Mamiya C220 – The TLR Itch

More than a little while ago as a young photographer, I aspired to turn professional, even starting a sort of apprenticeship with a wedding photographer. I had graduated onto a Bronica SQA with all this in mind. Large format was no good for showing slides at the local photographic society, but I loved the results. There was something appealing about a waist level finder and that slightly seasick sensation when you instinctively move the camera one way and the image does the opposite. Forward to 2023; like so many I had recently rediscovered the joy of film. The excitement of waiting for results with 35mm was once more quite special. Sure enough, before long that thrill wasn’t quite enough. I craved for a return to larger formats. There was an itch that had to be scratched. I had never owned or used a Twin Lens Reflex. After very much deliberation over months, I clicked the buy now option on the bay. The package arrived a few days later, but I had to wait a couple of weeks until the day of a big birthday. The Mamiya C220 I now own had been described as good condition, with its original box, user manual and recently serviced. It wasn’t a disappointment. Everything seemed very clean and smooth functioning, with its 80mm lenses looking spotless. There had been temptation to go for a C330, but they were fetching more money and I decided the lighter weight that stems from the 220s simplicity, was the right thing. Hindsight is wonderful isn’t it?

Young man with good eyesight

Ilford HP5 was selected as the first roll, really as a test. The need was for an inexpensive, good all rounder. I had a big concern with this purchase. The last time I had used a waist level finder, I was a young man with good eyesight. Whilst I now try to manage without for everything else, for driving I have to use glasses. Using the dioptre on a digital camera is easy, I knew the C220 was going to be problematic, so messing with something like HP5 seemed preferable to doing it with the likes of Kodak Portra. My eyesight means at close range everything looks okay, put my glasses on I can barely find the finder, never mind use it to focus. I had to quickly give up focusing with the aid of what is supposed to be my vision correction and it was all going to be a bit experimental.

Slows down

Everything slows down with the Mamiya, it just has to. Nothing automated at all, not even a battery to power a meter. A Weston Master ii accompanying the Mamiya everywhere. At first it wasn’t even easy to work out where to hold a TLR. Without the optional grip, it is a little devoid of obvious hand holds and if you need even a cold shoe for a flash, that’s also only on the optional grip. So to the first few shots. Set the aperture, set the speed, line everything up, turn the focus knob and press… nothing. Okay, remember to cock the shutter with the little lever on the lens, without disturbing the aperture or speed rings and try again. A quiet click, that wouldn’t alert people or creatures to the presence of a camera. Open out the film wind lever on the knob at the top right and drive it smoothly round with the fingers. This is mechanical pleasure. It just feels good and sounds nice, but at some point you’ll forget to wind on for the next shot. Aperture, shutter speed, cock the shutter… nothing. Wind on and try again. Eventually a rhythm develops and it all starts to make sense as well as feeling rather satisfying.

Are any in focus?

The roll of HP5 went by quite quickly. As I have no home developing kit yet and I would be very rusty with those skills; the film went to a lab. Opening the files from the download link, the first concern was always going to be are any in focus? Well, some were, some not quite, at least not quite my chosen focus point.

Closer to the subject, for this one I seem to have focus where I wanted it…
and about right in this one

A little further away seems more problematic.

In this one, I focused on the vessel name, yet the focus point is actually around the caution sign on the wall. At a wider aperture, I have missed by about 30 feet or more. How’s that for front focusing?

The search for dioptres began but initially drew a blank as it became clear this was far less achievable with the C220 than other cameras Mamiya produced. On the C220, the waist level finder has a magnifier, but the lens mount is riveted into place and doesn’t unscrew like other models. So, I took it to an opticians and asked for advice. That was inconclusive. Currently there is an notion taking shape in my mind. How about I get a suitable dioptre lens for one of the other Mamiyas and fashion a metal plate? Hooked at the sides it might be able to drop into place over open finder and sit about the same height from the screen that the magnifier lens would be. I hope to write again about this at some point. In the meantime, even if I miss some, the C220 is still a lovely camera to use.

