Camera Review: Me and my Mamiya RB67 – Rob Davie
Having read a couple of reviews on EMULSIVE from proud owners of other medium format gear (Daniel J. Schneider and his Pentax 6×7, Laidric Stevenson and his Bronica GS1 and of course the Rolleicord Vb by Shawn Mozmode), I just had to chip in with my review of the Grand Battleship of Medium Format aka the Mamiya RB67!
History of the Mamiya RB67
The Mamiya RB67 was designed to stand alongside Mamiya’s equally robust C series of 6×6 TLRs and was launched in 1970. It went through a few iterations before production eventually stopped in the early 2000’s. 30+ years, that’s not a bad run!
The “C” series TLRs were primarily used by wedding photographers and “amateurs” who had the money and skills to get the best from them. The RB67 was much more of an indoor beast, finding a home in many studios across the world and actually surpassing the “C” cameras in popularity pretty quickly after its launch.
Of course the reason for the “67” in the name is the format of the negatives it produces. The standard back for this camera shoots 6cm by 7cm negatives, which are huge! You only get 10 exposures from a roll of 120 film, compared to 12 if you shoot 6×6, or 15 if you shoot 6×4.5.
The format was beloved by magazine photographers in the 70’s and 80’s much in the same way that 6×4.5 was but with so much more detail available from the larger negative.
All versions of the RB – including the later RZ67 – had a (R)otating (B)ack which gives it it’s name, and allows portrait or landscape photographs without the associated hernia when turning it on it’s side. I have the “Pro-S” model which was made between 1974 and 1990 and added a double exposure interlock, focus lock, self-erecting WLF (wait-level finder) hood and an indicator to show which orientation you are in.
The Pro-S is the version you will most often find for sale these days. There are plenty around but the quality does vary massively, just as anything from up to 40 so years ago will. Actually, I feel like my quality varies day to day and I am around that age!
System updates and lenses
Following the Pro-S model was the Pro-SD. It was very similar to the Pro-S but added a few nice features. First off is that there are no light seals to replace in the back; it uses a series of metal baffles to keep the light out and so they never need replacing. The Pro-SD back will fit on the Pro-S and it is something that is right at the top of my shopping list as my Pro-S back has a slight light leak around the dark-slide slot, which is not particularly uncommon at this age.
You can get replacement seal kits from aki-asahi.com, mine arrived recently and I will be giving them a go. As an aside, the quality of the seals and the speed and quality of the service are excellent.
The Pro-SD did have one change that you need to be aware of if you are looking to buy an RB67. The mounting thread for the lens changed from 54mm to 61mm meaning that lenses designed for the Pro and the Pro-S will not fit without an adapter.
There are actually four “series” of lenses for the range:
Original: Single coated lenses released with the Pro in 1970. They fit the RB67 Pro, Pro-S, and the Pro-SD with an adapter.
C: Multi coated lenses released in 1974 with the Pro-S. They fit the Pro and Pro-S, and the Pro-SD with an adapter.
K/L: Newer lenses with better coatings and a built-in adapter ring, which means that they will fit on both the Pro-S and the Pro-SD without a separate adapter. Ensure when buying that this still comes with the lens though!
L: Only compatible with the Pro-SD. There are only two lenses in this series; the 75mm tilt-shift and 500mm APO.
As with any system camera there were a number of accessories and interchangeable parts produced. There are multiple focussing screens with crosshairs, rangefinders, microprisms etc, and these are easily swapped out. There are macro extension tubes, many types of backs for different film stock and format and a wide range of finders and hoods including a prism finder which has to be seen (and carried) to be believed.
The RB67 was eventually superseded by the RZ67 which adds film advance to the shutter cocking/mirror lever allowing a single action. It is was also largely plastic and therefore a lot lighter than it’s older sibling.
Pfft, I need a workout anyway!
The RB67 Physically
The first thing you need to know about the RB67 is that you do everything; it is completely 100% manual. There is no built in meter and I use an app on my phone since I am unable to spring the several hundred pounds for a decent spot meter. Even the film advance and the shutter cocking action are two separate levers!
The second thing is that it is seemingly constructed from solid metal. The body, back and lens are completely metallic, it’s steel I believe. You will need a decent tripod; I replaced mine shortly after buying the RB67 since I was not confident at all in the old one’s ability to hold it steady or indeed safely.
It’s a slow camera to use, and you know, that’s one of it’s finest qualities. The fact that it’s completely manual really makes you slow down and enjoy the process of making a photograph. No “spray and pray” with this thing like you can with a digital or even a 35mm film camera.
