Final thoughts (October 2007)

As expected, initial unfamiliarity soon passed: ergonomic gripes subsided, expectations adjusted, and we started to get along. However, I joined a sizeable group of early adopters who found defects in their ZD backs. I wasn’t troubled by purple worms, or centrefold snags, but every frame featured a ragged, transparent red overlay on the top 150 or so pixels. Having shipped it to the UK, Adorama was exemplary in their after-sales service and accepted it back without demurrage. Mamiya USA, too, was keen to fix the problem and offered every reasonable assistance; so no complaints there. However, the back had more critical design flaws that weren’t as easy to overlook.

The more time I spent with the camera, the more I sensed that SilkyPix and (especially) Lightroom were out of their depth handling ZD files in extremis. Considering how well engineered Phase software is for its dedicated backs and the sterling support they offer Canon and Nikon bodies, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mamiya’s ZD would be capable of so much more if it was quite so unloved. Phase told me directly that no support for the ZD was planned.

It quickly became evident, too, that the camera is capable of a level of performance quite beyond the 1Ds Mark II (and, I suspect, the Mark III). Returning to those murky, AA-filtered 12-bit Canon files was a come-down. In reasonable light, or under flash, it’s very hard not to be irreversibly bitten by the medium format digital bug: anything less just isn’t good enough: you can keep your Canon and Nikon toys – this is a whole new ball game.

However, to become indispensable, the Mamiya had to work for me in low light. As luck would have it, I had a local commission to shoot hospital construction at twilight: a typical architectural assignment, and perfect for exploring the boundaries of the ZD’s possibilities. Over a period of two weeks I shot that hospital every which way, and developed the RAW files using every tool available. In shooting situations that a DSLR handles effortlessly, the Mamiya stumbles into weird landscapes of hot confetti: a plague of livid colour noise that presented insuperable software challenges. For what it’s worth, Abobe Lightroom makes a better job than anything else of taming the noise but there’s a clear threshold beyond which images become unusable, depending on ISO – thus:

ISO 50: 8-10 seconds
ISO 64: 6-8 seconds
ISO 100: 4-6 seconds
ISO 160: 3-4 seconds
ISO 200: 2-3 seconds.
At or above ISO200, files are typically noisy at any shutter speed.

Unfortunately, that’s just not enough light gathering ability.

With the excellent Pentacon Zeiss Jena 180mm f2.8 I was able to get great images at dusk – but only at f2.8 and f4. Typically I’d want to be shooting at f11 or smaller, and that simply places the image beyond the ability of the ZD to capture. Basically, any low light situation demands a better medium format back, or a Canon DSLR . . . actually, no: this is a habit I must break, because the best low light camera at the time of writing is – for the first time ever – a Nikon!

Right now, a D3 is the ZD’s perfect partner: tough, fast, waterproof, immaculate and unprecedented in its high ISO performance – everything the Mamiya isn’t. Combine this with fast VR lenses and the amazing new 14-24mm f2.8 and you have the best of both worlds: the ZD in the studio, or on location in good light, and the D3 for rapid and low light work. The Mamiya digital back could then be used with the peerless Rodenstock HR and Schneider Apo Digitar lenses on devices like the Silvestri Flexicam for perfect mobile architectural and landscape work, and on an AFD II body with a portrait lens like the superb 120mm Macro – the results shooting food, products and staged portraits will be outstanding value for money.

At ISO 50/64 and short exposures, the Mamiya really does give you everything a MF digital backs twice its price brings to the table. But it’s not good enough to do it all. If you factor in the cost of a second DSLR system to cover the ZD’s deficiencies, the appealingly low cost looks less attractive. However, if you can work within its limitations – if you never shoot long exposures – the figures are persuasive: it’s a no-brainer: kit up with some fabulous cheap glass, forget about the toy-toting DSLR crowd, and make beautiful pictures.

But if that’s a problem – and it was for me – you may find that the Mamiya ZD occupies too small a niche to be useful. You may find that there are no discount bargains, no short-cuts to medium format quality. Having seen what a big AA-free sensor can do, there’s no going back, and you may find the extra $8K needed for a Leaf Aptus 22 or Phase P25 back with a similarly sized sensor. You may even find that a 1Ds III with very carefully matched lenses offers a more acceptable blend of convenience and quality for a relatively modest investment. I did.

Special thanks to Adorama who accepted the back back without quibble. Special scorn is heaped upon the maggoty, putrescent leeches at MBNA who bit me twice on the exchange rate and the credit card refund, and then refunded the money too late, bleeding me in excess of $450: the most expensive part of the transaction. Thanks, chaps.