Is This the Ultimate Street Photography Film Camera?

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Classically-inclined street photographers have elevated Leica’s rangefinder models to cult status. But with their weedy little 35mm film negatives, Leica fans can’t seriously hope to compete with the medium format muscle of a Mamiya 7ii. Is the Mamiya 7ii the ultimate street photography film camera? How you answer this question will in part depend on your shooting style, but the Mamiya 7ii is indisputably one of the main contenders for the title. This article looks at some of the reasons why.

Choosing a Street Photography Film Camera

When choosing a street photography film camera it’s important to consider your precise photographic needs. Exactly what kind of street shooter are you? A Winogrand-esque observer of life’s great carnival? A lightening-reflexed collector of “decisive moments” à la Cartier Bresson? Or is shooting invasive Gilden-style close-ups more your thing?

If your street photography at times verges on portraiture – or you simply need a camera that will allow you to shoot both street and regular portrait shots – then the Mamiya 7ii is perhaps not for you (we’ll get to why that is in a minute). For any other photographer though, the Mamiya 7ii is likely the ultimate street photography film camera out there today.

What’s so great about the Mamiya 7ii? Read on…

Rangefinder Focusing

Well, let’s start by stating that some people love the rangefinder way of working, while others hate it with a vengeance. But as long as you fall into the former category, the Mamiya 7ii is pretty much unbeatable.

The argument against rangefinder focusing usually comes from people who just aren’t used to it, and therefore find it confusing (certainly, if you’ve never shot with a rangefinder camera before, it can take a little while to get fully comfortable with the system). Others dislike the fact that a rangefinder’s viewfinder doesn’t show the true image area. Or rather, it shows more than the image area, with crop marks so you know exactly what will be captured on film.

This last point is precisely why many people love rangefinders though, as it allows you to see in advance anything that’s about to enter the frame. Clearly this can be a huge advantage for street photography, where it’s all about anticipating how a fast-moving scene is likely develop in order to seize the moment when it occurs. 

Many photographers actually prefer the rangefinder’s double image focusing system too, particularly as it can be easier to use in low-light situations than a manual SLR-style lens.

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The Mamiya 7II rangefinder

Big Negatives

If you’re serious about your photography then you’ll value image quality and resolution above all else. But if you’re serious about street photography you know that you also need speed and flexibility in order to get the shot. Medium format 120 film offers the ideal compromise: producing way bigger negatives than 35mm, while being much more portable and practical than large format (just try shooting street photography with a field camera!).

The Mamiya’s 6x7cm negatives offer amazing detail and exposure latitude, yet without a huge compromise in size when compared with 4×5 (nor its cost!). And with 10 shots per roll, the Mamiya is a way more usable camera than even the most portable large format alternative, such as the Wanderlust Travelwide.

Also, unlike many other 120 film cameras – such as the Mamiya 6, the RB, or any of Hasselblad’s classic models – the 7ii doesn’t produce square negatives. Instead they are a nice manageable rectangle shape that lends itself well to street scenes without being as wide as a 35mm neg.

Those looking for a wider point of view might be excited to learn that the Mamiya 7ii can also shoot panoramic photos on 35mm film with the addition of a panoramic adapter.

Great Lenses

The Mamiya’s 65mm lens offers a full-frame equivalent angle of view of 35mm and is ideal for street shooting. But for those who prefer a different focal length, there are a total of six lenses available for the camera, all of them super sharp. 

The fact that the Mamiya’s lenses are of the leaf shutter variety – i.e.  the shutter is in the lens itself –  means it’s easier to shoot handheld at low shutter speeds than if the shutter were in the camera body. Not only this, but a leaf shutter is also near-silent, making the Mamiya well-suited to fly-on-the-wall street work.

Leaf shutter lenses also offer the advantage of syncing with flash at even the highest shutter speeds: great news for Bruce Gilden and Martin Parr wannabes. Indeed, for flash shooters, the Mamiya 7ii is unrivaled as a street photography film camera: nearly all its competitors sync at impractically slow speeds for anyone who needs blur-free action shooting.

While the Mamiya 7ii undoubtedly offers fantastic optics, if your priority is fast glass then this camera is probably not for you: every one of the camera’s lenses comes with a decidedly slow maximum aperture (typically f/4 or slower!). And without the possibility to go to f/2.8 and beyond, this is clearly not the juicy bokeh-machine of a portrait photographer’s dreams.

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Mamiya 65 mm Lens

Smooth Handling

With an ergonomic design and a minimum of knobs and dials, the Mamiya 7ii is a pleasure to use under pressure. The shutter is super sensitive and well positioned for your finger – so the only thing likely to slow you down are your own reflexes. Meanwhile a shutter lock button means you’re not at risk of accidentally firing off expensive film at random when walking around. 

The camera offers both manual and aperture priority metering modes, and an exposure compensation setting (honestly though, has anyone in the history of photography ever actually used this feature?). 

Although the Mamiya doesn’t come with the handy removable film back of some other 120 cameras, it’s nonetheless quick and easy to load while on the go.

Final Thoughts

While I’m not thinking to permanently ditch my digital setup, if I were ever looking to purchase a dedicated street photography film camera, it would undoubtedly be the Mamiya 7ii. Combining excellent usability with unrivaled image quality, there’s really no other camera out there offering street photographers the same shooting experience. I lately had several sessions of Street Photography shooting in Naples with a friend, Robert Herman, a famous photographer from New York (check his web site here) and his approach is completely different: he goes for the iPhone with Hipstamatic. Here’s one of the shots we took together:

Napoli, aged, ancient, antique, building, buildings, campania, city, colorful, cultural, culture, destination, europe, european, famous, flavor, historic, historical, history, italia, italian, italian landmarks, italy, mediterranean, naples, naples city, napoli italy, napolitano, neapolitan, old, people, place, retro, sea, site, southern, southern italy, street, tourist, touristic, town, traditional, travel, unesco, urban, vacation, view
Shopping spree, Naples, Italy – Hipstamatic 352 – 42 mm – ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec a ƒ / 1,8 – ISO

Even if I published an article about how far is a phone from reaching what you can do with a “standard” camera (here), maybe only in Street photography you can really find a good use for a modern phone camera (you can check out more of these shots here).

What do you use for your street photography? Disagree with my choice of the Mamiya 7ii as the ultimate street photography film camera? What alternatives do you recommend, and why? Ever used your phone for street photography? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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