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More thoughts on 22-megapixel Mamiya ZD

Following up on Tuesday’s comments, “JK” emailed me to “not write off the camera so quickly”. He is is very pleased with his Mamiya ZD, and especially with the new Mamiya 75-150 zoom. He also sent me an image he made, which yields some perspective. His email suggests that my “not favorable” comment deserves further explanation.

First, I believe that subjective impressions based on experience are extremely useful; too many advertiser-placating “reviews” one reads are worse than worthless, regurgitating the factory marketing claims, but pretending to be original. It makes one want to puke seeing how such drivel passes for journalism (what happened to ethics?). So how does one gain perspective on whether a camera system will appeal or not? One learns to trust (or distrust) other photographers, based on their previous comments and evaluations, their mistakes, etc. I’ve used a wide variety of camera systems and I try very hard to be “objectively subjective”. I also perform rigorous tests when appropriate, such as in my reviews.

Please take my comments as a starting point for your personal evaluation of the Mamiya ZD, should you be considering it. Images I shot were with a demo unit (read sidebar below). See my reviews of other medium format digital backs for some perspective.

Flexibility—The Mamiya ZD offers a user-swappable glass filter over the sensor: an infrared-blocking filter and an anti-moire filter. This is simply not possible with PhaseOne or Hasselblad (but does raise the issue of dust between the filter and sensor). It is not too hard to imagine a visible-light-blocking-infrared-passing filter, which might make the ZD into a capable infrared camera, though its Dalsa sensor appears to be less useful for infrared than similar Kodak offerings. The sensor glass could also just be removed, at the price of a focus shift and some risk to the sensor itself with continued use without protective glass.

Value—the Mamiya ZD complete kit (camera, lens, viewfinder, digital back) is $9,999, an aggressive price considering that a PhaseOne 22-megapixel back costs around $23,000 just by itself. A Hasselblad H3D-22 is about $21,000. So the Mamiya ZD is less than half the price of competing offerings. Ideally this will exert downward pressure on prices from all vendors.

Image quality—This is a complex subject beginning with optical quality. Based on personal experience with the Mamiya 7 II and three of its lenses, I believe that Mamiya can build lenses that are every bit as good as Hasselblad, the primary alternative. Each lens is distinct, so specifics depend on specific lenses; each vendor might have offerings a little better or a little worse in any given focal length, and there are many aspects of lens performance to consider.

Image sharpness—In spite of the left-side blur, it’s clear that the ZD is capable of tremendous detail, as seen both in images I shot at f/11, and in the sample image sent to me by “JK”.

Ergonomics—The viewfinder seemed relatively dim compared to that of the Hasselblad 503CW or H3D-39. The camera felt a little awkward, and manual focus feel of the lenses was not so great, but both of those statements are also true of the Hasselblad H3D-39.

In examining my test images, I’m left wondering if perhaps mirror slap, and thus blur at low shutter speeds, is more of a problem than with the Hasselblad systems (all were shot handheld). I did obtain some very sharp images; it’s just an issue of percentages. Prospective buyers should evaluate this aspect of performance if shooting handheld is common.

Bit depth—the ZD is 12-bit, which puts a hard limit on smooth tonal gradations, something confirmed in my test shots with near-blacks. My experience with the 14-bit Canon EOS 1D Mark III suggests that 14-bit really does matter. Competing medium format systems claim 16-bits (4 bits more = 16 times more precision in theory, somewhat less in practice).

Dynamic range—my test images suggest an impaired dynamic range as compared with competing 16-bit offerings. I adjusted exposure manually, yet I found that I had to blow the highlights or pin the blacks in numerous cases. My test images suggest a dynamic range not much different than a DSLR, which is good, but it simply cannot compare to the 16-bit offerings. A 12-bit camera is not going to yield a 12-stop dynamic range—2 or 3 of those bits are just crud in the “noise floor”.

Noise—inconclusive.

Color—the color I see in the test images processed using Adobe Camera Raw is not very appealing to me. That might have something to do with auto white balance, which was not accurate. Setting white balance to Daylight improved the color considerably, but my gut feel is that I didn’t like it as much as other cameras—but then again I’m spoiled with the Canon EOS 1D Mark III. White balance and RAW-file conversion can make a huge difference, so this is something prospective buyers should assess carefully, depending on their workflow. My personal view is that images should look great with minimal effort.

I expect Mamiya will improve the existing ZD with firmware upgrades as time goes on. But experience counts in digital imaging, and Mamiya is new at the game, so expecting their offering (at half the price) to match the quality of PhaseOne or Hasselblad might be unreasonable. Mamiya deserves praise for bringing out an extremely competitive system that will only improves over time, and on price alone deserves careful consideration.


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