Review: Mamiya 6 Rangefinder 6x6 Camera & Lenses

An informal review by Hamish Reid.

Review Copyright © 1994, 1995 Hamish Reid. All Rights Reserved.


Introduction

This is a new version of my earlier review of the Mamiya 6 that first appeaared in The Medium Format Digest; this version reflects a year or two's more experience with the camera, and adds a few points here and there....

Summary: Great Camera -- Shame About The Price....

If you're looking for a versatile, quiet, high-quality 6x6 camera with all the advantages of a good rangefinder (quiet, no mirror shake, no SLR lens design compromises, etc.), and an interchangeable lens system with three useful lenses (50mm, 75mm, 150mm), I can thoroughly recommend this camera.

Optical quality is excellent, and the camera itself has proved to be very sturdy and easy to use within the inherent limitations of the rangefinder design (see below). In short, this camera has pretty much replaced my 35mm for everything but pure snapshots; it's also replaced my 6x7 for everything but tripod-mounted stuff and work where the extra image size of the 6x7 is significant (nothing will ever replace my 4x5...).

The only real problem is the price, which is extortionate: it's still somewhat cheaper than a Hasselblad, though (which is not a particularly relevant comparison, but never mind...). It's also cheaper than the new Mamiya 7, at least as far as I can tell.

The 6MF ("Multi Format") body is to all intents and purposes identical to the 6 reviewed here except for the multi-format features (more on these later) and a couple of minor cosmetic changes. Note that Mamiya currently make and sell both the 6 and the 6MF - enough potential customers complained about the 6MF's "features" that the plain old 6 was resurected unchanged.

Background & Motivation for Buying

I'm a big fan of the Pentax 6x7, and also use a Sinar A-1 4x5. Both of these cameras are great for what they were bought for (landscapes, still lifes, portraits, etc.), but I've always wanted a medium format camera that could do handheld streetscapes and portraits quietly and at low shutter speeds without mirror vibration. The Pentax is far too noisy and bulky for this, and suffers from having a huge mirror (MLU can be done handheld on the 67, but it's a pain...). I've also needed something to take with me hiking and skiing - something a bit lighter than the Pentax, but with better picture quality for landscapes than my 35mm SLR. I explictly wanted a 6x6, 6x7, or larger; I've never been terribly enthusiastic about 6x4.5.

I thought long and hard about the Fuji 6x7 and 6x9 alternatives, but in the end I wanted one body and the ability to have all three of my most-used lens lengths available in the one package (the equivalent of the 35mm's 28mm, 50mm, and 80 to 100mm lenses). The Fuji models don't have the longer lens.

What made me decide on the Mamiya 6 was mostly the interchangeable lenses and the positive comments from people who had them or who'd used them.

Technical Details

Equipment reviewed:

The Mamiya 6 body has a collapsing lens mount to make the body / lens profile slightly narrower (by about 2 or 3 cm) when stowed. The body has an internal darkslide that is conveniently activated from outside with a built-in little turnkey thing; this is essential for changing lenses, but also makes me feel better about possible light leaks through the lens shutters. The body and lenses have a bunch of interlocks that stop you from taking the lens off without the dark slide actuated, or from taking a photo with the slide actuated or the lens mount collapsed, etc. There's also a self-timer with about a ten second fuse, and all the usual flash support (hot shoe and sync sockets).

The lenses have built-in leaf shutters controlled from the body; available speeds range from T and B through 4 seconds to 1/500. The 50 and 75mm lenses have coverage well in excess of the necessary 56x56mm; the 150mm model appears to cover slightly more than needed. The lens mount is a simple and rather sturdy bayonet system.

The exposure metering system has manual, locked, and aperture-priority modes (the locked mode is a simple "remembered" mode). The system includes a +2, +1, -1, and -2 stop compensation switch, and works with film settings from ISO 15 to ISO 3200. The exposure system is not through-the-lens: the meter is next to the viewfinder and has a constant field of view (about 35 degrees).

Useability

This is a really useable camera. The camera feels good and well-balanced when held; it's quiet, it's light, and it's relatively unobtrusive; and it looks and handles like a big 35mm camera (in fact, it's lighter than an F4 and isn't much larger). Changing lenses is a breeze; changing film is similarly foolproof and easy. The various interlocks are useful (but when are they going to invent an interlock to stop you taking a photo with the lens cap on? This is embarrasingly easy to do with a rangefinder).

The light meter is generally fairly accurate if you are aware of its limitations (i.e. its angle of view is the same for all lenses regardless of lens length), and the aperture priority auto exposure mode is simple and straightforward to use (but then I almost never use it).