Gold and more

Some things about the first HP5 images impressed me. I remembered taking them. Not so difficult with 12, but I remembered each fairly clearly. The camera had made me work and think and take time. No looking at the camera back to see if the shot looks okay. Next came a roll of Kodak Gold and with it a growing, though possibly misplaced confidence. Again focus missed in one or too, but some nice results and a nice kind of clarity.

Brothers, Ben and Tom Birchall, sidecar racing champions. Focus problem here was more about the subject moving about. Reasonably satisfied the flare was just from very strong sunlight on the polished white UPVC counter they were signing autographs on. It didn’t occur on any other frames and the taking lens was almost touching the very reflective surface.

Emboldened, I set about more monochrome with Ilford Delta 100 and Ilford Ortho in quick succession. This served as a reminder that a camera like this takes time to get to know and so do the films. One or two nice ones on the Delta, but with the Ortho I produced little of note. Depth of field still showing as a problem and contributing to focus problems. I like shooting wide, but remembering to think of higher numbers than for 35mm and digital is taking some adaptation on my part.

Precision instrument

The Mamiya C220 isn’t gorgeously attractive, though it has the look of an old fashioned, well made precision instrument. People look at it, but then not everyone notices. I found myself crouching for a picture with the camera resting on my thigh and someone walked right in front of the subject, not out of rudeness, but simply not knowing a picture was being taken. Just a guy on the floor staring down into an odd looking box. This of course can be one of the strengths of a TLR even though it lacks the speed of use to be ideal for street photography. The parallax though, well that can be the subject of another article.

Ilford Ortho cutting the orange colour down to size in this shot of an old repurposed lifeboat.

Mixed results with the Mamiya C220 so far, but mostly down to my eyesight I think. Time to start the hunt for a suitable minus 2 (I think) Mamiya dioptre. This camera is so pleasing to use I shouldn’t give up over a vision correction problem should I?

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31 thoughts on “Mamiya C220 – The TLR Itch”

  1. Paul – great story and nice photos. I went with the C330 rather than the C220. I can say that the results were great (when I nailed the focus and the exposure) but the camera was way too heavy for me to use regularly, prompting me to sell it after about a year. Good luck with your medium format journey.

    1. Hi Ken
      Thank you for taking the time to comment. Sorry to hear the C330 proved to be too heavy. I really liked the sound of the 330. Budget was really the key consideration and weight was really number 2. I suppose holding a 220 in one hand and a 330 in the other would be the best way to determine if I could live with the latter. The amount of use it would get, I don’t think the 330 has sufficient benefits for me, so I’ll concentrate on trying to get better with the 220. I haven’t yet produced anything as good as the best from my Bronica SQA back in the 80s, but I hope I will get there.

  2. Hi Paul,
    Back in the 80s I shot portraits with Mamiya C330 on Kodak pro film and had them processed in a. Kodak stocked pro lab. The result was fabulous. What I took away from the experience was a love of Mamiya glass.

    1. Hi Daniel
      Thanks for reading and responding. They were so often in the hands of professionals at weddings etc. There really is a lovely quality to the lenses and I am looking forward to exploring more lens options soon. Just received some Tmax to try in it, so looking forward to that too.

  3. Hi Paul,

    thanks for sharing your pics and your experience with this gem. Your focus problems might be caused by a misalignment of the viewing and taking lens, this could explain why the vessel name isn’t sharp and the sign in front is. My C220 had the same problems even when focusing very precisely. I ordered one of Rick Olesons fantastic bright screens and it came with some instructions on solving this problem without the involvement of special equipment. Mamiya used shims under the screen to align the focus of the two lenses and it seemed that somebody messed with mine. With an open back you have to place one screen on the film plane so you can see the picture of the taking lens and focus on something (I used a poster with big writing about 2 meters away) and compare that to what you see on the viewing lens screen. You then have to put shims under the screens until both pictures are equally sharp (you have to do this on all 4 sides to get it evenly in focus). I used some plastic adhesive tape (I think it’s dymo label tape) which was provided with the new screen instead of round metal ones around the screws and this worked like a charm. The 80mm f 2.8 is fantastic and doesn’t need to hide behind any planar lens.

