Camera Review: Mamiya C330 TLR

I'll readily admit I have been putting off writing this review for a very long time. Not because I couldn't think of anything to say about the MAmiya C330, but more because I wanted to say it without gushing heaps of praise all over this camera. However, the naked truth of the matter is that the Mamiya C330 has been my workhouse camera for nearly two decades and with any luck it will be my staple instrument in my arsenal for a whole lot longer. But hey, facts are facts and the bottom line is that if I could only use one camera for the rest of my life, this would be the one.

The Mamiya C330 is a medium format TLR (twin lens reflex) camera. The "TLR" portion of that title basically means you view and compose your images through one lens (usually the one on top) and you expose the image on film with another (usually the lens on bottom). TLR cameras were an incredibly popular design made famous by the notorious Rolleiflex but also manufactured by Yashica, Minolta, Kodak, and a host of others. Most of the time TLR's are relatively compact for a medium format camera, reliable, easy to use, and most of the time adhered to very high standards of quality. 

When Mamiya set out to make a TLR for the professional minded photographers, they did things a little different. Unlike the offerings from Rolleiflex, Yashica, etc. they made a camera with interchangeable lenses. They also incorporated a bellows focusing system which allows the camera to get in nice and tight to its subject. The result was a much more versatile camera that still maintained all the advantages of a TLR with the only sacrifice being an increase in size, a characteristic of the camera I will talk about a little more later.

Mamiya C330 TLR with Fomapan ISO 100 film.

From a quality perspective, the Mamiya C330 is second-to-none. When you pick up the camera it feels solid and rugged, like a machine you could carry through either a snow storm or across the high desert without a single worry or a second thought. You aren't going to find much plastic on this camera. Instead it is a hunk of metal and glass covered in a very grip-able leather like substance. In the time that I've owned mine, I've only had one problem with it. The shutter became a little bit sticky at slower speeds but one $50.00 repair later and I've never had an issue since.

Operating the camera is incredibly simple. To compose a picture just look down at the waist level ground glass (which is clear, bright, and insanely easy to see through) focus with the gigantic knob at the base of the body (Mamiya gave the photographer one on each side!!), set your f/stop and shutter speed along the side of the lower lens, click, then advance to the next frame. There are no electronic controls, no digital menus, no batteries. Just pure mechanical goodness and brilliant engineering. 

Mamiya C330 TLR with Ilford Delta 100 film.

For many people, a hand held light meter will be an essential part in using a Mamiya C330. I certainly keep one in my camera bag at all times. However, with a little bit of practice and experience, it isn't difficult to get a ballpark exposure without one.

When it comes to lens quality, the mega stars tend to carry brand names like Zeiss, Leica, and even Nikon. I can respect that as they've certainly earned their reputations. I can also encourage it because as long as every photographer in the universe scrambles for those lenses, the cost of Mamiya glass stays relatively low. Lens quality on the Mamiya C330 is excellent, and every bit as good for practical purposes than the more sought and coveted brand names. Typically I stick with the standard 80mm f/2.8 lens on my camera but I also own and use the wider angle 65mm and 55mm lenses. All three get the job done with no complaints from me. I've mentioned in previous blog posts that the 80mm f/2.8 does tend to distort the edges of the frame when used wide open, but there are a lot of cases where I find I can use this to my advantage. 

Mamiya C330 TLR with Kodak Ektar Film

So let's circle around to the issue of size. If the Mamiya C330 has any drawbacks its the fact that it is substantially larger and heavier than any other TLR that I've used. However, speaking as a person with tiny hands, I still work with the Mamiya C330 hand held the vast majority of the time. True, this isn't the kind of camera I want to war around my neck, but I don't find it to be a burden when thrown into a backpack or a messenger bag. I've hiked for an entire day with the Mamiya C330 without any complaints from my back. 

I also want to touch again on the bellows focusing. To me this is a feature of the Mamiya C330 that truly sets it apart from other TLR's, not to mention most other cameras in general. The Mamiya C330 can focus in to near macro capabilities. This does however require a bit of skill on behalf of the photographer. You see, because the viewing lens is above the taking lens, the close you get to your subject the more you will experience parallax. Fortunately Mamiya was kind enough to provide an indicator in the viewfinder in the form of a horizontal line that lowers down letting you know where the top of the frame will be the closer in you focus. With a little bit of practice it isn't difficult to compensate your framing based on the horizontal indicator. 

Mamiya C330 TLR with Ilford HP5 Film

For anyone looking into film photography and more specifically medium format film photography, you'd be hard pressed to find a better entry point. Prices for Mamiya TLR's are generally cheaper than Rolleiflex's, Hasselblads, and Pentax cameras and the Mamiya is more than versatile enough to grow along with your artistic and technical skills behind the lens. A quick search on eBay, craigslist, or KEH will reveal Mamiya C330's widely available, most of which are still in good shape. 

So if you don't have already, consider giving the Mamiya C330 a try. I know I'll certainly be using mine for decades to come!