  • Bellow focusing can be troubling at first
  • Heavy and cumbersome

Conclusion

I absolutely love my RB67. It’s a beautiful piece of equipment, one that I enjoy taking out at the end of a session just to selfishly shoot a roll of film without any pressure. Best of all, it’s not extremely costly, making it a good way to get into film photography or get that medium format so many rave about.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on shooting film medium format in 2017. Do you still shoot some film? Do you believe current digital medium format are good enough to compete with the look of film despite their smaller sensor sizes? Let me know in the comments below.

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25 Comments

I enjoyed reading the review. I don't mind being dependent upon a battery. The battery in an RZ67 could probably last a while without replacing. My Canon A-1 is dependent upon a battery for everything and it lasts a long while.
I have been coveting a Mamiya 67 after I bought my A-1 in 1980. One of these days ...

Asia Valle's picture

Great article! Pretty much exact same reasoning which lead me to grabbing one up myself! But I'm literally selling the oneI got. Its in Pristine condition, with 90mm F3.5, polaroid back, grip, etc. Super Cheap. Message me if interested lol

Percy Ortiz's picture

Had one. Exchanged it for a Canon Pro-wide printer. While a beautiful camera that helped me thru my degree in photo imaging. I was limited to only one sense since i couldn't afford a second one. Yes it was heavy and no you could not use it hand held for long periods or even a steady shot in low light (the mirror kick when taking a frame was comparable to the kickback of a 45 caliber pistol) But it was beautiful enough to always fire that love with medium format. When Canon made a mess out of its flag DSLR I spent all my hard earned money and jumped boat to Hasselblad and got a H1 which I still keep and probably will until the day i die because it lets me switch from digital to film just by changing the back.

Amazing ..... I had the great Mamiya RB67 over 20 years ago, built like a brick blockhouse, big bulky and reliable a great camera - shot countless book covers and stock shots with it. But above all being totally manual you slowed down when shooting and thought about each and every shot. Matt

Sean Shimmel's picture

Matt, I took a peek at your excellent work. Keep up the vision. Especially enjoyed the tight composition with those sheep framed by the foliage

Many thanks for that appreciated ........... much more at mlimages.co.uk
Matt

Anonymous's picture

RB 67 is a classic studio unit. A great alternative that is better in various ways (especially landscapes) is the Horseman 985 technical field camera. You get a 6x6, 6x7,or 6x9 neg via swappable backs. It is relatively light (compared to my 5DII & a lens), the lenses being very small gems that weigh very little (take 2-3 hiking!) It is compact in form when closed up like a clam. You get view camera movements (real landscape photography!) and ground glass, 45 degree prism, and/or a viewfinder/rangefinder that bright and quick to use hand-held. Very rugged Japanese-made, all metal with many accessories, no mirror slap or blackout, a fantastic camera in all respects for single-shot photography (you cock the shutters for each shot). No battery in camera, you use a hand held meter, which allows incident readings, the best for thoughtful work anyway.

romain vernede's picture

I love mine very much!
bought mint in Japan with prism finder and 150mm, a killer combo!

Jessica Jones's picture

I can't speak for the RB as I have the RZ, but I will say that one battery in my RZ has lasted 2 years now and that is with constantly forgetting to turn the knob over to battery saving mode! It is slightly lighter, but I actually use mine for nature photography and carry it around with me for hours on end, rarely using a tripod. With a good strap and backpack it doesn't pose too much of a problem. I recently acquired a Pentax 67 and I think that the Mamiya still wins out. The mirror slap feels smoother, I can shoot double exposures, change backs, and film loading is incredibly quick and easy. I primarily shoot medium format and can't get enough of it!

romain vernede's picture

Same feeling here, I bought a pentax67 which I sold the next week to go back with a RB67SD system...

it is easier to compose than the square format? Nope, your bias is showing. Any format is easy when one likes it and uses it.
The camera is mainly a Tripod tool. Yes, it can be handheld but is designed for tripod use. It is heavier than some 4x5 view cameras.
It is a good, solid workhorse. If you like it, use it and enjoy.

Spy Black's picture

If you want to get a medium format camera nowadays they're all going for peanuts. :-)

The RB is a great camera. It's a heavy sucker tho, not that any medium format camera is a lightweight. When I was looking around for either a Mamiya RB or it's smaller 645 brother, I ran across what is apparently "the smallest and lightest 6x7 ever made", the Bronica GS-1. It too was going for peanuts and I decided to go for it instead. Turns out to be quite a good camera, and it is as small as these things are going to get. You can see it next to my Nikon D600 below. It also has a pentamirror eyepiece, a luxury for these cameras at the time, and handgrip with a release button.

The biggest problems I've had is scanning the film. Flatbeds are not really good for this job, inasmuch as that's what most people use nowadays, and the only available new 120 scanner is 'pre-focused", so it doesn't actually focus on the film plane, and it doesn't have a glass carrier to maintain focus across the live area of the film. Nikon Coolscan 9000s are the only game in town, and they are astronomically priced for their rareness today. I do wish a manufacturer would step up to the plate today and make a new scanner on par with the 9000.

So, here you can see how "tiny" the Bronica GS-1 is. :-) It actually is surprisingly small for a 6x7:

The Mamiya6 / Mamiya7 are much, much smaller and lighter than either the GS or the RB. And there are many other MF rangefinders that are similarly compact. One could also just pick up a Fuji GA645 AF camera.

Anonymous's picture

You got that right except fixed lenses kill the deal. The RB is nearly the last best choice for most purposes in that format. Interesting here nobody seems to know the Horseman 985, it does everything, is light, a rangefinder etc WITH view camera movements. Because the lenses are super light and tiny, you can take a couple hiking, and I mean hiking uphill not strolling on the flats.

Mamiya 6/7 have interchangeable lenses and aren't a 'fixed' system. You might be surprised how the fixed normal lens on a Fuji GA or GSW looks and feels. The more I shoot with MF and LF, the more I like 'normal' focal lengths. For max IQ, I take my Wista 4x5 w/ full movements and huge image area. Haven't run into a Horseman 985, but I've got two 4x5's on the selling block now and may have to search eBay...

Anonymous's picture

Thank you! I stand corrected. Yes the Mamiya rangefinder is absolutely gorgeous and very high precision, it's been a while and I am mixing the models in my mind. Thanks.

The 985 is a rangefinder, but can go 6x9 and you can look through an accessory prism eyepiece onto a ground glass to see the rise/fall and precisely frame. The lenses are very small & light jewels, because they have no focusing helical (it bellows focuses). So it's a compact folding steel box roll film view camera with a rangefinder. With three lenses, it's no heavier that my two lens 5DII setup.

The 4x5 is not a mountain hiker's tool as you would agree, it's all too large & heavy (lenses to holders) and a changing bag for film is too fussy in rough conditions.

Spy Black's picture

Actually, I misquoted that quote I made. It should have read "the smallest and lightest 6x7 *SLR* ever made", which is true.

The Mamiya rangefinders are indeed smaller, lighter, and beautiful engineering works of art. It's no surprise they still command premium prices. The 6x7 SLRs, however, can be had for peanuts.

Lots of advantages to working with a reflex camera, I just love the lightweight and portability of my MF rangefinders and 'pro P&S'. I miss being able to do tighter/closer work like with an SLR, but can personally live with the tradeoff.

That Fuji GA seriously kills in IQ...I've got 11x14's scanned from an Epson 800 that are sharp and tonally smooth at the same time.

Spy Black's picture

I also have a Fuji GS645, which is wonderful, but it's bellows has pinholes, an apparent shortcoming of these cameras.

I bought mine about 35 years ago and still have it. I don't use it as much as I should, maybe two or three times a year. The other feature I like about it is the rotating back giving the ability to quickly switch between portrait and landscape mode.

Norbert Palša's picture

I love film. I didn't enjoy film era in the past as much as I wanted to (just few years of awkward Olympus Trip 300 camera when I was maybe 6 y.o.) so I decided to sell my DSLR and go film only (for at least some time until I get some better camera than my D40 was). It wasn't really hard as a D40 with the kit lens isn't really the best quality camera ever made by whomever. But I bought a Nikon F100 and almost a year after that the RZ.

I love my RZ, bigger negative size, less noise when enlarging (oh yes, I bought the equipment too), the only thing I find annoying is that it doesn't fit my camera bag, so I'll probably need to buy a new bag. And a better tripod. And some graduated and normal ND filters. And color filters. And lights. And...

It's a beautiful camera which I think is wonderful to use if you don't mind the weight and some restrictions - max 1/400s, lenses are generally not that fast, the fastest are 110mm f/2.8 lenses, but image and build quality are great. However, no metering means using either external meter, AE prism finder or something like a phone camera with manual settings so you can preview your exposure somehow (def. not ideal, but has worked for many shots). Which reminds me I should buy a spot meter, but they are quite pricey (student) and I don't really want to take my 35mm SLR on a location just to spot meter the scene.

I've heard somewhere in the deeps of the interwebs, that RBs are prone to losing their shutter speed accuracy in time due to older mechanics of lens, springs losing tension and so on. And that should have been addressed by RZ series and their electronic shutter release. Because of that, and the fact, that possible adapting of digital backs (too expensive for student so far) is easier with RZ, aaaand that I could use any of the RZ/RB lenses, I leaned towards the newer system (got the Pro II version) and couldn't be happier (currently using 65mm L-A and 140mm L-A lenses).

And now I'm starting to think about selling my Nikon F100 with MB-15 grip and Sigma 50mm A as I almost stopped shooting 35mm film... Or not... Who knows? Who cares?

P.S.: Love the clack of the mirror and the noise it makes when cocking the shutter while winding the film, resistance of the film and all the sensory and emotional inputs from using it.
N.

Jared Wolfe's picture

Hasselblad for the win. Smaller. Lighter. More lenses. Faster shutter speeds. Much easier to take digital. The extra 1cm really isnt worth it IMO.

Henry Larson's picture

I have been using my RB67 for about 14 years and it is my go to camera when I want to maximize my creativity. I have a 65mm, 90mm, and 360mm lens. I am mainly a landscape and scenery photographer. I also have a Sinar F and a 1947 Speedgraphic pacemaker. I liked this article and hope that more and more serious photographers will start to blend the best of both the analog and digital worlds

I'm very fond of my RB 67.

But .... as a starter in medium-format I do think that the C220 or C330 are better bets. They are cheaper as bodies and the lenses are also cheaper.

There is something special about 6x7 (and larger). I find that I can simply look through the waist level finder and find myself enamored with the image there. It isn't that I can visualize what I want really well from the viewfinder, but what I see in the viewfinder is exactly what I want! It is kind of magical. If I want to capture this, my only real option is to shoot film. Now, when they make an affordable sensor that actually covers 6x7 it will be different, but until then...