    1. Thanks for this tip. It does seem to have a brighter focus screen in it, but I’ll certainly check what it is. I am really grateful for the information on the shims for the focus screen. Since writing the article I have run another roll for which I made maximum effort to persevere with my glasses on. I think I may have found a technique, though it does involve quite a lot of shifting glasses on and off. I found working with my glasses off to get the exposure settings I wanted first, then glasses on and with one lens pressed against the magnifying eyepiece to get fine focus, sort of worked. I haven’t got the results yet, but I’ll know soon enough. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll go carefully through the alignment as per your explanation. Thanks for the gem of information.

  4. I have the earlier C3 and it’s a tank! I recently had it cleaned up and restored to functionality.
    It’s got a roll in it and I just need to get outside. Thanks for the inspiration to do so.

    1. Hi Art

      A very lovely tank I am sure. It will turn heads as well as produce great images. I do hope you enjoy using it as much as I am starting to enjoy my C220… it wasn’t immediate, but the affection is growing steadily. Hope to be reading about your experience with the C3.

      1. Hey Paul,
        I know it’ll be a journey. My eyesight is not good. never has been. What was I thinking becoming a professional photographer? But 50 years in my sight is even worse. I put my glasses on before I get out of bed so I can find the floor. A brighter focus screen on the C3 would be a big help. I think I’ll look into the upgrade Jeremy suggested below, the Rick Olson focus screen. That would significantly up my desire to shoot with the C3. As it is even under bright sun it’s very hard to see. Would be fun if I could post a photo of the camera in the comments. Guess I’ll do that whenever I finally get to write about using it as the precursor to the 220 you have.

  5. An excellent writeup! I have found that the Mamiya C-series benefit from an upgrade to a Rick Oleson focus screen. The brighter image very much helps with focus, along with (in my case) a 45 degree split prism.

    The big trick I used in addition to the screen when I had a C330 was a cheap laser rangefinder. I could point it at my target, get the exact range, and then make use of the super precise bellows marks to focus. It was *super* fast and accurate – point the laser rangefinder at the focus point, set the bellows, and go:)

    1. Hi Jeremy
      Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to the article. The seller listed a brighter screen as one of its upgrades, but I am not sure of the make. This is something I’ll now look into (no pun intended). A modern rangefinder was certainly something else I had wondered about and you have inspired me to investigate further. I may have found a solution at least in part since the article was submitted. Basically just trying a lot harder to manage a routine with my glasses. Just waiting for a roll in processing to determine if this may have worked or not. Not keen and using my glasses at all for photography and certainly not putting them on, taking them off several times per shot. I can probably live with this though if it works and I never expected to be doing anything at speed with the 220. Thank you so much for the very useful tips, I’ll check if the focus screen is branded at all and look again at modern rangefinders.

  6. I loved following your journey getting to know this camera. For a recent birthday, I bought myself a Leica M3. Its functioning is so foreign, and its workflow so completely different from my digital stuff, I decided to commit to shooting a roll a week for several months. Wearing glasses is a complication for me, also. The routine of raising my glasses to compose the shot, after having needed my glasses to see the aperture and shutter speed settings gets tedious. But, then there is that one image you get back. It’s the one like you mentioned – you remember taking it, how you were composing it. And, it blows your mind.

    1. Hi Bradley
      Thank you so much. Birthday’s are great aren’t they? The C220 was for a birthday but I actually got a Toyo 5×4 as well! Now a Leica… that is some birthday present and a roll a week is real dedication. Would love to read about how you got on and how that shooting pace helped. Since writing the article I have run another roll where I also made myself use the glasses. Exactly as you describe, constantly switching glasses on, glasses off, but it might be working. My problem is the other way, I need the glasses to focus beyond about 10 feet, but I can’t read the setting dials with them on. You have inspired me to hatch a plan to achieve Leica ownership at some point in my life.

