Mamiya Press Super 23 – Frustratingly Good
I have always wanted a Mamiya Press Super 23. It is such an ungainly looking camera that it is beautiful in a flawed way. There are bits sticking out at all angles which makes it a wonder that this ever works to make photographs. Then in use, I find that it does everything it can to make me earn the result. But what a result!
This camera has so many functions which operate totally independently. For a press photographer in the late 1960s, I am sure they would get used to it and operate the camera with muscle memory. Using it myself now, over 50 years later, I have to think every step through and run a mental checklist. So much so, that for the first time I have added a new section in a review, the Camera Hurt Locker. This will cover all ways this camera can hurt you.
And it has hurt me in most of these ways. So many rolls with part and whole disasters, just so many…. Yet, there is something that draws people to this camera, including myself. Is it the amazing 6×9 (or 6×7) results? The challenge of using it? The cool factor? It sure draws attention.
A considerable plus is that the Super 23 immerses you into the process. So much so, that once you have it set up, with the handle, it is actually quite convenient to carry and use. Grant you, not tourist type convenient, but if you were a press photographer, I could see many worse options for that period.
At the end, the results are what counts. I have other 6×9 cameras, some which produce excellent quality, and I can say the Mamiya Press lenses are no slouch. Seeing the large negatives pulled out of the sleeve after picking them up from the lab is a very cathartic experience. It is no wonder these lenses have become the default option not just the new breed of medium format 3D printed cameras but they are also a good option for 4×5 in many cases. The image circle in some of them covers this format. The 65mm seems to be a particular favourite.
My kit includes the 100mm f/3.5 which seems to be a standard kit for this camera, and that sought after 65mm f/6.3 wide angle. For my shooting this coverage is quite good, though I don’t think I have taken enough advantage of the 100mm with some portraits.
I’ve had the Mamiya Press Super 23 for a about four years now. It’s not the first camera I reach for, more of one that I plan ahead for use. I’ve used it quite a bit though, and more recently made sure I used it consistently to ensure I get a proper feel for it.
I’ll cover my approach in the experience section, but first let’s find out a bit more about the camera, its lenses (the ones I have) and even how this camera can hurt your pride.
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Mamiya is quite an interesting camera company which was founded in 1940 in Tokyo. The founders Mamiya Seiichi (whom the company was named after) and Sugawara Tsunejirō initially called it Mamiya Kōki Seisakusho which translates to Mamiya Optical Works). Mamiya was the camera engineer, and Sugawara was the investor and took the managing director role.
The first camera produced was the Mamiya Six (not to be confused with the modern Mamiya 6). It is a 6×6 folding camera, with focusing achieved through the movement of the film plane. There were quite a few variations of that camera manufactured until well into the 1950s. Even World War II did not disrupt the company, as they were the first company to receive an order from Central Purchasing Office of SCAP in Japan in 1946.
A very intelligent strategy Mamiya took is to ensure reliable supply of components. They acquired a number of companies through the years. This includes an optical company and a shutter company. These were combined in 1950 to form Setagaya Kōki K.K. and stood up as plant to manufacture both in-house and outsourced lenses and shutters. The lenses were branded Sekor which is probably a combination Setagaya Kōki and the letter “r” which may signify shutter in Japanese, renzu.
Eight years after the company was formed Mamiya introduced the next camera, a 6×6 twin lens reflex (TLR), the Mamiyaflex. Also, in 1948 the 35mm rangefinder, the Mamiya 35, was released followed closely the following year with the Mamiya 16 subminiature camera.
These cameras were the mainstay until 1957 when the now iconic Mamiya C3, a 6×6 TLR with interchangeable lenses replaced the Mamiyaflex. In that year the Mamiya Magazine 35 was also introduced, a camera with interchangeable backs. As innovative as that sounds, it did not meet much success.
1960 is when Mamiya entered the 35mm SLR market, with the Prismat. That same year is when they also entered the press camera market, with the original Mamiya Press.
