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.
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.
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.
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
- 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
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.