  7. I was shooting weddings, portraits etc in the late 70,s and early 80,s with the C330, with the 80mm, 65mm, and 135mm lenses for it, heavy gear, but loved it, I switched over to the Bronica ETRs in the 80,s and kept with that system for the next 30 years. Before the Mamiya I had a Rollie TLR but went over to the Mamiya because of the interchangeable Lenses, then went to the Bronica because of the interchangeable backs, had 7 of them, and 3 bodies, 120, 220 and Polaroid back, and the AEII finder giving auto exposure, that was a luxury on medium format back then. Then I added the motor drive to one and speed winders to the other 2, but carrying all that gear all day on a wedding, plus metz ct45 flash guns, and a large Manfroto Triaut tripod plus another bag with nikon 35mm gear for the reception photos played hell on your back after 30 years or more, but great times they were

    1. Hi Terry
      Thank you for the great account of all the gear. I lugged my Bronica around in a rectangular aluminium carry case with a think shoulder strap, but I was young then. Now I have to have occasional visits from a guy who does back treatments because I still can’t give up lugging too much gear around. I have decided the Toyo 5×4 won’t be going very far from wherever the car is. I still find it hard to go out with just one camera and lens and I quite often find I have at least one, usually two ‘what if’ film cameras in the bag with the digital gear. At least modern flash guns are more portable. Big units like Metz and Braun with big rechargeable Nicads and similar were a nightmare weren’t they?

  8. C Michael Anthony

    I Still have my 220 from the 80s, as I do my SQA and my omega 4×5. Have not used them in a numbet of yesrs but they were at one time all work horeses for me as a full service photographer. Try removing the dioptor and use a magnifyer. That will act like a loop magnifying a smaller area of the ground glass, but should work well. I would use a tripod also, to help steady the focus.
    Good luck and have fun.

    1. Thank you Michael. I still miss my SQA, but I am going to have to think about stopping my current collection growing much further. I was thinking of getting a second WLF so I could modify one. The Dioptre is riveted in place unlike some of the other Mamiyas. I have since been trying to find a routine using my glasses for focus then taking them off to check the settings (I can’t read the figures close up with my glasses on). Results of this trial due back any time now. I have had lots of helpful tips and I will certainly have a try with a larger loupe over the top of the finder with the dioptre folded down. Thank you again.

  9. I had a 330 for a while, and I’ve always been curious exactly what differences there are between the two.

    My first cameras were a Brownie, a Hakings Super Reflex, and dad’s Yashica-Mat, so I’m entirely at home with the laterally reversed, waist-level view. Of all the cameras I’ve parted with, the only one I regret is the 330. I just wasn’t using it enough, and needed the money, but still miss it. I hope you come to love the 220 in time. As for your focus issue: is the screen seated properly? I took mine out once, and didn’t seat it properly before shooting again; every shot was way out of focus 🙁

    BTW: “dioptre” is just a measure of the focal length of a simple lens, rather than a word for a correcting lens. So, a 1-dioptre lens has a focal length of 1 metre; a 2-dioptre lens is ½ metre fl; 3-dioptre is ⅓ metre fl, etc

    1. Hi Duncan. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I have got a Brownie TLR too. Its a mess, but I think it can be made to work when I get more time. I haven’t handled a C330, but when I was looking for one, I came across a few suggestions the weight difference was quite noticeable. The C330 cocks the shutter with the film advance, whereas with the 220, you have to remember the tiny cocking lever on the lens each time. The 330 has a larger crank for film advance whereas the 200 has a small fold out crank on the rewind knob. It is actually just about as easy to rewind without opening the lever, especially as nothing else is quick to use. I have already grown to love it and have made progress since I submitted that article. I think I may not be able to manage focus by getting my settings done with my glasses off (can’t read the dials close up with them on), then putting them on to focus and pushing the lens of my glasses right up to the magnifier on the finder. Just waiting for a film from processing to see how that has worked but I think it may be a solution. I really dislike using my glasses for photography, but if I can make it work and find a lanyard for them… that’s what I’ll do. Focus screen looks to be properly seated, but that is something I’ll check on from time to time now you have pointed that out.

