Hands-on With Mamiya's 645ZD Digital Back
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Hands-on With Mamiya's 645ZD Digital Back

Medium-Format Imaging for the Price of a '35' DSLR


By Allan Weitz

A little over a year ago we witnessed the price-point collision of DSLRs and digicams. Today, $500 can buy you either a high-end point-and-shoot or a compact DSLR, including a lens. For the casual shooter, it often boils down to whether you want a camera that fits in your pocket or has an interchangeable lens mount.

Mamiya 645ZD Digital Back

With the introduction of Mamiya’s 645ZD digital back (MAZD22K, available mid-August) we are once again witnessing a price point collision, this time between full-frame (24x36mm) 35mm-based DSLRs and their larger and (formerly) pricier medium-format brethren. What this means is that for about the same price-point of the highest resolution full-frame 35mm DSLR (currently Canon's 1Ds Mark II), you can now purchase a 22Mp medium-format digital back designed to fit Mamiya’s 645 AFD II, 645 AFD, or RZ67 Pro IID camera bodies.**

So now the big question is "What am I giving up to get a 22Mp medium-format capture back for less than half the price a 22Mp capture back cost last Tuesday?"

For starters, at 1.2 frames-per-second - along with a buffer capped at 10 frames - the ZD back is no speed queen compared to the most basic of 35mm-based DSLRs. Image playback is also slow as compared to many consumer-level DSLRs. But keep in mind the 'best' medium-format capture backs only top-out at 1.5 frames-per-second, albeit with larger buffers and noticeably faster playback and processing times.

Pixel counts and burst-rates aside, it's also important to include bit-depth and dynamic range into the equation. Most all DSLRs produce output 12-bit color, or 4096 shades of gray per color channel. High-end ($20-30,000) capture backs from Leaf, Imacon, PhaseOne, and the like capture and output image files at 16-bits per channel, or 65,536 levels of gray, which is far more data than you can ever reproduce on a printed page.

The Mamiya 645ZD fits in the middle of the pack by capturing images at 14-bits per channel, or 16,384 shades of gray. In terms of tonality and detail, it would be fair to compare image files from the Mamiya ZD and Canon 1Ds Mark II to comparably exposed film transparencies from a quality '35' and a medium-format film camera. They'll both produce fine results, but the medium-format transparency will contain far more detail in the shadows and highlights, smoother tonal transitions, and overall sharpness as compared to the 35mm transparency. Bigger is better regardless of the medium.

Photos taken on a jaunt along the Jersey shore show that even under harsh summer lighting conditions, the 645ZD is able to capture the subtlest of details in the white hulls of the boats while maintaining fine detail in the shadowy waters. Equally impressive are the dusk shots of the roadside diner, which show off the 645ZD's ability to capture the nuances of neon light, reflections bouncing off fluted chrome surfaces, deep shadows, and a twilight sky.

The 645ZD digital back is geared towards portrait, still-life, and architectural photographers, and others for whom image quality supersedes the need for fast burst-rates and/or image playback and processing times. The bottom line is if you plan on shooting sporting events or leopards downing wildebeest, stick to your '35s'. If however the word ‘fast' is not on your ‘must-be' list… read on.

The Mamiya ZD's 22Mp (36x48mm) CCD is a 'nit' smaller than the frame size of its 645-format film counterpart. A black hairline that runs about 1/8" along the edge of the viewing area defines the 'live' area of the frame. For all intent and purpose, the 1.15x crop factor matters little when choosing the best focal length lens for the job.

The Mamiya ZD digital back can be programmed to record image files as RAW (about 34Mb), JPEG (9 compression levels, 0.8 to 10Mb), or RAW and JPEG simultaneously. Images can be recorded to CompactFlash (CF Type I/II) or SD memory cards with processed image files opening up to a bit over 61Mb.

For viewing and editing your images, the ZD back features a 1.8" Polysilicon TFT Color LCD that while smallish by current standards, displays 100% of the image area and can be programmed to display shadow and highlight warnings, a histogram, as well as a slideshow of everything recorded on your card. For focus-checking, a Zoom button located on the camera's back panel allows for 4x, 9x, or 16x magnification of the captured image.

The set-up menus use icons with text descriptions, and are easy to navigate without need of an owner's manual. Camera control buttons are equally easy to decipher and use. The Mamiya 645 AFD II's viewfinder is bright, and the lenses tested focused quickly and accurately. As with all current medium-format AF cameras, there is only one, centrally located AF sensor, which means you must switch to manual focus if your subject is off-center within the frame.

The ZD back records images in either Adobe RGB or sRGB. White balance options include Auto, Daylight, Overcast, Shade, Fluorescent, Tungsten, 2 presets, as well as Kelvin, which can be manually set from 2800 to 10,000K in 100K increments. ISO ratings on the ZD back can be set from a native ISO 50 up to 400 in 1/3rd-stop increments, with noise becoming noticeable in the shadow areas at about ISO 200 and beyond.

A particularly interesting feature of the 645ZD is the ability of the end-user to install an optional low-pass filter, which helps reduce or eliminate moiré patterns that occasionally rear their ugly heads when shooting clothing and textiles. Low-pass filters, which are built into most all DSLRs, also reduce the ‘jaggies' that often appear along curved lines. The downside of low-pass filters is that in the course of reducing moiré patterns and jaggies, they also reduce sharpness. With the new ZD back you have the option of installing a low-pass filter as needed depending on your subject.

Included with the ZD is a copy of Mamiya's PhotoStudio software, which allows you to adjust exposure, focus, metering, ISO, as well as fire the shutter from your computer keyboard. To help organize your images as you go through your workday Mamiya also includes a copy of Adobe Lightroom.

In addition to the ZD capture back; Mamiya is rolling out a new 28/4.5-AFD lens (MA28AF, $5,294.00). Designed with digital capture in mind, the new aspheric lens is the 35mm equivalent of a 17mm ultra-wide on film, and 20mm when used with the ZD back. In addition to the new ultra-wide, Mamiya is also rolling out a new 75-150/4.5-AFD zoom (MA75150645, $3,329.00), which should prove to be a useful tool for portraits and other shooting situations that can benefit from the flexibility of a short telephoto zoom lens.

The new ZD digital back can be purchased as a stand-alone back (MAZD22, $6999) or as a kit (MAZD22K, $9999.), which includes a Mamiya 645AFD II body, a ZD back, and an 80/2.8 AFD lens. So if you’ve been hankering to step to the next level, Mamiya just made it a whole lot easier, not to mention affordable, to enter the medium-format digital arena. If you already own a Mamiya 645AF system, the ZD back can be viewed as an opportunity to squeeze additional mileage out of your existing gear for a comparatively reasonable price.

** If you currently own a Mamiya 645AF, Mamiya will upgrade your camera to accept the ZD back at no additional cost when you purchase a ZD digital back.

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