In 1975, Mamiya introduced their M645 series of medium format cameras. The M645 series have been very successful over the years, continually being upgraded and refined. Mamiya Leaf/Phase One, the successor companies to Mamiya, still produce a high-end, digital format version of the 645 (The Mamiya 645DF+). While the new digital cameras that Mamiya Leaf sells are out of the price range of many casual photographers, the good news is that all of the film cameras based on the M645 system can still be had for reasonable, hobbyist, prices.
In 1993, Mamiya released the Mamiya 645 Pro, the camera pictured above and the subject of this review. This camera was produced until 1998. A variant of this camera, the 645 Pro TL, was manufactured from 1995 to 2006. It is essentially identical to the 645 Pro with the addition of a very limited through-the-lens (TTL) flash system. This article is not intended to be a comprehensive article in the same vein as the excellent Hasselblad V-system master guide, however, this article is lengthy. If you already own this camera and want to read my thoughts on it, skip to the end where I give practical considerations.
I will be covering the following topics:
The 645 Pro is a medium format, single lens reflex (SLR) film camera that uses 120 roll film to expose 6×4.5cm-sized frames (actual image size is 56×41.5mm). A roll of 120 film will give you 15 exposures and a roll of 220 film will give you 30. The camera can also accept 35mm film and instant pack film through the use of special accessories.
This camera is a true system camera, which is a camera with a “core” body that can accept interchangeable lenses and accessories. Different winders, finders, focusing screens, grips, and film backs can be used on this camera. Additionally, any M645 mount lens can be used on this camera.
Earlier models in the M645 series were made from metal with a leatherette covering. The 645 Pro has a metal frame with a plastic shell. The plastic body has a curved, rounded look, not at all boxy like its predecessor cameras.
Because of its primarily plastic construction, the camera and its accessories are slightly more susceptible to damage (more on this later). Two strap lugs are present on the left and right side of the body. The lug on the right side (next to where the winder would be) is longer than the one on the opposite side, which is visible in the image above. This is to accommodate the attachment of one of the power winders (see the accessory section of this review). This also presents a problem when trying to attach an aftermarket strap…
A special clip is needed to connect the strap with the lug. I prefer to use OP/TECH brand straps and was unable to attach their clip to the lug on the right side. I eventually purchased original Mamiya clips and put them on to the OP/TECH strap.
The 645 Pro features an electronically controlled focal-plane cloth shutter that can be manually set between 4 to 1/1000th of a second (in addition to bulb and “time” exposure settings) and when the AE Prism Finder FE401 is used, can be set to as low as an 8-second exposure. Shutter speeds are selected through a wheel on the top of the body.
The camera can be used in aperture priority mode when using an AE prism finder. When using one of these types of finders, the “A” and “AEL” settings become available for use (“Automatic” and “Automatic Exposure Lock, respectively).
The camera also features a mirror lock-up mode to reduce vibration when shooting, and a multiple exposure mode, both activated through rotary switches on either side of the body. The shutter is fired through pressing a button on the front of the camera, below and to the right of the lens mount. There is no way to attach a manual shutter cable release to the camera body without the use of an electrical adapter. Alternatively, Mamiya also produced an electronic cable release. The shutter is cocked through winding the film crank.
Most importantly, without a working battery the shutter cannot be fired. It uses a single 6-volt battery (4SR44, 4LR44 or 2CR1/3 batteries will work).
This camera does not have a built-in flash. A synchronized flash connection (“X-sync” or electronic flash only) is available through the hot shoe on the left side of the camera. A Prontor-Compur (“PC”) terminal is also present. Flash synchronization is at 1/60th of a second and slower shutter speeds. The 645 Pro TL model can use TTL flash metering with certain dedicated Metz brand flash units. This is the only difference that distinguishes the 645 Pro TL from the 645 Pro.
A major difference between the 645 Pro and the earliest models in the M645 line is removable film backs. Beginning with the predecessor to the 645 Pro, the 645 Super, film backs can be detached and swapped out mid-roll. Additionally, the film backs allow you to indicate the film speed through a dial mounted on the top (ISO 25 through 6400, in 1/3 stop increments), which is communicated to the camera when using automatic metering. An interlock is built into the film back and camera body in that you cannot detach the film back without the dark slide being fully inserted and you cannot fire the shutter when the film back is attached but the dark slide has not been removed. A memo slot is present on the rear of the film back to insert a reminder of which film is loaded.