The Press range does seem to take its design cues from the Linhof Technika Press camera range. The previous year the Nikon F had hit the market, and press photography was starting the transition away from large format press cameras. Like Linhof, Mamiya may have been hedging its bets on a transitional medium format period, or even higher quality option, with convenience of roll film camera.
The original Mamiya press was produced until 1967, with minor variations including the Press G in 1963 which incorporated the Graflex back system. This included the Press 23 and Press Standard camera. Another unique feature was the rear bellows and accessory locking struts.
The Mamiya Press Super 23, the model in this review, came in 1967. More modern materials were used, including a new rubberised covering which has tiny little raised “M”s on it. The C3 range also had this. Another development was the ability to use sheet film (2×3), brighter viewfinder with parallax compensation for 3 lenses, the 100mm, 150mm and the 250mm.
Another iteration was released in 1969, the Universal. This model used updated film backs but removed the rear bellows. It could accept the Graflex backs, but also the Rand Polaroid backs. This also enabled the cross branding with the Polaroid 600SE. Mamiya did after all have a history of manufacturing for other companies (including the Nikon Nikkorex F SLR).
From 1970, Mamiya established itself as primarily a medium format camera manufacturer. With the advantage of manufacturing most of the components in-house it became a mainstay of the studio and wedding industry, especially with the RB67, M645, RZ67, M645 Super SLR series.
Some specialty cameras came a bit later in 1989 with the Mamiya 6 and in 1995 the Mamiya 7 (which is my all-time favourite camera). After that the digital backs started to appear in the late 1990s and Mamiya started the journey into the digital age, collaborating with Leaf imaging. This eventuated with the camera business sold to Cosmo Digital Imaging.
These days a collaboration with Phase One ended up with Phase One investing for a significant portion of Mamiya. It is not clear with any investigation I have been able to do, on whether they control or collaborate, but digital cameras produced can have Mamiya, Phase One or even “powered by Leaf and Phase One” on them.
The Mamiya Press Super 23 is a medium format rangefinder camera styled for press work. Primarily designed for 120 roll film, it can take backs for 2×3 sheet film and various polaroid backs. For roll film, backs are available for 6×9, 6×7 and 6×4.5 formats. This body itself is a metal box with a rubber covering with little raised “M”s on it. There are black versions of the camera too, and some with more traditional coverings.
The lens mount is a unique Mamiya Press breech lock mount. The lenses themselves each have a Seikosha leaf shutter. The shutter release is on the lens and can vary in location. The camera is designed to be used with a left-hand grip, which incorporates a remote shutter release button. The handle is connected to the shutter release on lens by a remote cable.
The handle also has a strap on it for better holding and it is attached to the body via a screw mechanism. Both the body and the handle have cold shoes attached at the top. On the right side of the camera is also a bracket for a flash gun.
The back of the camera has a switch at the top which allows you to select the viewfinder frame lines between 100mm, 150mm and 250mm. The viewfinder has parallax compensation and incorporates a circular rangefinder patch. Nice little touch is that it actually tells you which focal length it is set to in the viewfinder.
Lenses like the 65mm require an external viewfinder and this is placed on the cold shoe above the camera. This may introduce some parallax errors which would need correction.
The film back is unattached by unlocking the two locking knobs at the bottom. Film backs of various types mentioned earlier can be used, in the case of this copy it has a 6×9 roll film attached.
Film is loaded in the right-hand side and threaded to the left into a take up spool. The frame advance lever is on the right-hand side and uses quite a complicated mechanism to pull the film from the left-hand side. A film advance lock has to be flicked to allow the film to advance.
A dark slide has to be removed before shooting or inserted before changing lenses. Neither the film advance or the dark slide are interlocked with the shutter release, so care is required to avoid shooting double exposures or a blank frame.
