A few months ago I took an ebay punt on a Mamiya 645df with a Phase One P21+ back with assorted lenses 80mm and 45mm. I had been scratching an itch about moving to medium format for quite a while. The heavy case duly arrived, and within a few minutes I was out in the garden shooting some test pictures. I was like a kid with his first bike. I wasn't particularly blown away when I first viewed the raws (Captures raw files only) in Lightroom, all were underexposed by a stop or so. However after a few tweeks I had images in front of me that were wonderful. What do I mean by wonderful, compared to my Fuji files what? never!
Yes they were wonderful with richness in colour and a lovely tonal depth. Different in many ways to my Fuji system. So after only an hour I was absolutely chuffed as a chuffed thing, that my itch had yielded a gem of a camera.
A little backstory here, for several months I had been thinking of upgrading my Fuji XT1 don't get me wrong here I love the Fuji, and its lenses. I have wrote several blog posts waxing lyrical about the fantastic quality of both image and lenses. As an all round picture taking tool it is possibly the best systemm I have owned. However for me personally the whole issue of menu systems and the plethora of Af modes and other modes that are being engineered into idgital cameras seem to me to be taking away the actual craft of photography. I have noticed this for several years now, it's called dumbing down, where the machine takes over, thanks to a software developer, design engineer, seemingly wanting to make our lives easier.
So the search for something pure and simple became a quest. Should I go back to film? maybe that's was the answer. Then I thought that my audience are pretty much all internet based, what seems the point of shooting film gettting it developed and printed, then scanning and digitizing the images. It really didn't make sense to me. So the only option to find that purity of picture taking and simple operation, was to choose a film camera that can accept a digital back.
Once I had made up my mind I scoured the net (as you do) to research my camera. I found a good resource in the GetDpi site as well as the usual Luminous landscape site. I aslo discovered during my research a thread called Fat Pixels, I won't go into the detail here but it's an interesting theory and involves some subjectivity about what is considered to be "magic colour", but from my months of shooting with the Phase One P21+ I do agree that the colour files it produces are more akin to Chrome films we used to shoot back in the day. Sorry for the digression, but it was discovering these snippets that led me to pick a back with the magic 9 pixel count.
So what are the drawbacks, and how does it perform in the filed?
First and foremost It's heavy,, in fact compared to the Fuji X series, it's a beast. Compared to a Nikon D3 not so much. My F Stop pack with the camera and associated lenses, batteries and tripod weighs a fair bit, out in the field all day you will notice it.
You need a Tripod, yep it's a must have, along with an associated electronic release.
The back I purchased came with 4 batteries, on a long day out you will use most of them.
The Camera itself comes with a AA battery holder (6 needed) I binned that off for the LIPO battery, it lasts forever (unless you leave the camera turned on) as I did a few weeks ago, and forgot until I got to my shooting destination.
Focus on AF is adequate but its limited to the centre focus point, so I usually focus on my subject then flick the lens to MF then shoot.
You need to use mirror lockup on anything under 1/200th of a second, the massive mirror has some slap, even on a sturdy tripod so I use mirror lock up all the time.
Auto WB is pretty good, with on average a cool tone (blue) but easily remedied in LR or Pshop.
ISO I leave it on base ISO 100, it usuable upto 800 ISO, but is pushing the sensor tbh, and shooting Landsacapes on a tripod is not really difficult, so upping the ISO gains you nothing.
How does the Camera and back perform in the field?
Very easy to use, the back itself is rather uncomplicated as seen in the above image
The 4 chrome buttons are so simple
Button1 top left, access the play review and delets images
Button 2 bottom left, Menu to set time and date, format card, set camera shutter latency, Size of the raw file, WB and ISO a few other things like LCD brightness etc.
Button 3, top right sets the ISO on the fly, you can do this in the main menui but takes a few more presses to get to the ISO.
Button 4, bottom right, similar to the ISO button, just gives a faster route to set the WB quickly, you can alos choose to set a custom white balance very quickly.
If you compared this back and its features to the latest iterations from Fuji, the menu syetem is so simple a child could operate it. This was the main reason for purchase simplicity.
The Camera functions are simple to, yes there are some memory parameters that you can set, you can do this and apply them to either C!, C2 or C3 on the top dial, you get a cheat sheet with the camera which gives you the programming instructions, TBH I've never bothered with it.
I tend to shoot in manual mode most of the time.
The viewfinder is epic, bright with easy to read digital display, dioptre adjustment via a wheel. Point to note the rubber eyecup can easliy come off, and are as rare as hens teeth ergo quite expensive to replace, I lost mine within a few weeks, the new one is firmly in place with a drop of sugru.
Image review is not stellar, the viewing screen on the back is pretty small, and is a bugger to see in bright light, so I rarely chimp, I prefer to discover the results when I get back.
The meter is pretty accurate, I usually use spot mode, has a tendancy to be a slighly underexposed by about 1/2 a stop.
You can push the file over quite a bit, recovery in Lightroom is easy, but it will start to blow the highlights at a about 1.5 stops over. The dynamic range is pretty good even by todays standard, but it will punish you for sloppy technique. Which is a good thing in my view !!!
You can shoot film on it :) with the appropriate back.
You can upgrade the back, without buying a new camera :)
Thje P21+ will shoot exposures for an hour, some other backs do not.
It does have the usual features found on todays cameras AFL and AEL lock, multispot metering etc, but for me, and I say this with all the caveats, thay this is my personal view, some may differ, which is fine by me, this review is purely subjective. This Camera and back set up, suit my work, I no longer have to worry about settings or firmware updates. This is an honest workhorse which takes great pictures if used and treated correctly, using it you must be familiar with the techniques of exposure, as it will punish you if you get it wrong, get it right and it delivers great files that print superbly well.
The lenses available are pretty damn good, and you can use the older film lenses on the 645, however you have to use stop down metering, the new Mamiya/Phase One lenses are seriously expensive :( I tend to use the 35mm AF, 210mm and the 80 mm this suits my landscape needs perfectly, although a lens with a longer throw would be most welcome. The Phase One P21+ (18mp) has a crop facotor of 1:3 so a 35mm lens has a 35mm full frame equivalent of a 26mm. (Crop factor divided into focal length). Ultra wides are not available.
The one great thing that using this Camera and back combination does, is that it forces you to slow down, makes you take time to look at your composition and lighting. When using my Fuji equipment I would rarely use a tripod unless it was for some slow exposure work. The Mamiya is totally different in this respect, using this certainly has made me think more about my photography.
My very first medium format image, Mamiya 645Df with Phase One P21+ back and 80mm lens.