Camera Review: Mamiya RZ67 Pro II

I discovered the Mamiya RZ67 quite by accident. For years I used a Mamiya RB67, a more or less similar piece of camera kit, as one of my primary photographic tools and was really quite happy with it. I previously reviewed that camera on my own site. One day however, I noticed a Mamiya RZ67 on sale through craigslist for what I could only conclude to be a steal so I picked it up thinking at worst I could turn around and sell it for the same amount I bought it for. Little did I realize however that I would end up liking the Mamiya RZ67 even more and to this day it is one of the cameras I own that gets the most use.

So what is a Mamiya RZ67? The best way to describe the RZ67 is to just simply say it is a true system camera designed to handle just about any situation, provided you are willing to work with a big and heavy camera body. The RZ67 is a modular camera system, meaning lenses, viewfinders, ground glass, film winders, and film backs are all interchangeable and can be customized depending on what you want to photograph. There are many photographers out there who claim the Mamiya RZ67 is a camera best left to studio work but I completely disagree. I find the camera to be quite portable provided one is using the right camera bag, and an excellent performer in the field. 

Whenever I talk about the Mamiya RZ67 the first thing people ask me is what are the differences between the RZ67 and the very similar yet drastically different older Mamiya RB67. As I mentioned earlier, I've owned both in my life but I eventually sold my RB67 in favor of the RZ67. On the surface both cameras are very similar. Both are modular camera systems that generate big beautiful 6x7 negatives. Both cameras operate in a near identical manner. If you are familiar with using the RB67 you can pretty much pick up an RZ67 and start shooting immediately. Both camera have a "Rotating Back" which means one can turn the film back on the camera to either a landscape or a portrait position without having move the entire camera body. This is one of the main selling points to the Mamiya 6x7 camera system over medium format studio cameras from other brands. 

Photographed with a Mamiya RZ67 and VERY expired color slide film.

Upon closer inspection however there are some very distinct and important differences. The RZ67 is the more modern design of the two and has a body made of mostly plastic (granted, a very sturdy plastic) while the RB67 is made more of metal. The more modern RZ67 has an electronic shutter that does require batteries to operate, while the RB67 is 100% mechanical and requires no batteries. 

Most of the time I would favor a purely mechanical camera like the RB67, however I found that the newer RZ67 held some rather distinct advantages over the RB67 that would cause me to more often than not gravitate toward its use. First, the Mamiya RZ67 can use lenses built for both the RB67 and the RZ67. The older camera can only use lenses made for the RB67. This opens up a photographer's lens choices considerably, especially when bargain shopping. When I find a lens on the used market I don't have to be concerned as to which camera it will fit. The RZ67 is compatible with all the lenses made by Mamiya for the modular 6x7 format. As it stands right now I have a couple of wide angle lenses made for the RB67 and a couple of "normal" focal length lenses made for the RZ67. With the RZ67 I can use both and I only have to carry one camera body with me.

Second, the RZ67 weighs quite a bit less than the RB67. This is largely due to the fact that the RZ67 is made of mostly plastic. When I type that it makes the RZ67 seem like a cheap toy but believe me it is not. It is still a heavy beast that requires a substantial backpack to take it out on hiking trips and long photo shoots. However, the weight on the RZ67 seems more manageable while on the older Mamiya RB67 the weight just seemed extreme. I still feel absolutely confident in the construction of the RZ67 despite the cheaper build materials. 

Third, and this is limited to the "Pro II" model specifically, the RZ67 has a "fine focus" knob on the right side of the camera. For most photographers this might be something that is overlooked a bit but I personally find it to be one a wonderful camera comfort and I wish more manufactures would adopt it. When doing close-up photography, or working on portraits with a wide open aperture, having the ability to really fine tune your focus is one of the greatest photographic pleasures I can think of. 

Photographed with a Mamiya RZ67 and Kodak Tri-X film.

The biggest drawback to the RZ67 system is the size of the camera itself. I'm not going to deny, this is a hefty machine and carrying this thing around without the assistance of a backpack can be an exhausting affair. However, I've never really minded this so much simply because the Mamiya RZ67 is not the camera I go to to make snapshots. This is the camera I go to when I have a specific photograph in mind that I want to make. This is the camera I go to when I have the luxury to plan ahead, be deliberate, and when I want the highest quality possible. In other words, this is the camera I use when I want to be serious and when I know I am going to be making photographs. 

There is also a lot of talk out there in internet land about the necessity of using a tri-pod with a Mamiya RZ67. While a tri-pod can be nice and certainly can't hurt, I completely disagree that it is a necessity. I use my Mamiya RZ67 hand held quite often. True, I don't carry this camera around my neck by a strap, but working with it hand held is not nearly as difficult as many people make it out to be. 

Don't expect anything at all to be automated when making a photograph with a Mamiya RZ67. This is a camera that is seriously as manual as it possibly gets. Everything from focus, to exposure, to winding the film is a one hundred percent labor of love. I personally consider this a strength to the camera system and I wouldn't want it to be any other way. It is absolutely rare that there is a picture I want to make that I can't spare a few extra seconds, or even minutes, to focus, calculate my exposure, compose, and be deliberate with every single frame I make. 

Photographed with a Mamiya RZ67 and Ilford FP4 film.

Due to the relatively large negatives produced by the RZ67, a standard film magazine will only get you ten exposures on a medium format roll of film. Mamiya did make backs for the RZ67 that produce a smaller 6x4.5 negative which leaves room for fifteen frames on a roll of film but I've never really much seen the point of purchasing one. Ten frames is plenty for me and its not like I only carry one roll of film with me when I head out on photo shoots. 

I've mentioned this before on previous camera reviews but I think it is worth repeating here. Mamiya made some of the most underrated and best performing lenses available and with the Mamiya RZ67 that is no exception, especially when you factor in the availability and compatibility of older RB67 lenses. Compared to lenses made for Hasselblad, Contax, and even Pentax camera rigs, the Mamiya 6x7 lenses are a real bargain.

Mamiya was able to keep the cost of their lenses to a minimum because unlike many camera systems, there is no focus mechanism on the lens itself. Instead Mamiya was rather genius in that focusing is performed by directly moving the lens in and out via a bellows system on the camera body. This not only makes the lens design much simpler and cheaper to build, but also means every lens can focus in extremely close to your subject making near macro photography possible without buying a crazy expensive lens. 

Of particular importance to me is the completely superb 110mm f/2.8 lens. On a 6x7 format camera the 110mm focal length is similar to a 50mm lens on a full frame digital or 35mm format SLR. I work with the 110mm f/2.8 lens about 85% of the time and could not be happier with the way it renders portraits, landscapes, and just about every subject matter in-between. If this was the only lens I owned for my Mamiya RZ67 I would be one happy photographer. 

Photographed with a Mamiya RZ67 and expired Kodak Ektar film.

One of my favorite aspects of the Mamiya RZ67 is the waist level viewfinder. If you are a photographer who has never used a waist level viewfinder to compose a photograph then do yourself a favor and find a way to try one out right now. I love the ability to compose a photograph while looking down on a piece of ground glass. It is the perfect way to keep myself connected to both my camera and my subject. To me, there is just something wrong and limiting about putting a camera up to my face and looking through a tunnel-like viewfinder. I'm not going to deny that sometimes with older film cameras, waist level finders can be a bit dim, but not so with the Mamiya RZ67. This thing is huge, beautiful, and just a real treat for the eyes.

Sometimes when I am working with a model I will invite them to look down through the camera so they can get an idea of what I'm looking at in the scene. This never fails to amaze.