by Philip Greenspun; created 2002
This is going to be a short review because while the Mamiya 645AFd is a very nice camera and capable of producing professional-quality images, it is not a viable competitor against the similarly priced Contax 645. If you have an extensive Mamiya 645 manual focus lens system you might be interested in the thoroughly modern 645AFd body but photographers starting from scratch looking for this type of camera will prefer the Contax. (As of the January 2002 time of this review, a Mamiya package with 80/2.8 lens and 120/220 back was about $3500; the Contax 645 package included a faster 80/2.0 lens and sold for around $3650.)
The Mamiya 645AFd produces 6x4.5 cm images on 120 (16 exposures) or 220 (32 exposures) film. The viewfinder is a fixed pentaprism for eye-level viewing. Film backs and lenses are interchangeable. The 645AFd is a single-lens reflex camera with an autoreturn mirror in front of a focal-plane shutter.
Eye-relief is adequate for an eyeglass-wearer to see the entire frame plus the LCD display underneath. There is a built-in -2.5/+0.5 diopter adjustment.
Lens/camera interface is similar to the pioneering Minolta Maxxum system. A screwdriver-like blade on the lens mount is driven by an autofocus motor inside the camera body. This blade couples to a receptable on the back of the lens and drives the lens focusing mechanism back and forth. There is no aperture ring on the lens; aperture is set from a control wheel on the camera body. Autofocus operation is reasonably fast with the standard 80mm lens but noisy. Compare to the Contax: each lens has an aperture ring for traditional adjustment of f-stop and each lens contains an internal nearly silent ultrasonic autofocus motor, just like the Canon EOS system lenses.
How about manual focus? The standard focusing screen has a reasonable amount of snap-into-focus and there is an electronic rangefinder display to confirm correct focus. Sadly the particular 80/2.8 lens that we tested had a narrow and plasticky manual focusing ring. It is not possible to adjust focus manually when the camera is set for autofocus.
Exposure control is similar to other modern cameras: metered manual, shutter-priority (camera picks aperture), aperture-priority (camera picks shutter speed), and program autoexposure (camera picks both aperture and shutter speed). In metered manual the in-finder LCD provides a digital display of how different your set exposure is from the camera's recommendation. For example, the camera may say "+1.7" to indicate that you're overexposing by 1.7 f-stops. I greatly prefer cameras that show an analog needle or segmented bar-graph display (e.g., any modern 35mm SLR body from Canon, Minolta, or Nikon). The top-deck LCD displays aperture and shutter speed but not deviation from recommended exposure.
Wedding photographers are important Mamiya customers so the 645AFd includes the Metz SCA 3952 dedication that you'd expect. Flash sync speed is 1/125 second.
Mamiya includes as standard a data back that can print date or exposure information plus camera exposure mode setting and an index number, all in between frames (i.e., you're never at risk of inadvertently ruining a picture with some big ugly numbers in the bottom right corner).
Battery life is 340 rolls with lithium AAs. If you're in the field and the batteries die, pick up 6 alkaline AAs and you're good for another 140 rolls of 120. This is a very photographer-friendly feature. The film back design is unusual in that each film back has its own battery and LCD display. The battery is used to retain ISO and exposure counter information when the back is off the camera. When the back is on the camera it draws power from the 6 AA cells in the camera grip.
The camera includes lots of other thoughtful features. It accepts mechanical and electronic remote releases. It is easy to lock up the mirror. There is a T mode for long time exposures (press release once to open the shutter; change modes to close). A backlight button illuminates all the LCDs. The self-timer delay is adjustable from 3 to 60 seconds to facilitate vibration-free tripod photography when you've forgotten a cable release. The depth-of-field preview button is ideally placed at the bottom right of the lens mount. The fragile shutter is automatically opened when the film back is removed so that you can't damage it with a clumsy finger.
The big pentaprism, 1.2 frames per second motor drive, interchangeable everything, and high battery capacity all tend toward increasing the weight of the camera. And with 80mm lens, battery, and strap, the complete camera weights nearly 5 lbs. For comparison, the Mamiya 7 rangefinder weighs only 2.6 lbs with its standard 80mm lens and you get negatives that are twice as large (6x7 cm). The old Fuji 645 rangefinders are down closer to 1 lb. So enjoy your fancy autofocus and motordrive but recognize that your neck won't thank you at the end of the day.
Bottom line: this is a great camera that would have been hailed as revolutionary if it had been introduced in 1988. But instead the camera was introduced into competition with the Contax 645, which is a very similar machine and has the advantages of silent fast ultrasonic AF motors and an extra f-stop on the normal lens. If the Mamiya 645AFd were much less expensive than the Contax it would be an interesting alternative. But the two systems are about the same price and that makes the Contax the obvious choice.
Text and photos copyright 2002 Philip Greenspun.