Inside of the film back is the film insert (pictured above on the left). This is what the 120 film is spooled onto then inserted into the film back. In addition to the 120 film insert, a 220 film insert can also be used with the same film back.
A 135 film back is also available for use on this camera. The 135 film back allows you to use 35mm film instead of 120 roll film. The film insert is designed to accommodate a 35mm film cassette and the film back has the addition of a rewind crank to wind the film back into the cassette when the roll has been fully exposed. It is important to note the 135 film back does not take advantage of the full width of the 6×4.5cm format. Exposed images on 35mm film will be the standard 36x24mm size as if a traditional 35mm camera were used. While not absolutely necessary (but very helpful), a special focusing screen can be used on the camera body. This focusing screen has frame lines etched into it corresponding to a 36x24mm exposure to assist with composing your image.
Finally, an instant film back is also available for use on this camera. This film back uses peel-apart pack film (Polaroid Type 100/600 or Fujifilm FP-100/3000), which is not being commercially produced at present. Because of the limitations of the camera, the final image on the film will not take advantage of the entire size of the print (3½x4½ inches), only a small section corresponding to the 6×4.5cm.
Why only use a small section and “waste” the rest of the area? Studio photographers often used these type of instant photos to determine if the lighting was correct before committing to standard film that might not get processed for some time afterwards.
Mamiya produced a variety of lenses for the M645 camera series, ranging from 35mm to 500mm focal lengths, and also including zoom and special-use lenses. Because of the common lens mount, lenses produced for the original M645 camera can be used on the 645 Pro and vice versa. This means if the lens can fit on the M645, M645 1000s, M645J, 645E, and 645 Super, it can fit on the 645 Pro.
The M645 lens mount is a bayonet type that twists on to the camera. These lenses feature a small metal tab on the aperture ring that couples with a pin beneath the Mamiya nameplate on the camera. It is through this coupling the camera can determine which aperture is set on the lens and appropriately adjust the shutter speed while in automatic mode. A small switch is present on the lens to operate it in stopped-down mode so you can see your depth of field for a given aperture.
M645 lenses tend to come in two varieties, the original “C” series (with “C” to denote the lens elements are multi-coated to correct and prevent image irregularities) and the newer “S” and “N” variants (which are also coated). The older lenses tend to have metal lens bodies with engraved markings and the newer ones a combination of engraved and printed markings.
“N” variants (covered here) have a new cosmetic design. “N” lenses were launched with the second generation of the 645 and are the same as the prior “C” or “S” lens versions but with updates to lens coatings and plastic aperture rings instead of metal ones.
The two lenses that I own are the wide-angle “Mamiya-Sekor C 45mm f/2.8 N” and standard “Mamiya-Sekor C 80mm f/2.8 N” (both of these lenses had an earlier “C” variant, neither of which I currently own). Because of the larger film format (6×4.5cm) these lenses are the equivalent of what a 28mm and 50mm lens would be on a camera that uses the 35mm film format.
Both lenses are capable of taking sharp images. Being f/2.8 they are also a good choice for low-light environments. Because the 45mm lens is a wide-angle lens, the front element protrudes a bit which can cause flaring if a strong light source shines directly on it. Use of a lens hood is recommended to prevent this from occurring.
As mentioned previously, the 645 Pro is a system camera and the core strength of a system camera is how it can be accessorized to suit your personal preferences or to facilitate taking a certain kind of picture. There are many more accessories available for this camera than pictured in the illustration above. I will highlight a few.
The waist-level finder (model “N”) is the most basic viewfinder available for the 645 Pro. It allows you to look down from above onto the focusing screen of the camera as you compose your shot. It has a pop-up magnifying lens to allow you to assist in focusing. It is an uncorrected type of viewfinder, in that your image will be reversed when looking at the focusing screen. An innovative feature with this finder is it can also be used as a sports finder when a special screen is attached.
A step up from the basic waist-level finder is the prism finder. A prism finder corrects the image you see so it is no longer reversed, using a prism, as its name implies. The viewfinder pictured above is the AE Prism Finder model FE401, with an optional flip-up magnifier attached. The AE finder is what allows for the automatic, through the lens, aperture priority metering to take place on the 645 Pro.
