In May, I wrote about buying a Bronica S2 medium format camera while over in California for work. I was really excited by how the first roll of film would turn out as we'd seen some gorgeous scenery on the weekend trip up the northern Californian coast.
Sadly, it turned out that my camera was afflicted by a common issue with these cameras: the ground glass for focusing being out of alignment. It was too expensive to write off the cost and get fixed in London (almost the amount I paid for the camera!) and when I was back in San Francisco a couple of months later I didn't have time to head up to Seawood Photo for a repair. The owner was very helpful though and agreed to just refund me if I posted the camera back to him.
This left me with a conundrum: to buy another S2 and risk another alignment problem, or look for something that didn't use rubber seals that corrode and have to be replaced at high cost.
An obvious alternative is the Hasselblad 500C, albeit at probably twice the price. Given that I didn't want to spend that much just yet, I ended somewhere in the middle and found a much newer Mamiya 645AFD on eBay.
It's a very different camera, providing some digital aids like autofocus and metering that the Bronica left you to manually figure out, as well losing the square format, but I thought I'd give it a try.
Although I only had the Bronica for a short while, below are my impressions having used both cameras now (and ignoring the fact the Bronica was broken).
Very different cameras
The Mamiya is obviously from a much more recent era in photography and despite both being medium format film cameras, they're entirely different beasts.
645 vs. 6x6
One of the things that really drew me to the Bronica (cool retro aesthetic aside) was the square format. Instagram has popularised the format in the past couple few years (and more recently started to move away from it), but the feel and resolution from a 6x6 medium format camera that square format just felt right.
The Mamiya, with a 6x4.5 format, throws away a bit of image top and bottom for a more standard rectangular frame. It feels much more familiar compared to my digital cameras.
Waist-level finder vs. Prism/SLR
Another (perhaps the) key difference between the two cameras is the view finder: the Bronica had a waist-level finder (you look through the top of the camera at a reversed image) while the Mamiya is like any other SLR.
I really enjoyed the waist-level finder on the Bronica as a change of pace from my usual camera gear (a bunch of Fujifilm X cameras). There was no doubt a degree of novelty attached to that but I also found myself taking more time composing shots, even allowing for the slowness of cancelling out the reversed image.
As mentioned earlier, the Bronica has a lot of 'retro cool' factor about it. The core cube with lens on the front and waist-level finder, with the chrome accenting, mark it out as an older camera. You can take that as cool or hipster, but I really liked it.
The Mamiya looks much more modern - it's basically a load of black plastic - and only its enormous size really makes it stand out from a digital camera.
Auto-focus and exposure vs. manual
Both cameras can of course do full manual, but the Mamiya adds the option of auto-focus and auto-exposure. These are both definitely nice to have and have allowed me to walk with the Mamiya and grab shots as I notice them, while the Bronica needed more thought, particularly on light metering.
I've really enjoyed both cameras. The Mamiya brings a load of modern perks over the Bronica but what I've realised is that I'd get a square (or square-ish) format camera with waist-level finder if I bought another film camera. Something like a Bronica SQ, Hasselblad 500C or Mamiya RZ67.
The 'film' part is important here. I bought the Bronica for a couple of reasons: one, to play with film photography: scanning my own film and processing from there; two, to get into medium format photography without spending thousands.
Both cameras let me do that but what I'm finding is that as a film camera, each shot costs money. I like that, as it does change your frame of mind when shooting and triggers a more immediate focus on composition and only taking the shot when you're happy. It's a change of style from using my Fuji gear (and my Canon gear before that).
The Mamiya is a fantastic camera but is perhaps straying a bit too close into the territory occupied by my digital cameras. I enjoy using it and even find I can walk with it on a shoulder strap for a good length of time to complement my Fujis. I've noticed though that I often end up taking the same shots with my Fuji and the Mamiya, so all I'm really getting is that one has that film quality and potentially higher resolution once developed and scanned.
The Bronica I used entirely differently; it's less 'another camera I have' and more a different way of seeing things. The view through the ground-glass finder just makes you want to walk around and see the world through it. Despite the off-focus results I got from my broken copy (see above shot from Mendocino), I do love them.
With all my digital background bias, the Mamiya is just a bit too close to what I use day-today. It's a fantastic camera and I don't regret buying it, but I do still hanker after another square format, waist-level finder classic like the Bronica for those trips where you can lug around the extra few kilos and take the time to slow down.