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Mamiya ZD

Better Late Than Never

The Camera That Sort-of Wasn't

At Photokina in late September 2004 Mamiya announced the 22 Megapixel ZD camera and medium format back. More than 18 months later in the spring of 2006, the ZD camera finally became available. But, and it's a big but, not in North America.


The ZD back, which appeared to be stillborn has just
started to appear (March '07) in some international markets

Mamiya cameras are distributed in the US by The MAC Group. MAC stands for Mamiya America Corp., but it is an independent distributor, not part of Mamiya Japan. In any event, MAC decided not to bring the ZD into the US for reasons which were never made public. One can speculate of course, and there has been no lack of rumours within the industry. One story has it that MAC's management were not happy with the camera for some reason, while other conjectured that the fact that MAC is also the US distributor for Leaf medium format backs might have something to do with it.

Curiously though, the MAC web sites still shows the ZD as "coming soon", though it's said that for a very long time. This may mean that it will eventually show up in the US, or it could simply mean that no one at MAC is paying any attention to their own web site's contents.

Regardless, or disirregardless as I like to say, till now the ZD has been a no-show in the US, and this has meant that its worldwide sales have been half or less of what the company had expected. The lack of US press coverage has also meant that the camera has become a bit of a mystery product. The fact that Mamiya itself was sold to a new operating company also complicated things for a time.

Mamiya has been building cameras for a very long time. They dropped out of the 35mm game in 1984 and since then have focused on medium format segment. Their Mamiya 7 rangefinder, RB and RZ 67 studio cameras, and 645 AFD models have been stalwarts of the industry, and have offered professional and advanced amateur photographers a broad range of camera bodies and lenses. With the demise of Bronica and Contax, and the seeming inability year after year of Pentax to launch a medium format digital model, Mamiya and Hasselblad have till recently been the only game in town. The Hi-6 may soon change that equation, but it's not yet a real product offering.

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Reports Reviews and Rumours

I've been interested in the ZD since I first learned about it, even prior to its Photokina 2004 introduction. I was promised a review sample, but then nothing. Nada. Zilch. But as the camera started to appear in Asia and Europe readers wrote their own first reports and reviews, and I have published several of them here, including Almost Here, A 35mm-like Medium Format Camera, A Production Camera Review, and most recently ZD Saga.

In early March '07 I got a call from Vistek, Canada's largest pro photographic dealer. They told me that they had become the new Canadian distributor for Mamiya cameras and had decided to bring the ZD into the country. Would I like one to testing? But of course!

The only gottcha was that I could only spare a couple of days for the task, and March in southern Ontario is not the most colourful or visually stimulating. In fact, being the rump-end of winter it's among the drabbest times of year.

So, with that as background, and something of an excuse, here are my hands-on impressions of the Mamiya ZD. Two days is nowhere near enough to really put a camera though its paces, but it doesn't take that long to explore a new camera's capabilities to the point that first impressions can be made.

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First Impression

Imagine a pregnant Pentax 67 and you'll have some idea of the size and feel of the Mamiya ZD. It's not as heavy as a Canon 1D MKII, but it's definitely bigger than a breadbox. (Not really, but you know what I mean). In other words, though it's shaped like a 35mm DSLR, it's a handful, and for most users will likely be a tripod mounted camera rather that one used hand-held.

Having said that, I was curious to see how the camera would handle, especially with regard to mirror bounce and vibration from its large focal plane shutter. The ZD did very well in that regard. I was regularly able to hand hold the ZD at the typical 1 / focal length shutter speed, with pin sharp results – at least with shorter lenses. This show impressive mirror and shutter damping.

I also was very pleased to note that there is a prominent M Up button on the camera's top left panel. Canon and others (but especially Canon) please take note. Mirror lock up needs to be accessible, not buried two or three layers deep in Custom Function menus.

Controls are otherwise laid out widely on all surfaces of the camera. I counted something like 25 separate levers, knobs, switches and dials. But, once you've used the camera for even a short while, the logic of their layout becomes apparent.

The camera's ergonomics are therefore quite good. There is a nicely molded thumb area on the right-rear, and the front grip is comfortable for someone, like me, with a medium sized hand. Material quality is fine, as is general fit and finish. Comparable to the Mamiya AFD, which means not top-rank, but quite good.

I have two complaints though. A minor one is that the lever which control the camera's on/off switch could be a bit more smoothly finished. It's a bit rough under the forefinger. The second complaint is a more serious one, and it concerns the memory card door.

This door is located at left / rear of the body. To open it one has to press outward on a sliding catch and rear-ward on the door itself – simultaneously. This is awkward at best, and sometimes difficult to do without force. To make matters worse the door hinge seems to be of flimsy construction (the only part of the camera that seems that way) and I was afraid on a couple of occasions that I would break it off its hinges.

To its credit the ZD can take both CF and SD cards, though it can only shoot to one or the other at any one time. The SD card slot is limited to 2GB cards, and this should really be updated in a firmware release, because SDHC cards to 8GB are now starting to get quite common.

