Mamiya ZD Review

[nextpage title=”First Impressions (June 2007)”]
For me, this system, comprising a Mamiya 645 AFD and the brand new ZD digital back, represents both a step backward and a step forward: a sort of karmic splits: a return to Mamiya medium format (I loved my 7 II), and a tentative move into the realm of ‘oversized’ sensors. Despite the absurdity of labels such as ‘full frame’ – most especially when they are applied to arbitrarily sized chips grafted onto 645 bodies – I will confess that my thinking about the ‘right’ size for a sensor has been moulded by many years of full frame Canon use. Stepping beyond the ‘ceiling’ of 36x24mm feels like journeying into a brave new world.

Of course, it isn’t. It’s exactly the same as moving from an APS sensor to a FF chip. Except that everything else about the change is very different. Yes – there are more pixels, and – yes – there is a distinct improvement in spatial rendering thanks to the thinner DOF effects of the larger format, but the apparatus servicing the core of the image capture tech couldn’t be more different.

On the plus side, in portability terms, the AFD/ZD combo is comparably chuckable to a 5D with a grip. However, the lenses are much bigger, and in most cases several stops slower. Though this translates to similar depth of field, you need to throw much more light at the ZD than a Canon DSLR. The combination of low ISOs, slow lenses, and indifferent AF combine to make this a terrible low-light camera. You can forget about donning a parka and sloping into town armed only with an f1.4 and a 5D primed at ISO3200: this machine demands to be set down properly on a tripod and fed lots of lux.

The absurd minimum focus settings also irritate. Whereas Contax 35-70mm has a very serviceable ‘macro’ function to make the most of its short range, Mamiya’s similar 55-110mm requires 5 feet of clear air between you and your subject, or it throws all its toys out of the pram. The 300mm f4.5 appeals mightily, until you discover that focusing as close as 9 feet isn’t quite possible: step back a bit, Dad . . . .

Other gripes quickly surface: the autofocus is on par with a Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 (which is bad). The shutter makes a sound exactly like two shopping trollies colliding. The screen is a slap in the face to reason; the ‘zoom’ function beyond ridicule. And the menu system appears to have been modeled on the wiring diagram of a Soviet tank.

The ‘standard’ zoom also fails to impress. Compared to – say – a Canon 24-105L, it feels sluggish and unresponsive. Thus far, in any light, I haven’t had a really crisp capture with it yet. Serviceable, adequate, OK – but not what I upgraded for. The 45mm C f2.8 prime, 50mm f4 shift and 120mm macro are a different story: every one a winner. Carefully lit, these are capable of stunning results. I’m particularly pleased with the shift lens because it will give me seamless two-frame stitches at 9000 x 4300 pixels with a horizontal field of view a little wider than a 24mm prime on a Canon full frame DSLR. Result.

Despite the above reservations, it immediately becomes apparent that if you work withing the machine’s limitations, and only use the best glass, the ZD back out of the box rewards with superbly detailed, low noise (ISO 50 and 100 are perfect if you get the exposure right) images with at least two stops dynamic range more than Canon’s best, and all the drop-dead gorgeousness of the ‘large format effect’. Point this camera at anything and it delivers photo magic. Encouragingly, the ZD back displays significantly less noise at all apertures than samples I’ve played with (both from Mamiya and real world users) shot with the ZD body.

However, it asks rather more of you than a DSLR. The DOF is so thin that one third of the frame was visibly out of focus at f11 with a 30mm fisheye. Focal plane placement is utterly critical. A laptop is almost essential when shooting with wide angles: the screen tells you nothing. Though the RAW files are very well resolved, every one is 35Mb, and you’ll find a world of noise-related pain in the shadows if you mess up the exposure. If ever there was a camera for which the phrase ‘expose to the right’ was invented, it’s the ZD: loves recovering higlights; hates lifting shadows. And it will make mincemeat of anything less than the best medium format glass. I’ll be attempting to separate the men from the boys in this regard in forthcoming weeks . . . .

[nextpage title=”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.

[nextpage title=”Lenses & Factoids”]

Factoids, Links and Further Viewing

1. Frank Doorhof made me buy a ZD back. His blog and enthusiastic reviews were the first detailed reviews online. Frank has written more online about the Mamiya ZD than Mamiya itself has. The thing about Frank is that he can make any camera look great.

2. Frank focus-calibrated several of his autofocus Mamiya 645 lenses by adjusting the AF drive screw on the lens mount. Frank took a lot of flak from forum trolls but he’s a stand-up guy. Frank swapped his Mamiya ZD for a Leaf Aptus 22.

3. Communication errors have been widely reported on Mamiya ZD backs up to October 2007. My back frequently shut down mid-capture. Other users report failures in communication with AFD bodies and difficulties maintain stable tethered connection to PCs in particular; another good reason to buy a proper computer, incidentally. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Mamiya has addressed these and a number of other issues in backs currently shipping.

4. Weird colour artefacts and ‘purple worms’ were widely reported by early adopters. It has been claimed that these problems only affected the initial batch but at the time of writing no official product recall or serial number range statement has been made by Mamiya.

5. Some of the liveliest and most informative discussions about early Mamiya ZD backs took place on Luminous Landscape forums. A number of anomalies were documented here, here, here, and at Fred Miranda here.

6. For most of 2006 and 2007 you could buy a Mamiya ZD camera in the UK, but not in the US. To redress the balance, Mamiya ZD backs first shipped from the US but were unavailable in the UK until September 2007.

7. At the time of writing, Mamiya US offers a free upgrade from the AF body to a ZD-compatible AFD.

8. The Mamiya ZD’s 36x48mm Dalsa-made sensor has a 1.1x effective crop. If you want the best custom-made split focusing screen money can buy your Mamiya AFD, get in touch with Maxwell Precision Optics. Tell Bill I sent you.

9. You can use Hasselblad and Pentacon 6 lenses on your Mamiya 645 via adaptors. It’s also possible to modify Pentax 645 lenses for similar manual focus, stop-down metered use on the AFD. The Pentax FA35mm requires a small modification to the Mamiya’s mirror.

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