Four locking knobs around the sides of the camera allow the back to be pulled out and the bellows to be extended. This can be used in conjunction with the ground glass attachment for some tilt and shift and even close focus for still life.
Under the camera is the film type reminder and the knobs to allow the film spool to be fit into the film back. These are both actually attached to the film back.
Underneath the camera itself is a regular tripod collar. Another feature on the camera is the neck strap eyelets on the sides, they allow for a regular neck strap.
I only have a couple of lenses for the Mamiya Press system. It fits into my usual mode of shooting of a wide and normal lens. To be honest, I cannot see myself using this camera with a telephoto, so I am quite happy with this combination.
Mamiya-Sekor 100mm f/3.5
The 100mm lens on 6×9 format translates to roughly 44mm in the 35mm format. The Mamiya-Sekor 100mm f/3.5, specifically the black version (it makes a difference in which one it is) is a Tesser type lens with 4 elements in 3 groups. Like all Press lenses it has a leaf shutter. It has 55mm filter thread.
Interesting feature on this lens is that it collapses to save space. If the lens is not extended, the focus will not be correct when using it.
There are a few versions of the 100mm, including a very sought after f/2.8 model.
Mamiya-Sekor Seikosha-S 65mm f/6.3
The Mamiya-Sekor Seikosha 65mm f/6.3 is a sought after lens, but not necessarily only because it is a wonderfully sharp lens, it is adapted to a new breed of 3D printed cameras. 65mm is equivalent to roughly 28mm in 35mm terms.
The lens itself is a Topogon type lens, with 4 elements in 4 groups. It is much more compact than the 100mm and does not require collapsing. The widest aperture at 6.3 is not that fast, but this is a lens unlikely to be used for bokeh shots.
The camera does not have a viewfinder for the 65mm, and requires an external viewfinder attached to the cold shoe.
The Camera Hurt Locker
This is a camera that is not meant for the faint hearted. It can hurt you in the most painful way. Not specifically physically, though there is enough weight and sharp corners on this camera it can do some damage.
No, this camera hurts a photographer when they are shooting or even when they process or pick up their film. The worst part is for many of these you would not know it until then and it is usually too late to do anything about it. So, without further ado, these are some of the ways it can get you, and most have happened to me.
- Dark slide left in. I’ve actually shot a whole roll with this in.
- Dark slide not left in for lens change. If you don’t have the dark slide in and change a lens, the light entering that massive lens mount is sun size, straight onto the film.
- Film not advanced. As the shutter is not linked to the film advance, double exposures are unexpectantly expected.
- Lens cap left on. This one admittedly is a general rangefinder gotcha.
- 100mm collapsible lens not extended. This will guarantee out of focus photos.
- Wrong viewfinder setting. As you can set the focal length of the viewfinder frame lines refer to, setting to the wrong one can set you up for a weird composition.
- Shutter not cocked for quick photo. Again, this is common to non self cocking shutter cameras, but added to the list in the Super 23.
- Remote shutter release from handle not connected. This is common first up after having taken the camera out of the bag.
- Quick forward advance blocked. Unless you unlock the advance, the film goes nowhere.
- Filter kits block controls. This is especially true on the 65mm, as for instance a Cokin filter set means you need chopstick width fingers to get to the aperture, shutter speed and shutter controls.
- Focusing different on each lens. Muscle memory will not help you here.
- Awkward film and lens changeovers. This camera has so many sharp angles to it, it is very hard to make a change out in the field.
I got my Mamiya Press Super 23 as an anniversary present, pretty much to the day 4 years ago. I’ve been pretty lucky, my lovely wife knows I love cameras and she can work out what I would like from the shared eBay account watch list.
When the camera arrived, I was really stoked. Not only do I love and collect Mamiya cameras, this was something left field compared to what I already had. Inspecting the camera I did notice that the viewfinder had some fungus in it. Luckily it had come from a reputable Japanese seller and they apologised for missing that and refunded an appropriate amount to have it cleaned out. A clean and service later, and this camera has been in tip top shape since then.
