What's the best film camera for medium-format hand-held photography?

Discussion in 'Medium Format' started by rexmarriott, Feb 3, 2019.

  1. Comfort and handling is subjective, of course, but these grips are cheap enough that it isn't difficult to try them out. And one's feelings can change over time: at first I hated very the idea of grips and refused to use them with any camera. But both my Mamiya C220/330 and Hasselblads came with grips: eventually I fished them out of storage to play with, and discovered they actually are nice to use in some configurations for some types of shooting. Grips add bulk and weight, so I don't want them all the time, but have increasingly found them useful.

    A grip seems counterintuitive with WLF until you try it awhile. I have jittery hands, so a side grip helps me stabilize cameras with WLF enough to get a more steady view thru the finder (not to mention aligning verticals in the shot). With the Hasselblad, a side grip also gives me more leverage to turn the ridiculously heavy focus ring on some lenses. With the Mamiya TLRs, the side grip makes the whole thing feel less top-heavy and awkward handheld, and makes my right hand feel a bit freer and more responsive on the focus knob, shutter release (and shutter cock with the manual 220f). Shopping Mamiya grips can be tricky, as there were a great many variations (and each feels different).
  2. Emphatically agree with you on the crucial importance of getting the very latest, best-sealed WLF hoods for Mamiya TLR. The older flappy hood has more gaps than Swiss cheese, allowing loads of stray light to hit the screen (even indoors) and causing annoying reflections of your own face. IMHO the Mamiyas are virtually impossible to use with the old type WLF: they absolutely require the newer one, to the point its worth buying a whole newer body (if necessary) to get one. The "good" hoods are easy to identify, as only two were made: one has lid cosmetics that match the C330 (and the sportsfinder feature), the other specifically matches the final C220f in my pic (no sportsfinder). The older unpleasant hoods for C330 have telltale silver struts, and/or a non-integrated magnifier that floats above with gaps all around. Worst is the old "M" -leatherette hood for original C220 and all previous models like C22, C33 etc- gaps all over the place, uneven side flaps prone to breakage, folding magnifier completely unshielded- blecch.

    The newest C330f hood can be retrofitted to any previous C330, and matches perfectly. Unfortunately it doesn't look right at all on the original 220 (or any of the older C22, C33 etc bodies with the same "M" embossed leatherette). It works perfectly, but sticks out like a sore thumb. The final 220f hood is another left-field "what were they thinking" update: works fantastic, even better than 330f hood, but doesn't look remotely correct on anything but the 220f. A little flexibility in replacement part swapping might have been nice.

    With Hasselblad, its fairly simple. Both the old "manual fold" and new "auto fold" hoods are well sealed against stray light. But the new hood uses a fragile foam lip to seal out stray light at the front hinge: when this inevitably crumbles, the new hood is actually worse than the old. Aside from that, the only usability difference is square (old) vs round (new) magnifier glass (eyeglass wearers prefer the round), and the ability to swap eyepiece diopters on the new hood (in theory, anyway: the diopter flaps are scarce to the point of costing as much as the entire WLF).

    Yes, the Mamiya TLRs are trucks to begin with, so adding the 90 degree prism really does make them impossible to handhold without a grip (and heavier with the grip). The prism is also not terribly bright. But sometimes a prism is a necessary evil. Its unfortunate Mamiya did not really think thru their own ergonomics, and just slavishly copied Rollei's 90 degree orientation. Rolleiflex works well with a 90 prism because its small and light, the Mamiya TLRs are a joke to hold against your face with a 90 prism. They handle FAR better with a 45 prism like the old Hasselblad NC2, which also happens to be bright and match all the Mamiyas cosmetically. I occasionally "MacGyver" the NC2 onto my Mamiyas and it works great, wish I had bought the clever third-party secure mount adapter when it was still available.
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2019
    mag_miksch likes this.
  3. Yes, if you can find one: nowadays they only seem to be available from Japanese camera dealers on eBay. The E screen (and B, and all the others in this series) are of equal brightness to the standard plain matte screen that came with your 220f, they just add various focus or composition aids. I posted pics of my B screen (and the box it came in) as a guide to the screen type that works in your 220f. They must look like the one in my pics: plastic flat with no metalwork, silver box marked "for 330S"). The earlier, darker, far more common 330 screens come as an assembly built into a metal screen frame/tray, in larger black or yellow packaging.
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2019
  4. Thanks again, orsetto.
  5. Anyone you can afford. I've used Bronica for over 30 years and find that they handle and perform very well. The GS-1 (6x7) is a beauty but a bit heavy to lug around and hand hold. The ETR-S (645) is a little beauty with great optic and dirt cheap. The 6x6 SQ-A is wonderful as well. Have a look first hand before you decide.
    mag_miksch likes this.
  6. The only MF SLR I have used is Hasselblad, I do not think it is impractical if I use a 45 degree finder and hold onto it with a hand grip, but you do have to hold onto it carefully. Other than that I have used only TLRs.
  7. Having just walked the OP's walk, spending months to select a medium format system to get back into shooting film, I am curious about a couple of things:
    1. Why the Mamiya 645 hasn't been suggested (whether the 1000s or the 645 Super, Pro or Pro TL).
    2. Why a number of folks are giving advice that is pretty much ignoring the OP's fairly clear wishlist: wants to shoot outdoors handheld; doesn't want to use a WLF; doesn't want a TLR; would prefer 6x6 but seems like he can live with a 645...

