Camera review: Me and my Mamiya Press Super 23 and Mamiya Universal Press – by Kikie Wilkins
Several years ago, a coworker friend of mine bought an original Mamiya Press camera and brought it in to work so others and myself could take a look at it. I’d never seen a camera like it before, only recently having developed an interest in 35mm rangefinder cameras.
My only experience in medium format photography up to that point had been shooting a few rolls of 120 film through a Rolleiflex TLR. I enjoyed medium format photography but was still getting back into the film habit after having used digital cameras for a number of years, personally and professionally.
The Mamiya Press that my friend had purchased seemed very utilitarian in its appearance. It sat sort of squat and boxy, with a green-gray toned leather covering that almost made me think it was designed to be used in a jungle by some nation’s army. Hers was complete and solidly built. She explained that she had used one while she was attending university and wanted a camera of her own that that could take 6×9 images.
Not too long after that, I purchased my first medium-format camera, a Mamiya RB67. I loved using it, and still do, but like my friend, something appealed to me ab
out using a camera that could capture an image larger than the 6×7 format of the RB.
In the middle of 2016, I had the opportunity to purchase a Mamiya Press Super 23 camera from the estate of a photographer who was the original owner of the camera. It was in great condition and came complete in its original packaging, with a 6×7 film back, 100mm f/3.5 lens, handle, and lens hood.
Unfortunately, after using the camera for a few test shots, I began to have shutter issues with the lens. I debated whether to send it out for repair but ultimately decided to replace it with an updated version of the same lens – one of the many great things about film photography is what was once expensive to acquire and own can now in many cases be had quite cheaply.
At the end of 2016, I purchased a Mamiya Universal Press body for the purpose of using an instant film back on it in order to make a “high end” instant camera. The Super 23 and Universal are more alike than they are different, yet both were designed to fulfil specific roles.
In the time that I’ve owned both, I’ve shot quite a few rolls (and packs of instant film) through them and am impressed by the quality of the lenses and size of the film negative; and find them easy to use for cameras from their era.
I will share with you the reasons I enjoy using this camera and perhaps you also might be inspired to pick one up and see for yourself how incredible these cameras are.
The images above are of my Super 23 with several attached components. With the exception of the lens and the carrying straps, the camera you see pictured is how it came new in the box. As mentioned previously, the original lens had some shutter issues. The pictured lens is an improved version of the original, chrome-faced 100mm f/3.5.
The Super 23 is a more refined version of the original Mamiya Press. The Mamiya Press has a more industrial and functional appearance than the Super 23, which I believe has a greater emphasis on aesthetics and appearance.
If you look closely at the leatherette on the Super 23’s body and film backs, instead of having a generic, pebbled finish there are actually tiny Mamiya “M’s” all over as the texture. It is a small detail when considering the entire camera, but speaks loudly to me of how the designers decided to devote resources to both form and function.
A brief history of the Mamiya Super 23
First manufactured in 1967, the Super 23, like its predecessors, was marketed as a rangefinder system camera (a camera with a “core” body that can accept interchangeable lenses and accessories). It was designed and promoted with professional press photographers in mind. As it arrived packaged, the following components included:
- Camera body with front body cap
- 100mm f/3.5 lens with lens hood
- 120/220 film back (6x7cm)
As seen from this page in the user manual, other components available for this camera include:
One of the great things about the Press line of cameras is that most of the lenses, film backs, and accessories are interchangeable with each camera body. In fact, this is touted as a key strength of the Universal, hence the name “universal”.
Component comparisons: Focusing screens
Mamiya produced a focusing screen holder attachment that can fit on to both the Super 23 and the Universal. Of course, to get full use out of this screen, using the bellows on the Super 23 would be most advantageous, although it can also be used on the Universal with the M-Adapter.
Film pack adaptors and cut film holders can be inserted into the focusing screen holder….which is where the “23” in the name of the Mamiya Super 23 (and its predecessors) comes from: the cut film holders were designed to hold 2-inch by 3-inch sheets of film.
Trying to focus with the focusing screen is not the easiest as it’s a bit dim (depending on the maximum aperture of the lens being used), so its recommended to have a lot of available light when focusing with this back.
Component comparisons: Film mounts
Probably the key difference between the Super 23 and the Universal is how the different film backs are mounted and used on these cameras.
The Super 23 has a built-in rear bellows that can be adjusted in all directions. This allows the photographer to employ tilt-shift and selective focus techniques. The Universal does not have the rear-mounted bellows and it is necessary to use adapter plates to mount Mamiya-style film backs (“M-Adapter”) or Graflok backs (“G-Adapter”).
