If the Rolleiflex 2.8f is the handsomest of my favourite cameras, then it's fair to say that the Mamiya Press has no pretenders to the Ugly Crown. This is one scruffy-looking camera. That's OK, though, as it owes its existence solely to its funtionality and not to its collectability.
Looking more like something that might emerge from a brick factory than a design table, the Press is oddly named given that it appeared at a time when press photographers were moving away from old cameras like the Graflex and MPP towards TLRs and 35mm rangefinders. You would have looked very odd indeed if you'd turned up at a press event wielding the Mamiya whilst your peers were carrying Rolleis and Leicas.
So what is the role of the Mamiya Press? That's a good question, if only because I don't have an answer. I really can't think of any one thing it does better than any other camera but it tends to do a lot of things rather well. Maybe it's just a Jack of all Trades.
I used the one featured in this post for many years as a landscape camera. It was almost always tripod mounted and I quite often focused using the ground glass in the focusing back I once had for it. At one time I had the Press Standard shown here, a later Press Super 23 (there was also a third model, the Universal), a 65mm wide angle (about 28mm in the 35mm format), 90mm and 100 mm standards and a 150mm tele (about 75mm) but now there's just the camera, a couple of backs and the 90mm with its dodgy 1/8th speed. Of course, it's difficult to apply hard and fast 35mm equivalents to the leaf-shuter Press lenses because it depends on the back in use and they came in 6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7 and 6x9 formats.
Don't forget the dark slide!
In use, the Press wasn't particularly intuitive. Between setting it up on the tripod, taking a meter reading, adjusting the f-stop and shutter speed, focusing using the rangefinder, cocking the shutter, attaching the back and remembering to withdraw the dark slide, there was quite a lot going on. Until you get into a particular way of working - or workflow as it's now called - it's easy to get something wrong. In my case, that ocassionally meant leaving the dark slide in place. This wasn't a huge problem provided I spotted the error before I moved onto another subject! The orange tab hanging from the slide in the front view of the Press above was a gentle reminder.
An uncommon feature is an extending and tilting back - not as useful as a tilting front but very handy for getting in really close. It wasn't something I used terribly much, not really being a close-up kind of guy. The Mamiya's other claim to fame was its extensive list of accessories. On top of the 12 lenses ranging from 50mm to 250mm, there was a cut film back, several different grips and external viewfinders. As I said at the start, there isn't much you can't do with a Mamiya Press.
Where digital beats medium format
In the end, however, I got fed up lugging it around. Unlike 35mm or digital, I had to be pretty sure there was a good shot for the taking before I'd go to the bother of setting it all up. The pic of the waterfall at the top of this post, for instance, saw me wading into the stream to set up the tripod. It was worth it on that occasion but there were plenty others where a similar effort didn't get much of a reward. That's OK when you have lots of time for photography but hopeless if you're trying to grab the odd pic here and there on the way to work or while out on family trips.
I really can't see me using it again in furture as the results from my Nikon D700, whilst not as highly detailed as 6x9 negs from the Press, are actually smoother. In other words, there is less noise from the D700 files than there is grain from scanned 6x9 negs.
By now you must be asking yourself, "why does Bruce Robbins rate this as one of his favourite cameras?" It's big, cumbersome, heavy, not as noise free as the D700, a bit of a palaver to shoot with and does not excel in any one department. There are two reasons: that big 54 sq. cm. negative and excellent value. When I was using the Press, I couldn't really afford other medium format outfits with the possible exception of the Mamiya TLR range which I tried but didn't really like very much. There was nothing else as versatile at the Press's price range - and it's even cheaper now.
But good value wouldn't be worth much without good results. Seeing eight perfectly-exposed negatives appearing off a roll of 120 and then loading them up into the enlarger knowing that you don't have to worry about grain or sharpness and can blow them up to whatever size (within reason!) you fancy is, in the end, the gift of the Mamiya Press.
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