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Mamiya's Drop-Dead Digital

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I have seen the future and it's expensive.

For years the folks at Mamiya have been cranking out cameras in the Swedish shadow of Hasselblad, seeking to establish a beachhead in the professional photographer market that long has been the domain of the rugged-as-a-tank Hassy.

With its SLR RZ67, Mamiya made inroads into legions of medium format wedding and event shooters (not to mention studio photographers), who loved the camera's comparatively easy handling and superb image quality. At about the same time Mamiya also grabbed a hefty cohort of advanced amateurs with its user-friendly 645 cameras that handled like a 35mm SLR.

Then, of course, there were Mamiya's ingenious medium format rangefinder models – first in the square format Mamiya 6, and later in the 6x7 Mamiya 7, that superceded it. These quickly became a favorite of journalists and documentarians like me looking for big negative quality and Leica-like portability and quiet. [These latter two qualities are what I loved about my Mamiya 6 when I worked on my book about Down East Maine – and it's what I continue to love as I work on our next project: on Venice in Winter. Previously, if I had wanted to work in medium format overseas, I would have had to lug my Hassleblad (remember: tank-like) and, in fact, did bring along at least one Hassy with me on a previous trip to Italy. Now, however, and especially in the wake of September 11th, I prefer to carry to Venice as little gear as necessary, and the Mamiya 6 has been for the most part a great way to shoot a bigger-than-35mm-negative.]

Still, for all the Mamiya 6's advantages, it's not and never will be a studio camera.

Now, however, in its new, and frankly gorgeous, 645 AFd film/digital camera, Mamiya – and its technical partner Leaf America – hope to throw a net over the growing number of studio, catalog, portrait and other commercial shooters who finally have decided to take out a second or third mortgage and go digital, while still holding on to the option of using film.

From what I have seen so far with this remarkable camera, such a move not only could be prudent from a professional standpoint, but from an economic one as well. Pricey though they may be at first (we are talking at least fifteen grand for a basic system) the camera, lenses and backs of the 645 AFd have been designed for long-term adaptability, not short term obsolescence. In short, unlike some other digital marvels, especially in 35mm, this system has a realistic potential of paying for itself over several years. This, in fact, is one of digital's dirty little secrets, especially for professional shooters. Whereas, I am working just fine with film-using Hasselblads and Nikons that are well over a decade old, keeping up with all the permutations – and changes – in digital technology in most cases can mean that a professional photographer has to invest, conservatively, $5,000 every couple of years just to stay current.

The 645AFd is, truth to tell, one hell of a camera. And from a film-loving throwback like me that's high praise indeed.

It's a pleasantly clunky piece of machinery, obviously well-made and full of the practical bells and whistles, we've all come to expect in high-end systems of any format. There's auto-film loading for instance, a rarity in medium format. There's infrared focusing assist – a boon when working in low light. [This feature can be turned off in situations where the red IF beam might seem intrusive.]

The metering system is excellent – my results, shooting in all kinds of light, showed the system to be almost foolproof.

Other goodies include data imprinting outside the image area, TTL flash and auto-bracketing.

It is a heavy camera, there's no doubt. I'd never take this thing out for a day of street shooting. It is, plain and simple, a studio camera – a potentially great one.

Mamiya touts this rig as the first true dual-platform system, and though there may be a bit of hair-splitting involved, it's close enough. In fact, "dual-platform" cameras have been around for years (i.e.: film cameras like Hassys or even garden variety and notoriously retro view cameras that can be fitted with digital backs whenever the photographer chooses), but the AFd is said to be the first camera system designed from the inside out to provide digital operation along with film, and therefore not requiring a retrofit of wires or other paraphernalia to make the digital component work.

It performs this dual role in the rear, with its backs. I almost wrote "film backs" but that would have been wrong. In fact, while one of the 645AFd's backs does take film, in either 120 or 220 rolls, an almost identical-looking back manufactured by Leaf contains the digital guts. [In fairness, Leaf also makes this digital back for Hasselblad.]

The thrill of taking, then instantaneously seeing, a picture wore off for most of us a long time ago, when digital first appeared. What matters to real photographers is 1. how good the image actually is in terms of sharpness, color and detail and 2. how the software supporting the digital component can improve things in post-production.

On both counts the 645AFd shines.

Without going into too much detail – in truth, much of it went over my head when explained by Leaf's Eric Fulmer – Mamiya and Leaf have developed a system for accurately reproducing color saturation and sharpness that will rival any of the new capture systems that are on the horizon for 35mm. The gist of this new technology is in its ability to rival film in rendering a huge dynamic range of raw data, and not in getting into a meaningless arms race of ever-increasing megapixels. As Fulmer noted, "a billion pixels of crap and you still have crap."

From my own brief fling with the camera and from seeing samples of what it can do in terms of image quality, the 645AFd certainly seems to rival, if not exceed, anything currently out there, and likely to emerge in the near future.

But perhaps the neatest thing that Fulmer showed me was not in the camera itself but in its support software: notably, the phenomenal MagicAL Eraser that kisses moiré patterns goodbye. You know these awful patterns, caused by the digital camera's inability to render certain patterns as well as film can. Digitally photograph someone wearing a shiny or woven fabric and you often get this hideous rainbow of moiré reflections that suddenly become the focal point of your image. Some computer programs try to remove this effect, but wind up softening the image. Not MagicAL. I couldn't believe how well this tool worked, removing the pattern quickly, easily...magically. By the way, the technology actually was developed by a technician named Al, hence the odd spelling. (Thanks, Al.)

So you plunk down at least 15K (Five grand for a camera body, a film back and maybe one lens, then another ten grand for the digi-back) and what do you get?

A lot of support, for one thing. As Eric Fulmer noted, "the biggest barrier (for many photographers going digital) is the fear that they're gonna have to spend two years to learn how to do digitally what they're already doing with film." For that reason, Mamiya and Leaf only sell this system through dealers willing and able to, in effect, provide a hands-on how-to seminar for the purchaser. They also are developing a very detailed training CD, modeled on the highly successful one on using PhotoShop, authored by photographer/lecturer Dean Collins.

But, you know, if I had just spent this kind of money on a new rig, the very least I'd expect would be a little personal attention.

In fact, I'd hold out for lunch and a ride home.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

© Frank Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Book Signings: April 24th and 27th

Photography columnist Frank Van Riper will sign his latest book, Talking Photography, and also lecture about his career as a location portraitist and documentary photographer, at two separate events next week. On Wednesday evening, the 24th, he will appear at Borders Books & Music at the White Flint Mall in Rockville, Md., beginning at 7:30pm.

On Saturday, the 27th, as part of the Bethesda Literary Festival, he will be signing his books at the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda, Md. (4801 Bethesda Avenue), from 7-10pm.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Travels with Chernush

A Vase of Flowers

Film: Premature Obituary

The Happy Marriage Of Old and New Technologies

Building Pictures of Buildings

A Magnificent Platinum Obsession