Image Quality and the Mamiya RZ33 (aka: the DM33 and Leaf Aptus-II 7)
In two previous articles, I discussed both the features and market position of the Mamiya RZ33 (Introduction: The Mamiya RZ33) and the ergonomics of using the big camera in the field (On Location with the Mamiya RZ33). As is often the case with big cameras and perhaps the most sophisticated gear of any discipline, it’s the results that make the added complexity worth the extra effort. The Big Mamiya is no exception, with generous doses of both complexity and results. In part three, we’ll take a close look at the image output of the Mamiya RZ33.
The Mamiya RZ33 is a cable-free assembly of the Mamiya RZ67 Pro IID camera body and the Leaf-made Mamiya DM33 digital back. The digital end of the camera will be immediately familiar to photographers experienced with recent Leaf products. The 33 MP, 48 x 36 mm sensor is a cropped 645-format chip, making for a roughly 30% crop when compared to “full frame” 6×7 film capture.
The digital back offers a unique range of color capture control. For my tests, I set the back to record ProPhoto RGB from the amazing list of 12 color spaces. ProPhoto RGB is my workflow’s native color space, with compression to more narrow print, display, and output spaces only happening at the last step. It’s useful to have the added color range, or at least the headroom for it, right from capture. The back also allows tweaking of color settings in the form of profile presets. In the way other cameras offer saturation, contrast, or sharpening adjustments, the Leaf allows settings like Product, Portrait, or Landscape, with multiple variations for each. It’s an unusual range of options for a RAW-only capture device. Potential users will be content to know that the color output of this highly professional camera can be, with a little experimenting, tailored to meet any conceivable need.
The Leaf back records to either a single CF slot or to a sturdy firewire plug deeply recessed in the classic medium format way. Fan-cooled, able to be powered by bus alone, and cozy with both Capture One or Leaf Capture, the big Leaf is a tethering machine. Uniquely, its on-board interface remains active while on the wire, displaying files and options. Tethering is a nice aide when dealing with a manual focus only camera with no auto exposure (auto aperture is available when mounting the optional AE prism finder, which we briefly reviewed in our previous entry, here). As previously discussed, I especially enjoyed Capture One’s new iPad app that allowed quick feedback in zoomable, rankable, histogramable iPad detail (since our review, Phase One has updated the app with 5-star ranking that syncs back to the computer, say “hello” to your art director’s instant feedback!)
Image Quality Observations
This is the part in every camera review where we venture into deeply subjective territory. Though no two photographers will see IQ in quite the same way, it’s the most important aspect of any capture technology, and especially for a camera as complex as the RZ33. None the less, I am confident saying that the various elements of the RZ33 system work together to produce images that are sharp, smoothly colored, and deeply workable. Files emerge from camera with a certain rawness to them, a little flat and very neutral. They leap to life with basic adjustments and offer profound and coherent reach from every slider and check box in Capture One. In the world of professional digital post processing, they are the equivalent of a blank canvas, ready for whatever creative direction a photographer might apply.
As another example of minimal in-camera processing, I notice definite grain to the images, when zoomed very closely. It is imminently fixable and a striking improvement over any 35mm file, but will require a photographer’s attention. The files will encourage photographers to dial in a noise reduction and sharpening strategy, as the digital back leaves both operations to the more precisely controllable stage of post production.
The strong suit of the back is its color and tonal reproduction. Colors are rich and very accurate, with lots of available room for attractive saturation boosting. The smooth tonal transitions of images are predictable, clean, and very smooth. Having tested the camera, it makes sense why the Leaf back is a very popular choice for color-critical studio work; it is wonderfully consistent and objective.
The Mamiya RZ33 is a studio camera that both encourages and rewards precision and attention to detail. It churns out smooth, accurate, clean, and highly detailed files with a remarkable range of color, exposure, and tone. Files are, in the RZ tradition, sharp and distortion free. RZ67 lenses are widely available, affordable, and very good (the RZ33 camera body is a Mamiya RZ67 Pro IID). The body allows precise focus, a range of accessory options, and an intentional, thoughtful way of working. It computer tethers easily and offers precise feedback, if not a particularly attractive LCD image. The camera has a stunning range of 12 color space options, and numerous tools to optimize color reproduction.
The RZ67 Pro IID has no autofocus, which is a major consideration. The DM33 digital back can be mounted to a range of cameras and doesn’t especially benefit from the large image circle of the 6×7 camera. It is, after all, a sensor cropped down, even from a smaller 645 full frame. The back is also the opposite of weather-sealed, with ample ventilation designed for accuracy and low noise during grueling studio marathons indoors.
As discussed during our introductory article, here, the camera will not work with Mamiya RB67 lenses without a proprietary cable connecting lens to back. At the time of this writing (April 2011) the cable is not yet available in the U.S. market.
The camera is an interesting comparison to the similarly-priced Hasselblad H4D-40 and less expensive Hasselblad H4D-31. The H4D body included with those two kits is a smaller than the RZ67 Pro II, but of a similar traditional architecture, offering an optional waist-level finder and what is essentially an AE prism finder. H series lenses are considerably more expensive than older RZ glass, but they add autofocus, electronic control of aperture and shutter speed, and a much wider widest lens. Both camera are leaf-shuttered for quick strobe syncing and limited shutter speed options. The Mamiya/Leaf combination renders color differently and without proprietary software, both matters of a photographer’s personal preferences. The Hasselblads evade the same traditional and mechanical feel with an extremely computerized interface. The better integrated Imacon-designed Hasselblad digital back is significantly less complicated to operate.
When I met the the RZ’s rep to pick up our demo unit, he asked “so, you’re an RZ guy?” The question was an interesting statement. Indeed, there are people who will gravitate to this camera, photographers who have been using RZs for years, and photographers looking for a capture device with physical and historic weight. The camera has a way of working and rewards patient photographers with awesome results, as it’s been doing for 40 years (if you count the Mamiya RB).
Shooting the Mamiya RZ33 was a fun throwback to simpler, pre-digital times. It is, however, a powerful modern machine that turns out pixels as well as any digital camera on the market. It has excellent color and detail reproduction, favoring photographers who like to take their time, both during and after a shoot. At Mamiya’s price point, it’s easy to find more modern cameras with better specs. It’s a unique camera, though, that is certain to spark creativity from shooters who are turned off by the computerization of competing models. For photographers with boxes of RZ lenses in the attic, it might be time to dust them off and add a few terabytes of hard drive to the computer!
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by Matt Beardsley – all photography by Matt Beardsley