I am still very much developing my relationship with this camera but think that I am comfortable enough with it these days to be able to spend more time thinking about the resulting image rather than its operation.
Having reached that milestone, I have also begun to be able to consider how I want to expand the system based on my usage.
One limitation of this system and indeed any camera with a waist level finder (WLF) is that you have to be able to get above it to look down and frame/focus. I am not the tallest person in the world and as such I find that a bit limiting.
My tripod is more often than not un-extended or perhaps just has one extension out. As with anything on the RB though, this is part of the fun and challenge.
A prism finder is very high on my wants list though as this really helps with that and provides much more flexibility at the cost of bulk and weight. The eyepiece is still not quite horizontal – it angles up very slightly – but it allows a much wider range of composition; It also gets rid of the switched left/right movement you get with a WLF.
As the camera uses in-lens leaf shutters you can sync flash at any speed. In fact, this is one reason for the camera’s popularity in the studio. I have a Vivitar 285 flash from the 80’s (It came with my Olympus OM10), and it syncs fine with the X setting on the lens using a sync cable. I haven’t used it in anger yet but it is something I do want to play with!
I use the camera exclusively on the tripod. It is possible to hand hold it, but you really need the strap to help brace it, and my camera did not come with one. I hear that due to the unique fitting they are a little fiddly to get on and off; I am not in a rush to get one, genuine ones are around £30 too! The original Mamiya double cable release (for mirror lock up mode) is a desirable accessory, but is also about £50….for a cable realease…!
It is also possible to purchase a grip for the camera, although I am baffled as to why! Perhaps Geoff Capes made a special request or something? I couldn’t hold the RB67 (with prism) up to my eye for more than a few seconds without starting to shake with the effort. Perhaps I am just a wimp…
I was recently lucky enough to buy (from ebay) an original Mamiya canvas holdall designed for the RB67. It’s the only one I have ever seen and it is perfect. Very padded throughout, plenty of space for the oversized camera and its accessories. I advise any owner to try and find one. Sure, it’s a bit faded but the quality is stunning.
As far as expanding my gear is concerned, apart from the prism finder I mentioned above, there isn’t a whole lot else I really want or need. I would like a couple more lenses though. The 180mm C or K/L f4.5 lens is probably first on the list as, I am often feeling the need for a bit more magnification than the standard “normal” 90mm f3.5 can offer.
At the other end of the scale, there is a 140mm C or K/L f4.5 Macro which I would love; the detail from the negatives really lend themselves to close-in photography I think.
A few lens hoods wouldn’t go amiss and that’s about it really. I am in two minds about whether to go for a filter kit as it is so easy to process using Adobe Lightroom and Nik Silver Efex Pro and add in just as much of an effect as you want rather than “baking it in” on the negative. Having said that I do love the whole manual process of planning and taking a photograph so I may pick a cheap kit up and see how it goes.
The final item would be a good spot/incident meter. These are so expensive though and the app on my phone is good enough for the time being.
My routine aka 12-step programme, goes something like :
- Cock the shutter, which also moves the mirror down so you can use the finder.
- Frame the subject, usually with much muttering about the reversed left/right in the waist level finder. A finder which, I have to say is a sheer joy to look through. I often get people stopping and asking me about the camera and they are amazed when they look through the finder, it’s incredibly bright and clear.
- Deciding on orientation – really part of step 1. The back has a rotating adapter between it and the body which allows for portrait or landscape shots. The movement is slick and smooth but heavy enough to prevent accidentally moving it.
- Focus. Due to the bellows this is an absolute pleasure. You have such minute control and the lens glides back and forth smoothly and beautifully.
- Meter using a hand held meter (or an app as I do), or just trust to “Sunny 16”.
- Set the shutter speed and…
- Aperture on the lens.
- Advance the film using the separate lever on the back.
- Confirm framing and focus, then press the trigger button to lock the mirror up. As with anything else on this camera, the mirror is supersized and I don’t trust it not to rock the camera if triggered along with the shutter!
- Wait a few seconds for any shaking to die down
- Remove dark-slide.
- Trigger the in-lens leaf shutter using a bulb cable release, it just feels better than a pressure cable to me, there’s no real reason beyond that, each to their own!
As you can see, photographing a Formula 1 race is probably out!
It’s a wonderful experience, though. Life slows and almost stops as you consider every possible aspect of what you are doing and how you can improve the shot.
It’s an escape as much as a camera, you get away from the bustle of daily life and return to the days when flashes made smoke – OK not quite – and a camera was a curiosity to be treated carefully and gently.
See below for more photographs from the RB67.
~ Rob Davie