On Location with the Mamiya RZ33
Editor’s Note: I’m grateful to several people for our Mamiya demo equipment: to Ray Olson of Mac Group for the RZ33 body and digital back as well as our demo 110mm f2.8 lens; to Pro Camera Rental & Supply for our demo 50mm f 4.5 and AE prism finder. Mac Group is Mamiya’s exclusive U.S. distributor and Pro Camera is San Francisco’s finest rental shop for professional cameras and lighting gear. Also, thank you to San Francisco photographer, Larry Amer, for loaning us an RB67 50mm f4.5 C.
In my introduction to the Mamiya RZ33, I described the camera as mechanical, with both the RZ’s classic, straight-forward machinery and a highly sophisticated 33 MP digital capture system. In practice, the Mamiya RZ33 is certainly a beautiful blending of two worlds. It is both highly mechanical to operate, and highly capable digitally. It’s not the easiest camera system to haul out on location, not the easiest to focus, and not the easiest to nail a perfect exposure. It does, however, lend a certain artfulness to shooting, draws a unique cooperation from subjects, and delivers stunning digital results once everything comes together (part three of our review will explore the camera’s image quality).
To test the Mamiya RZ33 as thoroughly as possible, I set up a series of shoots that, in my mind, fit the camera’s character. I shot urban landscapes from the docks of Alameda, CA, a family portrait in Berkeley, CA, a series of product shots in our Oakland studio, and an editorial-style lit portrait of a crop duster with his plane near Tracy, CA (my studio’s specialty is editorial portraiture, as you’ll see on my Webpage here). The camera does very well in a number of these settings. It tethers easily to Capture One, has an enormous viewfinder that allows wonderfully precise and accurate focus and framing. It offers sharp 33 MP images and deep and customizable color rendering.
Overall, my testing has been both fun and challenging. The RZ doesn’t pretend to be copying ergonomics or operating techniques from ubiquitous 35mm DSLRs. It is a classic medium format camera. It both offers and demands precision, and has a few quirks thrown in that can be charming and maddening. In today’s article, I’ll discuss the whole experience of taking the mighty Mamiya RZ33 on location.
Control Layout and Ergonomics – The Camera
Lenses are attached to the big camera with leaf shutters cocked. Two pins on the lens mount can be wound into position if they aren’t already. Lenses fit snugly into place and a ribbed and rubberized ring locks them firmly in. It’s not the bayonet mount that has become somewhat standard in photography, but works quite well.
Aperture is set on the lens barrel. On both our 110mm and 50mm test lenses, the control is large, easy to read and can be operated without looking. There is no provision for auto-aperture. Shutter speed is set via a firm-clicking knob on the camera body’s left and allows for auto exposure if the optional AE prism finder is attached (see below) or for RB67 lenses to be used (in the older RB system, shutter speed was controlled via a lens ring). Uniquely, both shutter and aperture controls can be set on or between detented settings, allowing a somewhat continuous scale for fine exposure adjustments.
The RZ33 doesn’t pretend to be copying ergonomics or operating techniques from ubiquitous 35mm DSLRs. It is a classic medium format camera
While shooting, the huge viewfinder is a joy to use. The ground glass of the waist-level finder offers crystal clear and 3D feedback allowing easy manual focus and precise framing. It took me a few days to adjust to the ground glass’s reversed image. Often a subject would move one direction, and I’d turn the opposite way. The digital back as a generous crop factor compared to a full 6×7 frame, which is marked on the RZ33 with two rectangles, one for vertical framing, one for horizontal. It takes practice to frame only using the lines and not the frame. It’s not unlike other medium format, cropped cameras, but in the future, I’d love to see something more like a mask, graying out the sides of the huge frame.
To switch from horizontal to vertical shooting, the digital back rotates 90 degrees. The camera body’s M-*-R switch allows the back to rotate when in “R”. “M”, which used to be for multiple exposures with film, is now the standard setting, meaning photographers have to switch it back and forth when rotating, as apposed to just pushing it forward to R and letting it pop back to normal mode automatically.
The RZ67 Pro-IID camera body is turned on with a ring built around the shutter release (located on the bottom-right on the camera’s front). The ring is difficult to operate, but stays put well. Besides on and off, the ring offers a third position to allow the camera to fire with or without battery power, though I didn’t test if the setting works digitally. The Mamiya DM33 digital back (the LEAF-designed sensor unit of the RZ33) turns on separately by holding it’s on-off button. Besides the button and a large touchscreen, the back has only one other control, a button/rocker switch combo on the top right.
