I long considered buying a Mamiya TLR, especially after several years of using the Pentacon Six system. Unfortunately, this system proved to be very unreliable and I wanted to replace it with another one with the same 6×6 image frame. I could have bought another TLR but at the same time I wanted to have a possibility to use different lenses. I gradually started to look closer at Mamiya TLRs — one of the most interesting camera systems, whose lenses and bodies were relatively cheap at that time and its waist-level viewfinder completely suited me. I would even say that any 6×6 camera should only have a waist-level viewfinder.
In 2006, I came across a Mamiya C33 at a very good price in an online “flea market” — not flawless, but in a working condition, albeit without a lens. I decided to first buy the camera itself and a lens for it later. It was even better because it allowed me to think about a lens that would fit my purpose.
Mamiya TLRs vs other TLRs
TLR cameras have lots of advantages over cameras of other types, in particular SLR cameras. However, they also have drawbacks. To make their complete comparison separate research is needed. I would only focus on their advantages over other TLRs, which influenced my choice of Mamiya C33.
If you have no idea about what TLR cameras are, I recommend you to first read an article about them in Wikipedia.
1. The most important advantage is a possibility to change lenses in contrast with other TLR cameras which have built-in lenses.
2. Bellows-type focusing allows one to focus at a very close distance — almost shooting macro — without any additional equipment. There are special afocal attachments for TLR cameras with fixed lenses exactly for this purpose. It is in fact a set of attachments — one of which should be put on a taking lens, and another one — on a viewing lens. Among most famous such attachments are Rolleinar close-up lenses #1, #2 and #3. You simply select an attachment depending on the distance you would work with, without an option of choosing an infinity. It is in general not very convenient.
3. Focusing knobs on both sides. Use them depending on how it is more comfortable for you to shoot. Later models have a left focusing knob equipped with a clamp for more precise focusing and for preventing defocusing.
4. More convenient film loading than that of most TLR cameras. Mamiya TLRs have a film spool and a take-up spool in the same plane, as opposed to other TLR cameras, where the film is loaded in the base of the camera and turned through 90 degrees over a roller to pass up to the take-up spool. It is done to make a camera more compact. Thus, it is possible to change film in Mamiya TLRs without removing it from a tripod, as is usually the case with other TLR cameras.
5. Convenient parallax correction during close-up focusing. It is especially true for Mamiya C33 and C330, as well as later models.
Mamiya TLRs and Parallax
All TLR cameras to some extent have issues with parallax. As the distance between the lens and the film increases, parallax also increases and the part on the top of the image frame is cut off on the film. In addition, effective brightness also decreases, and compensation must be made to get the correct exposure of the film.
This problem is solved in TLR cameras with built-in lenses by restricting minimal focusing distance — it is usually about 1m, when parallax doesn’t matter much, and exposure compensation is not significant either.
Meanwhile, Mamiya TLR cameras have bellows-type focusing, which allows really close work. It is very convenient but results in the need for parallax correction and exposure compensation starting from a certain distance to the subject (depending on a lens).
Mamiya released a special accessory — Paramender — which enables correct framing of the image. Here what Mamiya’s manual says:
Fitted between the camera and tripod or other mount, the Paramender permits lowering of the viewfinder lens to picture-taking lens position for complete elimination of parallax while focusing and composing.
It is only possible to use Paramender when shooting from a tripod. As for me, this is not very convenient. The more so because in most cases I prefer handheld shooting. Mamiya has a solution for this as well, but it is not available on all its cameras.
For me, the choice of Mamiya C33 was not a hasty decision but it followed quite an in-depth consideration of all its pros and cons. It is better to start getting to know your camera with reading its manual. Then, lots become clear about options for a specific camera model, its convenience, technical characteristics and so on.
The case is that in contrast with earlier models, after the introduction of this model Mamiya TLRs have both automatic parallax correction and exposure compensation. What you need to do is:
- Adjust a parallax correction lever to the focal length index
- While focusing the indicator needle on the ground glass that appears from the top and shows which part of the image on the film is being cut off. The indicator needle points to the exposure index corresponding to the following exposure compensation: ×1.5 for +0.5EV, ×2 for +1EV, ×3 for +1.5EV
Unfortunately, for using automatic parallax correction and exposure compensation with 55mm and 65mm lenses it is necessary to install an additional parallax correction plate to the focusing hood. I don’t know how convenient it is but it is unlikely to allow a swift change of lenses. However, if you don’t do close-ups with these lenses, then you can get by without this plate. But you should always be mindful about observing the distance.
In a nutshell, the indicator needle simultaneously shows the top of the image frame and exposure compensation. It is very simple and, what is most important, convenient!
Mamiya C33 became the first in the Mamiya TLRs line-up to have automatic shutter cocking. I cannot say that it is a must but it is a convenient option, despite the fact that it doesn’t work with the oldest chrome-finishing lenses.
However, during film advance on my camera, when automated shutter cocking should occur, the shutter cocking lever of the body did not fully press on the shutter cocking lever of the lens. As a result, the shutter cocking did not always work automatically. But this issue may easily be fixed by slightly bending the shutter cocking lever on the camera.
It is worth noting that there is a small benefit that a 1/4” tripod mount thread is installed on Mamiya C33. In the subsequent models (Mamiya C330 and C330f) a 3/8” thread mount was used. It is, of course, not a big deal to buy an adapter but it should be found first.
Thus, Mamiya C33 is the base model that is worth considering. And I believe that it is the most successful model out of the entire Mamiya TLRs line-up.
Mamiya-Sekor 105mm F3.5
However strange it may sound, it turned out to be the easiest part to pick a lens. My choice fell on a Mamiya-Sekor 105mm F3.5 for various reasons. First of all, I needed a lens that could fulfil the functions of a standard lens with the field of view of 40-50 degrees. And despite the fact that I mostly shoot portraits, I prefer to stay quite close to a model to maintain a connection, that is why long-focus lenses are not fit for purpose. Besides, I needed quite a fast lens F2.8-3.5 and Mamiya doesn’t have a big variety of such lenses in its line-up, the more so long-focus ones.
Thus, my choice was limited to two lenses — 80mm and 105mm. In order to understand what lens is a better fit, I took my camera, set its parallax correction lever for the 80mm lens and started to “focus” up to the point when a needle appeared on the ground glass in the viewfinder, recording this distance.
Then, having done the same for the 105mm lens, I understood than it allows me to make tighter portraits than the 80mm lens, not taking into account parallax correction. In other words, it was necessary to make parallax correction for the Mamiya-Sekor 105mm F3.5 at a much closer distance than for the 80mm lens.
It is not surprising because the shorter focal length is, the more parallax correction is required for the same shooting distance.
The 105mm lens has the field of view amounting to about 41 degrees — this roughly corresponds with a 58mm lens for 35mm cameras. Overall, in my view, the 105mm lens is one of the most interesting in the entire Mamiya TLR lens line-up. It is also a lens which has undergone most modifications. There are a total of four main types of the Mamiya-Sekor 105mm F3.5 lens — chrome, black, black “D” and black “DS”.
The first two types are Tessar-type lenses, with the main difference being their finish while optics-wise they are identical. The last two types of this lens (“D” and “DS”) are the most interesting. They both have a black finish and look similar to the second type of the 105mm lens but in fact, they are Heliar-type lenses.
However, it should be noted that not all 105mm F3.5 D lenses appear to be of the Heliar-type as some of them are of the Tessar-type. It is possible to distinguish between them by comparing their size. For a more detailed description of all the types of this lens, I recommend you refer to the original manual about Mamiya-Sekor 105mm F3.5 lens.
The depth of field preview (DOF preview) was also added to the 105mm F3.5 DS lens. It is very hard to implement DOF preview in a TLR camera, that is why probably it was made part of only this lens.
In fact, this lens has two diaphragms: one in the taking lens and another one — in the viewing lens. The latter fulfils the function of the DOF preview — you just set a certain aperture value, which you intend to use during shooting and see in the viewfinder how an image would look like.
Unfortunately, I only managed to get hold of the second Tessar-type of this lens. Its bokeh has a typical Tessar style with a light swirl on edges. Meanwhile, when shooting at the aperture of F11-16, it doesn’t make any major difference of what optical formula a lens has, especially when taking images against a plain background. But overall, I was satisfied with this lens.
