Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mamiya Universal VS Polaroid 600SE

I originally chose my Polaroid 600SE over the Mamiya Press cameras because it was "easier". The system has fewer options, and, thanks to Skorj, there is ample information on the Web about the 600SE. So...a year later I have a Mamiya Universal. Why? What are the differences? Is one really better than the other? Is it worth having both? There is some good info on the Mamiya Universal on the Web, but there isn't really a comparison of the two...an explanation of the specific differences. That part is up to me, I guess!
Overall, I will be focusing on the use of Polaroid film in both, though I make mention of film here and there. Also, I will be comparing the Polaroid 600SE and what is sometimes referred to as the Mamiya Press Black, because the original Mamiya Universal was silver and black. I have both and will show you the original in a bit, but let's start with the Black.
Side by side, they look pretty much alike...

Some superficial difference include the name, of course, and the skin, which is mottled on the Universal and smooth on the 600SE.

When we break down the camera, we begin to see the differences.
The button on the grip is green on the 600SE...not sure if this is the norm for all 600SEs. As I go along, I keep the 600SE on the left and Universal on the right.

The grip on the 600SE is attached to the body. It may be removable by taking out some screws, but it's not an "easy" job. The Universal grip, on the other hand, is removable. You just unscrew the mount. Also note the small button at the bottom right on the 600SE. This is the release for the lens mount...you press the button and twist the lens off. The universal doesn't have a lock. You can just twist the mount to remove the lens, which has a fixed position.
Take off the lenses and we see different lens mounts....big difference here and an indication that parts are not interchangeable between the two.

And this is true and one reason you have to choose between the two...the lenses cannot be swapped and there are different options for both. Looking at the viewfinder settings, we see two options for the 600SE, and three for the Universal.

The differences give you some clue that maybe there are different lenses available for both...more on that later.
Looking at the back of the camera, and we see the other main difference between the two...the mounting mechanism for the film backs.

To make up for the front, the Universal has release buttons for the back mount and the 600SE does not. Notice the Universal back prongs feature a single, unbroken bar, while the 600SE has a split in the prong. The size is different as well, so they are not interchangeable at all. One doesn't even fit on the other camera body, let alone let you slide the mount clasp over the prongs. This can be a huge variable when deciding which camera to buy...depending on what you plan to do with it. If you want to shoot primarily Polaroid, the 600SE is an okay choice. If you want to get a film back for the 600SE, prepare to shell out quite a bit of money -- upwards of $300 for just the mount. The Universal film backs are readily available for around $50, and a Polaroid back can be bought for around the same. So if you are primarily shooting film, the Universal is the better choice.
Here are some of the film backs available. The gray back is actually from a Mamiya 23, but they are interchangeable.

Those are the differences between the two. One of the advantages to using either system is the use of interchangeable backs.

Both the Polaroid and film backs come with dark slides, allowing you to swap backs mid-roll or pack. So You can even shoot film and instant in the same outing with one camera.
And, on a side note, here is the original Universal body...

The choice between the two Universal bodies is purely aesthetic. They are the same in every way except for the color. One possible advantage the silver has over black is that there isn't any paint to chip off on the silver, so if it is in nice shape, and you use it a lot, chances are it will look less dinged up after frequent use. But it's just a personal choice. I think the silver looks a bit more vintage, while the black looks a bit classier. From what I've seen, the black usually costs more.
So which do you want...the 600SE or the Universal? Both are obviously made by Mamiya. Why does the 600SE even exist? The way I understand it, Polaroid commissioned Mamiya to make a proprietary system for whatever reason, I don't really know. Probably to make money! Anyway, Let's start with the 600SE, because there is less to talk about.
Probably one of the main reasons to choose the 600SE over the Universal is that it was made to use Polaroid film. Everything is designed to work with instant film. But, because of this, there is a much smaller selection of lenses. Three, to be exact. Each is linked to an example on Flickr.

127mm 4.7 -- This is the standard lens.
75mm 5.6 -- A wide angle that uses an external viewfinder.
150mm 5.6 -- A portrait lens.

If you look above at the viewfinder switch, you see settings for 127 and 150. So the 75mm uses the attachment...