Additionally, the Polaroid instant film back can be mounted directly onto the Universal without the use of an adapter. Mamiya did not make an instant film back for the Super 23, so this is an area where the Universal has a clear advantage.
In fact, because I purchased my Universal for the specific purpose of using the Polaroid back, I do not currently own either of the adapter plates.
Component comparisons: Film backs
There are multiple versions and variations of the Mamiya roll film back (see above). I have the 6×9 and 6×7 early models. A 6×4.5 version also exists, which uses a mask that goes over the film and a separate mask for the viewfinder. An Internet search can easily show all of the different varieties of film backs for these cameras.
Mamiya produced these film backs with the capability of using either 120 or 220 format films without having to use any special adapters or accessories. Using 220 film simply requires the user to flip over the pressure plate inside of the film back and turn the knob next to the film counter window to the 220 setting.
When using the 6×9 back, a roll of 120 film will give you 8 exposures. When using the 6×7 back, you will get 10 exposures per roll of 120 film.
The Polaroid instant film back (type-2 model is shown) uses the 4.25×3.25-inch pack film as produced by Polaroid, but is also compatible with the Fujifilm produced varieties.
As a side note, I’ve owned this instant film back for a number of years and used it on my Mamiya RB67 with an adapter, never realizing that it was originally designed for the Universal. This is the reason why I purchased my Universal, for the purpose of being able to take high-quality instant photos.
The table below sums up the options of using different film backs between the Super 23 and the Universal:
|Mamiya Super 23||Mamiya Universal|
|Instant Film Back||No||Yes|
|Mamiya Press Backs||Yes||Yes w/ M-adapter|
|Yes w/ G-adapter|
|Adjustable Rear Bellows||Yes||No|
Component comparisons: Lenses
Mamiya produced a variety of lenses for their Press line of cameras. A major distinction between the earlier and later models was the use of Seikosha-S shutters on the earlier models and Seiko #0 shutters on the later models.
Regardless of the iteration, all Mamiya Press lenses featured leaf shutters. For those not familiar with the difference in shutters, leaf shutters are built into camera lenses as opposed to focal-plane shutters which are built into the camera body itself. Leaf shutters also have an advantage over focal-plane shutters by being able synchronize at any speed with flash units.
The disadvantage to leaf shutters is they typically cannot achieve the higher shutter speeds that focal plane shutters can. The lenses mount to the camera body through a breech-locking system.
The two functioning Mamiya Press lenses that I own are the 100mm f/3.5 lens and the 50mm f/6.3 lens.
I love how both of these lenses perform. While not perfect, they have a lot of character. These lenses allow both “X” (electronic) and “M” (flashbulb) flash synchronization, all that is required is to set the switch to either setting. Additionally, almost all of the Press lenses are rangefinder coupled, meaning they allow the photographer to use the rangefinder mechanism built into the camera body to properly focus on the subject.
The rangefinder/viewfinder mechanism in the camera also automatically adjusts for parallax, moving the framelines to match up with what the lens is “seeing”. Personally, I don’t find the rangefinder patch in the viewfinder to be particularly bright or easy to see in dim light. I think this is an area that Mamiya could have definitely improved upon. If you are composing your shot in a well-illuminated area, the rangefinder patch works well.
The Super 23 and Universal bodies have built-in, illuminated framelines for 100mm, 150mm, and 250mm focal length lenses. Switching between these requires the photographer to move a slider on the back of the camera located next to the eyepiece to match which lens is mounted. Any lenses with a focal length smaller than 100mm requires the use of an accessory viewfinder that mounts on the accessory shoe on the top of the camera body. The accessory viewfinders are adjustable for parallax, but must be done manually via a small dial. It does not automatically adjust as with the built-in viewfinder. For reference, the “standard” 100mm lens, when using the 6×9 film back is roughly equivalent to a 43mm lens in 35mm “full-frame” film format. Likewise, the 50mm lens is roughly equivalent to a 20mm lens in 35mm “full-frame” film format.
A word about the 50mm accessory viewfinder: it is quite large compared to the 35mm format accessory viewfinders that I am most accustomed to using. The next image shows a Pentax Auto110 compact camera, the 28mm accessory viewfinder for a 35mm format Canon rangefinder lens, the Mamiya 50mm accessory viewfinder, and a 120 film spool (a 120 spool is approximately 6.5cm tall).
