A Year With the Mamiya 645 Pro-TL: A Comprehensive Review

I’ve shot this camera in a studio, taken it on long hikes, shot it in a blizzard, and taken it out into the dessert. I’ve used and abused it and it’s still going.Medium format film is quite addictive – particularly slide film. There’s nothing quite like holding your 120 slides up to the window on a sunny day or a light table. Black and white and color negative film get a big boost from the larger than full frame format as well. 

Short of shooting a range finder, there are limited options for medium format that are not bulky and heavy. The first medium format camera I used was a Mamiya RB67 and I still have and use the camera to this day. That said, after a couple long hikes, you learn pretty quickly that it isn’t a great camera when your subject and your car are far apart. So in 2018, while prepping for to a trip to Arizona, I decided to pick up a 645 camera. At the time I was sure I wanted a Pentax 645 but with no supply of them in my area and my bad experiences on eBay, I decided to roll with a Mamiya 645 Pro-TL and haven’t looked back since. 

The manual focus Mamiya 645 was offered in several variants dating back to 1975 for the original M645 version to 2006 for the Pro-TL and E variants. The autofocus cousin is still made and sold to this day as a digital camera. 

Build Quality

Relative to some of the other medium format cameras I’ve used and seen/held, it is not the most robust feeling camera. Hands down, my RB67 is an all mechanical anchor and Hasselblad’s feel like they could last a lifetime (and do!). My Pro-TL on the other hand feels much more modern in a way that’s really convenient but doesn’t give me quite as much confidence in the wear and tear that I know I’m putting it through. It is primarily constructed of a hard plastic and has a feeling like the barrel of a nice, modern, plastic lens. 

Accessories

One of the primary reasons why I love this camera is the large number accessories available for it. In particular, I love having the auto-winding handle and having aperture priority mode available with the AE prism. There are 6 different viewfinders ranging from a waist-level finder, a simple prism, and the AE line of prisms that allow for aperture priority mode. There are number of focusing screens that can be used including a simple matte field, grid screen, and the including of a microprism and/or a rangefinder spot. Additionally, there are a number of backs available and a standard 120 back is common enough that they can typically be had for $80 or less. Having the ability to switch backs is paramount when traveling.

Lens Offerings

There are more than 30 lenses offered for the Mamiya 645 system to include the 80mm f/1.9, the fastest medium format lens ever made. The bayonet mount for the Pro-TL is the same for the entire 645 lineup so every manual focus Mamiya 645 lens can be used with 645 model. Focal lengths range from an ultra-wide 24mm f/4 (full frame equivalent: 15mm f/2.5) to a telephoto 500mm f/4.5 (full frame equivalent: 310mm f/2.8). The majority of lenses fall into one of three series depending on when it manufactured: C, S, and N. The C series lenses are the oldest and built like tanks. The N series lenses are the newest lenses so they have updates to the lens coatings and in select cases, changes in the optics. The S series lenses are right down the middle, having the C series body with the N series updates. 

Additional offerings include multiple macro lenses, a lens with tilt-shift, several APO options, and leaf shutter lenses. I do not have any experience with these lenses as I’ve not found good copies at a good price at the local shops but I’ve heard great things about all of the more limited run lenses. 

Cost

For the body only with an AE prism, you can get a decent deal on a Mamiya Pro-TL for about $400-$500. Lenses vary in price (as always) depending primarily on focal length and type. For a 80mm f/2.8, 150mm f/4, 210mm f/4, and 300mm f/5.6, you can get a good copy for less than $100. If you’re like me and prefer full frame equivalent of 35mm, then you’ll want a 55mm f/2.8 which run about $100-$200 for the leaf shutter version. The fact of the matter is that you can spend as much or as little you like on all of the accessories for the Mamiya 645 Pro-TL. Between different focusing screens, different prisms, handles, and lenses, you can easily spend as much or as little as you like. 

What I Liked

  • Light enough for backpacking
  • Capable of aperture priority mode
  • Large number of lenses available
  • All mechanical for basic functions
  • Interchangeable backs 
  • Affordable for a simple setup

What I Didn’t Like

  • Plastic construction for the body
  • Rarity of some lenses drive up prices
  • Negatives are only 2/3 the size of 6×7 negatives

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, I’ve used and abused this camera about as much as anyone could and still expect to use it. So far it’s held up quite well and I expect to continue using it for years to come. I cannot see any reason to make a significant shift away from it for anything less than a solid (and more portable than my RB) 6×7 choice. My collection of lenses and accessories has extended to more than I can use on one trip but all of it gets used. I cannot suggest this camera enough. For the money, it’s everything I need and more. 
If you have any experience with a Mamiya 645 – particularly the Pro-TL – I’d love to know. Even if you don’t have any experience with it but experience with other medium format film cameras, I’d love to hear about it. 
 

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