Control Layout and Ergonomics – The Digital Back
The back takes a few seconds to boot up and can be powered by either a lithium battery or Firewire cable. A mini stylus slides out of a firm-fitting storage slot and can be used to navigate the back’s menus and select specific points on an image, either for readings or white-balance settings. The menu system is divided into four sections and becomes familiar after several days of use, but is certainly designed for precise professional use, not immediate understanding. It is intimidatingly complex, but offers every imaginable setting for a device that, essentially, records RAW image data. It allows a remarkable 12 different color space settings, a wide range of color profile settings, file organization and naming options, copyright data input, and very detailed exposure feedback. The touch screen, aside from the included stylus, can also be operated by finger and the surface does a great job repelling fingerprints. Menus move quickly; the back feels responsive with the only noticeable delays relating to zooming in or out of the large image files (which is quite normal for cameras at this level).
The DM33 digital back allows a remarkable 12 different color space settings, a wide range of color profile settings, file organization and naming options, copyright data input, and very detailed exposure feedback
Thankfully, once the back is set up, there is little reason to delve into menus during a shoot. While shooting, it offers useful audio feedback and quick previews (even when tethered, images appear on the back’s screen). Aside from adjustments to white balance or ISO, it leaves all camera functions to the camera and just happily collects photons.
Unfortunately, our test unit had to be rebooted a few times during test shoots to initially establish a camera tether or to reset the connection to the camera body. It helps to keep a fresh 6V alkaline camera battery in the camera body and to start up the camera, back, and computer software in the correct order. It is an extremely sophisticated digital back and also designed for open compatibility between various cameras, lenses, software, etc. The downside to all that is a need for experience and training for the photographer, and a little patience.
The Leaf Shutter Advantage
The Mamiya RZ33, like the Hasselblad H-series, is an all leaf-shutter system. The camera body has a flipping mirror to direct light to either viewfinder or sensor, but no shutter. Lens-based shutters like these tend to a limited range of exposure times, topping out at 1/400 s second here (compared to 1/800 s on contemporary Hasselblads). The trade-off is the unique ability to sync strobe lights to any of the available speeds. Focal plane shutters (the variety found in most cameras) will only allow strobes to sync at 1/125 s (Leica, Pentax, Phase One, etc.), 1/200 s (Canon), or 1/250 s (Nikon). The extra stop of exposure gained from, for example 1/200 to 1/400, means that while strobe-lit subjects maintain the same exposure, the ambient light and background can be twice as dark. It only really affects photographers who mix ambient light and strobes, but in such cases, is a big advantage. During our crop duster shoot, for example, the RZ33 allowed a very wide range of exposure options for the sky, from a dark glow at 1/400 s to bright backlight at 1/30 s.
Other companies offer alternatives. Phase One/Mamiya, with the 645DF twins and a relatively new line of leaf-shutter lenses from Schneider-Kreuznach, as well as Leica with the S2 system and its new line of Central Shutter lenses, offer cameras that can choose between the camera body’s focal plan shutter and the lens’s leaf shutter, offering the best of both worlds. Considering that round of competition, however, the Mamiya RZ33 has a certain economic advantage. Also, it’s worth noting that the DM33 back of the RZ33 system can be mounted to the 645DF.
Computer Tethering and the Mamiya RZ33
Another strong selling point for the Mamiya RZ33 and DM33, especially considering the somewhat underwhelming image feedback of its LCD screen, is its ability to work closely with a computer. The digital back tethers easily to Capture One via a proprietary Firewire cable that plugs deeply and securely into the back once its battery is removed (power is provided through the cable). After capture, files are imported and displayed on both computer and digital back. Capture One provides detailed exposure and focus information. With the mechanical controls of the camera, there is no way to fire the shutter or set shutter speed or aperture digitally, though ISO can be computer controlled.
During a number of my test shoots, I tethered the camera to a MacBook Pro for quick feedback, storage, and processing. The connection is nicely consistent once established and files move quickly. During one studio shoot, I was unable to start the tether and had a chance to experience Mamiya’s support team. Within a minute of dialing, I was speaking to a DM-series specialist and working out the problem (awesome support!) As mentioned earlier, the camera can be finicky, occasionally requiring rebooting, but does a good job tethered.
Phase One’s Capture One software has been the industry leader for tethered shooting for years, and they’re still the best in the game. I’ll spend more time describing it in a future article, but for now, here are some of my favorite features. Capture One offers a large, clear histogram with a precise, visual indicator of of clipped highlights and shadows and variation from what the software calculates as an ideal exposure (which, I’ve found, is usually pretty spot-on). It will tell you, for example, that an image is 0.43 stops under or 1.24 stops over, etc. While shooting, Capture One can be set to preview images as they will look in final form, including basic processing, cropping, layout overlay, color space, resolution, etc. Though recording Mamiya/Leaf’s .MOS raw files, for example, photographers can be viewing sRGB cropped JPGs, watermarked and processed.
