TGIFridays: Review of the vintage Mamiya RB67 Pro SD

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TGIFRidays take a look at shooting with film cameras, and we start with one of the mainstays of the professional studio photography scene for many years – the Mamiya RB67 Pro SD.

TGIFridays: Review of the vintage Mamiya RB67 Pro SD

With the resurgence of the film photography community, we take a look at some of the film cameras that I own. We started with the large format Sinar X a few weeks ago, and today, we continue into the medium format arena, with my Mamiya RB67 ProSD.

#Film is not dead

The resurgence of film as a viable format is a rather interesting phenomena. I think it is likely due to the rejection of the digital universe that we are increasingly being involved in, and the appeal of the physical. Many Gen X-ers are keen on shooting with film, even though it would be unthinkable for any of them…or the rest of us for that matter, not to have a camera at almost all times with us in our smart phones.

Film, and other analog forms of art like vinyl music, have been received well as it provides a physical connection to what we are doing, and allows us to remove ourselves from the daily world which is increasingly becoming digital. And even with this revival of interest, no new film cameras are being produced today by mainstream producers. Sure there are independents who make home-made like devices which use film, but the giants like Canon, Nikon, Fuji are all not in the game. The only mainstream camera manufacturer who still offer a film camera is Leica, who recently released the new M6, which joins the family of two other film offerings: the M-A and the MP. Pentax has recognised this trend, and recently announced that they are working on new film cameras. But for the most part, shooting film means having to deal with old cameras. Even the newest are pushing 20 years old.

Mamiya RB67 ProSD ready to shoot. Shown here with the Sekor-C 140mm lens attached.

I have been shooting with medium format digital cameras for most of our photography needs of this website for a long while. And I covered some of the journey, and its progress and the rationale for selection through a series of articles. From the Hasselblad H3D-39 which I still own and occasionally use, sometimes even with the film HM16-32 back attached, to the current workhorse for almost all the photographs you see on this site – made with the Fujifilm GFX 50S II. The featured Mamiya is a different kind of medium format. It is a film camera, and the example I have is the latest iteration – the RB67 ProSD, produced from 1990 to about 2000.

Medium format film

Medium format film is most often shot in what is known as roll film, or 120 film. The 120 format for still photography was introduced by Kodak for their Brownie No.2 camera way back in 1901. It is a strip which measures 61 mm wide, with a length of 820 mm to 850 mm, as defined by the ISO 732:2000 standard. 

120 roll film. Image courtesy of The Dark Room.

As a comparison of scale, consider the standard 35mm “full frame” film which measures 24mm x 36mm a frame. The 35mm film format is in the familiar canister roll, and was originally developed by Thomas A. Edison’s laboratory in 1889 by splitting 70mm roll film (interestingly a modern version of 70mm film is used in the latest (July 2023) IMAX motion picture by Christopher Nolan – Oppenheimer). It consists of a long strip of film which is perforated on both sides. The 120 roll film format is larger, and newer (as noted above, circa 1901). Like 35mm film, the 120 roll film can be used to make images in a variety of formats. The smallest of which is known as 645, which is 16 exposures on a roll, each measuring 56mm x 42mm. We also have the very popular square format (made famous by the Hasselblad 500 series camera) at 56mm x 56mm (12 exposures) and the print magazine favourite 6×7 format with 10 frames of 56mm x 67mm. In comparison, a full sized digital medium format is smaller than 645, with the Sony sensor in the Phase One IQ4 150 measuring only 53.4 x 40.1mm. This is the largest digital format commercially available, but it still shy of the area of the smallest medium format film. The most predominant medium format digital size is the smaller 44mm x 33mm used by Fujifilm and Hasselblad cameras. Full frame digital cameras have sensors equal to the size of 135 film, and the now defunct Hasselblad H3D-39 has an older CCD sensor which measures 48mm x 36mm. As a guide, all things being equal, the larger the film or sensor real estate, the more information the film can capture, and the more detailed the resulting photograph can be.