    I ended up going for a Mamiya 645 Pro with WG401 grip and AE prism finder. I also bought a 105-210mm f/4.5 lens and had earlier acquired a 210mm f/4 which I may well offload. My film rolls arrive shortly. So far the handling is pretty decent (handheld) and quite intuitive. The body is somewhat hefty with either lens attached, but certainly usable handheld. The split-screen focusing is a joy to use.

    Finally, it would be nice to hear what the OP has to say about the suggestions so far :)
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2019
  8. After much discussion with multiple posters pitching in to help, OP discovered he might not (yet) need another camera after all. He was relatively happy with his existing Mamiya TLR for home studio portraiture, aside from it seeming to have a very dark viewfinder. This was eventually traced to the easily-overlooked DOF preview aperture in the unusual (but excellent) Sekor 105mm f/3.5 DS viewing lens being accidentally closed several stops down. Opening the aperture up to maximum f/3.5 made viewing/focusing dramatically more pleasant, as this particular Mamiya TLR is a final '80s model with inherently brighter focus screen (compared to vintage TLRs).

    The Mamiya 645 system was mentioned in passing, and I believe the similar Bronica ETR was as well. But these systems are rather similar to OP's other MF kit, which is a Hasselblad. Possible weight reduction and electronic AE advantages aside, overall the handling of the 645 systems would be similar to Hasselblad with a prism and side grip. OP has apparently decided to work with what he has for the moment, preferring the 6x6 square format, but I expect he'll revisit the topic if his shooting environment changes from home studio to increased street work. A change to 645 might become more appealing then, if the work lends itself to rectangular framing (and he finds a 645 system with viewing/handling characteristics that suit him).
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2019
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  9. Very happy to have the opportunity to return to this discussion.

    As it happens, I had the good fortune to try out a Mamiya 645 Pro during this process. I thought it was a good camera. I liked the light meter display in the viewfinder and thought the camera was OK for hand-holding. Two things put me off: comments here about reliability and the noise of the motor drive, which I really didn't like. Had I bought a Mamiya, I would have wanted one with a hand-winder, which would have defeated the object, since the motor-drive serves as a grip for hand-holding.
  10. ... and here is the orsetto inspired C220F


    Tremendous! I'm looking out for a wide-angle lens for the C220F. I reckon that will round the package off very nicely.

    The story doesn't end here. I watched 'McCullin', the documentary about Don McCullin. There are several deleted scenes offered as extras with the DVD. In the last of these, McCullin speaks very briefly about his camera. He says that he asked David Bailey about shooting bigger formats and Bailey advised him to get a Mamiya Press camera. We see McCullin taking landscape photographs hand-held in Somerset. McCullin says something about how he's had the camera for 30 years and how much he loves it.

    I was unable to resist the lure of the Mamiya Universal Press, inspite of the fact that, at the moment, I can only print up to 6x6. There is a film-roll holder for the camera that makes 6x6 possible, but the process looks too fiddly. Besides, I made some 6x9 negatives and scanned them and thought: 'I like this.' The Mamiya Press won't win any beauty contests and it is heavy, but with a left hand pistol grip and what serves as a second grip on the right of the film-roll holder, it is great for hand-holding.

    Of course, I'm left with the problem that I can only print crops of these amazing negatives. The plan at the moment is to upgrade to a bigger enlarger that will print 35mm to 4x5. This will have to wait until next year. 4x5? That sounds interesting...
    orsetto likes this.
  11. rexmarriott, you may have sent me a telepathic suggestion about the Mamiya Press: I just bought one on a whim about two weeks ago, perhaps the same time you did! Never even considered this type of MF camera for my own use before: I've always preferred reflex to rangefinder. But I couldn't pass up the bargain price it was offered at, and wow am I glad I didn't: the Universal is a really fun addition to my stable. As heavy as my Hasselblad with grip and prism, if not more so, but as you mentioned: 6x9 real estate! I really need to track down that McCullin documentary now...
    Mamiya Universal For Pnet.jpg

    Its taking me awhile to acclimate to the rangefinder and swap 'square vision' for 6x9, but I think eventually I'll get some pics with this rig that would be impossible with either the 'blad or C220. I'm trying very hard to resist the lure of the amazing 75mm and 50mm wides made for this system: they're only available now from Japanese sellers at prices that approach Hassy glass. But imagine how they'd perform in tandem with the super-flat Press film magazine!

