Mamiya TLR magic

MY FIRST close-up encounter with a twin lens reflex (TLR) camera was more than 30 years ago, when I embarked on my career as a reporter. The staff photographers were all lugging around Rolleiflexes (and large, heavy flash battery packs, I seem to recall). When I asked one why they didn’t get modern SLRs I was firmly put in my place: “Because the Rollei is the best news camera ever made”.
Well, I’m not sure that was true. It was the Nikon F that recorded the Vietnam war, not a Rollei TLR. For newspaper quality prints, 35mm film was more than adequate (and a lot cheaper). Nonetheless, a 6x6cm negative knocks the socks off 35mm (it has almost four times the image area), so for modern art photography, if you want to use film you want medium format. And among the crop of medium format film cameras, the tank-like Mamiya TLRs offer what is probably the most economical entry point to professional-level photography.

Mamiya C33 Professional TLR camera

There is something slightly daunting about the appearance of a TLR. They look so different from the 35mm systems. As a result, I never actually tried one until a few months ago, when I happened to pick up a C220 with an 80mm lens for about $100. As soon as I started using it I was hooked.

Mamiya’s TLRs are unique in the fact that they have interchangeable lenses. Rolleis, Yashica’s and the rest have a fixed lens, so if anything goes wrong with it then the camera won’t work. With a Mamiya, you simply change lenses and you’re back in action again. That’s an important factor with old TLRs, because the shutter is actually built into the lens, and the shutter is the part that is most likely to go wrong, slowing down because dust and grime can get into it.

That was a problem with the 80mm Sekor on my C220: when I tested it, I found that it was running one stop slow at all speeds. Which was why I bought the C33 pictured above. It came with two lenses, both of them considered among the best in Mamiya’s very good line-up: the 65mm f/3.5 wide-angle (in the picture) and the 105mm f/3.5 short telephoto. Both were working accurately at most speeds.


Loading the film is by opening the rear door using the button-like sliding clip at the top of it (first you may have to rotate the clip so the red dot is at the top, releasing the lock), moving the used spool from the bottom of the camera to the top (the wheels on the right of the back pull out and twist to release the spools), insert the new film in the bottom and feed the leader into the top spool. The film is wound on using the handle on the right, which should rotate freely. When the arrows on the film backing paper are aligned with the red dots the door (which I’ve taken off in this photo to make the innards easier to see) is shut, ensuring that both the top corners are pushed firmly in, locked by rotating the button and then the crank handle is turned until it stops. The handle must then be wound back about half a turn before shooting, this puts it in the position where folding it in will bring the protruding knob to rest in the hole provided for it.

The back is fixed to the body with two sprung pins, shown in the image below, which allow it to be removed and replaced with a sheet film back.

Film door hinge clips.

Film door hinge clips.

There are several differences here between the C33 and the C220. The C220’s door cannot be removed but it has a rotating pressure plate in it allowing the use of either 120 (12 frame) or 220 (24 frame) film, The wind-on in the C220 is a knob with a small arm fitted in it, rather than a big crank handle and it does not need to be wound back half a turn after winding on. The C33 has an automatic shutter-cocking device connected to the crank handle, which the C220 lacks so its shutter has to be cocked by hand.

When loaded, both cameras automatically measure off the distance of a frame and the winding handle stops at the correct point. Once 12 frames have been shot, the handle turns freely to wind off the film (if the 220 is set for longer film, the camera will count 24 frames before winding off).

To remove the lens, turn the wheel in the centre of the left side of the camera to “unlock”. This flips up a plate inside the camera to seal off light from the lens, makes a red flag visible in the viewfinder as a warning that light can’t reach the film and releases the sprung wire frame holding the lens in place.

With the C33, it is important to ensure that the lens cocking lever is correctly aligned with the cocking device.

The flip-up waist-level viewfinder is also removable, it has two slots that align with prongs on the front of the camera beside the viewing screen and when correctly position is held in place by a small screw on the back.

Focusing is achieved by winding the bellows in and out with the wheels at the bottom of the front of the camera. One of the drawbacks of a TLR is that the separation between the lenses means that at close focusing distances what you see in the viewfinder is not the same as the field of view of the taking lens.

Mamiya compensates for this on the C33 with a needle that is visible in the viewfinder. This shows where the top of the frame is on the taking lens. As different focal lengths have different image displacements for the same bellows extension, the lock/unlock wheel has a slider allowing the user to select the focal length that the needle position should be adjusted for.

The C220 lacks this parallax-needle arrangement, instead you read off the displacement from guide marks on the side of the bellows housing and correlate that to lines on the ground screen.

On the right-hand side of the camera, in front of the crank handle is the selector for roll-film or the sheet-film back, which must be selected correctly (on the C220 this is the single exposure/multiple exposure switch). Above that is the frame counter and at the bottom of the C33 is a window with a needle that moves as the bellows are cranked in and out to indicate the focus distance for the 65mm and 80mm lenses.

The Mamiya TLRs are masterpieces of camera design, straightforward and simple to use, with elegant solutions to all the various problems that an interchangeable-lens TLR create. And the lenses are excellent, too,

The main drawback is the weight. The C33 comes in at 2kg without a lens. The less complicated C220 is considerably lighter but still substantial. Still, for professional medium format film work, these old TLRs offer a combination of price, quality and flexibility that is pretty much unbeatable.

Here’s a shot taken wide open with the Sekor 105DS f/3.5 lens, which is an improved version of the legendary Heliar design invented by Carl Harting in 1900:

This was shot at more or less the closest focusing distance. Note the smooth transition between in focus and out-of-focus areas and the pleasing background blur, which is a feature of the Heliar design.

It may be worth noting that the resolution of this lens is outstanding. The design has been measured as recording 57 line pairs per millimeter at the centre and 36 at the edges at f3.5, increasing to 90lp/mm for the centre and 57 at the edges when used at f8 (see: This roughly the same as the measured resolution of, for example, the modern and vaunted Canon 135 f2L (, and bearing in mind that the film negative is almost double the width of a DSLR sensor, the resolution of a print of any given width could in theory be far higher than anything an $8,000 Canon DSLR could deliver.

In the real world, of course, it is the resolution of the sensor which is the limiting factor on digital, and that is around 60 to 70lp/mm for the best cameras. The finest-grained films can beat that. The downside for film comes in scanning, where a good flatbed scanner is hard pushed to deliver about 40lp/mm. That means a perfectly focused, exposed, developed and scanned 6×6 neg will roughly equal the resolution of a 21MP digital camera.

The lens is not the limiting factor, so a print made with a traditional enlarger should be able to pull out much more detail than the best digital camera/lens combination could provide. Not that many of us will ever need or want a print 10ft/3m high.

About ambientimages

Paul Cowan is a former journalist turned full-time photographer.
This entry was posted in Cameras, Equipment, Film cameras, Mamiya Sekor, Photography, TLR cameras and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Mamiya TLR magic

  1. Pingback: Mamiya TLR magic « A Lens a Week Blog

    • Thanks for that comment. I think there may be other backs for the C33, too, for cut film (possibly even glass plates, too) but I imagine those would be extremely rare.

      There might be film flatness problems if you added a tab to activate the 24 frame exposure mechanism on the C33 without modifying the pressure plate. The C220’s pressure plate can be rotated to convert it to 24-frame mode.

      However, 220 film is almost unobtainable now, production seems to have ceased.

  2. cheekygeek says:

    Nice write up. One point that I don’t believe you mentioned is that the C33 can also take 220 film with a replacement film back/door. The 220 back is identical to the 120 back, except it has a little stud at the upper right (when looking at the camera from behind). If you look at the C33 body, you will see a corresponding little spring-loaded chrome tab. When the 220 back stud pressed the tab down (upon closing the back) the counter will now go to 24. While the 220 backs are relatively hard to find, it would probably not be too terrible difficult to add the small stud to a standard back, if one wanted to shoot 220 film.