Special care must be taken when using the 50mm lens to avoid lens flare. The front element of the lens is large and protrudes a bit, making it very susceptible to stray light hitting it from odd angles. Even when using the clamp-on lens hood, flare can still be an issue. I don’t know if the lens elements do not feature or have inferior anti-reflective coatings or if it is more of a design consideration of the lens itself (semi-Biogon type, for those familiar with lens design) but it can seem as if you have a light leak in the camera when looking at your developed film.
My advice is to not shoot into the sun or strong light source with this wide-angle lens. Alternatively, use the flare-prone design to your creative advantage.
A brief word about flash
As mentioned previously, the lenses are capable of utilizing both X-sync and M-sync flashes. I’ve used different electronic flash units with these cameras with excellent results. The lenses have PC ports to connect to your flash unit (or remote) of your choice. Because these cameras are completely manual, be prepared to understand flash unit guide numbers and calculate what flash power/aperture settings to use based on what you want to photograph (or use a flash unit with a thyristor to automatically adjust the flash duration). But honestly, if one is going to use a vintage, 1960’s era camera, why not do as the old press photographers did and use flashbulbs?
For those unfamiliar with the difference between electronic flash and flashbulbs, an Internet search can easily provide you with a detailed explanation on both. In general, modern electronic flash units use a small tube filled with a gas. When a high voltage current is passed through the tube, the gas ionizes and produces a bright flash of light. The total light output is variable and the flash unit is reusable, meaning it can be flashed over and over again.
Flashbulbs, by comparison, only have one output, full. They produce their light by burning foil or thin wire crammed inside of a glass bulb. They can be used only once before needing to be replaced by a new bulb. They burn quite brightly for their size and being on the receiving end of an ignited flashbulb up close is kind of like looking at the sun. You will be seeing a spot in your vision for a while afterwards.
There is much more that can be written about electronic flash and flashbulbs, but what I want to highlight here is Mamiya produced three different brackets to be used on the Press system which allow a photographer to mount different flashguns to the camera. Depending on the bracket employed, Mamiya, Heiland, and Graflex produced flashguns can be mounted to the camera. I use the Mamiya-produced Graflex flashgun mount, which allows me to mount the Graflite #2773 3-cell flashgun. In its original configuration, this flashgun utilizes flashbulbs with an Edison-type screw base. An Internet search on Graflex flashguns can explain this system more thoroughly than I will cover in this article.
When the Graflite is mounted to the Super 23 or Universal, the entire camera becomes fairly heavy and kind of unwieldy. For tasks which many current-day photographers would use a camera with flash to accomplish, an electronic flash unit is more versatile and cost-effective than using one-time-use flashbulbs that can be difficult and expensive to source. However, if you want to dump a ton (scientific measurements here) of light at something, a flashbulb is the way to go.
For those who have used flashbulbs, there is also the iconic “pop” and “hiss” that accompanies the firing of a flashbulb. Most of these flashbulbs are safety-coated so they tend not to have as much potential to explode and throw out broken glass in front of the camera.
It is very important to use flashbulbs in good shape, not damaged, and for those that come with it, the “blue dot” indicator still intact on the flashbulb.
Mamiya Press Super 23 and Mamiya Universal Press – Physical comparisons
I’ve been fairly quiet on actual physical measurements of the Super 23 and Universal. I’m the kind of person where I can have physical dimensions and weight measurements of things and they don’t mean a lot to me unless I have something to compare them with. So, for comparative reference, I’ve photographed my Super 23 with another popular Mamiya camera, the RB67.
Also for your consideration, the Super 23 with a 35mm film cassette, a 35mm format Canon rangefinder (Canon P with 28mm lens and accessory viewfinder), and a 120 spool (remember, approximately 6.5cm in height).
The Super 23 and Universal in Practical Use
Mamiya’s Press line of cameras were intended, as the name implies, for use by professional press photographers and other photographers who needed a high-quality medium format camera.
In late 1965, the original Mamiya Press Deluxe kit with 100mm lens sold in the USA for a MSRP of $299.50. Adjusted for inflation, the same camera would have sold today for about $2,312. I am without pricing data on the years they were released, but the Super 23, released in 1967, and the Universal, released in 1969, were evolutions and refinements of the original Press. They most likely would have sold for even more. These days, quality cameras in the Press line can be purchased for considerably less than $2,312.
If you look at the images I’ve posted on my Twitter and Instagram accounts, you will see I enjoy going out into my city and documenting public art, murals, and people going about their everyday lives. Many of those times I had my Super 23 with me. It has the benefits of a rangefinder camera combined with the versatility of medium format film. Using the 6×9 film back provides an image ratio of 2:3, a ratio that works well with both portraiture and scenic applications.
