Medium Format Adventures 1

Dinas Dinlle

As I mentioned recently, I have acquired a Mamiya RB67 medium format camera. For those unaware of what that means, it uses 120 roll film, and the negatives are 6cm x 7cm. This is about 5x the size of a 35mm film negative (which is 24mm x 36mm – digital full frame equivalent). This means much higher resolution is achievable and much larger prints are possible.

I’ve had two outings with the camera recently. One was an adventure and one was a misadventure.

The Adventure

The first thing about medium format is the cameras are large and they’re heavy. The Mamiya model I have was manufactured somewhere between 1974 and 1990, let’s say about 40 years old. It is entirely mechanical – there isn’t a battery or any electronics anywhere in sight. With the 90mm lens on, it weighs in at around 3 or 4kg.

I had an impromptu trip to the North Wales coast to accompany someone on a house viewing trip. Once that was out of the way, we took the opportunity to visit the coast near Caernarfon. The location is at the end of the Menai Straits and has a rock and pebble beach with views across to the mountains of Snowdonia.

Snowdonia Pebble Beach

I took pictures with my digital camera. I used its metering to provide exposure information for setting up the RB67.

Focusing is manual with a bellows. There is no split screen or other focusing aids. You then set the aperture and exposure, make sure the film is wound on and the shutter is cocked and fire the shutter via a cable release (not essential but reduces risk of camera shake).

After an hour or so, we headed home, but to avoid roadworks we took a scenic route via Llanberis, Nant Peris and Pen y Pas, which afforded some spectacular scenery.


The Misadventure

That was the adventure, now for the misadventure.

A few weekends ago, I went to ‘Gauss Fest’ at Papplewick Pumping Station. This is where enthusiasts demonstrate high tension electrical devices and Tesla coils: think 1930s mad scientist… This meant enormous electrical discharges, bolts of man-made lightning, and strange devices.

Discharge from a large Tesla coil

On the Welsh trip, I used my old heavier tripod, which has a quick release plate that locks in place. For this trip, I’d found the missing Arca Swiss mounting plate and took one of my lighter tripods.

Papplewick Pumping Station is a glorious mix of Victorian building and engineering. The pumping station houses a James Watt beam engine.

Beam Engine

I screwed the bolt on the mounting plate into the base of the camera. It proved challenging to get it to attach to the tripod head. I did eventually and tightened it up. I then took some photos with the digital camera.

There was a crash from behind me.

The RB67 was on the concrete floor. The mounting plate had given way. Nothing was visibly broken… I had one more shot on that roll of film, took it and wound the film on. I then opened the film back to take out the spool. The back was not keen on opening. I took out the film holder and moved the spool across and inserted a new roll of film. The back was very reluctant to close. Looking closely, it looks like it was the corner of the film back that took the hit and it’s out-of-true.

I did persuade the camera to work. Closer examination showed that the view magnifier is reluctant to spring up. That’s due to the chimney being slightly skewed. No other damage is obvious, but the big worry is light leaks.

Several lessons to learn from this.   

You cannot rush medium format cameras and setup. They’re big and heavy, and large format such as 5×4 only adds to that. They are significantly heavier than 35mm cameras – seriously so. You cannot underestimate the level of support needed to hold one securely. I seriously failed in that respect: that tripod and tripod head was not up to the task of safely holding 3 or 4 kilos of load. It actually weighs about the same as my 100mm f/5.5 telescope, which I would never mount on such a light tripod.

Costs? Camera repairers are few and far between – there is Newton Ellis in Liverpool, who I will try to get to look at it. There are 3 outcomes possible: some repair work will put everything right; the view finder and/or the film back need replacing at roughly £150 each; it’s not an economic repair and find another camera – about £700.

I have ordered a second-hand heavyweight tripod that can take 10kg loads. That should arrive in a day or two. I have spoken to the camera repairers, and I need to call back to speak to their tech. The bad news is they have a four month waiting list…

Lake in Snowdonia with RB67 in foreground

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