Imagine it's early 1959. LIFE magazine photographers are using their brand new
$380 Leica M-2s. Newspaper photographers are giving up the Speed Graphic in favor
of medium format, or maybe even 35mm. Nikon's top model is the SP, a modified
copy of the Contax rangefinder. Imagine you want to buy a camera for professional
use. This could be studio or location portraits, photojournalism (but that word
didn't exist in 1959!), even some product shots. It needs to be at least medium
format, and you need fast handling and great versatility. Of course you want a
twin lens reflex.
The undisputed king of the TLR was the Rollei. In 1998, you can still buy one
of its descendants new from B&H for almost $4000.00. It was small, had a
killer lens, and a wonderful precision feel. One of the Rollei's lower cost
competitors was from a little-known Japanese company called Mamiya. It wasn't as
small, or as smooth mechanically, and of course no Japanese lens could compare to
the Zeiss planar on the Rollei. Still, the mamiya had interchangeable lenses. Not
even Rollei did that.
The Mamiya Twin Lens Reflex cameras are 6x6 cameras using 120 or (in some
models) 220 film which were in production from the mid 1950's until 1994. Mamiya
regularly came out with new models which added features and capability throughout
their production life. There are thousands of them out there, and they are
plentiful on the used market. Some have seen heavy professional use, some have
been used lightly by amateurs. Some are beat up, some are still pristine. Many
wedding photographers have used these cameras because you can still look through
the finder and see someone blink at the moment of exposure. I've recently seen a
school photographer carrying one of these as a backup to his motorized long roll
The Japanese Yen was extremely strong against the US Dollar in 1993 and 1994,
and that drove up prices to the point that there was very little market for this
system. The story is that some of the tooling just wore out, and they couldn't
justify retooling. As I write this in August of 1998, B&H still has a couple
of new lenses and accessories for sale. The prices are quite high.
The pages at
have an excellent description of all of the cameras, lenses, and accessories of
this system. I won't try to duplicate that information. At its most extensive,
there were seven lenses, six finders, sheet film backs, several focusing screens,
and other assorted accessories.
I own two C330-F bodies, and this review will be based primarily on my
experience with them. Features and capabilities of other bodies are similar, but
have some differences.
Handling and operation:
When using a waist level finder, the camera fits nicely into my left hand.
It's not small and light, but with 35mm SLRs putting on weight in the 90s, it
doesn't feel as heavy as it would have seemed to a Pentax MX user in 1979.
Shutter release, focus, and wind controls are in logical positions for easy use.
Shutter and aperture controls, are not visible from the top, you must turn the
camera to the side to see and set them. The viewfinder brightness is OK, but not
stellar. It's dramatically easier to compose with a Beattie focusing screen, but
I'm not convinced it's any easier (or harder) to focus accurately.
There is no exposure information in the viewfinder, and there are no coupled
meters available. Mamiya made a couple of metering finders with CdS spot meter
cells. These are match needle meters, uncoupled, and probably use mercury
batteries. I'm a big fan of incident metering for most lighting situations, and
have nearly always used a separate incident meter with this camera.
The shutter sound is much quieter than a medium format SLR since the TLR has
no mirror flapping around or automatic diaphragm snapping shut. I think the film
wind makes a more distracting sound than the shutter.
I own the 65mm, 80mm, and 135mm lenses--all are the later 'black' models. I've
shot a test target with only the 65mm, and the 50 linePair/mm line group was
resolved very sharply at the center at all apertures, somewhat less so at the
corners but still sharp from at least f/5.6 and smaller. I'm convinced the
resolution limits are definitely up to professional standards even now. The 135
is extremely sharp, especially at f/11 or so. The 80 is a recent purchase, but
preliminary results look extremely good.
The 135mm lens focuses at infinity with the bellows racked out about half way,
so it's possible to focus past infinity and get nothing in focus. Other lenses
focus at infinity with the bellows nearly all of the way in.
Because of the bellows, the shorter lenses can focus very closely. Of course
they are not optimized for macro work, and parallax is a problem, but you can get
The older "chrome shutter" lenses are reported to be pretty good also. But
then, nobody admits their lenses are junk except Holga users. Some of the oldest
model lenses might not be coated. These chrome lenses sell for much lower prices
than the newer black models, partly because shutter parts are not available. On
the other hand, if the shutter has worked for 30 years, it will probably last a
The taking lenses all have leaf shutters. This means electronic flash syncs at
any shutter speed. There is also an M sync available for use with flashbulbs. If
you use M sync with electronic flash, the flash fires before the shutter opens,
and you get no flash adding light to your exposure. Many shutters that have been
used by pros have the sync selector epoxied to the X position. It's hard to bump
the setting accidentally, but if you do change it right before the newlywed
couple marches back down the aisle, it's a disaster.