    Speaking of wides, I don't think you can go wrong with either made for your Mamiya 220f. I have both, and it can be tough to choose between the 65mm and 55mm. The 55 is wider but slower: f/4.5 can be challenging indoors, and it flares outdoors in bright light even with the convoluted custom Mamiya hood. The 65mm is faster at f/3.5, and more suited to street, environmental portraits or group shots. The 65 would also make a nice two-lens combo with your 105mm (both together are smaller and lighter than any Hassy wide). Its worth looking for the "blue dot" shutter cocking lever on these: newer is usually better with the TLR wides. The 55mm in particular was known to have better quality control in later batches (serial number starting with 8 or 9, or blue dot + six digit serial starting with 1).
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2019
    mag_miksch and rexmarriott like this.
  12. I've got a bid in at the moment for the 65mm C lens. We'll see.

    I can recommend the McCullin film. Of course, he's best known as a war photographer working with 35mm, but they also show some of his landscapes taken with the Mamiya Press and they are mightily impressive.

    I rather rushed in to getting a 65mm f6.3 lens for the Mamiya Press on eBay and saw the same lens yesterday in a local high street camera shop for less than half the price.
  13. taking in consideration you stated max = 6x6, but thinking out of the box i would look at a Mamiya 7, multiple focal lengths available, and nice lightweight camera.
    I am big fan of Hasselblad and Pentax 6x7,but Mamiya 7 could be an alternative to think of. Best greetings.
  14. "The best lens I own is a tripod."
  15. mamiya 645pro2.jpg i can recommend a mamiya 645 pro with grip. love it.
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2019
  16. for me the 55 was a little harsh, the 65 rendered nicier^^
    I sold all my RB and C330 stuff some years ago, just kept one C330s with 65 and 180
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  17. The 180mm Super for the Mamiya TLR system is a lovely lovely lens: if not the single greatest price/performance bargain in used lenses, certainly high on the top ten list. I see them routinely sell for under $100 on eBay: contrast this with the $700-$1000 commanded by the Hasselblad 180mm Sonnar! The superb rendering of the Mamiya 180 Super allows me to skip the pricey 180 Sonnar entirely: this made me happy, as I really did not want to give up my trusty 150 Sonnar to pay for the overpriced 'blad180. And I can sometimes get away with hand-holding the 180 Super with the stable C220f TLR. The 180 makes the 'blad too front-heavy and clumsy: compounded with its mirror/rear shutter shock, hand-holding blows any resolution edge the 180 Sonnar might have over the 150 Sonnar. On a tripod, the Hass 180 is slightly sharper but somehow less pleasing than the 150 (the Mamiya 180 Super splits the difference perfectly).

    The 65mm Sekor is often nicer in some ways than the 55mm, yes. But this isn't consistent: unfortunately wide angles for Mamiya TLR suffer from sample variation much more than teles. The 65mm wanders all over the place: some are considered equal to the Distagon in the RolleiWide, others are considered Coke bottles. Depends on age, if any shims were tampered with, if haze or fog has been properly cleaned away, etc. Newer Blue Dot 65s tend to be better, but I've seen them equaled by a couple ancient chrome-front 65s: condition is everything with these.

    Speaking of which, a very irritating aspect of the Mamiya TLR lenses is their inordinate tendency to develop haze and fog: repeatedly. One needs to check them twice yearly for this, and clean it off before it damages the coatings. The 65mm, 105mm and 135mm are the worst offenders, the 55mm is more resistant. At least all the Mamiya TLR optics are easy to disassemble and clean, except the 55mm which is the most complex design (with twice as many elements and risk). The 105mm DS and final version of 80mm have peculiar viewing lenses that are difficult to take apart, but the taking lenses are easily cleaned.

    65mm, 105mm and 180mm are the standout lenses of the system, with the caveat of sample variation affecting the 65mm (good ones are great). The 55mm is very good but difficult to use in some respects, the 80mm is fine but boring. The 135mm much better than its reputation implies: optics are quite good, but the extreme bellows draw makes it too clumsy to hand hold. The 250mm f/6.3 is scarce, huge, and s-l-o-w (in aperture and operation): leave it to collectors.
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2019
  18. You talk about the 180mm Super, orsetto. I see that there are 3 180mm lenses for the C series, two designated 'Super', and all three black. What is the difference between the Super and non-Super, and is it easy to tell them apart cosmetically?
  19. You won't regret it. The 65mm is light weight, easy to CLA and if the glass is clean and clear will produce nice images. I've only used mine for 6x9 though, on a Mamiya 23 Standard
  20. Yes, I tested it yesterday and am very happy with the results.

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