There are three metering modes available when using this finder: average metering (where lighting in the entire frame is taken into consideration), spot metering (where only the central portion of the frame is metered), and an average/spot metering setting where the camera automatically selects average or spot metering based on the lighting conditions.
A rotating knob on top of the finder sets these modes. A second rotating knob provides exposure compensation up to +/- 3 stops in 1/3 stop increments. An LED readout inside of the viewfinder displays the metering mode and shutter speed while in use.
Other viewfinders are available and viewfinders designed for the 645 Pro’s predecessor camera, the 645 Super, can also be used. The viewfinders can often be used with accessories, like the magnifier (pictured above) and right angle finders. For important shots, I use the magnifier to achieve the sharpest possible focus that I can.
Winders and Grips
Manual and automatic winders are available for the 645 Pro. The manual winder (pictured above on the right) attaches to the right side of the camera. One full turn of the winder advances the film and cocks the shutter. There’s not much to say about this winder except it doesn’t require batteries to operate and can be positioned in its starting position six different ways.
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The other winder designed for the 645 Pro is the Power Winder Grip model WG402 (pictured on the left side of the image below). This winder doubles as a right-hand grip for the camera and also allows for the attachment of a standard threaded cable release on the shutter button, eliminating the need to buy the dedicated electronic cable release or adapter that would attach on the left side of the camera.
The motor in the winder also enables continuous exposures at the rate of two frames per second. The winder has four selectable settings on a rotating dial: battery check, on, off, and “start,” which will advance a newly inserted roll of film to the first frame if it has not already been done. When specialized lenses with integral leaf shutters are used, a cable can be attached to the winder and lens that allow it to cock and fire the leaf shutter.
I find using the power winder preferable to the manual winder because it gives me more stability when using the camera. Additionally, it’s easier to take vertical photographs with this winder attached because turning the camera on its side and then trying to press the shutter button on the front of the camera body becomes awkward.
There are two downsides to using the power winder. First, the motor is not quiet at all. If your goal is to be discreet while taking photographs, this is not the accessory for you. It’s not a thunderous noise by any means but if you are in a quiet room, people will definitely look your way.
Second, the power winder uses six AA-batteries. It’s kind of an onerous power requirement and adds a significant amount of weight to the camera. The only reason I can imagine it needs this many batteries is to power the continuous motor drive function of this camera. I’m not sure this is a good tradeoff for being able to shoot two frames per second. If you would like to use a power winder grip but don’t like the thought of using this many batteries or having the weight, the Power Winder Grip model WG401 (designed for the 645 Super) can be used, which only uses two AA-batteries and omits the extra features that this model has.
If you prefer not to have a motor winder or are left-handed, a left-hand grip is available. With the use of an electrical connector (Terminal Adapter RA401) the left hand grip can also fire the shutter and has a working hot shoe for a flash unit.
Why I purchased my 645 Pro and why you should consider getting one
Prior to owning the 645 Pro, I had never used a camera that was able to shoot 6×4.5 images. I own a Mamiya RB67 and the Mamiya Press Super 23/Universal cameras, both of which can be configured to shoot 6×4.5. I have the 6×4.5 film back for the RB67 but in order to be properly used, a metal mask cut for the proper dimensions must be overlaid on the focusing screen. The metal mask is easy to bend or lose so I’m already predisposed to not use it.
A silly analogy for this would be driving a heavy-duty mining dump truck from your home to the corner store down the road, buying a bottle of soda and a few snacks, throwing it in the back of the dump truck and then driving it back home. Is it possible to do such a thing? I’m sure it is but a more feasible and reasonable thing to do is maybe walk, ride a bike, or take your car.
In other words, the dump truck can certainly transport your few snacks and drinks but to me it’s an excessive course of action if that’s all you use it for. So it is with using a larger camera like the RB67 (which takes wonderful 6x7cm negatives) to do the work that a smaller camera is better suited to performing. As it is, the 645 Pro becomes quite heavy with all of its accessories attached. Configured with the power winder grip, AE prism, film back, and 80mm lens, the 645 Pro weighs in at a hefty 1.8kg (approximately 4 pounds). By comparison, in addition to being bulkier, the RB67 with standard lens, film back, and finder weighs around 2.7kg (approximately 6 pounds).