Comparing 135 film to various 120 roll film formats.

Even larger frames are possible, with 6×8 (9 exposures on 120), 6×9 (8 exposures), 6×12 (6 exposures) and even 6×17 (with only 4 exposures on a 120 roll film. At 617, the film area is about 72% of film area as a sheet of 4×5 large format film. 4×5 sheet film measures 4 inches x 5 inches, which is approx 102mm x 127mm). An excellent guide to popular film formats is found on The Dark Room website.

The Mamiya RB67 ProSD with the lens opening exposed, showing the huge mirror which lifts out of the way to expose the 120 or 220 roll film held at the back. It makes images which are 56mm x 67mm in size.

Another medium format film is known as 220 roll film. It is a strip with the same film width, but twice as long. To end up as the same size when wound on its spool, the 220 film only has backing paper on the start and end of the film strip instead of on all the length of the 120. The 220 format can usually be accommodated in most medium format cameras, including the Mamiya RB67 family, with a pressure setting on the film transport back. Today the 120 roll film is the only medium format commercially available, and 220 roll film ceased production in 2015.

Mamiya RB67 family

The Mamiya RB67 Pro was introduced in 1970. The body always carried the Pro designation, as it was the intent of Mamiya that this camera is for the professional market. The camera is fully mechanical (no battery required), and is modular, comprising of an interchangeable lens mounted by a bayonet, the body, a view finder system and a film back. The design is much like the Hasselblad 500C, which was introduced in 1957. But though the RB67 takes the same roll film as the 500C, the shooting format is different. The Hasselblad is square, making images of about 56mm square, while the Mamiya, as the name suggests, makes images in the 6×7 format – with frame sizes of 56mm x 67mm with an aspect ratio of 1.19. This gives the RB a film real estate which 20% larger. But as the format is rectangular, and closer the aspect ratio of a magazine page than a square, as most common sizes for printing magazines are 8.5 by 11 inches will have a full page aspect ratio of 1.37. Hence with a 6×7 film stock, there is less cropping needed to fit the page than when using a square film stock. Moreover, the RB film is significantly larger. This, and a less expensive price than the 500C made the RB67 a very popular professional camera during its day.

However, the rectangular aspect means that there are two possible images with each framing. A landscape image where the length is longer than the height, and a portrait image, where the height of the image is longer than the width. This can be made by rotating the camera, which in a camera as large and heavy as the RB67, is a bit unwieldy. Mamiya engineers came up with the concept of a mechanical rotating back (the RB in the name) which allows the back to switch from landscape to portrait by using a clever mechanism to rotate just the back by 90°. This mechanism is very satisfying to use, with a nice feel, is very precise and reliable.

The RB677 ProSD back. Shown here is the winding lever, and the frame counter, showing that frame no 9 out of 10 is ready for exposure. Double exposure is possible with this back.

The Hasselblad 500C avoids this altogether because the film frame it shoots is square. Other 6×7 cameras solve this problem differently. For example, the Pentax 67 is like a giant SLR with a pentaprism hump, and requires the photographer to rotate this rather large and heavy camera. The Bronica GS-1 looks somewhat like the RB, but also requires the photographer to either rotate the entire camera, and end up with the waist level finder pointing to the side, or to use a heavy accessory pentaprism. Only the even larger Fujifilm GX680 family uses a rotating back mechanism. Yet other 6×7 systems are rangefinders like the Mamiya 7 or the Plaubel Makina 67. These do not have mirrors, and are thus smaller and lighter, and easier to manipulate to either position.

Mamiya RB67 ProSD with Sekor-C 50mm wide angle lens attached.

In 1982, Mamiya introduced the RZ67, and this camera ran in in parallel on their catalog with the RB67. The RZ67 continued production with the Pro-II in 1995, and the RZ67 Pro-IID which was introduced in 2005, and finally retired in 2014. Mamiya is currently part of Phase One, and does not produce cameras under its own brand name.

