I remember many years ago, when I was still in High School, Mamiya released the 645e as a "budget friendly" way for advanced amateurs and students to buy into medium format camera systems. Keep in mind, this was in the days before digital photography and if you wanted to take your work beyond 35mm film, medium format was the way to go. In other words, medium format cameras were expensive!!! So when Mamiya came out with the 645e for only $700 brand new (body only, no lenses) this was a screaming deal. I wanted one myself and often made trips to the local camera shop hoping to scrape together the cash to put one into my hands someday.
Fast forward about ten years and the cost of a Mamiya 645e has changed quite a bit. I bought mine from a camera dealer for $150, which included two lenses, two film inserts, and a grip about one year ago. Keep in mind, this was always Mamiya's cheapest medium format camera and is therefore not nearly as sought after as the higher end 645 models from the same brand. The cost of the 645e has fallen on the used market to near comical levels.
To be honest, there are some very good reasons for that. This is by far the clunkiest feeling medium format camera I have ever held in my life. It is a giant hunk of plastic through and through and in many ways just feels like an overgrown Canon Rebel SLR. When I squeeze the 645e in my hands I can actually feel the plastic flex giving me pretty much zero confidence this camera will last through any sort of rugged use.
Unlike many other medium format cameras of the era, the Mamiya 645e is not a modular system in the strictest sense of the concept. The viewfinder is fixed to the camera body and cannot be changed to something like a waist level finder. Also, rather than having interchangeable backs that can be switched out mid-roll, the 645e uses film inserts instead. The film inserts can be effective if you like to pre-load a bunch of film before you start working for the day, so in that sense I find them better than nothing.
Now if you've read this far into the review it may sound like I'm not particularly fond of the Mamiya 645e. To tell the truth, if I had paid full price for it when it was brand new on the market I probably would be. However, at today's prices it is easy to overlook the camera's bad qualities and focus on the positives, which there are plenty.
First and probably most importantly, the Mamiya 645e allows a photographer access to the entire line of Mamiya 645 lenses at a very affordable entry cost. I've said it on this blog before and I'll say it again, Mamiya made some of the finest lenses in the world of photography and they don't get enough credit for it. Better still, the lenses themselves tend to stay fairly affordable meaning you can pair a very nice lens with the Mamiya 645e and still stay within a reasonable budget. If you can find it, I would recommend getting the 80mm f/1.9. It is an absolute jewel if you like to work with shallow depth of field and it makes a great portrait lens.
Second, the metering on the 645e is surprisingly accurate and when used with aperture priority mode, it makes the Mamiya 645e one of the swiftest medium format cameras I've ever operated. After only a few rolls of film I quickly learned to trust the internal meter on the 645e and it has never let me down.
Third, that big huge torpedo shaped finder sticking off the top of the camera is incredibly bright, clear, and easy to manually focus with. Even better, the finder has a very large and easy to move diopter adjustment which is handy if you've never had an opportunity to really play around with such things. It was because of the Mamiya 645e that I learned I tend to like my viewfinders set to a -1.5 and have since purchased the appropriate viewers for my other medium format cameras.
Fourth, the Mamiya 645e is incredibly easy to operate. Every control is big and intuitively labeled making this the kind of camera one can just pick up and use immediately without hesitation. So long as you have a basic understanding of apertures, shutter speed, etc. this is not a complicated camera. Even the viewfinder display is uncluttered and uncomplicated only showing the shutter speed the camera is set to with an indication of your exposure either being over or under.
So yeah... a very respectable list of good things considering the current prices one can find for used Mamiya 645e kits.
I would consider myself a bit negligent though if I did not mention one of the biggest drawbacks of this camera. The shutter is big, loud, and vibrates the entire body of the camera incredibly badly. We all know that medium format cameras produce a larger negative than 35mm, so therefore a medium format SLR is going to have a much larger mirror and shutter. I can accept that for sure. However, with the 645e, there is absolutely no dampening (or so it seems) and every single time you click the shutter button you will feel it vibrating up your entire arm. I absolutely do not dare use this camera hand held with a shutter speed less than 1/125th of a second. Compare that to my Mamiya RB67 which has a much larger mirror and I am willing to hand hold that camera down to 1/30th of a second and still get decently sharp results.
This all goes full circle toward the rather cheap-ish construction of the Mamiya 645e. There is just simply no getting around the fact that this camera was built and meant for the budget minded consumer and compared to other Mamiya cameras and most medium format cameras in general, you aren't going to get the same quality.
If you are on an incredibly tight budget and you want to experience the larger more detailed negative of a medium format camera the Mamiya 645e is still worth your consideration. I may not be hesitant to point out its flaws, but at the same time I've given mine plenty of use which has more than made the investment worth it. Overall it is a decent camera body that can mount some truly excellent lenses at minimal cost, which is no small thing.