I had known the Mamiya Press cameras are a little complex to use, so I was prepared the first time I took it out. Or so I thought. After a day in the park with my son, Alec, and shooting for a few hours I was feeling quite pleased. On the way back to the car I suddenly had a thought, I could not remember taking out the dark slide while shooting, but I could not be 100% sure.
Sure enough, when I got my first film back, it confirmed my fears. A totally blank film! I bet these would have been award winning photos.
The next roll was a lot more successful. I joined a friend for some scenic shooting along Sydney harbour. Apart from one accidental double exposure, it came out wonderfully. Seeing the results, especially from the 65mm, in a huge 6×9 frame it took quite a lot of the sting out of it.
While the camera can be a bit of challenge to use, the results can be stunning. Obviously, it varies from lens to lens but in general the Sekor lenses for this system are very good. The 100mm f/3.5 is sharp and captures a lot of detail. I’d say it is fairly low contrast, which may be a concern on slide film, but for negatives it gives a great base to work off. Sharpness is ok at f/3.5 and by the time you reach f/8 it is across the whole frame. For exposure, there is noticeable vignetting until f/11, but interestingly is blends in very well.
The 65mm f/6.3 lens is the money. This lens is pretty much sharp all around from f/6.3 wide open, but f/8 is totally complete. Exposure is also fairly consistent across the frame with only a part stop in at f/8. I love using this lens, the external viewfinder that is required is absolute pleasure to look through. It really immerses you into the scene. The results from this lens are nothing short of superb.
Speaking of viewfinders, the integrated viewfinder is really nice and clear to look through. I have since taken this camera to both city street photography and also at the beach. Basically, using it as a press camera rather than on a tripod. There a distinct neutral density type of affect in the viewfinder, which helps make the frame lines nice and clear. Even in bright sunlight.
The rangefinder patch in the middle surprised me a bit. It is round, which is a little unusual. The shading of it is about medium level of visibility. I suspect some of this has to do with the age of this camera, but I did not have any problems focusing in any type of light.
I’ve carried this camera around for a lot of kilometres. Initially I thought this would be a very tiring camera to carry. Especially in situation like walking along the Bondi Beach promenade in a warmer day. It is not really an issue in reality though. The camera looks a lot heavier than what it is, and with the handle, it is really well weighted on the neck strap.
It actually brings up an interesting point, the handle is on the left. You actually release the shutter with the button on it. There is a lot of talk that this is a bad design and would have been more useful on the right-hand side. After using it for a few years I can’t say I agree with that. After some initial time getting used to it, it actually became very natural and balanced the camera very well.
One thing the Super 23 does in spades is attract attention. To use just one example, while walking along the beach I got everything from “Cool camera” and “Is that a Mamiya Press, awesome mate!” to multiple people stopping and having a good conversation. This invariably led to a film photography discussion.
I have had the camera now for four years almost to the day at the time of writing this review. Unique and weird cameras are something I really enjoy. While it makes you jump hoops, which can be frustratingly painful, the results are very good. Does this mean I would recommend the Mamiya Press Super 23 as something other photographers should purchase?
The simple answer is no, well not exactly. For someone like myself that collects and uses cameras it is worth considering and enjoying the quirkiness of it. Everyone else should really think hard about it. This camera is not for someone that would get discouraged with some shooting disasters, and they will happen. If you can get over that hump, then this camera can be a lot of fun and the reward can be good.
At Casual Photophile, Chris Cushing has a good overview of the Mamiya Press camera in The Mamiya Press Camera – With Great Weight Comes Great Versatility
Over at Emulsive Kikie Wilkins has written a Double review: Mamiya Press Super 23 and Mamiya Universal Press
Alex Luyckx used and wrote about the similar Mamiya Press Universal in Camera Review Blog No. 47 – Mamiya Universal