The biggest difference between the RB67 and the RZ67 is the latter is electronically controlled and the body is made of many plastic parts versus the all mechanical, all metal construction of the RB. The RZ is slightly lighter as a result. However, it requires a battery will supply the electronics and motor back with power. The shutter speed is electronically controlled and set by a knob on the body. Backward compatibility is maintained and the camera can use all earlier RB67 lenses as well as a crop of then new RZ67 lenses. RZ lenses feature more modern optical designs and cannot be used on the RB system. The RZ was not on the radar for my consideration for purchase, as it is electronic, and I wanted a fully mechanical system.

The RB67 ProSD

In 1974, the RB67 Pro was updated to become the Pro-S. Improvements were mainly mechanical interlocks which prevented accidental exposure. It also included a focus lock, a double exposure prevention system, and exposure compensation. The Pro-S was the mainstay of many professional studios back in the day. In 1990, Mamiya released the Pro-SD, which is the review subject, with many additional improvements. The Pro-SD adds the ability to use a newer range of K/L lenses, but not RZ lenses. K/L lenses use a more modern and corrected optical formulation, but require a larger mounting throat than the original lenses. Mamiya maintains backward compatibility for the Pro-SD body, which is able to use earlier lenses via a small adapter. The Pro-SD back also improved and uses metal light baffles instead of foam light seals in earlier RB67 backs. Foam is prone to deterioration, and requires frequent maintenance to prevent light leaks, while the metal baffles are more robust and maintenance free. The Pro-SD back can be used on the Pro or Pro-S as well, and many professionals who own multiple backs, each loaded with a different film stock, also added the Pro-SD backs to their Pro-S bodies.

Mamiya RB67 ProSD with waist level finder folded down.

The system is available with quite a lot of accessories. A pentaprism finder can be mounted by sliding it in place of the waist level finder. The pentaprism will give a laterally correct image which is also right side up. Two pentaprisms variants are available, one which is just an optical prism and the other incorporates a CDS light meter, and will require a battery to work. All RB system lenses are equipped with leaf shutters built into the lens, and feature X sync terminals via a PC port on the lens to trigger electronic flashes. This works with all modern flashes, including remote triggering.

Shooting with the camera

As mentioned, the camera is quite large and heavy, weighing about 2.69kg with a lens mounted. The body is also built for the studio, where it meant to live on a studio stand or tripod, and as a consequence, handling ergonomics are not ideal. The Hasselblad 500C is much better suited for hand held photography. It is not only smaller and fits the hands better, it is also designed with better ergonomics for hand holding.

Hand holding a longer lens becomes challenging, especially in less than bright outdoor or available light indoor conditions. In practice, I find it difficult to hand hold the 140mm lens, even outdoor in the shade, even on a sunny day. As a rule of thumb, a camera is hand holdable for a shutter speed of 1/focal length, so in the example with the 140mm lens, hand holding is recommended for shutter speeds faster than 1/140s. A proper exposure in a sunny day will require 1/100s shutter speed with ISO 100 film at f/16. And in the shade, proper exposure will have a shutter speed at perhaps 1/50s. At this speed, which is much slower than the 1/140s recommended, and the image will likely suffer from camera shake. On top of that, the RB67’s mirror is very large, and makes a rather big vibration when engaged during exposure.

However, handling is a joy when the camera is supported on a tripod. The feel is very tactile and satisfying to the operate. Composing the image is done through the waist level finder. Opening it, reveals a very bright ground glass image. The finder has a pop up magnifying glass for critical focussing. As can be observed in the photograph below, red lines on the ground glass tell us that the camera is set for landscape mode. When the back is rotated to portrait mode, the red lines will disappear, and the dotted lines on the left and right guide the composition. Looking at the ground glass always puts a smile on my face, the same way as going under the dark cloth and looking at the image on the ground glass of a large format camera.

