Camera review: Mamiya RB67 Pro-S – by Scott McClarin
What you see below is my Mamiya Sekor RB67 Pro S, the camera I’m reviewing today. It’s a bellows focus medium format film SLR released in 1974 and sold to professionals in the magazine, print, fashion, and portrait industry for more than 15 years. Anne Leibovitz once used this system to great success.
The RB bit? That stands for “Rotating Back”, which I’ll be explaining in further detail below. The 67 bit relates to the standard format the camera shoots in: 6×7, although it’s a little more flexible than that.
My RB67 Pro-S kit consists of two bodies, four lenses and seven film backs. The system has many options and its lenses are proven workhorses, plus the imagery from this camera is wonderful and often dream like.
The Pro-S, being an all metal mechanical camera had become a film pariah in the wake of the digital SLR craze. The same craze that devalued medium format gear to the point of making this once US$2K and up system affordable in 2010 – just at or above US$200.00 with a 90mm lens and a 6×4.5 film back in good user condition.
The above photo is a close up image of the Mamiya Sekor C 50mm f/4.5 lens. You can use the floating lens element ring (front, with the green and red numbers) to maximize focus when stopped down. At F/22 for example, the range between the lines for the floating lens element, with a hyperfocal distance (the dot) of 5.5ft, you can capture everything from 0.5 feet to infinity and achieve sharpness out to the edges of the frame, despite some manageable distortion.
So what makes this a compelling rig to lug around the landscape?
Is it waterproof? Nope.
Is it small enough to fit in a pocket? Nope.
Is it lightweight? Nope, it’s about as heavy as a Nikon F5 with a BIG tele lens – heavy enough to make you question your sanity 300 yards from the car at times.
Does the 6×7 mirror Slap? Yes but much less than you would ever imagine. It is very well dampened and can get you reasonably sharp images with a shutter speed slower than 1/30th sec, hand held. Google RB67 penny parlor trick if you don’t believe me…this rig is SMOOTH!!
What nicknames do photographers give this camera? The Beast, The Workhorse, Glamour Pig, 8lbs of metal, boat anchor…any group of words that describes something heavy and reliable beyond measure.
So I bet you are wondering why low tech has better image quality than 89% of all prosumer and pro-level digital cameras to date?
It is simple math born out by larger formats that yield a film area 4.5 times larger than 35mm, and simple design inherent in prime lenses that rack in and out behind bellows. Plus, it can shoot 6×8 format images with a special rotating back and film holder, or 7×7 with Fuji instant film and a special instant holder
6×7 and 6×8 negatives can facilitate drum scans that create digital images in the neighborhood of about 134MP each – nice. Better yet you can make posters larger than 20×40 all day long, either traditionally or digitally, so post processing can be a flexible endeavor.
Did I mention that it is affordable? Mamiya Sekor C lenses are known to be exceptionally sharp, although you should avoid older lenses if you don’t like chromatic aberration. This system has to be the best bang for the buck, as most lenses are anywhere between $75 and $280 US. Expensive lenses, such as the hard-to-find 37mm C lenses and pristine 500mm telephoto lenses exist at the US$600 mark and up.
Luggability and adaptability
If you find it too strange to cradle the camera like a massive Hasselblad, there are rotating left hand grips and non-rotating left hand grips a plenty all with built in shutter triggers…mechanical and rugged as all hell of course.
Flash Synch? It synchs at all speeds due to the leaf shutter, fastest speed is 1/400th of a second. You are free to use faster film if you want to slow action even more, but you can also shoot IR film, along side BW film…you can even load up several backs with different emulsions and swap mid roll while the light is good in the field; all in the same shoot! I hope this review is getting interesting.
Ooh and if you win the lottery you can adapt digital MF backs to it as well, sky is the limit, Leaf, Phase One, Hasselblad, Mamiya branded digital backs and many more…there are adapters out there for nearly every kind of Digital back. But lets get back to film.
So what can it do? you might be wondering; how about poster sized images that are sharp to they eye from 3 inches away…that is analog pixel peeping at its best…only its more like grain peeping on an image that is only enlarged 4 times in the flesh on a wall.
Above: Poster of a Sunset and the Camera that made it happen(colors dont do the image justice, it looks better in person on a wall, Photo by Scott McClarin.
Below: Image that inspired the poster, titled “Remembrance” taken on the Great Salt Lake
in Fuji Velvia 50 with the RB67 Pro S in 6×7 format Photo by Scott McClarin.
What aesthetics? Its a black metal box with a flippy mirror that weighs as much as a cast iron skillet full of water tied to a boat anchor…lets admire it a bit, shall we?
