Medium Format On My Back: The Prep

I’ve never been excited about photography in a studio setting. A lot of people enjoy working in a studio but I’d much rather be shooting landscapes, hiking through the woods or wandering through a local fair. When I started considering a medium format camera it was always in the context of taking it with me to interesting places. Since hiking with the camera was my plan from the start I was careful to seek out a medium format camera known for it’s relative portability.

The Mamiya 645 Pro, the medium format camera I’ve chosen, is on the smaller side of things in the medium format world. Unlike the 35mm camera world, medium format cameras shoot in a variety of standard sizes. A 35mm camera (almost) always shoots a frame that is 24mm x 36mm. Medium format cameras though are built to shoot one of several standard sizes usually measured in centimeters, such as 6cm x 9cm, or 6cm x 6cm. The Mamiya 645 shoots a frame that is 6cm x 4.5cm, hence it’s name (It’s not uncommon for a medium format camera name to also contain it’s frame size). With my camera shooting the smallest standard size on medium format film, the camera can be a lot smaller and lighter than something designed to shoot a much larger frame. Obviously I lose out on the really massive negatives, but the 645 still produces a frame 3x the size of a 35mm camera and it’s more than 7x larger than the sensor on my Nikon D7000.

When I first got my hands on the 645 I was pretty surprised by it’s overall bulk. The camera body it self is easily twice as deep as my 35mm or digital cameras but it seemed almost light for it’s weight. I was curious how this camera compared in weight to my D300 so I grabbed it from my bag and weighed it, with the 70-300mm VR lens mounted. I then weighed the Mamiya 645 with the 150mm lens and was surprised to discover the Mamiya was nearly a pound lighter!

The two camera systems are very different and a true apples to apples comparison cannot really be made but my Nikon D300, with the 70-300mm VR lens attached is a very common setup for me. It’s probably the lens I use and carry most often on the camera. When I did the weight comparison I was very pleased to find out the Mamiya, while bulkier then the D300, is not necessarily heavier. I think it’s a good choice for loading into a backpack and taking with me on a hike.

I had bought a backpack some years ago for use with my digital camera equipment. I bought it at a time when I thought I would want to hike with all the gear I owned, all the time. It’s a pretty standard photo backpack and the only way to take gear out is to take off the pack and unzip the back. I frankly never took the bag out the door. I’ve used it for padded storage for a while but it’s just not a quick enough system to use for shooting on the go. My plan for medium format shooting though is still to carry around a 35mm or digital camera for most of the shooting and then pull out the Mamiya when I see a shot I really like. The Mamiya will be for very deliberate shots where speed is not an issue and being forced to slow down will be a real asset.

By now, I’ve gotten the whole kit loaded into the back pack and I’ve tried it on to see how the weight is. It’s a lot lighter then the backpack I usually carry to be honest and a lot more pleasant to carry than the bag I sometimes hike with for 35mm. Using a backpack is a great way to spread out the load making it more comfortable. The final frontier will be finding a tripod I’m comfortable strapping on as well.

I will be the first to admit I am an amateur photographer and as such have made a great many mistakes in my journey to capture good images. One of the first was trying to take all my gear with me all the time. Getting good shots, I’ve found, is about being comfortable so that you don’t get tired too fast and are willing to walk to interesting places. Typically, when I hike these days shooting 35mm or digital, I put a couple lenses and a few rolls of film into my pockets and head out; The photo bag stays in the car. Moving into medium format will clearly change that and I suspect it’s not a kit I will always be taking with me. Since I’m so new to this camera and it’s lenses, I don’t yet know what lenses I will use the most and will be forced to either carry it all, or guess. I would really hate to hike a few miles from my car only to find out the shot I want to take needs a lens I didn’t bring with me so, at least initially, the whole kit will sit on my back. I’ll have to find a few shorter hikes to start off with.

I have assembled what I consider to be a pretty general kit that I hope will suit basically any need I have. Lenses and accessories for the Mamiya 645 manual focus cameras is so much less expensive then gear for my Nikon’s so I may have gone a little overboard but as I start to use the camera I will quickly figure out which items I like and which ones I can sell off.

In addition to the camera body itself, technically called a Mamiya 645 Pro, I have three film backs that all take 120 roll film. The Mamiya 645 can swap film backs mid-roll so I’m planning to carry a color film, a low ISO B&W film and a higher ISO B&W to keep my options open. This line up will likely change as I get shooting but for now I want to be flexible.

The Mamiya is a system camera where nearly every part can be swapped out, so I needed to choose a ‘finder’ or ‘prism’. In terms of a normal SLR camera, this is the part of the camera you look into. For the Mamiya I have a prism that has a light meter built in to help me set the camera for the correct exposure just like you would expect on a standard SLR camera; You put the camera up to your eye and look through it. In addition to that I’ve also ordered a waist level finder. Instead of putting the camera up to your eye you actually look down at the camera and view the image on top of the body. This finder also includes a small magnifying lens that pops up to help you get the subject in focus. If you never seen one on a camera before, it’s pretty neat. The only caveat is that the image is left to right reversed. What you see on the left of the finder is actually on the right of the scene. This goes a long way to helping you separate yourself from your surroundings and really focus on what the final image will look like.

With all of those details worked out I then had to pick which lenses I would shoot with. The camera kit I bought included two lenses, an 80 F/2.8 lens and a 150mm F/3.5 lens. The 80mm lens is equivalent to basically how your eyes sees, it’s considered a normal view, and the 150mm lens is a moderate telephoto view. Both of these lenses are of good quality and are a great starting point. The 80mm lens is a good all around lens and the 150mm is a very common portrait lens, especially in studio shooting. With those two already on hand I wanted to get a longer telephoto lens and something wide angle for fun landscapes. I ordered a 210mm F/4 lens for the telephoto and a 45mm F/2.8 lens for the wide angle. The 210mm lens is wonderful, if a bit bulky and the 45mm lens is a nice wide angle view.

As you can tell, none of the lenses I have are zoom lenses. They show what they show and if you want to change what you see in the frame, you have to pick up the camera and move. Mamiya did make a few zoom lenses for this camera though, such as the 55-100mm lens, and the 105-210mm lens. After shooting with what I have for a while in effort to reduce the amount of gear I carry with me, I may get one of those and sell off a few primes.

So, that is what I will have in my pack for at least this coming year. I will very quickly start to figure out which gear I use and which gear I don’t and I will try to post to detail that and explain why. If I go out to shoot two or three times and have yet to pull out a specific lens, I will just stop carrying it with me. If a few months go by and I’ve not shot with it, I’ll sell it off. Life is too short to carry to much gear!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.