At the end of the Second World War, the cover of an American comic depicted a female Army photographer named Linda Lens hitting a German soldier knock out with a Kodak Medalist on a strap.
Impressive for sure but to make a real impression (on a soldier’s helmet or elsewhere), I’d advise the Mamiya RB67.
Its users often refer to it as ‘The Beast’ in their arsenal of cameras. It dwarves many other cameras with its appearance, even the majority of medium format cameras. It is too hefty to shoot handheld (at least, I feel it is) and while ergonomics allow you to adjust all its settings and forward the film with just your right hand, sooner or later you want to relax that left arm so you won’t tear the biceps…
So, why are people even considering these cameras at all? Why not a (much lighter) Hasselblad or Rolleiflex? And certainly a Pentax 67 would be easier to handle since it’s much more SLR-resembling?
A short fly-by on the perks of the Mamiya RB67:
- It is a 6×7 system instead of square frame like the Hasselblad or Rolleiflex.
- It can easily take both 120 and 220 film and film backs can be exchanged mid-roll.
- Motorized film advance is a simple setup with motorized backs and a battery pack that sits under the camera but detaches.
- It has been made for a long time, from the early 1970s to as late as 2010 for the (here shown) Pro-SD model. Finding a good one isn’t very hard.
- the system does not contain many focal lengths (although the lens line-up is 33 lenses!) and accessories, yet it does not lack anything.
- It’s relatively cheap to purchase.
How about film sizes?
The RB67 is dedicated for (drum roll!) 6×7 aspect ratio shots. But you are in luck if you want to shoot a 6×4.5 back, those were also made by Mamiya for the RB67 although they are a bit harder to find. But, since the back’s architecture is pretty similar to a Graflok model, there is a number of backs from other manufacturers that will fit too, most notably the relatively cheap Graflex Singer backs that also come in 6×6 size. Shooting either of those would require you to draw a mask on the ground glass yourself. And, to top it all off, there are Mamiya-made 6×8 backs that specifically fit the latest Pro-SD model. But, they are hard to find and usually aren’t that cheap.
All the above mentioned sizes are available in both 120 film and 220 film backs. The designated RB67 backs are set up for both 120 and 220 anyway since they only require changing the pressure plate for the appropriate film type. Switching the pressure plate out will also set the film counter to the correct amount of frames. For 6×6 backs, it’s manufacturer specific so I cannot comment.
A final word on the backs, the Horseman backs (very common) unfortunately do not fit the RB67. The Graflex Singer backs are your best bet since they are the most universal model out there.
This picture shows the Mamiya RB67 Pro-SD with the wide angle lens on it, the 50mm 4.5 Mamiya Sekor.
On my RB67 Pro-SD I use the motorized backs since they came with the camera and I never bothered to buy regular ones.
But, the battery unit to power the back never leaves the case…
Getting an old RB67, how should I test it?
Since the RB67s are abundant and have been made for a long time, the cameras sometimes pop up for ridiculously low prices. But, how to check them for functionality?
First, it’s a simple modular camera but it has a few features that prevent you from messing the camera or your film up. It’s best to check it part by part but the parts do not separate without some knowledge of how to do it. Sit yourself down at a table, for safety.
- The back does not come off if there’s no dark slide inserted into it. Check that.
- Set the camera down on its lens mount. Remove the back by pushing the two very little blank metal notches on the top and bottom right side, while sliding the ‘Lock’ buttons back. Make sure the parts don’t fall apart. The back comes off, set it aside.
- At the bottom of the camera, there’s a metal lever that will undo the revolving back of the camera. Check that for light sealing foam at the camera side, and also for foam at the film back side. It should bounce right back when you gently press it, and not be sticky. If it’s not, don’t panic.
- The shutter needs to be cocked (big lever to the side) before removing or installing the lens. Check that.
- The lens has a breech lock ring around the base. Rotate the red dot up up and hold the lens tight against the body while you do or it will fall off instantly. Remove the lens.
- The name plate has a little tab underneath it. Press that down and slide the name plate to the right (when faced from the front). This will allow for removing the chimney finder. Attention, the ground glass is held in place only by the chimney finder so keep it upright while removing the finder or your ground glass will fall and shatter.
- Now that you have all parts separated, check for the shutter function. The mirror will slap up and stay there until you arm the shutter again.
- When the mirror is down, you can check the mirror bumpers. They’re made from black soft foam, at both sides of the mirror. Again, it should bounce right back when you gently press it, and not be sticky.
- When the mirror slaps up, you can check the light seals more easily.
You completed part I already!
- Now were going to install the revolving back again, and mount the film back. Reverse above procedure.
- Remove the dark slide.
- Next, rotate the small lever under the film transport lever so that it will show a red dot. This is the double exposure provision and it will allow you to advance an empty film holder so that the shutter can still be released.
- Advance the empty film holder and release the shutter.
- If the back and the film communicatie as they should, releasing and arming the shutter (and advancing the film back every time too) should be hassle-free.
One more part to check, home base coming up!
- Next, mount the lens. Remember, the shutter should be armed when you mount it or it won’t go on the camera.
- Rotate the breech lock to secure the lens but don’t over tighten it!
- Set the shutter speed on the lens to 1/400th and the aperture to the smallest opening, largest number.
- Look towards the lens and fire the shutter. The lens should perform as intended.
- Progress by opening the lens up more and more and slowing the shutter down more and more.
- Once you get to the B setting, remove the back again, fire the shutter and look through the lens to see if there’s any fungus, dirt or lens separation in there (the latter looks like an oily puddle along a lens edge).
- Assemble the camera again, have some small talk and again fire the shutter, slowest speed. See if it hangs at all.
That’s it! Easy to do once you’ve done it a few times.
If all your tests are satisfactory, there’s the issue of the light seals. It might be a reason to reduce the price since you need to get a set of new light seals from Jon Goodman. Yes, there’s also seals from a supplier in Japan online but they show the wrong images for installing the light seals in the film back (and have done so for a long time), and the film seals for the RB67 you find on eBay are of lesser quality. So Jon’s seals it is.
His e-mail is here: Note: Ask Jon for all 3 kits for the RB67: the Mirror kit, the Rotating back kit and the Film back. Remember to specify 120 or 220 back. If you happen to have a 120 back in 6×4.5 format it will be the same as a standard 6×7 back. His seals are good, reasonably priced, come fast and have instructions that are so easy that only a ham-fisted gorilla will be unable to install those seals.
If you need help loading the film in the camera, there’s a couple of videos at the bottom of this article that can help you out.
the backs have a frame counter that enables both the 120 and the 220 film length.
But when the 120 film pressure plate is installed, the counter mechanism disengages after frame 10.
So yes it’s a nice camera. And you know you want one. But, it’s just too heavy to lug around and just show off, you need to actually make pictures with it to receive the awe and compliments of the folks you wanna impress shooting it… That’s why I’m showing you some of the images I made with it. And no, I’m not going to reveal my secret-sauce process for the double exposure images you see below. Rest assured, the camera is also very capable of making non-double exposures…
Links and videos
The Camerawiki article on the RB67 also lists all lens options and explains the model progressions
Another article, on a rather tatty-looking RB67 Pro-S
Introduction to the camera:
How to load the film into an RB67: