By Giacomo D’Agostini
A while ago I have realised that I am a “manual-only” kind of photographer: I like taking the extra time to meter for a scene and select settings myself, even if that makes me slower to take a picture.
Therefore, when I started thinking about purchasing a small, portable camera to take on holidays and trips (perfect timing, I know) I started by ruling out the usual “casual” options, such as fully automatic compact cameras. I wanted something small, easy to use; but still fully manual.
Browsing eBay to look for a nice and affordable option, I came across a listing for a Mamiya 35D, a rangefinder camera I had never heard of. The description read “manual operation only”, intended as a downside I suppose, with a pitiful asking price to match. And indeed, this camera has no automations whatsoever: you even need to manually reset the frame counter, by turning it to “S” every time you load a new roll.
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Aesthetically, it’s quite a nice camera: it has an “old-school” vibe to it, with a body that is mostly metal and a design from a bygone era. It is also not exactly “portable”: while it surely is smaller than most SLRs, it’s also probably bigger than most other rangefinders, and the metal body doesn’t help with the weight.
Unless you have very wide and deep pockets, the Mamiya 35D won’t fit in them. Despite this, carrying this camera around with a strap does not feel like a chore even after a whole day of walking.
Now, for the important stuff: I immediately fell in love with how this camera works. To meter a scene, you depress a button to activate the light meter, which is placed on top of the camera body, and then read the number it gives you. Once you have that magic number, you rotate the rings found on the lens until your combination of shutter speed and aperture matches it.
It is a simple system that feels intuitive to use and allows for a lot of creative freedom: the meter simply tells you a number, and you are in charge of deciding what settings are best, given the situation.
The Sekor lens is a thing of beauty: the 40mm focal length is a bit wider than normal (ideal for a “holiday camera”) but not wide enough to cause any visible distortion. As far as optical quality goes, the lens punches way above its weight with sharp, contrasty images.
The four-blade leaf shutter, capable of speeds from 1/250th to 1/4th of a second (plus Bulb mode) is entirely mechanical: battery power is required only for the light meter. The aperture ring, which goes from f/2.8 to f/22, turns smoothly and allows you to select any value in-between for accurate exposure adjustments. The aperture dial is also colour-coded to show depth of field on the focusing ring, which is a neat touch.
This camera became my go-to for hiking, meeting with friends or simply walking around. Despite the need to manually set the exposure, I never felt like fiddling with it cost me shots I would have taken if operating it was a little quicker. Exposure control is easy and effortless, metering is never a hassle, and the quality of the pictures id proof enough.
All told, this camera was a surprise and a mystery. I couldn’t find much about it on the internet, and it surely isn’t as popular as its siblings such as the Mamiya RZ67 and the Mamiya 7; but I am here to change that. There is nothing quite like the raw and untainted fun you get from shooting with it: the Mamiya 35D is a masterpiece and, like all masterpieces, it was built to last.