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Entry into film photography part 2: getting to know the Mamiya 6 and my film preference

I ended my previous post about film photography with a reflection on my expectations. I mentioned enjoying the different shooting process and embracing the learning curve to shake up my photography as two themes that pulled me towards shooting film. It certainly has been, and continues to be, a steep learning curve. Gear matters to me, and finding the right film camera was not a hole-in-one. The Hasselblad 500-like Bronica ETRSi didn't work for me. I was attracted to the waist level viewfinder setup but I know now this is wasted on me. Composing felt incredibly awkward and I just couldn't get used to it. The Bronica has found a new owner and I moved on to the Mamiya 6. Everything related to film photography is new to me, I am happy to at least have the familiar experience of a rangefinder camera.

It has been a wild ride [Mamiya 6]

A plastic beast

The Mamiya 6 feels indestructible. It is made of plastic but somehow feels as if it comes from a different plastic compared to cameras today. It is hefty yet light and although I haven't tried it, I don't think I need to worry too much if I accidentally drop it. You truly are holding a significant chunk of gear in your hands. And yet, it is also small and light in its own way. When you use the collapsible construction to tuck the lens in, the side profile of the camera is quite thin. This makes packing the camera in a bag quite easy. With the standard 75mm lens attached it weighs about 1100 grams. Not light, but also not too heavy.

Strong plastic from the 90s [Pentax K3 mkiii - Pentax 77mm F1.8]

The camera was released at the end of the 80s. My version is slightly younger and is the MF edition which has other film format overlays in the rangefinder. I have yet to try this but having the option of loading 35mm film in the special holder and taking panoramic shots is something I would be interested to try. The rangefinder is large and bright and I find it very easy to focus, perhaps even easier than on my Leica M10.

Great viewfinder with minimal blockage

Rangefinders in general are such a joy to use. This one has a lot of room around the frame lines which is wonderful for composition and anticipation. Operating the Mamiya is very easy. You lift the shutter speed dial to set the iso (more on that later), put it in aperture priority mode or pick your own shutter speed and off you go. You also have an exposure compensation dial. Aperture is set on the lens and that is pretty much it. The light meter is pretty decent and good enough for me not to carry an external light meter. One of the big differences with shooting digital is of course the shutter speed limitation. The Mamiya 6 only goes to 1/500 of a second which makes the film speed you chose crucial.

The collapsible lens design makes a difference

Loading film is not too difficult once you've done it a few times. Simply tuck in the film to the empty spool and turn the lever until the arrows line up. Close the cover and wind it a few more times and you are good to go. The Mamiya has a screen that you can close so no dust can come into the back of the lens while you load the film. This mechanism also allows you to change lenses mid-roll.

Getting better at loading film quickly and securely [Ricoh GRiiix]

Finding my film preference

This is very much a work in progress. I've shot with some black & white Lomography Potsdam Kino 100 but decided to focus on color first and then learn monochromatic film. So far, I think Kodak Portra 160 seems to best fit my shooting style with the Mamiya. I like scenes with lots of light and I noticed that when shooting Portra 400, I didn't expose the scene well and that gave oversaturated colors. The other problem I had was keeping the shadows in the clean. When you lose the shadows on film, it is hard to bring anything back. I also tried Cinestill 50D and I do like the look of that film but Portra 160 gives me just a little bit more flexibility when the light is starting to fade.

Dipping my toes into film photography [Mamiya 6]

I read about the need to really get to know a film stock and understand how it behaves under different conditions. I can see from my mixed results that this is 100% true. Sometimes the result that came out was kind of close to what I had in mind but often I messed up, mostly in targeting the right spot for the light meter to do it's job. One of the downsides of shooting film is that the camera doesn't record any settings and I am not disciplined enough to make notes while taking photos. I will have to rely on memory to go through the feedback cycle and get better. There are 'newer' cameras that print shooting info on the negatives like the Pentax 645 cameras. I might look into that.

When you get light just right, Portra 400 gives lovely colors [Mamiya 6]

Another reason to think about carrying two film bodies is of course the film speed limitation. This is standard knowledge for those that grew up on film. I did not and am learning this all over again. I can't simply use my Mamiya during the day with Portra 160 or Cinestill 50D and then bring it in the evening and expect to be able to shoot everything like I would on a digital camera with flexible ISO settings. I would need to shoot through my film before it get's dark, and switch to something with higher ISO, or take a second body with higher ISO film for situations with dim lighting.

I was barely able to make this work with shooting Cinestill 50D in dark conditions [Mamiya 6]

When I get things right, more or less, I can see the appeal of the outcome of the shooting with film. I described in my previous post about how I enjoy the difference in the process of shooting, but none of that matters if the output is mediocre. While I want to stay away from direct comparisons with digital, it is good to acknowledge that what comes out of a film camera is a different image. The difference between cars with an internal combustion engine or electric cars come to mind as an analogy. Both look the same, both serve the same purpose, but the way they do it is very different. Below is a photo that I took with the Mamiya which I really like. I added a second photo that I took with the small Ricoh GR iiix. These cameras are incomparable but it is good to see just how different the same scene is captured via chemicals vs a digital sensor. One is not better than the other, they are just.......different. There is a place for both and people will choose what suits them best. I will use both, depending on mood, occasion, or both.

Work in progress [Mamiya 6]
Work in progress 2 [Ricoh Gr iiix]

The colors and the 'soft sharpness' of the film image are immediately visible versus the crisp and detailed rendering of the digital file. The other obvious difference is the framing. I am starting to become familiar with the square format. I do still shift how I hold the camera from landscape to portrait at times which of course makes no sense at all with a square frame, but I guess old habits are very sticky.

Learning curveball

I am enjoying the learning curve. The margins for error are much tighter in film photography than in modern digital cameras and I enjoy this limitation. I think it helps me understand the basics better. The delayed feedback cycle makes it a bit hard but I can already tell over the last few months that I am 'getting it' more and more.

In my next post I will discuss my experience with the post process of film photography. I don't think I will ever develop my own negatives but this is the only part of the workflow I want to outsource. Letting your negatives be scanned by a film lab is perfectly fine, but I enjoy having a bit more control. I tried DSLR scanning with a light-bed and scanning with a scanning. Both were giving me giant headaches though and I will explain why in my next post...... In the meantime, here are a few more shots from the Mamiya.


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