All black Mamiya-Sekor 105mm F3.5 lenses have a filter thread mount of 46mm. They are somewhat more convenient than 40.5mm because lens filters 46mm are more common. As for a lens hood, I used a cheap round metal hood.
It is quite difficult to produce TLR cameras with interchangeable lenses. But Mamiya managed to solve this problem, making the process of changing a lens on TLR cameras quite simple and convenient, albeit it requires some time to get used to. First, you need to completely retract the bellows into the body by turning the focusing knob and recess the film wind crank into the camera body. Then set the lens changing knob to the “UNLOCK” position. Finally, push the lens catch bracket down and remove the lens.
To mount a lens you need to repeat this sequence of actions in the reverse order. For easier lens mounting, it is recommended to precock the lens shutter with your fingers on the lens that is being mounted so that the shutter coking lever on the body doesn’t hinder the process. However, I didn’t do that. But for some lenses it simply needs to be done. And finally, it is necessary to adjust parallax correction lever to the appropriate focal length index. On the face of it, it may seem to be a complex and time-consuming process. But in fact, it is possible to get used to it quite fast.
During lens changing, the film area is protected from exposing by a special cover. This cover can easily be pressed on with a finger, which will result in this film frame being exposed. That is why one should be particularly careful when transporting a camera with the film inside and lens dismounted.
Mamiya TLR for street photography
In 2007 I went to Rome for a photoshoot, taking the Mamiya C33 as a main camera. I had enough time to not only fulfil the task but also walk around Rome for a couple of days and visit Florence.
Now there is much talk about sharpness, chromatic aberrations and other technical characteristics of lenses. But this all has little to do with Photography — it is either liked or not — and the “quality” of a lens doesn’t affect much. Let me show you a couple of examples, shot on colour film.
In my view, Mamiya C33 is less convenient for street photography as it is somewhat bigger any other TLR camera with a built-in lens. This fact will make you more noticeable. Of course, I do not suggest that every passerby turns round or just pays attention to what you are doing. But I had some cases when people approached me, taking interest in my camera, and asked me to show it and explain what this “thing” is — it looks quite appealing given its vintage and unusual look. But overall, I wasn’t bothered by these questions, on the contrary, I was rather pleased to be able to share my knowledge and experience. In any case, the lens shutter is very quiet and there are no other noise-producing components of this camera — it will be hard to “detect” you during shooting. Compared to the use of Pentax 67 for street photography, whose mirror flips so noisily that people turn round you will feel yourself much more confident when using Mamiya C33.
Mamiya TLR for close-up portraits
It should be specially noted that I used Mamiya C33 when shooting the portraits of Bernardo Bertolucci and Robertino Loreti, which was my special assignment in Rome. Overall, I enjoyed using Mamiya C33 for close-up portraits. The main benefit of Mamiya TLRs is bellows-type focusing — you mount a lens and shoot at a scale needed without additional extension tubes. And if you need a tighter portrait, you just come closer and focus again, without being limited by a minimal focusing distance of the lens. It exists in any case but, for instance, the 105mm F3.5 lens is able to cover object size of about 22x22cm at a minimal focusing distance, which is more than enough for close-up portraits. Only the Pentax 67 135mm F4 Macro lens is comparable to this type of shooting in my experience. Besides, any TLR camera, thanks to the pecularities of its construction, gives a possibility to see if a person winked when a flashlight was triggered or not. There is, unfortunately, no such possibility in SLR cameras and sometimes one misses it a lot.
However, there are also drawbacks. It is very important to remember about parallax correction. During a photoshoot, when you are very focused on working with a model, one can easily fail to pay attention to the indicator needle on the ground glass indicating parallax correction. And you can finish a film roll and only then remember that you should have been composed the top border of the image using the indicator needle position. I personally had a couple of such cases. I always take an extra roll of film with me and keep it away from the rest, to be used only in case of emergency, if I need to spontaneously photograph something again. And that was a great help in similar situations. I then was shooting this extra material playing close attention to parallax correction, and when I was using the 105mm F3.5 lens for close-up portraits I almost always had to take parallax correction into account.