One final feature to point out is Phase One’s free Capture Pilot iPhone/iPad/iPod touch app. From a computer running Capture One and connected to a wireless network, click a button to start the server (name and password can be customized). Then anyone with an Apple mobile device with the app loaded can quickly log in and preview images as they’re imported, including a clear histogram, zooming, or thumbnail view. It can be set to preview any folder in Capture One, not necessarily just the capture folder, and allows an awesome tool to clients and collaborators to participate in a shoot. During one shoot in my studio, I tethered the RZ33 to a MacBook Pro (on the studio wireless network) and kept an iPad next to me for proofing. Files appear a few seconds after capture and are large and clear. It’s handy and certainly beats any DSLR or digital back screen. The downside is the need for a computer and a network, but studio shooters are certain to benefit.
Customizing the RZ33 Experience
Advantageously historic, in digital terms, the RZ33 has a rich history of bolt-ons and unique accessories. Notably, the AE prism finder II attached to our test unit ads shutter-speed-controlling metering; a substantial rubber eye cup; and a big, beautiful, non-upside-down-and-reversed viewfinder. It ads weight, to be certain, but is useful to have for times when top-down viewing is difficult (also available in a less-expensive non-AE version).
The RZ67 Pro IID camera body can be fitted with the Mamiya Power Winder II, a motor, powered by 6 “AA” batteries, that relieves a photographer from cranking before each shot. Finally, photographers might find the Mamiya L-Grip Holder RZ useful for controlling the camera and activating the shutter release in a more DSLR-like way. It attaches to the left of the body, which will take adjusting, but leaves a photographer’s right hand free to operate both the focus and fine focus adjustments as well as the crank if the grip is used without a power winder. The camera is too heavy to operate comfortably with the grip alone, but in combination with a comfy strap, the grip makes the camera more stable and comfortable for mobile shooting.
I’ve listed some of my favorite bolt-ons, but the RZ/RB line offers a wide range of lenses, focusing screens, cable releases, film and polaroid backs, etc. etc. The adaptability of these once very well-established professional cameras make accessory shopping a fun and experimental experience.
Though it’s an intimidating camera, with a large, retro look, the Mamiya RZ33 is a highly capable digital camera with a refreshing degree of simple mechanical interaction. It has an immense viewfinder and controls designed for careful precision, encouraging photography that is carefully crafted and thoroughly considered. It is an easy camera to computer tether, which will help photographers confirm focus and exposure for critical applications. Digitally speaking, and in contrast to the mechanical elements of the RZ33, the DM33 back demands patience and care to set up and operate. At the beginning of a number of shoots, I had to reboot the back to establish both communication with the camera body and computer tether. The trade off, as I’ll explore in part three: “Image Quality and the Mamiya RZ33″, are beautiful medium format files with especially compelling color rendering. As a little teaser, I’d venture to say that I like the way the RZ33 records color more than any camera I’ve ever tested.
In the meantime, I’ll conclude by saying that, though it’s a hefty chunk of machinery with a complex digital brain bolted on, the Mamiya RZ33 is a joy to use, both in studio and on location. It takes digital photography to a familiar place from the film days, a place of of precision and craft.
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by Matt Beardsley – all photography, unless otherwise noted, by Matt Beardsley (online portfolio here).
Update, April 2011
Via the excellent discussion forums of Luminous-Landscape, I was happy to receive the following comment from the Sales Manager of Capture Integration, Steve Hendrix. I hope Steve won’t mind me reproducing his comment here, as he does an excellent job summing up the difference between the Leaf digital back’s two forms of profiling. Also, I’m grateful he caught my error in Mamiya nomenclature! Thanks, Steve!
“Hi Matt -
I am assuming you mean RZ Pro-IID in the article, not Pro-II (as stated).
I would also say that while ProPhoto RGB can be selected as a Color Space, it can also be selected as an ICC Input Profile via the Color Looks tab. I’ve found it works well as an input profile, delivering accurate, slightly under-saturated color over a wide variety of subjects, as opposed to using some of the biased Color Look profiles, that often push slightly warmer or cooler. But this does cause some confusion as those using ProPhoto RGB as a Color Look need to understand in this use it is not expanding (nor addressing) the color space itself, but only the input profile of the camera, ie; the actual hue of color, rather than the gamut of it.”