Looking through the ground glass on top of the camera’s waist level viewfinder, a bright, clear and very sharp image is seen. The image is laterally inverted left to right, but is upright, unlike in a large format view camera, the ground glass shows an image which is not only laterally inverted, but is upside down.

As the camera is an SLR (single lens reflex), it has a huge mirror to bring the image from the lens to the ground glass. The image formed is right side up, but laterally inverted from left to right. This needs a bit of get used to. It is not immediately intuitive as panning the camera from left and right will cause the image on the ground glass to move the opposite direction. In comparison, the image on the ground glass of the mirror-less large format camera like the Sinar is not only left to right inverted, but is upside down as well. The mirror in the RB67 is massive, and it does cause a big vibration which is loud (!) every time the shutter triggers.

The camera is also simpler to operate than a large format camera, but requires some learning if one is coming from automated cameras or phone cameras. To operate the camera, it is best to mount it on a sturdy tripod. First open the waist level finder, and peer into the very large and bright ground glass displaying a gorgeous 3 dimensional image of the scene for composition. Focusing is done by the two knobs at either side of the body. and this operates the bellows built into the body. A focus lock is provided on the left knob of the RB67 Pro-SD.

When the image is composed as desired and focussed, the dark slide is removed from the back. The mechanical interlock prevents the shutter from going off if the slide is in place. The back of the Pro-SD has a slot to store this slide. In the RB67, the aperture and shutter is automatically controlled. Unlike in the Sinar operational procedure, there is no need to manually close the shutter and set the aperture after composition and focussing. When the RB67 lens is mounted on the body, the lens shutter is open and the aperture automatically set to fully wide open. This enables the maximum amount of light to enable easy composition…and the very bright ground glass. A depth of field preview lever on the lens closes the aperture to the set value to check the depth of field as required. Depending on the setting you have set on the f-stop ring this could have the viewfinder get a lot darker, but the depth of field will match what you will get when you hit the shutter. Next, meter the scene. The RB67 Pro-SD is not equipped with a light meter, and this has to be done manually either with a light meter or an app on the phone. The correct aperture and shutter speed is then selected on the dials on the lens. When ready, release the shutter. This causes the a sequence of events which occur automatically. The mirror is flipped up, and the shutter then closes, the aperture is set to the value selected. Immediately and automatically, the shutter is then open and closed according to the shutter speed selected. And the exposure is made. We have a latent image captured on the film!

The mirror remains in the up position after the exposure is made. And the lever on the right of the body is pushed to reset the lever and charge the mechanism. All done mechanically, by cogs and springs.

The RB67 is also equipped with a mirror lock up mode, which help isolate the mirror slap. To do this, a double headed cable release is needed. Mamiya sells one as an expensive accessory, but it can be managed using two regular cable releases. One head is connected to the shutter release button, and the other the M/Up connection on the lens. The first click on the release will put the camera in mirror up, and the second will trip the shutter.

A button on the back can be depressed to allow the shutter to fire again without advancing the film to make double exposures, otherwise the shutter will not fire until the back is wound to the next frame.

50mm f/4.5C and 140mm f/4.5C Macro lenses

The lens lineup for the RB67 is rather large, with lenses ranging from a 37mm fisheye to a massive 500mm, covering almost every conceivable use case. The lens ecosystem also includes extension tubes and teleconverters. I only have two lenses in my setup. A wide angle 50mm and a 140mm macro. Both lenses are about the same size and weight, and are excellent. Both open up to a maximum aperture of f/4.5 and are very sharp corner to corner at all operating apertures.

As the RB67 body does not have a shutter, a leaf shutter is incorporated into each lens. The shutter speed is set on the lens by a ring. And the aperture is also set in the same way. As mentioned, the RB67 focusses with a bellows system in the body (like the large format Sinar), and thus, a helical focus system is not needed for the lenses.

