Cameras are a bit like cars, pets and sentient alien robots… you don’t choose them, they choose you. When you first set your eyes upon the worn exterior of an old vintage camera, you’ll notice that it’s looking right back at you. It want’s you to give it a shoot, just like a dog wants you to throw that damn ball.
This is how I met the Mamiya C3.
I had only been shooting film for 6 months when it had become an apparent intuitive necessity to grab a decent quality medium format camera. During this period, I was staying in the small town of Mullumbimby in Northern NSW where I came across a large antique shop, Urban Archeology.
As I was buying some groceries From IGA and Santos Whole Foods on the main strip of town, I notice a huge twin lens reflex camera, it’s lustrous finish gleaming at me through the shop window. Having been just after tax return time, I figured I’d be foolish to pass this shop without checking out this old gem.
Urban Archeology was teaming with relics from the past: clothing, shoes, vinyl records, turntables, furniture, wardrobes, typewriters, artwork, masonic badges, tools, and of course, several vintage cameras. By this point in my film photography phase, I had become tech savvy enough to test and determine whether old film cameras were in working order or disrepair. The Mamiya C330 I saw through that window, is not the Mamiya C3 I ended up with; the bellows were falling apart and the leaf shutter mechanism was far gone. It was a shame to discover the Mamiya wasn’t worth my time and money to enquire for repairs, so I settled for a compact 6×9 Zeiss Ikon Nettar 105mm f3.5 for a few bucks instead.
I got chatting with Dwayne, the man who was selling all the old cameras, and I expressed my infatuation with the worn out Mamiya C330. Impassioned by my interest in actually USING the cameras as opposed to wanting them to pretty up a mantlepiece, Dwayne invited me to his Barn nearby in Bangalow to sort through and name my price for crates worth of old photography gear.
At Dwaynes barn, I sorted through a few crates of old cameras, and picked out a few that got me giddy. The last crate contained SIX Mamiya C system TLR bodies and several Mamiya C Sekor Lenses. All of these Mamiya’s were in various states of condition, most had crumbling bellows, stuck leaf shutters and busted mechanics… After a quick Google, I spent time learning about the Mamiya C series TLRs while Dwayne played Tom Petty from his barn while he varnished a vintage cabinet.
The TLR format camera is a particularly quirky system. You compose your 6×6 square frame through the waist level finder, and shoot from the hip. Learning to shoot from the hip with waist level glass is a bit confusing, it’s a similar sensation to driving a boat for the first time; articulating the camera and adjusting the frame is dizzying and can take some time to learn. Most TLRs including the C series also have a magnified focusing loupe, and a mini viewfinder “sports frame” which you can compose fast moving subjects through, all without having to look down into the ground glass. The primary benefit of the Mamiya C TLRs is that they are extremely modular and versatile in operation, especially the older C3 variant. These systems boast interchangeable lenses that swap out both the viewing and taking glass (top lens = viewing glass for composing, bottom lens = taking lens that actually exposes the film). The older C3 has seperate roll film and multiple exposure / plate mode which allows multiple exposures without having to crank the film advance lever. All Mamiya C variants also have a safety plate that can be engaged when changing the lenses whilst the film is in the camera. This safety mechanism has however, ruined far more shots than it’s ever stopped the risk of light leak…
Upon re-educating myself, I propose to Dwayne that I rebuild one Mamiya out of parts salvageable from the others to make the perfect custom shooter. I swapped out a beautiful 80mm vintage lens that perfectly complimented the exterior of the C3, then swapped out the bellows for another set that was near mint. I also refitted another Mamiya’s ground glass and waist level assembly as the C3’s glass was barely transparent. Half an hour later, Tom Petty is singing “Runnin’ Down A Dream”, perfectly narrating the feeling I had with my newly assembled mutant Mamiya. $300 later, and I’ve scored a bargain with 2 spare lenses (which evidently needed repair anyway).
When I got my first roll developed from the C3, it was mostly unexposed except for one terrible image. The pesky safety plate that covers the film when changing lenses was accidentally engaged, thanks to my general ignorance. It took a fair while for me to remember to disengage the safety plate while shooting, which in itself is pointless as the 80mm was the only lens that I ever used on it.
I also noted in the early days shooting the C3, is that it’s INSANELY HEAVY due to the Mamiya’s all metal construction. To give comparison, it is only a fraction lighter than the infamous Mamiya 6×7 RB/RZ models. This is the C3’s largest drawback, especially if you look at how light and portable other TLRs like the Rolleiflex, Yashica Mat 124 G and Minolta Autocord are compared to the C3.