There is a standard folding waist level finder with a relatively low power
flip up magnifier. It's compact, and works well. There is a rigid "chimney"
finder with a 3.5x full field magnifier, and a flip up 6x lens that magnifies the
center of the screen only. This finder blocks outside light much better than the
folding finder, and I think accurate focus is easier, it doesn't weigh any more,
it's just more bulky.
Waist level viewing is reversed left to right. With practice, you can follow
moving subjects, but it does take practice. Every now and then, I'm surprised
when I see a photo I took with the TLR, and everything is reversed from the way I
remember seeing it in the viewfinder.
I've never used any of the eye level prisms. There is an all glass pentaprism
that gives correct left to right viewing. There is also a porroprism, constructed
from mirrors. Reports are that the pentaprism is much brighter. It's also heavier
and more expensive. I've heard mixed reviews on the porroprism finder--mostly
that it's dim, and the image is small.
Yes, there is parallax error. The viewing lens is 50mm higher than the taking
lens. Some models have a finder indication where the top of frame cutoff lies.
The body has to be set for the correct lens mounted for this to be accurate! You
can tilt the camera to compensate, and usually this is fine. If you're trying to
do precise near/far compositions, try to find a 'paramender' device. This mounts
between a tripod and the camera body. After composing, turning a lever raises the
body so the taking lens is exactly where the viewing lens was. At shooting
distances for full length photos of people, parallax is not a concern. At head
and shoulder distances, it is.
Use lens hoods. The front lens elements are not recessed deeply into the lens
barrel, so a hood can make a big difference. The black lenses all take either
hard to find 46mm filters, or easy to find 49mm filters. I use a 49mm tiffen
metal hood with a 46 to 49 step up ring for the 80 and 135 lenses. The 65mm lens
will vignette with a screw on a hood or filter, so try to find one of the
specific Mamiya hoods for this or the 55 mm lens. These hoods clamp to the
outside of the lens barrel. I epoxied a 67mm filter ring (no glass) to the inside
of the box-shaped 65mm hood, and I attach filters to that and they don't
vignette. I chose 67mm just because I already had a bunch of them for other
Except for some of the 105mm lenses, the viewing lenses have no aperture, so
there is no depth of field preview. The web page referenced above links to a
postscript program that prints out a depth of field calculator wheel. I printed
this out and laminated it. This is the easiest device I've seen for managing
depth of field with this system. I tend to trust depth of field scales more than
dim stopped down images on ground glass, so this works well for me.
For users experienced only with 35mm, the depth of field you get with medium
format can be a shock. It's narrow. Plan on stopping down about two stops more
than you would if shooting 35mm. Keep reading for my comment on tripods.
If you hold down the shutter release and wind the film, the film does not stop
at the next frame, it just winds on. This is a feature not a bug. It lets you
wind off a partially exposed roll of film quickly. If you start winding the film
and you don't realize your cable release is locked, it seems like a bug.
My 330-F bodies are somewhat sensitive to early pressure on the shutter
release. Push it down slightly and release, and the double exposure prevention
kicks in and locks the shutter release. For many years, I kept the single/multi
control at multi and avoided this problem. If you do this, you have to be really
careful when changing lenses to make sure both the lens and body are in matching
states: shutter cocked and film wound, or shutter not cocked and film not wound.
You won't jam up anything like you can with a Hasselblad, but you can easily get
double or blank exposures.
As with all cameras, for maximum sharpness, use a tripod. Many people talk
about how easy it is to handhold a TLR or rangefinder at slow speeds. Maybe it's
true, but I'm not convinced. I've taken nice pictures hand held, but all of the
framed 11x14 enlargements on my wall were made with cameras bolted securely to
The Mamiya TLR is not a perfect camera. What is? But it works well for a lot
of applications. I think it's wonderful for individual, or two person portraits
with the 135mm lens. It was a wedding photographer favorite for many years, and
I've done some nice landscape and travel photographs with it.
Medium format has been called the great compromise format. The TLR would not
be my first choice for sports photography, and when I'm chasing my kids, I use
35mm, or a Fuji 6x9 rangefinder. I can get more detailed landscapes on 4x5, when
I have space to carry it.
I haven't really watched the change in prices over the years. I've heard a
comment that the market has crashed for Mamiya TLR equipment lately -- no demand
for something with no meter, motor or flashing LEDs. If that's so, I consider it
good news for me. I'm not selling mine, and maybe I can find a good cheap 250 mm