Screens

Even a glance at the camera's rear (even in a photograph) is enough to show that the 1.8" colour LCD screen is inadequate. Set it to review shooting data and a histogram, and the image becomes smaller than the nail on a child's pinky finger. Almost unusable.

The screen itself isn't bad in terms of brightness, and is even visible outdoors in strong sunlight. The menu text though is appallingly designed. Mamiya needs to hire someone with typographic and design expertise in this area. It's a very 80's look, and not that strong in terms of readability, let alone esthetics.

Menu layout isn't bad, but as with most high-end digital cameras there are a lot of menus and choices within them, so be prepared for some searching, or at least memorization of the most frequently used ones.

There are monochrome LCD screens on the top panel and also below the color screen. The top screen displays things such as aperture, shutter speed, metering mode, autofocus mode, and exposure mode. The rear mono LCD displays file format (RAW and / or JPG), ISO, and frames. Curiously, the top LCD does not show ISO, which is an oversight, especially when the camera is tripod mounted. The viewfinder shows a complete compliment of similar settings, though regrettably it too does not display ISO.

Controls

Control layout is fairly standard, with a forefinger wheel and a thumb wheel, which control shutter speed and aperture respectively in Manual mode, and with the thumb wheel serving as exposure compensation in Shutter priority and Aperture priority modes.

Otherwise there are direct buttons to control white balance, bracketing, exposure compensation, image review, deleting, image quality, and likely a few more that I've overlooked. The point that I'm making is that the ZD is loaded with direct control buttons, rather than having to rely on menu selections from the LCD screen, which is no bad thing in my book.


Muskoka Bog in Winter. March, 2007
Mamiya ZD with 55-110mm lens @ ISO 50

Battery

The battery used by the ZD is a custom Lithium Ion, providing 1,800 mA. I didn't have the camera long enough to properly judge battery life, but after about 50 frames over 3 hours on a 0C day the level meter showed about half full. I'd guess that a second battery is a must purchase, but since most CCD sensor equipped medium format cameras are battery hogs, this seems par for the course.

AA Filter

The camera features the ability for the user to insert an anti-aliasing filter. To my knowledge this is capability unique to the Mamiya ZD as a user option. I did not have the opportunity to test and compare the ZD with and without this filter.

Finally, in terms of connectors, there is an electronic remote control socket, a Firewire connector, composite video out, a PC connector for studio flash, and a hot shoe designed to accept Metz flash gun adaptors (SCA 3952).

Viewfinder

The camera's viewfinder is a bit of a disappointment. Compared to that on most 35mm cameras it is large, but as the daily user of a Hasselblad H2 I guess my expectations in terms of brightness are high. In addition to being a bit dim, I also found that the viewfinder had a definite yellow cast to it, something which I find hard to explain and which was a constant distraction.

Image Review

Image review, whether immediately after taking a frame, or afterwards on demand is slow; about 5 seconds.

Software

Mamiya Digital Photostudio is available for tethered shooting and remote camera control, as well as for raw image processing, but I did not have the opportunity to evaluate this software.

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Image File Evaluation

Firstly, I want to commend Mamiya on having the best auto-white-balance of any digital camera I've ever used. In almost every situation in which I shot the camera came as close to ideal WB as one could wish. Now, I know that when shooting raw this isn't that big a deal, but it is for anyone shooting JPGs, or JPGs + raw. Just terrific.

The camera's metering was also first-rate. With the camera set to matrix metering exposures were almost perfect some 90% of the time. In fact they had just the amount of expose to the right that I would have dialed in myself. Again, among the best that I've experienced with any camera.

Dynamic Range

Though I have no quantifiable data from my brief test I was very impressed with the ZD's ability to hold a wide dynamic range. Its 14 bit A/D converter may have something to do with this as well as the inherent characteristics of the camera's Dalsa CCD chip.

Below is a casual portrait taken in brilliant sunlight. No fill flash or reflector was used. The camera's ability to hold detail in the white hood as well as in the black leather jacket is excellent.


Teya – March, 2007
Mamiya ZD @ ISO100

Crop. Click for 100%

The rendering of skin tone was also excellent. Overall I found that the camera's rendition of colour was very pleasing and the ability to hold both highlight and shadow details among the best I've seen.


Bloom resistance. Click on above mage for 100% crop

I was also favourably impressed with the ZD's resistance to blooming. Often when there is a very bright light in the frame the photo sites overload, leading to blooming, streaking and other similar phenomena. The ZD's sensor appears to be highly resistant to this.

High ISO

Base sensitivity for the ZD is ISO 50, and up to ISO 400 is available. I found little to choose between ISO 50 and 100, and in both cases discovered the image quality of the camera to be excellent. I would be hard pressed to tell it apart from any other medium format back which I have ever tested or used.

At ISO 200 noise clearly starts to be visible, and I wouldn't use this speed or anything higher except in an emergency. ISO 400 is clearly noisy and not really usable for the applications that this camera will typically be put to.

Processing

I did all of my processing in Lightroom V1.0 and Camera Raw 4.0, using Photoshop CS3 beta. LR and CR did an excellent job with the ZD's files, and since these are my familar and preferred raw processing programs I saw no reason to use anything else during my short period of testing.

Long Exposure

The ZD is capable of exposures of up to 30 seconds. As with most digital cameras long exposures use dark frame subtraction, which then adds as much in-camera processing time as the length of the original exposure. So with a 20 second exposure it takes 40 seconds till another frame can be taken.


20 Second Exposure @ ISO50

Crop of above image, Click to show 100%

At 20 seconds exposure there is little in the way of noise. But, a maximum of 30 seconds may be limiting for some applications, and the ability of Phase One backs to do clean 30 minute exposures if needed puts this limitation in context.

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Shooting Speed & Review

Using a Sandisk Extreme IV 4GB card the ZD is capable of shooting at about 1FPS for a maximum of 10 frames. At this point the camera's buffer is full, and it then takes 108 seconds for the buffer to clear. Or, put another way, writing each shot to the CF card takes a bit over 10 seconds an image.

There is a segmented buffer icon in the viewfinder that shows how many of the 10 frames are left, and as long as there's at least one you can take another shot at any time. It's only when all ten frames have been recorded that you have to wait for the buffer to start clearing to be able to take another frame.

The graphic for this that's seen in the viewfinder is fine, but surprisingly there's no indication whatever on the top LCD of what's going in. The smaller mono rear LCD does flash the letters CF while a file is being written to the card, but there's no indication of how many are waiting or still possible. I'd strongly urge Mamiya to address the lack of a top panel buffer indication in their next version, along with adding ISO to this display. When working in a studio on a tripod one isn't always looking through the viewfinder.

Image review on the rear LCD is slow. It takes a full five seconds after a shot is taken before it is displayed on screen, and similarly long when a review is called up from the card at any other time. I also was disappointed to note that there did not appear to be any flashing indicator for overexposure warning.

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Who's it For?

It seems to me that the Mamiya ZD is an ideal camera for a number of photographic constituencies. Firstly, there are the vast number of Mamiya 645 owners. Anyone using these cameras professionally is going to have a selection of lenses, and the ZD provides the least expensive migration path to digital for this glass. And, not only is the ZD relatively low cost but it's also capable of very high image quality.

Anyone who aspires to medium format digital for whatever reason, and who has budget constraints, should also consider the ZD. Mamiya lenses and accessories are often quite a bit less expensive than Hasselblad, and with the exception of the discontinued Contax 645 (available used) is now the only medium format camera game currently in town.

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The Bottom Line

While the US remains out of luck re the ZD at the moment, Canadians now have availability through Vistek, who also have the camera available for rent through their rental center in Toronto. And, for all the kvetchers and cynics out there, yes – this is a deliberate plug. Vistek was kind enough to loan me a ZD and AF 55-110mm lens for evaluation, and so deserve mention. Of course there are also online dealers who can be found who will ship most anywhere in the world.

Only in Canada, You Say?

In Canada the ZD lists for CDN $16,995. This compares, for example, with a Phase One P25+ back and Mamiya AFDII camera body at a combined price of CDN $29,544, a saving of some $12,500.

Body differences aside, is the Phase One back and an AFDII body worth twelve thousands dollars (about US$10,000) more than the ZD? As a Phase One owners for the past several years (a P25, followed by a P45, and shortly a P45+) I would have to say no. If I owned Mamiya lenses, or had decided that a Mamiya medium format system was what I was after, I would be hard pressed to choose the AFDII and P25 over the ZD. Yes, the P25 is a superior digital imaging device, but its simply not that much better – as I say, if it were my money being spent.

As for the choice of a Mamiya ZD over something like a Canon 1Ds MKII (which I know is a question that I will be asked a thousand times in the days ahead), I have no simple answer. The Canon shoots much faster, has faster autofocus, a wider range of specialty lenses, etc, etc. As for image quality I have to give the nod to Canon at over ISO 200. But at ISO 50 and 100, the ZD definitely produces a visibly superior file, and of course a larger one.

As to whatever Canon has next up their sleeves, at this point in time it's an unknown, though I sincerely doubt that 2007 will pass without a 22+ Megapixel offering from that company. But remember, at Photokina in September '06 Phase One and Mamiya announced that they would be working together on future products and projects. That was six months ago – enough time for something to be cooking by now. Put Mamiya's strength in camera and lens design together with Phase One's leading digital capabilities and we might be seeing something of significant interest in the not too distant future.

In the meantime, the Mamiya ZD offers tremendous value for the money, and is an excellent choice for anyone looking for medium format digital quality at a relative bargain price.

And as for The MAC Group – sorry guys. In my opinion you blew it earlier this year when you decided not to bring the ZD into the US. This is a very attractive camera at a strong price point. Too bad American's can't have access to it, at least not officially – yet.

March, 2007

 


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Concepts: Camera, Digital camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Raw image format, Exposure, Digital photography, Mamiya, Digital single-lens reflex camera

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