Some samples

We did not use the Mamiya RB67 ProSD for watch photography (yet), as the magnification offered by the Sekor-C 140 Macro lens is not sufficient. To reach the 1X magnification needed for macro, Mamiya offers extension tubes, which I do not possess at this time.

The 50mm lens is very wide, providing a 84° diagonal, about 24mm on 135. The lens is relatively distortion free, and quite hand holdable.

View of the Singapore CBD. Mamiya RB67 ProSD with Sekor 50mm f/4.5 lens. Kodak Gold 200. Camera placed on flat top of a balustrade on the Yue Hwa rooftop.

Especially when used with a fast film stock like the Lomography 800 in the photograph below. Using the Sunny F16 rule, at the max shutter speed of 1/400s, the aperture will need to be f/22 for proper exposure.

The Merlion, a mythical symbol for Singapore. Mamiya RB67 ProSD with Sekor-C 50mm f/4.5 lens. Lomography 800. Handheld.

Interestingly the 50mm Sekor-C lens is also quite capable of near macro photography. The maximum magnification is 1:1.14 at closest distance.

Close up of an orchid. Mamiya RB67 ProSD with Sekor-C 50mm f/4.5 lens. Lomography 800. Handheld.

The Sekor-C 140mm f/4.5 Macro lens has a diagonal field of view of 35.7°, about 70mm in 135, and though designate as a macro lens, only achieves a maximum magnification of 1:3 at closest focusing distance. To bring out the macro capabilities, Mamiya makes two auto extension tubes which can be used to achieve 1:1 magnification. The lens is equipped with a floating element system to correct for close focusing and this is seen on the lens barrel.

But in use as a portrait or general purpose standard focal length lens, it is excellent.

Outdoor natural light portrait of our writer Robin Lim wearing the Ressence Type 8 (review coming!). Mamiya RB67 ProSD with Sekor-C 140mm f/4.5 Macro lens. Kodak Gold 200 film stock.

Concluding thoughts

This is a massive camera. Though not as large as the Sinar. It is meant for studio use, though portable enough to be carried around in the field. Hand held use is possible, but a sturdy tripod is highly recommended. The RB67 ProSD is not only large 104×139×226 mm ( (W×H×L with either lens I own), and somewhat unwieldy to handle, it is also very heavy, tipping the scales at 2.69kg.

For studio use, with electronic strobes, connected via the X flash connector on the lens, it shines. This photograph of the Chief Editor (yours truly), is made with the Mamiya RB67 ProSD, Sekor-C 50mm f/4.5 lens on the Photoclam Multiflex head on a Gitzo Systematic GT3541 tripod, lit by double Profoto Compact 600 strobes on umbrellas. Film stock is Kodak Portra 400.

Using the Mamiya RB67 Pro-SD carries with it a certain badge of honour. Of one who is an insider, and knows his way around a film camera. It is a serious camera, needing the photographer to be appropriately skilled to handle. It is also immensely satisfying to use. The look of the 3D image on the ground glass. The tactile and very positive feel of the controls, from the levers to the smooth turns of the dials. And the satisfying, heavy click as each exposure is made. And then the anticipation to complete the entire roll before it can be processed to see what has been captured. And the final image has a specific and special look. Film is a physical representation of the moment in time when the photograph is made. Only film photography can provide this kind of joy. A fun pursuit. Where the process of making the photograph is as important as the photograph itself.

Digital is sometimes too easy. Too fast to shoot 500 images in an hour. Spray and pray, is the term used for this style of photography. Add to that, the immediate gratification by playing back the image made just a second ago. But in a fast paced production environment, this means that lighting and poses can be adjusted almost on the fly. And digital wins hands down. Especially when full frame and medium format digital cameras delivering image quality even higher than can be managed by medium format film. Thus film, especially medium format is generally relegated to the hobbyist. Though we understand increasingly, some companies like Zara have mandated that all their advertisement to be shot on film for that special look. There is life yet in film. Long live film photography!