Over the years, I’ve dabbled with many cameras and many film formats. I’ve used pretty much everything from 8 x 10" view cameras to half-frame 35mm cameras and ended up settling on 6 x 7 for the majority of my work. Somehow, though, after all of this time, I managed to skip the 645 format entirely. I didn’t do this intentionally; it just never seemed to fall into place. The cameras and lenses are larger than those for 35mm, but the film format is smaller than 6 x 7. It’s either a happy medium or an awkward compromise, depending on how you look at it. Recently, I became hooked on the idea of working with longer, telephoto lenses while shooting handheld, and also working with closer subjects and tighter compositions. I knew I didn’t want to drop down in format to 35mm—I wanted to keep a more square aspect ratio than 3:2, and knew I wanted to continue using 120 film… but I was also very wary of working with the huge telephotos made for Mamiya’s 6 x 7 systems. Enter the Mamiya 645 Pro.
I’d known of Mamiya’s extensive 645 system for a long time, and admit to being curious about working with it for a while, but for some reason or another I never felt the urge to incorporate yet another film format into my workflow. After getting this desire to change up some lens choices, it seemed like the perfect time to try something new altogether. Long story short: I acquired a Mamiya 645 Pro body, along with the FK402 AE prism finder, a couple of backs, the C 110mm f/2.8 N lens, the C 300mm f/5.6 N lens, and a 2x teleconverter. It’s a bit of a unique starter setup, but that’s one of the pluses of working with such a wide-ranging and readily available system—you don’t need to start with the basics.
For the purposes of this review, I want to focus on the camera body, backs, and viewfinder, but before completely ignoring the two really wonderful lenses, it’s worth re-emphasizing that they are the reason I now own this camera system. I’ve written a couple of times about why I love the Mamiya 7 II so much, as well as the Mamiya RB67, but one thing I couldn’t do easily with either of these cameras is photograph something far away with a long lens from a handheld position. The Mamiya 7 II and its rangefinder design simply isn’t suited for that kind of shooting, and the RB67 is heavy enough with the standard 90mm lens, let alone the 500mm f/6 lens that weighs more than 5 lb itself. And the same situation is true for close-up shooting; rangefinders aren’t ideal for nearby subjects and the RB67 is still heavy and big. The Mamiya 645 addresses both of these problems by being much smaller than an RB67 and, since it’s an SLR, it’s better for close-up and faraway shooting, compared to a rangefinder. For these reasons, I managed to talk myself into investing in the system.
Like most medium format film cameras, the 645 Pro is a modular system camera. At its core, it’s a lens, body, back, and viewfinder of some kind, but you have a huge choice of lenses, seven different viewfinder choices, five different focusing screen choices, a series of different backs, and then you can further trick out your camera with various grips or winders, depending on your handling and shooting needs, as well as various bellows, tubes, and even different cable release types.
My initial impression working with this new-to-me camera was how small it was. A very relative term, meant in comparison to 6 x 7 cameras but, even when compared to larger digital cameras, the Mamiya 645 isn’t too big of an object. It has a more distinct box shape and is far less ergonomic than your average DSLR or mirrorless camera of today, but it’s not unmanageable. The main frustration I have with it, though, is the lack of an integrated grip. Even though I praise the modular design, the camera is fairly uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time, and this is due to its shape rather than the weight. One of the reasons I struggle to handhold the camera is due to my preference for shooting in the vertical orientation—when shooting horizontally, the issue is less prevalent. There are accessory grips that can be added, but they bring bulk to the whole camera setup, as well as the need for additional batteries to power the motorized winder, which are things I don’t want to worry about. Ergonomics aside, the smaller size leads to more portability, which was a treat when traveling with this camera. The boxier shape also makes it easier to pack than typical T-shaped camera systems.
In terms of operation, the camera is just about as straightforward as any film camera from this era could be. Shutter speeds range from 4 seconds to 1/1000-second and there are A and AEL modes for easier aperture-priority shooting. With the FK402 AE prism I picked up, the selected shutter speed isn’t displayed; just a green light to indicate it’s safe to handhold, or a red downward arrow to indicate the shutter speed may cause camera shake. The FK401 prism, on the other hand, has more sophisticated metering and a more intuitive display, but I liked the lighter-weight design of the FK402, along with its built-in diopter. Besides the shutter speed dial, the camera body itself really only also offers a multiple exposure switch, mirror up switch, battery check button, hot shoe on the side, and the shutter release button, with a self timer position, as controls. The film speed is set on the film back, which makes it a simpler process when switching between backs of different film speeds.
As a complete package, I wish I could say something along the lines of being surprised at how much I enjoy using this camera but, honestly, it’s not a surprise to me. I’ve long been a fan of Mamiya and the 645 Pro is no exception. I love that, like the Mamiya 7 II, the 645 Pro is a viable option for handheld, travel-oriented shooting. I trust the metering performance enough, and the total size and weight of the camera is practical for bringing along for day outings with just a tote bag or small camera bag. I also love that, like the RB67, the 645 Pro is a precise and wide-ranging system with a huge array of available lenses and accessories to personalize it for the type of shooting I like to do. Compared to the 6 x 7 cameras, though, the 645 Pro is a happy medium and something I can see using in instances where size and weight is limited but precision is still required. I do miss the larger 6 x 7 negative, but it doesn’t feel as dramatic a difference as moving from 35mm to medium format. I’m happy to have moved into the 645-film format with such ease; I love the intuitive features of the Mamiya 645 Pro, but also enjoy the distinctions that make it a solid alternative to many other medium format cameras out there.
Have you ever worked with a Mamiya 645 Pro? Or another 645 camera? What are your thoughts on this smallest of the medium format formats? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section.