First Impressions (June 2007)

For me, this system, comprising a Mamiya 645 AFD and the brand new ZD digital back, represents both a step backward and a step forward: a sort of karmic splits: a return to Mamiya medium format (I loved my 7 II), and a tentative move into the realm of ‘oversized’ sensors. Despite the absurdity of labels such as ‘full frame’ – most especially when they are applied to arbitrarily sized chips grafted onto 645 bodies – I will confess that my thinking about the ‘right’ size for a sensor has been moulded by many years of full frame Canon use. Stepping beyond the ‘ceiling’ of 36x24mm feels like journeying into a brave new world.

Of course, it isn’t. It’s exactly the same as moving from an APS sensor to a FF chip. Except that everything else about the change is very different. Yes – there are more pixels, and – yes – there is a distinct improvement in spatial rendering thanks to the thinner DOF effects of the larger format, but the apparatus servicing the core of the image capture tech couldn’t be more different.

On the plus side, in portability terms, the AFD/ZD combo is comparably chuckable to a 5D with a grip. However, the lenses are much bigger, and in most cases several stops slower. Though this translates to similar depth of field, you need to throw much more light at the ZD than a Canon DSLR. The combination of low ISOs, slow lenses, and indifferent AF combine to make this a terrible low-light camera. You can forget about donning a parka and sloping into town armed only with an f1.4 and a 5D primed at ISO3200: this machine demands to be set down properly on a tripod and fed lots of lux.

The absurd minimum focus settings also irritate. Whereas Contax 35-70mm has a very serviceable ‘macro’ function to make the most of its short range, Mamiya’s similar 55-110mm requires 5 feet of clear air between you and your subject, or it throws all its toys out of the pram. The 300mm f4.5 appeals mightily, until you discover that focusing as close as 9 feet isn’t quite possible: step back a bit, Dad . . . .

Other gripes quickly surface: the autofocus is on par with a Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 (which is bad). The shutter makes a sound exactly like two shopping trollies colliding. The screen is a slap in the face to reason; the ‘zoom’ function beyond ridicule. And the menu system appears to have been modeled on the wiring diagram of a Soviet tank.

The ‘standard’ zoom also fails to impress. Compared to – say – a Canon 24-105L, it feels sluggish and unresponsive. Thus far, in any light, I haven’t had a really crisp capture with it yet. Serviceable, adequate, OK – but not what I upgraded for. The 45mm C f2.8 prime, 50mm f4 shift and 120mm macro are a different story: every one a winner. Carefully lit, these are capable of stunning results. I’m particularly pleased with the shift lens because it will give me seamless two-frame stitches at 9000 x 4300 pixels with a horizontal field of view a little wider than a 24mm prime on a Canon full frame DSLR. Result.

Despite the above reservations, it immediately becomes apparent that if you work withing the machine’s limitations, and only use the best glass, the ZD back out of the box rewards with superbly detailed, low noise (ISO 50 and 100 are perfect if you get the exposure right) images with at least two stops dynamic range more than Canon’s best, and all the drop-dead gorgeousness of the ‘large format effect’. Point this camera at anything and it delivers photo magic. Encouragingly, the ZD back displays significantly less noise at all apertures than samples I’ve played with (both from Mamiya and real world users) shot with the ZD body.

However, it asks rather more of you than a DSLR. The DOF is so thin that one third of the frame was visibly out of focus at f11 with a 30mm fisheye. Focal plane placement is utterly critical. A laptop is almost essential when shooting with wide angles: the screen tells you nothing. Though the RAW files are very well resolved, every one is 35Mb, and you’ll find a world of noise-related pain in the shadows if you mess up the exposure. If ever there was a camera for which the phrase ‘expose to the right’ was invented, it’s the ZD: loves recovering higlights; hates lifting shadows. And it will make mincemeat of anything less than the best medium format glass. I’ll be attempting to separate the men from the boys in this regard in forthcoming weeks . . . .