Mamiya 7II camera review
Mamiya 7II, the successor to Mamiya 6 and 7, is a medium format (6X7) rangefinder camera. It boasts interchangeable lenses with leaf shutters and features automatic parallax correction, aperture–priority auto–exposure, exposure correction, multiple exposure mechanism, as well as... a self–timer (6X7 snapshots, anyone?). The camera has very few controls and no frills, which allows one to concentrate on the photographic subject matter. Most importantly, it produces huge slides (or negatives) of astounding quality. This being said, Mamiya, unfortunately, made a couple of controversial design decisions that turned the camera into a very specialized tool and significantly limited its potentially wide range of applications.
Build quality, ergonomics and handling
If you are used to Hasselblad or Nikon/Canon top–of–the–line equipment, you are likely to find the build quality of the Mamiya 7II somewhat unsatisfactory. Does this mean that the camera is not reliable and is likely to fall apart on you? I do not think so. My experience and overall impressions have been that if one sets aside such metaphysical concepts as "plasticy", the camera appears fully dependable.
Generally, the camera is fairly intuitive to use, quite comfortable to hold and handles very well. It takes both 120 and 220 film and film loading is very easy—in fact, I found it only marginally slower than with a 35mm film camera. However, some design details could certainly be improved. First, I find the lens release bottom too rough and unergonomic. Second, light shield curtain closing lever handle is plastic and bends slightly when used (it is unlikely to break but, again, does not inspire confidence either; film speed dial has the same problem). Third, back cover is not very easy to open. Finally, power on/off lever is designed in such a way that if you are not careful it is easy to accidentally trigger shutter release (which, by the way, is a hair–trigger) when switching the camera on or off.
Mamiya 7II is very light considering the huge 6X7 slides that it delivers. The camera with a lens is actually lighter than a top–of–the–line Nikon/Canon camera body with a zoom lens attached. This, obviously, is a great benefit and perfect for situations when weight is of a major concern. However, the camera is quite bulky—it takes quite a lot of space in your camera bag unless you remove the lens; also, it is big (and strange–looking) enough to draw people's attention in the street. For one thing, I feel less vulnerable when doing street photography with a Nikon (D)SLR.
There are six lenses available for the camera—43mm f/4.5, 50mm f/4.5, 65mm f/4.0, 80mm f/4.0, 150mm f/4.5 and 210mm f/8 (equivalent to 21mm, 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 75mm and 105mm in 35mm format respectively). Most photographers, however, seem to settle down to a three–lens kit either choosing a combination of 40mm, 65mm and 150mm lens or, alternatively, deciding to use the 50mm, 80mm and 150mm set.
All lenses boast built–in electronic leaf shutters, come with bayonet mount lens hoods made of cheap plastic and are nearly perfect in terms of optical quality—they are very sharp (in fact among the sharpest in the medium format), free from distortion and flare and show no immediately visible light fall–off even at maximum apertures.
Only three lenses can be used without external viewfinders—65mm, 80mm and 150mm; although there is an optional viewfinder for the 150mm lens, most users report that it is not really needed. Viewfinder frame is automatically indexed upon lens interchange. The rest of the lenses need external viewfinders that are attached to the camera's flash shoe and used for composition only (metering and focusing are still done using the camera's viewfinder). Most users find using one viewfinder for metering and focusing and a separate viewfinder for composition quite cumbersome.
The 210mm lens is a very strange beast. Its minimum focusing distance is seven (!) meters; its maximum aperture is f/8; it is not coupled with the camera's rangefinder and is focused by guessing the distance. Obviously, these factors significantly limit its possible applications.
Metering and auto–exposure
Mamiya 7II features a built in meter in the form of a simple SPD sell. It is of a center–weighted pattern (with the 80mm lens) and located behind a window on the camera body, which has two implications. First, it is not a TTL (through–the–lens) meter, which means that you need to take special care (adjust exposure) when using filters. Second, the meter has a constant angle of view, which in effect changes its pattern when lenses of different focal lengths are used—it has a center–weighted pattern with the 80mm lens, a roughly averaging pattern with the 150mm lens, and becomes almost a spot meter with the 43mm lens. I have to also note that the actual area metered is not specified anywhere and can be established only through testing or extensive experience.