It, of course, features a wider view, as well as parallax correction via a dial. The only issue I've ever had with it is the difficulty in keeping horizons straight.
But that is it for lenses...though they are all designed to be used with Polaroid film, and provide complete coverage for Type 100 films. Something that can't be said for all Universal lenses...but more on that soon.
I only have the 75mm lens for my system. It came with a broken 127mm lens, and I haven't really had any desire to get another since the 190/195 cameras sport the 114mm 3.8 lens. The portrait lens is probably nice, but not my thing either.
There are other accessories for the 600SE...but Skorj covers that quite well in his article and I don't want to steal his thunder (and why repeat what has already been said by a 600SE expert). But...suffice to say the Polaroid 600SE is designed specifically for use with instant film, and so everything works as it should for instant film...lens coverage, viewfinder, etc. On a short aside, when I say instant film, I mean Type 100 peel-apart for the most part, though you can modify to fit Type 50s, and I once saw an SX-70 back on eBay for use with the system...though it may have been meant to be used with the Universal given the age of Time Zero. I don't remember.
Anyway, on to the Universal. The most obvious advantage the Universal has over the 600SE is the lens selection. This comes with a caveat, though...most of these lenses were designed for 120 film. The area of Polaroid film is larger than the largest 120 back available (6x9). This means that some of these lenses have falloff beyond the normal area for 120. That's vignette to you and me. Now I, personally, don't take this as a negative. But, depending in the lens, it's kind of like having an expensive, super-sharp toy camera! Here is an illustration of the different exposure sizes with the 100mm lens for the Mamiya Universal.

Also, when looking through the viewfinder...it isn't accurate for Polaroid film. Looking above, we saw that the Universal has a switch for 100, 150 and 250. The framing visible in the viewfinder is smaller than what you see on the Polaroid print. So it does take some adjustment on the user's part. I've found that for the 100mm lens I have, the actual edge of the viewfinder is pretty close to accurate.
There is an option for some of the available lenses...an external finder. This is the same thing as the 75mm finder for the 600SE, except this one is for the Universal and covers three lenses - 75mm, 100mm and 127mm. With this finder you get relatively accurate frame edges, as well as parallax compensation via a distance dial.

I think what this also means that each lens is actually wider than what it is labeled as. So the 100mm is probably closer to 80mm. That's just my guess, but you get a much wider angle of view with these lenses using Polaroid. There is one lens made for the Universal that was meant to be used with Polaroid film...and some of the lenses work as is without vignette. So here is the list of available lenses for the Universal that I know of. Some of these lenses were designed for the Super 23 (which has rear bellows) but can all be used with the Universal. Conversely, some of these lenses can only be used by the Universal and not the Super 23. If I could find examples with Polaroid film, I provided links.

50mm 6.3 Mamiya-Sekor (with viewfinder)
65mm 6.3 Mamiya-Sekor (with viewfinder)
75mm 5.6 Mamiya-Sekor (with viewfinder)
90mm 3.5 Mamiya-Sekor
90mm 3.5 Mamiya-Sekor (collapsible)
100mm 3.5 Mamiya-Sekor
100mm 3.5 Mamiya-Sekor E
100mm 2.8 Mamiya-Sekor
127mm 4.7 Mamiya-Sekor
127mm 4.7 Mamiya-Sekor P (Designed for use with Polaroid film)
150mm 5.6 Mamiya-Sekor
250mm 8.0 Mamiya-Sekor (not rangfinder coupled)
250mm 5.0 Mamiya-Sekor

That's all that I know of. A couple of these lenses have different versions that probably don't really make a difference to you and me. You wouldn't be able to tell except by using the serial number. Prices vary, but typically the wider the lens, the more expensive. I'm not going to explain how to use the Universal or all of the other acessories and features. That is very handily provided by Mamiya here. And here is the system map provided by Mamiya, which actually features fewer lenses that what is available.

So, back to the question...which is better? I still can't really answer that. They are similar, yet very different tools. There is a decent set of accessories available for the 600SE...but be prepared to pay a price. Some of these items, such as macro spacers, aren't cheap for the Universal, and cost even more for the 600SE. Generally, the 600SE will sell for about the same as a Universal "Black", while the silver universal body will be much cheaper. You do have more lens options with the Universal, but you have to deal with a system that isn't designed to be used with Polaroid film. Fewer options with the 600SE, but you know what you are getting and that it will work "as advertised" with Polaroid film.
If you want the ability to use 120 roll film, you can so so with either, but the cost will be much higher for the 600SE. I do see people selling adapters for the Universal for the price of an entire camera with lens, adapter and back. But the adapter for the 600SE is a separate item, and it usually sells for no less than $300. And you can only use the three available lenses with your 120.
One isn't really better than the other. Which you want is really up to you.
I hope this is useful! Sorry, lots of text and not many pictures at the end. A couple group shots to end this...

I will have a follow-up to this article. I want to shoot a couple rolls of film and more Polaroid, and grab a few more lenses for comparison...then I will go into some more specific details about output and use of the Mamiya Universal! As mentioned previously, check out Skorj's 600SE article for more info on that camera!
One last shot...Mamiya Universal 100mm 2.8 and ND5 filter. I can't end this without one of my own!

Like I said...expensive, super-sharp toy camera!
Seeya next time.