If compactness and low weight are requirements for you, medium format photography is probably not something you would enjoy. Even the “compact” medium format cameras can still be heavy. So why use the smallest of the medium format image sizes at all and not just “go big or go home”? I can only speak for myself but I have a couple of reasons.
First, while a variety of medium format films are still made and are available for purchase at reasonable prices, there are expensive, rare, or specialized films out there that I would be very hesitant to use shooting at larger sizes like 6×7 or 6×9. In other words, I want to maximize (within reason) the amount of use I can get out of a roll of 120 film. I have a few rolls left of 220 Kodak Ektachrome 64 that expired in 1983. I love the way this expired film renders colors and I doubt I’ll be able to acquire another 5-roll box of it in excellent shape for a reasonable price. If I were to shoot this film in my Mamiya Super 23 at 6×9 size (which I have done) I can get 16 total exposures. If I use this same roll of film in my 645 Pro, I can get thirty.
The tradeoff is a smaller image size, but with medium format film there is already so much detail in the larger negative, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Similarly, I’ve acquired some 120 Kodak Aerochrome. All film of this type is now expired is likely never to be produced again by any of the major film manufacturers owing to its extremely specialized nature. Again, if I shoot this in my Super 23, it is possible for me to obtain 8 exposures. If I shoot it in my 645 Pro, I can take 15 exposures. By doing this I’m maximizing a limited resource.
Second, the 645 Pro with various lenses and accessories can be acquired for reasonable prices. Mamiya cameras tend be overlooked when people consider medium format cameras. Hasselblad, Rolleiflex, and Pentax cameras often come to mind when someone brings up the subject of medium format photography, Mamiya not so much. I’m not saying Mamiya is an underdog that can never get the same name recognition as the more famous brands and names in photography (I think Bronica cameras are the underdog).
Mamiya is a big name and most Mamiya cameras perform as well or better than some of these other cameras but tend to sell used for half to a third of the price of the bigger names. For the price of a quality Rolleiflex 3.5f TLR or a Hasselblad 500C/M kit, you can likely purchase a fully loaded 645 Pro, maybe even with a couple of extra lenses or film backs. Simply put, it is an affordable system that offers a lot of flexibility in how you decide to use it.
Drawbacks of the 645 Pro and why you might not want to buy one
As mentioned above, the 645 Pro can become heavy when it is fully accessorized (about 1.8kg, 4 pounds). In its lightest configuration, with only the body, film back, waist-level finder, and 80mm lens attached, the camera weighs in at about 1.3kg, or approximately 3 pounds. By comparison, the Canon 5D Mark IV (a 35mm format DSLR) with EF 24-105mm f/4L II lens (commonly sold together as a kit) weighs approximately 1.8kg, about the same as the fully accessorized 645 Pro.
Comparing a medium format film camera to a miniature format digital camera is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison but my point is if you find yourself weary at carrying and using a modern camera like this then the 645 Pro is not a good choice for you.
Another drawback to the 645 Pro is how reliant it is upon electronic components to do its job. Without a battery, the camera is non-functional. Adding to this is the fact the battery type required is an uncommon one (compared to AA, AAA, and CR123 batteries found at almost every drug, electronics, and hardware stores) that you may have to go out of your way to acquire, depending on where you live.
Using the power winder means you’ll also be carrying an extra six AA-batteries with you. I mitigate the extra weight a bit by using lighter weight lithium batteries, but those are more expensive than alkaline ones. Rechargeable batteries are always an option.
The all-plastic construction of the body is another drawback of the 645 Pro. I really like how it is styled, with flowing lines and rounded edges. Everything on it looks like it’s organic, as if it was meant to be there. Mamiya gets points from me for its styling and design. However, this styling comes at a price and the body is not as resistant to damage from being in rough service. A particular area where this happens commonly is on the film back. On the plastic surface that holds the inserted dark slide, it is common to see cracks.
The film backs are probably the first part of the camera system where wear and tear is seen, owing to the fact they are so commonly attached and removed when in use. A metal-reinforced face where the film back mates with the camera body could avoid this issue.