A profile of a Beast of a camera. Yep she is a tool, but make no mistake she is a top performer and no slouch when it comes to burning film…did you know they made motorized film backs that easily switch from 220 to 120 film lengths? Motorized, this machine can make some great noises and help make a roll burn quicker than your Tax returns!
So this camera has the looks of Charles Bronson with the soul of a Sorceress…the light that passes through that lens and up through the ground glass will put a smile on our face that repeats itself in front of the negatives on the light table. When I saw Remembrance (above) as a transparency on a light table for the first time, I was spellbound.
Other hobbies this camera will inspire is the headlong foolish pursuit of art…not like the photo shopped Avatar-esque tone mapped monstrosities that become poster boys for HDR software, but actual darkroom prints! After all half of the reason to shoot film is to print from it…on paper that also has an emulsion. It seems to more appropriately represent the blood sweat and tears that drives this photographic endeavor. Might as well have something to show for it…
Did I mention it was heavy? Not like pleaseantly heavy, but also like dig into your sides like a metal box with every other step unless you use a large bag or a backpack heavy. Each lens you take along adds 2 Lbs to your load. You can easily acquire 8lbs of lenses next to a 4lb body and that doesnt include loaded film backs or a spot meter. Ooh and that 500mm lens has to weigh 5lbs by it self.
You better get a sturdy tripod and ball head.
If you fall for it like I did, you can even join the Mamiya RB67 Flickr group and ask questions from users and aficionados of the Mamiya RB system who help to troubleshoot users from around the world.
If this Logo is any hint to a western reader, owning this self torture device is a pure joy…it becomes a Love born of bondage, being tied down to a heavy boat anchor of a camera, that seems to get better with use because of what it can bring to you after the Hell of a field outing…by contrast the images are sometimes heavenly, other times costly lessons of ownership ineptitude.
There is some light Falloff through the Ground Glass WLF compared to modern 35mm cameras, but its worse in nealry every Prizm you can mount on it, and the same nasty falloff is found in the Chimney finder…really the Waist Level Finder is the best and lightest option. Users are wise to get a Beatty intenscreen that uses frensel techniques to enhance light on the ground glass. People who have never held a Hasselblad will ask you if its a Hasselblad…which is more annoying than is sounds. I like to tell them no its a larger format camera…I am not wrong If I shoot 6×7 or 6×8.
What you come to love about this system is the variety of things it can do, and the quality level that it can continue to do it at for another 30+ years of service with occasional CLA appointments to keep it in good condition.
Can you Camera Toss it? YES you can! I have done a camera toss with it, possibly the first camera toss using Fuji Provia in medium format ever.
What’s it like to use?
It’s a love hate relationship akin to a good marriage
If you are married like me, you hopefully get that it’s not an insult to say this. If you can’t get past the comment, just go buy one and lug it around lovingly until you someday meet the person of your dreams and ultimately explain that; when you pass, someone, will have to pry that camera from your cold dead hands some day…
People will love making fun of this camera but not in the playfully affectionate way that you will discover when putting it on a tiny bendy digital tripod and laughing out loud before you take the image.
The camera’s mirror is attached to the shutter via a cocking lever on the right side of the body. The film is wound with its own lever on the film back. It’s a two step process likened to dancing a two step to get across a room full of western dancers you can no longer stand, but you keep doing it till the music stops.
There are no LED’s no buzzers or bells to remind you to take out or put back in the dark slide, just the silent frustrating reflective lessons of unexposed or multi exposed frames that stare back at you from a light table till you remember the pain and gain insight into the ritual that is necessary to use this kind of camera.
The rear of the film back has what is called a memo clip…photographers used to put the torn off box tops of the film they loaded in that clip to remind them of the film that is in the film back…I still use it like this today, it is quite handy.
It’s a lovely glamorous monster of a camera, that truly is a workhorse. If ever there was a camera to use on a deserted island for more than 10 years, it would be the RB67, I think. They are all over eBay and can be snatched up for a steal. It can happen if you are patient and ready to pounce.
For your viewing pleasure; a few more images created through my RB67:
The RB67 Pro S has taught me about slowing down and making note of what is beautiful to me on the focus screen, long before I shoot. It has also helped me to begin finding myself in what I think I am doing with cameras, film, and emulsion laden paper. Now when I use my other cameras, the way I compose is informed by the way the Mamiya forced me to think about a scene.
I am a firm believer that whatever camera you use today, your skill in using it will be greatly enhanced after using a variety of cameras, many of them silver emulsion film cameras, from different eras and different formats.
They each have a unique way of being employed to make imagery, and each of those little nuances becomes valuable when looking back through your images over time.
For me the RB has made the biggest difference in how I compose and juxtapose my subjects.
Thanks for reading about my infatuation with the RB67 system and with imagery in general.
~ Scott McClarin
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