Reliability & Toughness

This camera has been dragged around in my backpack and truck quite a bit in the years I've had it; it's crossed several deserts, it's been up to the 11,000 foot level in the California Sierras, it's been snowed on, accidentally dropped onto the surface of a frozen lake from about 5 metres up (Black Lake above Big Pine Canyon for those of you who know California's Owens Valley area), it's been in downtown Oakland and Berkeley, it's survived being taken to Australia, etc. etc. Overall, it's survived very well. The body seems to be tough enough for most abuse: the optics, settings, and mechanics have been unaffected by the abuse and use.

Optical Quality

I haven't done any scientific tests on this yet (nor will I, probably), but I've taken many hand-held shots at varying speeds and apertures over the last few months, and I have to say they look sharp even at 20x24. My general impression is that the 50mm and 75mm lenses are truly well-designed and built, the 50mm design not needing the usual SLR retro-focus compromise. Both lenses are of course sharpest at about f8-f11, but they keep good sharpness even at f22 (in my opinion, of course). Film flatness appears to be reasonable (or at least not a problem), but again I haven't really tested this properly.

The lack of mirror shake seems to allow for sharp photos down to at least 1/30 - luckily enough, since this was one of the main reasons for buying the damn thing in the first place. Hand-held landscapes generally look about as sharp and grain-free as those from my 6x7 (or at least they're comparable); action shots on the streets look very good indeed compared to the 35mm.

The Viewfinder, Focusing & Framing, Etc.

Here's where I had most learning to do - unlike the SLRs or the view camera, what you see in the viewfinder is not always quite what you get (understatement!). I kept taking photos of buildings from street level, not quite certain of whether the viewfinder's distortion (when pointed up at large angles) matched the real lens's (it doesn't, of course, and it's difficult to get framing right in these circumstances).

Nothing here, though, is a Mamiya-specific problem - in general, the viewfinder is bright and easy to use, and not the source of any real problems. Be aware, though, that the three lenses use the same basic screen / view, so that with the 150mm lens the real view cropped off for the lens in the screen is quite small.

The 6's view finder has a coupled parallax error reduction system which actually appears to work quite well. The actual framing when pointed at level subjects is pretty accurate; focusing is similarly easy (at least I haven't had any problems yet).

Multi-Format Features

The newer Mamiya 6MF comes with a much-touted "Multi Format" system (this is missing from the original 6 reviewed here, but I played with one in the store for a while - take these comments with a grain of salt).

It's unclear quite why Mamiya bothered with this.... The 6x4.5 feature sounds great until you realise that it's a simple cropping scheme, i.e. you still only get 12 horizontally-oriented 645 frames per 120 roll (as opposed to the usual 15 or so shots from true 6x4.5 on 120 film). What's the point? The panoramic 35mm equivalent (ie. 55mm wide horizontal orientation images on 35mm film) sounds more interesting and indeed useful, but it costs extra. This all comes at the cost of a more complex set of lines and markings in the viewfinder, of course.

As noted above, Mamiya has reintroduced the plain old 6 in response to comments very similar to the above, so it's now possible to get a 6 rather than the 6MF.

Limitations

Firstly, the Mamiya 6 is not a system in the same sense that a Hasselblad (or, for that matter, the Pentax 67) is: there's a limited set of lenses available (50/75/150mm), there's no interchangeable back, no motor-driven remote winders, and none of the other gubbins of that sort like mutar shifts or interesting converters. To many of us this is a feature, of course....

Secondly, it's a pure rangefinder, with many of the limitations that implies: what you see in the viewfinder is not necessarily what you get. More subtly, the 6's constant-view viewfinder gives you more than what's going to end up on the film; it's sometimes difficult to ignore the surroundings and to really see or visualize what's going to end up on the film, and how it'll look without the surroundings. This is obviously more of a problem for the 150mm and 75mm lenses.

Also, despite the availability of a truly baroque-looking attachment designed to help with this, you also really shouldn't use this camera for extreme close-up or macro photography.

The camera is not in any sense purely manual - if the battery goes, so does the camera (on the other hand, it's a mechanically-simple camera which doesn't seem to have too many things to break).

Another potential problem is the metering system. While I almost never use it (I either estimate it or use my hand-held meter), it is obviously fairly limited compared to modern TTL systems - there's no matrix metering, no spot metering, etc., and, of course, what it sees is not necessarily anything like what you get....

One limitation that I know of only second-hand is that you can't focus the 150mm lens close enough for full-face portraits. Similarly (and I experienced this first-hand), the 75mm won't focus quite close enough for full-face work. This is a real shame....