Another drawback stemming from TLR cameras’ parallax, which is mostly the issue of short-focus lenses, is that one has to come close to to a model when shooting close-up portraits. However, as for me, it is not a problem as such, I enjoy shooting at a close distance as it allows me to better “feel” the process at the shooting set. But, while there are two lenses, when a model looks into the viewing (top) lens, you get an illusion that the model looks into the camera. But, in fact, the model should look into the taking (lower) lens! And the difference in terms of the direction a person is looking to [the top or lower lenses] during close-up focusing becomes noticeable on images. From time to time, I have had such mistakes as they can be easily forgotten during shooting. But then you expose the film and see that your model in the photo looks as if over you. You can overcome this issue if you use a long-focus lens, 135mm F4.5 or even 180mm F4.5 while shooting at a further distance. In this case there will be no difference at which of two lenses — viewing (top) or taking (lower) — a model should look into.
Mamiya TLR impression summary
Now it can be argued that it would have been easier to buy a TLR camera with a built-in lens. The more so, if I could get by with an F3.5 lens, I could have bought a cheap Japanese TLR camera with a Tessar-type lens. However, it is not exactly so. I mostly described my reasoning above. By that time, I already had some experience of using Meopta Flexaret VI camera. In my view, Mamiya C33 is much easier to use and the potential of the entire Mamiya TLR system is much greater than that of TLR cameras with built-in lenses. Mamiya TLRs have their own drawbacks but I would rather describe them as features which one should be mindful about during a photoshoot. Mamiya TLRs require a more careful approach from a photographer.
All Mamiya TLR lenses have a five-blade aperture, which is also common for lenses with a leaf shutter. Out of the cameras that I have had Yashica Mat 124G and Yashica Electro 35 GL had such aperture. There are lots of cameras with lenses of this type, which is neither good nor bad. Even Carl Zeiss lenses for Hasselblad and Rolleiflex cameras have a five-blade aperture. But in most cases it will make no real difference. Most likely, you simply won’t notice that in some part of the shot small bright spots are pentagonal shaped.
The main reason why I stopped developing the Mamiya TLR system is the absence of fast-speed lenses which I miss a lot. Unfortunately, it is impossible in principle. And albeit it is possible to partly compensate it with a slow shutter speed, which a TLR camera allows during a handheld shot, but it is already harder to compensate its depth of field without increasing focal length.
It should be noted that one of the most famous photographers who used a Mamiya TLR in their work was Diane Arbus.
Is it worth getting one of Mamiya TLR cameras?
Yes, if you like the style of shooting with a TLR camera and you miss an opportunity to change a lens or close-up focusing, or you plan to develop your own system. All this is possible because a Mamiya TLR is a comprehensive system involving several cameras, lenses, viewfinders, grips and other useful accessories.
I could only recommend you to look closer at Mamiya C33/C330. I also had a possibility to shoot using Mamiya C330f several years later. I don’t see any major difference between the cameras.
In Mamiya C330f some parts were replaced with plastic ones and the focusing distance scale has become more convenient to use, a back cover was adopted for both 120 and 220 film types. The latter doesn’t give a major advantage because this film type is hard to get because it has long been missing from the shops and can only be found on eBay. The only benefit of this back cover is a possibility to experiment with shooting on 35mm film in order to make vertical 24x56mm frames.
Also, in later modifications a more convenient waist-level viewfinder hood is used which can be easily folded with two fingers.
Mamiya TLR resources
Below I list links on some additional resources which provide more information about the system:
- Mamiya C series on Camera-wiki and Wikipedia.
- Mamiya TLR interchangeable lenses. It is an interesting and well-known article, which, unfortunately, can no longer be accessed on its original webpage but exists as a pdf-document on various resources. The author describes the optical formulas of Mamiya TLR lenses, analysing where they might have originated.
- The detailed description of chrome series lenses and black series lenses. I have prepared these two pdf-documents for more convenient reading. They are based on a large article Mamiya TLR System Summary which can only be accessed via Wayback Machine. The complete article as a single PDF document is also available there. There possibly cannot exist a more detailed description of the entire Mamiya TLR System with important technical details. Highly recommended for reading.
- I also recommend you to read an article on parallax correction with Paramender. In fact, it is about double exposure but the use of Paramender is described there clearly. The original article is in German.
- Finally, Mamiya C33 Professional Owner’s Manual.
I would be very grateful if you suggest amendments if I have made a mistake, add extra information, or just share your experience. Thanks for reading!