    Not a big deal to most people, but the 220 back was a requirement for wedding photography (for example). You didn’t want to be changing film during the processional! Also just handy to cut your number of film changes during a wedding/reception in half.

    Beyond the 220 back, the main “improvement” that one can make to a stock Mamiya TLR is the addition of a Beattie Intenscreen, which is reportedly much brighter than the stock screen. I’m not sure if the screen shape/size physically changed between the C33 and the C220/330, but if you find a Mamiya TLR that includes the Intenscreen you are getting a lot more for your money. (I can tell you that there was NO WAY to focus using a porrofinder in a dark reception for First Dance photos with the standard screen. One would have to rely on the distance scale and the depth of field you got with your flash setting to get people in focus!)

    I’ve got two C33s and a Mamiyaflex, along with a 65mm, 80mm, 135mm and 180mm.

  3. Not all C33s will take the 220 back – some early versions did not have the extended film counter and second pressure point. But as the range of films available in 220 has dwindled, this is not a big usability issue.

  4. Pingback: My Life in Cameras no.11 « Greg Neville's photography blog

  5. James Braun says:

    Thank you for all the very informative statements. I was hoping to gleen info about the f stops. How “pin-hole” does it get on the various lenses? Also, I’ve seen the 80mm with the “B” positioning which, on my Kodak and my Brownie, allow a locked open apature until the shutter is again triggered. Is it the same on yours?

    • Yes, B is the standard “bulb” exposure, it should work on any lens in the same way as your Kodak. The 80 and 105mm lenses stop down to f/32, the 180mm Super goes to f/45 – small, but certainly not “pinholes”.

  6. Antonio Silva says:

    Hi, I have a question regarding the use of lenses on a mamiya C33.
    I have a C22 Mamiya and several lenses, but I cannot seem to find the appropriate position of the lens cooking regarding the device cooking. It seems that the after cooking the device the shutter on the lens is not triggered.
    Before starting to shift a little bit the lens frame I have a question: the lenses for Mamiya are all alike? Or there are special lenses for this particular Mamiya?

    • With the C33, after you wind on to cock the lens you have to make half a turn back (to the point where the handle will fold over and the knob will fold into the little silver hole) to allow the shot to be taken. If you aren’t turning the handle backwards once it reaches the wind-on lock, then you cannot fire the shutter.
      Hope that helps.

      To the best of my knowledge all the lenses fit all the models. – Paul

  7. Scott Huck says:

    Thank you for your blog posting on the Mamiya C33! Rather unexpectedly I was just given a C33 this morning. It is in wonderful condition. I was able to find my way around the camera with little difficulty but I was just interested in knowing if I could find a manual online to see if I missed anything. Then… I found your blog. I found it very interesting. Very soon I plan on posting a review of the camera on my blog.

    Take care.

  8. Hue says:

    I have a question I’m wondering if you might be able to answer. I recently purchased a C220 that looks like new and has both 80mm and 135mm lenses. I haven’t put film in yet. When I cock the shutter, I can press the shutter release on the lens and the shutter trips fine. However, the shutter button will no depress. Is film required for the shutter to operate or am I overlooking something?

    • Yes, I think you will find that with the film in it you should be able to fire the shutter from the camera body after it has wound on. After firing, the body locks its shutter until you wind on to the next frame – basic double-exposure prevention. Of course, you can always fire the shutter from the trigger on the lens without winding on.

      • Hue says:

        Thank you very much. I was thinking about selling this camera and RB67 that I have but am thinking more of finding film and use it or them. It has been many years since I’ve shot film and there is certainly nowhere in my hometown to purchase 120/220 film. I have a processor that I use for team photos but they only do digital these days.
        Do you have a suggestion online for film and processing?
        Thanks again!

      • I buy all my film online, usually from e-bay with sellers such as “films festival”, some of it I get sent directly from Foma.
        For black and white Fomapan is about the cheapest and gives good results I process that myself. For high-quality processing I used a special UK service, Peak Imaging, they’re very good but rather expensive.

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