Naturally, one would want to know how accurate/reliable the meter is. The answer is simple—it performs exactly as meters of the above–mentioned patterns do. To be more concrete, one needs to always keep in mind two factors—the lens' focal length and the scene's contrast and overall tonality. On the one hand, the meter is very easy to use when photographing low–contrast scenes with the lenses of longer focal lengths, in which case you can use the camera as a point–and–shoot. On the other hand, it is quite difficult to employ when photographing high–contrast scenes with wide–angle lenses (in this case you have to apply the good old zone system). And of course, there are all kinds of situations that fall between these two extremes.
To allow coping with different lighting conditions, the camera offers two auto–exposure modes—aperture–priority auto–exposure (AE) and AE lock (AEL). The former simply meters whatever the camera is pointed at and sets shutter speed in 1/6 increments (note, however, that the viewfinder display shows shutter speeds in full stops only—more on this below). The latter does the same but locks shutter speed when the shutter release is half–depressed to allow you to recompose. I use the camera in the AEL mode most of the time.
The camera in manual mode
The camera was designed to be primarily used for handheld photography in aperture–priority auto–exposure mode. This is the reason why the viewfinder display shows shutter speeds only—you set the aperture manually and the camera sets the shutter speed on your behalf. This also explains why shutter speeds are shown in full stops only in spite of the fact that they are set by the camera in virtually stepless manner—shutter speed apparently is displayed to let you roughly estimate whether it is fast enough for handheld shooting.
If you want to set exposure manually (i.e., use the camera on a tripod), the Mamiya 7II is crippled—in manual mode shutter speeds can be set in full stops and the aperture ring is equipped with full stop clicks only (it is possible to set the aperture in between full stops but would be imprecise). Due to this, it is very difficult to exercise precise control over exposure and the camera is not suitable to shoot slide film in manual mode (this is less of a problem if you shoot negative film, though).
What Mamiya engineers should have done is enable exposure–compensation (in 1/3 stops) to be used in manual mode, too, which would have allowed to fine–tune exposure up to 1/3 of a stop. Or, at the very least, all lenses should have been equipped with half–stop clicks. Had this been implemented, the camera would have been a great choice for a far wider range of photographic genres including landscape.
Other advantages and drawbacks
The camera offers all the benefits that are usually associated with the rangefinder design and leaf shutters:
The shutter is very, very quiet—to the extent that I personally find it way too quiet. It is difficult to hear whether the shutter has been triggered when photographing in noisy streets or near waterfalls.
There is no mirror box. On the one hand, this means that there is no mirror slap and sharp results can be obtained when hand–holding the camera at slower–than–usual shutter speeds. On the other hand, the rear element of a lens can get as close to the film plane as necessary, which makes lens design much easier (hence the outstanding optical quality of the Mamiya 7II lenses). And of course, overall design of the camera is lighter and more compact.
Flash synch at all shutter speeds (i.e., up to and including 1/500).
I would like to also note that 6X7 is one of my favourite formats.
Likewise, the camera inevitably has all the drawbacks inherent in rangefinder cameras:
No depth–of–field preview.
Very imprecise framing—when a lens is focused at infinity, the camera captures 18% more than what viewfinder frame indicates. This being said, with experience one learns to estimate what is going to be captured on film quite precisely.
Polarizing and graduated ND filters are difficult to use.
The rangefinder is a mechanical device that needs to be calibrated every once in a while.
One drawback specific to this camera system is that depth–of–field scales on Mamiya lenses appear way too optimistic and one normally has to be conservative at least by one stop (many photographers suggest two stops, especially if you plan to make big enlargements).
To be honest, I have very mixed feelings about the camera. On the one hand, it does produce absolutely beautiful slides when used properly and in the way it was designed to be used in. On the other hand, however, I find it difficult to live with some of the camera's limitations. I do not enjoy using rangefinders to begin with and am discontented with the imprecise framing. Most importantly, the inability to precisely control exposure in manual mode is unacceptable to me.
If you enjoy using rangefinder cameras and the way the Mamiya 7II operates suits your shooting style, I am sure you are bound to be fond of the camera. Otherwise, I suggest considering other options.