      1. Hi Gerard
        Thanks. As well as two spellings, the terms does seem to be applied in various situations. I believe Mamiya may have described some of the correction lenses in their catalogue at the time as Diopters (dioptres) and some traders seem to be selling them now under that description. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have been made for the 220 whatever they ought to be called. I improved a little on the last roll of film and I’ll find a corrective solution somehow.

  10. I got my 220 in the 90s, but it sat on the shelf for the past few decades as I used digital. But my daughter has brought me back to using film, and I’m getting a good handle on sunny 16 with my mechanical 35mm cameras (I always used a meter.back in olden times), so it’s time to run a few rolls through it again.

    I don’t know how it fits with your vision issues, but the pop-out magnifier in the lid helps me with finer focus. And they make a prism viewfinder attachment, too. In any case, thanks for the article and the great photos!

    1. Hi Richard. Thank you for taking time to look at the article and comment. I am having lots of fun with old 35mm cameras too. Mostly using a light meter because I actually enjoy that part too. The magnifier lens can be replaced for on the finders for the likes of the RB67, but sadly on the 220 it seems to be riveted into place and the Mamiya catalogue didn’t list different magnifiers for the 220. I don’t think the magnifier is providing the correction I need, but it is certainly a complex problem, I haven’t quite got to the bottom of yet. Still awaiting a roll back from processing which I shot with my glasses on for focusing. This wasn’t entirely easy as I can read the speed and aperture rings with them on and I had to get the lens of my glasses right up to the lens on the magnifier. When I did that, I think I might have been achieving something closer to corrected focus. I should know hopefully later today. I do hope you’ll write about your experiences with the 220, it would be great to hear from others with this lovely camera.

  11. Also, I’ve been experimenting with Instax Mini film in the C220. You can load single sheets into the camera in a film bag, but I haven’t successfully been able to process one without streaks or missing bits yet. I think I just need the right roller or technique, but I’ll keep at it.

  12. Daniel Castelli

    I bought a C220 in 1973. It was a case of good camera, bad timing. I just wasn’t ready for working in medium format. Now it’s just too heavy, and I’m not willing to add another format to my workflow or my darkroom. My eyes are crap, and I use a Leica (M2) not as neck candy, but I’m able to easily focus the R/F. A 35mm lens helps if I’m a bit off. We must find ways to make tools work for us.

    1. Thanks Daniel. Sorry to hear you didn’t really get on with the 220 back then. I think most pf us playing around now with medium and large format are doing so just for a challenge. I also do a lot with 35mm, because generally it is easier and I don’t really need the negative sizes of the others… but I still enjoy it somehow. I can only aspire to Leica, but maybe one day. In the meantime I may have found my solution to vision correction with the 220 and I suspect it is mainly around just getting on and working with my glasses on at the appropriate moments. I can’t complete the whole process with them on and they do irritate me, but as you say, we must find ways. Best regards.

  13. The whole design of the 220 and 330 is excellent. Interchangeable lenses, baffle, switch from 120 to 220 film. The lenses are on level with other top notch lenses from that Era. I loved my C330 so much I bought another kne just yesterday. Now for the lenses. Such a simple yet very professional camera. I used it in the 70’s for weddings while shooting for an elite wedding studio in KC decades ago. Being able to see any eyes blinking or other movement while shooting is a great plus and shot saver. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Hi Tim. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. If this stirred up memories then I am really pleased. You got me wondering if I should add a C330 to the collection at some point, although I will run out of living space at this rate. Hope it goes well with the 330, would be good to read about it at some point if you do a write up.

  14. I also have the C220. You might be interested in searching for a Mamiya Porrofinder. This takes the place of the assembly on top and instead of looking down, you hold the camera up to your eye . . . and you have the joy of adding even more weight to the camera. I have the CDS Porrofinder which has a built in light meter – you move a lever and a lollypop swings into the center of the view to take a reading. Then you manually transfer the reading to your aperture and shutter speed.

    1. Hi Scott. I actually bidded on a Porrofinder, but didn’t get it. Still feeling determined to deal with my sight issues by finding ways of working with my glasses on at the appropriate moment. I suppose I should try something that means holding it up to the eye, it has to be a quite different feel from any other camera with an eye level finder. Hope you are enjoying your 220.

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