Mirror stop issues
The plastic construction and components used in the 645 Pro versus using metal ones leads me to my final point of why you might not want to own this camera. If the 645 Pro has a fatal flaw this is it: a poorly designed plastic mirror stop.
If you are unaware, all SLR cameras have some sort of mirror stop. On these types of cameras when you compose your image, the mirror is in the down position, so the image coming from the lens is reflected upwards into a prism viewfinder or onto ground glass in the case of a waist-level finder. When the shutter button is pressed, the mirror swings up so the image is instead directed towards the film. Once the film has been exposed, the shutter curtains close and the mirror swings back down and comes to rest against some kind of mirror stop, hence the name, because it stops the mirror and keeps it at the correct position that allows you to focus the lens correctly.
On the 645 Pro, the mirror stop is located on the interior of the camera, on the lower left side, directly behind the lens mount (pictured above, with the mirror in the “up” position and out of view). It is made of plastic and held in place with a screw and a spring to tension it and a separate screw to adjust its height (an adjustment that will determine how high or low the mirror sits when at rest). When I purchased my 645 Pro, the stop was misadjusted. When looking through the viewfinder, I could never get my shots properly focused and as a result my photographs came out looking blurry. Through my own negligence and heavy-handedness, I broke the mirror stop in half while attempting to adjust it.
If the mirror stop is broken or missing, the mirror rests as far downwards as possible. This means if you use the viewfinder to help you in focusing your lens, you will never be able to focus to infinity. In all other respects, the camera will still operate normally, perhaps with the added wear and tear on the mirror mechanism because it no longer has a buffer to absorb the inertia of it coming to a stop in the “down” position.
With enough time and use, this mirror stop has a higher than normal potential to break on its own. I did not know this prior obtaining mine, so it is something that you should keep in mind if you are deciding to purchase this camera. I’m not trying to sound alarmist or insinuate this camera will only last you a short while before breaking. Many people own this camera and will never have this piece go bad. In other words, don’t let this one consideration be the determining factor in not buying this camera.
Manufacturing this component out of metal or designing the plastic to be more robust would likely eliminate the problem of it breaking under normal conditions. If the mirror stop on your 645 Pro breaks you have two options:
- Continue using the camera in this condition and rely on the depth of field scale on the lens and practice zone focusing to make sure your shots are properly focused.
- Repair or replace the mirror stop. This could be as simple as using some epoxy to glue it back together, or you may go as far as building a replacement. If 3D printing is available in your area, a 3D scan of the old mirror stop can be made and a new one fabricated. Mamiya stopped producing official replacement parts for this camera long ago and sources out there have largely dried up. You can also obtain another (preferably broken because it will be less expensive) 645 Pro body and use it for parts (which is what I did). It will be handy to have a precision screwdriver and tweezer set, as the components are quite small.
What the camera is good at
In medium format photography, I feel 6×4.5 is a good compromise between overall image size and economical usage of film. Whether you choose to scan or traditionally print enlargements from your negatives, a 6×4.5 image is large enough to retain minute detail that you could miss out on when using miniature format film. Sometimes, when I use 35mm film in other cameras, I feel 24 or 36 exposures per roll are “too much”. I don’t have that same feeling with this camera and the 15 exposures per roll of 120 film.
With a prism viewfinder and grip attached, this camera handles remarkably like a 35mm camera. Because it’s not as large as some of the other medium format cameras it is possible to use it in crowded public areas and not intrude upon the people surrounding you. It also doesn’t stand out, at least not like the RB67, Super 23, or even Pentax 6×7 cameras. People will notice you have a camera but you’re not as likely to get stares as if you were using a large format camera on a tripod.
The quality and availability of lenses are good. Durable construction and interoperability across the entire M645 series of cameras (and even some of the Mamiya autofocus 645 cameras) mean most of them can be acquired inexpensively and even adapted for use on other cameras. Images come out sharp and because of the size of the negative, can be enlarged without the corresponding loss of detail that you would get using 35mm film. It works out great for me when I photograph mural/public artwork, architecture, and landscapes around where I live. It would also work equally as well for portraiture and other documentary work.
Knowing what I know now about this camera system, would I still invest in it? I think so. If you are in the market for a medium format SLR, definitely give this a try.
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