My renewed interest in film recently resulted in the purchase of a used Mamiya camera. As I noted in my newsletter and on my Facebook page, I went out to do some comparison testing between the Mamiya and my Brownie Bull’s-Eye. I thought some might find my observations useful or at least interesting. Please note that the images shown below are rather poor quality scans (a freebie from the lab), while the actual prints are more vibrant and pleasing to the eye. These images have not been enhanced for color, sharpness, or contrast; they’re sized and presented as provided from the lab.
My unscientific tests with both the Brownie Bull’s-Eye and Mamiya 645 Pro TL have answered a few important questions and reminded me about some of the qualities of film I once used to take for granted. These are both Medium Format cameras, although the Mamiya produces negative frames about half the size (6×4.5 cm) of the Brownie (6×9 cm). I walked from 72nd and Broadway through Central Park in search of various scenes and objects to photograph. The idea was to use one type of film (Kodak Portra 400), on the same subjects, with both the Brownie and the Mamiya.
A light meter was required as I wanted to keep a record of incident readings. I wanted to dial-in those readings on the Mamiya (it has no in-camera meter), and be able to compare exposures between the two cameras for each shot.
The Brownie is almost a toy camera, the Mamiya is anything but
The Brownie Bull’s-Eye is just a few levels up from what one might consider a toy camera. It was produced in the 1950s as a snapshot camera that most people could easily operate. This meant few controls, thus less opportunity to control exposure in a given scene. It’s also hard to find specific and definite data on the actual fixed shutter speed and aperture. The shutter speed is approximately 1/50 sec. and the aperture, many people consider to be about f/11 or f/16. Consider that the recommended film when it was produced was about ISO 125 by today’s specs. Since the Brownie was supposed to be used like most consumer cameras of its time, one would guess that the Sunny 16 Rule applied. This would mean that, at least by my calculations, this puts the aperture at around f/12. Call me crazy, but that’s what I came up with.
The Mamiya, on the other hand, is a professional-level camera. Mine has no built-in exposure meter, so I had to go off the readings provided by my handheld light meter. I set the camera to match what the light meter gave me as close as possible.
The film is important
I used 400 speed film. Well, with the Brownie, that means that I’m shooting at approximately twice the recommended light sensitivity. When shot in bright daylight, many of my shots should be overexposed by about 2 stops. Guess what. Not a problem for a negative film such as the Portra. How about overexposing by 3 or 4 stops? A little drop in image quality, but it’s still very good. Wow. Try that with a digital camera, even if you’re shooting Raw files it’s just not going to happen.
The quality of the images
The Brownie, even with its little Twindar two-element lens provides surprisingly good detail. The size of the negative doesn’t hurt, either. The Mamiya’s lens is just sharp, with an adjustable aperture from 2.8 – 22. Color was fine with both.
With film, depending on which film you use, how you shoot, how it’s developed, the size the images are printed, and/or size and quality of digital reproduction, you will see varying levels of grain. In some cases, of course, it’s not noticeable at all. In other cases, it might be a characteristic of the medium that you can appreciate.
Shutter speed, a big drawback on the Brownie
At 1/50 sec, you’ve got to have a stationary subject, and be very steady-handed. I guess I’m lacking on that last part; after my initial test roll on Tri-X I noticed blur and couldn’t quite tell if it was because of the lens or camera shake. I decided to use a monopod to see if there was any improvement. There certainly was. This, of course, isn’t a problem with the Mamiya because shutter speeds can be adjusted, and at 1/250 and up, there’s no visible camera shake. But even with what I’d consider slower-moving subjects, you’re going to get some motion blur with the Brownie.
Watch the focus
With the Brownie, just like the Holga and other rangefinders that don’t have rangefinder (focus) coupling, you can’t tell whether or not your subject is in focus by looking through the viewfinder. You have to estimate the camera-to-subject distance and turn the focus ring accordingly. The Brownie literature explained that one easy way to handle focusing was to simply set the focus indicator to “10″ ft. At the fixed aperture and focal length, everything between 4-25 ft should be in focus. The Mamiya is also manually focused, but you can observe focusing via the pentaprism viewfinder.
Loading and unloading 120 film can take a little getting used to. You’ve got to be careful not to let the roll loosen or unspool too much before you get it into the camera because light will leak onto the film causing light leak effects or worse. Getting a good set of well-spaced frames on your negatives is fairly straightforward, but on some older and “toy” cameras, the film advance might fail a bit and cause problems. The start and/or end of the Brownie negatives show some signs of slipping. This might be the result of user error, but operating the film advance shouldn’t be that difficult. I’ve seen no such problems with the Mamiya.
I hope you’ll continue to enjoy this journey on I’m with film and various film cameras. I expect to have more examples and information on this subject in coming weeks.
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