Another drawback of the C3 which other TLRs exhibit, but is no where near as pronounced, parallax error. Given the distance between the viewing and taking lens is 2 inches vertically, what you see is sometimes not what you expose on film. Focusing on closer subjects within several or less than a meter, approximately 1/4 of the top of the 6×6 frame will not be visible on the film; that also entails 1/4 of what you don’t see bellow the ground glass frame will be captured. Active awareness while composing images in reference to parallax error on the C3 is paramount to getting any desired results. This is slightly aided by the C3’s ground glass guidelines and a Para-Meter behind the ground glass that changes as you focus. Parallax also greatly affects the plane of focus when composing and shooting a photograph. The 2” lens variance shifts the already shallow depth of field away from your subject, unless you keep it steady and level; a good solution for this is a cold shoe mounted spirit level.
The first image I took with the C3 of Lake George perfectly displays the result of ignorant parallax error. The rock face is far higher in the composition than desired [cropped sky from 6×6], the focus barely renders detail in the rock and scrub of the foreground, whilst the background is nothing but grain and bokeh. For months, I was ignorant of the fact that the C3, with the 80mm lens, was not designed for tricky landscapes with foreground elements. Serious hyper focal distance calculations should be considered when composing landscapes with foreground elements.
I have had the Mamiya C3 for nearly 2 years, and I feel I’ve only just reached the point where I am comfortable and confident shooting it. Due to the serious quirks and drawbacks of the C3, I avoided shooting it for some time over my Yashica Mat 124 G. However, after my Yashica drowned at Byron Bay and suffered salt buildup, the C3 became my primary 120 shooter. This camera in particular was very popular with pro wedding photographers, who knew how to properly negate drawbacks such as parallax and hyperlocal distance scaling in realtime. 2 years ago I would cringe in scorn at this, but the Mamiya C3 is the type of camera that will only perform when handled with experienced, confident hands.
As my confidence and experience grew, I began packing the Mamiya on every trip I took, using it whenever I had enough time to execute perfect 6×6 photographs. One such instance, I took it to Mount Banks in the northern Blue Mountains, between Bilpin and Lithgow. This is when the magic began to happen. The actual negatives from this trip were completely over exposed and extremely dense, thus after hours of scanning and post production, I manually extracted all the tonal information and brought everything I could out from the negative. The sharpness of this particular 80mm lens ensured this dense negative’s recovery in high res post. To further illustrate the miracle of recovering this negative, I made an archival inkjet print on 20”x20” Canson Photographique Rag paper, which, when viewed, the grain structure and sharpness suggests a window back to that beautiful day where the wispy clouds were waiting patiently in place for me.
As the Mamiya C3, and most other medium format cameras utilise a leaf shutter, the camera is able to shoot at any shutter speed up to 1/500th with no rolling shutter when used in a studio under flash lighting. With this in mind, I shot this high speed abstract image of an aquarium filter suspended by fishing wire on a C stand pole, dripping with Silvo Polish and milk to create a self produced redesigned album art commemorating the 20th anniversary of Massive Attack’s landmark album, Mezzanine.
Alternatively, shooting freehand is a breeze at extremely slow speeds once the photographer can comfortably combat parallax and shallow D.O.F. focusing. The leaf shutter is near silent and does not contribute to camera shake, thus a steadied photographer and subject could achieve a sharp exposure at speeds as slow as 1/30th on a standard 80mm lens. This is essential when working in natural light, or with continuous tungsten studio lights. The subject, if human, must control their pose and be ready to remain incredibly still, as the photographer slows their breathing, exposing the shot whilst slowly exhaling. My most recent foray with the C3 was in June, when I visited Wentworth Falls and met an older gentleman, Ramzi, a veteran photographer who posed for a portrait and gave me some good tips.
In regards to location and street photography, the C3 is cumbersome to say the least, however it still delivers, again, if the photographer can navigate the operations of the TLR comfortably. On the street, you’ll be given quizzical looks from most, whilst those few in the know will stop and goggle at the strange contraption in amazement. However, for the right compositions, I found no issue using the C3 recently in the Cook Islands, where I kayaked between deserted islets photographing the tropical landscape. When you’re living by island time, the Mamiya C3 is the perfect camera to appreciate your surrounds whilst building significant strength in your forearms.
The Mamiya C3 is one of the most difficult cameras to use, whilst also being the most rewarding. When I first purchased it from Dwayne in Bangalow listening to Tom Petty (who passed away the day after), I was a film rookie rediscovering photography after shooting digital for years. After years of ‘Re-learning’ photography, I felt confident enough to ditch everything and paddle to deserted islands with nothing but my C3, a light meter and a tripod.
Cameras like the C3 force us to drop all the gadgets like autofocus, metering, auto exposure / priority modes, heck even the choice between ISO, colour or monochrome. These limitations force you to knuckle down and focus, to really appreciate and capture the moment; they force you to learn photography.