Today we're going to talk about the time that I lost $1500 in less than a week. More on that in a bit, but first, let's talk about the Mamiya 7.
Shooting medium format usually means some sort of a tradeoff - you can have low cost, portable design, or high-quality optics, but (almost) never all three. Anybody who shoots medium format eventually comes to the conclusion that many 120 cameras are huge, heavy, and loud. Many of them also lack exposure assistance. All of this was incredibly frustrating to me; I enjoy getting my cameras out of the studio and into the wild, so my priorities are often size, weight, and speed. Any camera that can't keep up with me doesn't stay by my side for very long.
Spend enough time digging around on the internet and you'll only find a handful of medium format cameras that would meet my needs. Among the most commonly referenced is the Mamiya 7: a lightweight rangefinder that shoots 6x7 negatives, supports interchangeable lenses from 43mm to 210mm, and has built in metering and aperture-priority automatic exposure. The compact body makes it an ideal travel camera, and the lenses are known for being incredibly sharp - reputably among the best available for medium format.
I found a good deal on a Mamiya 7 in LA, and fortunately just a few days before I left for a trip home to Hawaii. I had a friend in the area pick it up for me, sight unseen. It's not exaggeration to say that I fell in love immediately; the camera feels well-made but lightweight, and the built-in grip makes it really easy to handhold. I was a bit disappointed that both strap lugs are on one side of the camera body (updated on the 7ii), meaning that it hangs sideways. It's a minor nitpick and one that I stopped noticing very quickly. The camera's viewfinder is very large and bright, appropriate for the format. The viewfinder gives you just the right amount of information - frame lines, focus spot, and metering/shutter speed indicators. I found that I was able to work really quickly, which is crucial when you're on the go. As a side note, I should mention that this was an easy camera to use after my experiences with the Mamiya 645 Pro - it operates in pretty much the same way.
My camera nerd friends often poke fun at me because of how quickly I tend to buy and sell equipment. I can say with full certainty that the Mamiya 7 would STILL be in my possession, if it had survived the trip to Hawaii. On the second to last day of my visit home, I took my friend to a local waterfall and we did a bit of exploration. I was climbing around some wet rocks looking for my next foothold when gravity took me. I took a big fall, falling into a space between some large boulders. I threw my arms up instinctively to protect the camera, but its baseplate hit the rocks HARD anyway. I walked away pretty beat up, but my physical injuries were nothing compared to the loss of the camera (and my favorite shoes). Despite the impact, I have to admit that the Mamiya somewhat survived. There was a hole in the plastic body, the viewfinder cracked, and the rangefinder misaligned, but was actually functioning long after the incident. Despite this, I donated it to a friend who was fine with using it for zone focus work and as far as I know it's still functioning. Needless to say, it can take a beating!
There are some alternatives to the Mamiya 7 worth mentioning: the Fujifilm GF670 that shoots in both 6x6 and 6x7 formats and also has a built in meter, for one. It's a folding camera which makes it even more compact, but it has a fixed lens (albeit one with a slightly wider maximum aperture). The Makina 67 / 670 is also worth a look: it's another folding rangefinder, with built-in meter, but it comes with an incredible Nikkor 80mm f/2.8 (the fastest rangefinder lens for medium format). Any of the three would be a hefty investment, but well worth your money if you're looking for a seriously portable and seriously professional 120 camera. Lastly, there's the Bronica RF645, which also has interchangeable lenses and metering, but shoots in the significantly smaller 6x4.5 format - and in portrait orientation. That's a deal-breaker for me.
For a rangefinder on a budget, consider the Fujifilm GW670, 680, and 690 that shoot 6x7, 6x8, and 6x9 respectively. They're huge but lightweight, fully-manual (lacking a light meter and negating the need for a battery), and known to have pretty sharp lenses. More importantly, they can be had for 1/4 the cost! On the small end, there are the Fuji GS645, a folding 6x4.5 rangefinder, which has a built in light meter. There are two fixed-lens wide angle variants that don't fold but are still reasonably small.
Check out some snaps from my short time with the Mamiya 7. I'll get another soon, but for now these remind me that there really IS a perfect camera for me.