I try to photograph my subjects with the intent of doing minimal or no cropping at all when it comes time to edit the final image. One of the benefits of shooting with a 6×7 or 6×9 film back is if extensive cropping is necessary, the corresponding enlargement of your negative keeps excessive film grain to reasonable levels. On a similar note, if you push film to a higher exposure index, a larger negative also helps to keep excessive film grain under control.
If you intend to take one of these Press cameras out for street photography or a task that would require you to do a lot of walking, I would highly recommend purchasing a quality carrying strap, preferably a wide one to distribute the weight evenly around your neck or across a shoulder. I prefer to use the “Pro Strap” produced by Op/Tech USA on all of my medium format cameras, including my RB67, Super 23, and Universal, among others.
One of the great things about this system is that it is modular. You only need to purchase one strap, which can be used on several cameras using interchangeable quick-release buckles. I know using one of these straps on a period camera doesn’t really present an “authentic” look to the camera system, but when it comes to comfort of use over a long period of time I’m willing to make that concession.
The grip/handle on the Super 23 and the Universal also help when carrying the camera. Because of the way the grip screws down on to the camera body, I have a lot of confidence that it won’t just fall off or come unscrewed causing the camera to go crashing down to the ground.
I consider the Super 23 and Universal to be far more portable than the RB67 or similar camera. Once, I tried to take my RB67 out for a long photowalk and it became very uncomfortable quickly because of the weight of the camera. The joke is often made in medium format camera circles that if you wish to become a muscle-bound weightlifting champion, just carry around an RB67 for a while. Because of how the Press cameras are designed, they’re much more comfortable to carry around. That being said, it is still a heavy camera. If you are a small-framed person or have issues that make it difficult for you to carry weighty things for longer lengths of time, you may wish to pass on the Press cameras in favor of a more compact medium format or 35mm camera. Being a larger guy, I’ve taken the Super 23 out for the better part of the day, carrying it by hand and occasionally by the strap without being any more fatigued than with a 35mm camera and several lenses and accessories.
Since the Press cameras are completely manually operated, it is a wise idea to invest in a light meter. Do you need a light meter to enjoy using a press camera? Absolutely not! There’s been plenty of times that I’ve gone out and used the “Sunny 16” rule to meter my exposures. However, in consideration of the fact you will only get 8 exposures from a roll of film when using the 6×9 back, if you want to maximize the potential for getting the most out of your (sometimes rare or expensive) film without having to “waste” a lot through bracketing exposures, a light meter comes in very handy.
Be prepared to become very conspicuous when using one of these cameras in public. Unlike a smaller 6×4.5 or 6×6 medium format camera like a Bronica or Hasselblad, or a smaller 35mm SLR or rangefinder, it will be very obvious to the people around you that you are taking a photograph of something. In a way, this can be a benefit. While walking around, strangers have approached me making positive comments about my Super 23 or Universal, some even allowing me to take their photograph on the virtue of having a “cool old camera”.
Conversely, you may discover you’ve become an unwanted presence when people see you with such a noticeable camera, or at the very least, people may begin to behave less naturally. Likewise, if you are photographing in an area that could be considered sensitive or restricted from photography, you may wish to consider a smaller, more inconspicuous camera.
The burning question: should You Purchase a Super 23 or Universal?
If you are in the market for a medium format rangefinder system camera for portraiture and landscape/architectural use in the sub-$1,000 dollar range, and don’t mind it being a heavier camera, then yes, go for it.
While the size and weight of the camera can be a disadvantage, I feel this is made up for through versatility; the Press cameras can easily tackle a variety of tasks and situations depending on how you have the camera configured. If you are on the fence, I highly recommend finding someone who owns one of these cameras or a similar system from another manufacturer and trying it out.
As with any camera, the more you use it, the more familiar you become with it and hopefully your creative output will rise to a higher quality.
A camera is only a tool to help you achieve the vision that you have created in your mind. If you are photographing for yourself, an inexpensive camera is just as capable as the most expensive, limited edition, gold plated, jewel-encrusted, famously-branded one when it comes to producing images which you find satisfying, pleasing, or fulfilling.
Regardless of which camera you decide to use, go out and shoot!
I’ve included a few more sample images below but for now, thanks for reading!
~ Kikie Wilkins
Mamiya Press Super 23 and Mamiya Universal Press sample images
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