Review: Mamiya C220 twin lens reflex (TLR) medium format camera

I recently acquired (yet) another medium format camera: a Mamiya C220 TLR. It was offered on eBay (a place I normally avoid like the plague), but the fact it was fully complete — including boxes, manuals, all body and lens caps, etc. — and in great condition made it sort of a no-brainer to take the risk. I’m glad I did, because what arrived was every bit as good (or better) than the eBay listing photos. Full-form reviews on this camera are virtually non-existent, so it also seemed like a no-brainer to take a deep dive and explore its allure in detail.

The Back Story

The Mamiya C series TLR (twin-lens reflex) cameras are legendary; perhaps not as broadly as the Rolleiflex, but legendary in any case. I won’t rehash the history of the line here; that’s easy to find online. But the plain C220 I have was produced for 14 years — from about 1968, until 1982, when the C220f was introduced, and roughly corresponding to the time period when I entered grade school, until the year I graduated high school. I can’t remember seeing a C220 (or any member of the Mamiya C series TLR family) during that time, let alone seeing anyone use one. In fact, it wasn’t until this very year (2019) that I was even aware of their existence, so perhaps the term legendary needs the qualifier in certain circles.

A couple of attributes made Mamiya C series cameras like my C220 interesting among TLRs. First, the changeable lens system, and second, the focusing mechanism that uses rails and bellows to allow the lens plane to be moved quite far away from the film plane. Some claim that the C series is the only TLR ever to have changeable lenses — not true; the Koni-Omegaflex, made from about 1967 to 1975, had this unusual feature as well. A focusing system that uses rails and bellows is of course used in many cameras, but I’m not personally aware of other TLRs that have them. While they let you focus the image, in the C series, they extend far enough to perform the same function that extension tubes do in other cameras: enabling remarkably close-up focusing (i.e., macro).

These elements add to the Mamiya C series TLR cameras’ unique and nearly comical appearance. The enormous focusing knobs on the bottom of either side of the camera body, balanced by a curved half-circle dip in its profile at the rear, give the overall appearance a sort of roller skate aesthetic, the sort of thing that would normally prompt me to say that if it were a kid, it’d be a kid whose appearance only a parent would love. I suppose that makes me a parent, because I’ve truly fallen in love with this weird looking beast.

Beyond the points I just made, and I mean this as a compliment, the camera just has a distinctively Japanese design ethos. It’s a throwback to a pre-internet era, when design in general wasn’t so homogenized, globalized, milquetoast, safe, and intended to be as inoffensive and indistinct as humanly possible — a time that spawned regional descriptors like “Italian design” and “German design” that would, in-turn, conjure-up specific associations and expectations. I love how Mamiya’s industrial designers, whoever they were, riffed on the well-trodden pattern of TLR design to come-up with something uniquely theirs.

These days, you’d be forgiven for confusing an iPhone with a Samsung Galaxy, or perhaps any average, white-painted, mid-size SUV with any other average, white-painted, mid-size SUV. You would not, however, confuse a C220 for a Rolleiflex.

This C220 came into my hands in a rather unexpected way. When I was at Bergen County Camera in August to purchase my Hasselblad 503CW, I saw a Mamiya C330f sitting on the shelf with a $325 or so asking price. Bergen claimed the camera was in “excellent” condition; while their descriptions were accurate for other cameras (including my Hassy), I’d argue that the C330f was merely “good” to “very good” — not trashed by any means, but it clearly had a lot of stories to tell. Regardless, after leaving the store with my Hassy, I continued to think about the C330f, primarily because other examples I’d seen… Well, let’s just say they had even more stories to tell.

When I got back to Denver, I thought a little more about that C330f. Knowing I’d be back to New Jersey in a couple of weeks, I called the store and asked them to set it aside for me, which they did. I knew the camera had a 65mm lens on it, and I wanted a more conventional prime lens — namely the 80mm model. So, I searched eBay, hoping to turn-up something inexpensive. Alas, I found the C220, with its 80mm lens, for just $250 — not significantly more than an 80mm lens in excellent condition would sell for on its own. Figuring I’d be able to share lenses between the two, with the C220 priced so attractively, and with the seller being a retailer, not an individual, and hence seemed lower risk to me, I bought it. It arrived while the C330f was still waiting for my return trip to New Jersey.

The Camera

As I mentioned in the intro, my C220 was a fairly unusual find, in that it was fully complete: camera, lens, boxes, manuals, all the caps (body, lens front, lens back) — even a Mamiya brochure. (All of this is shown in the featured image at the top of the page.) Whoever bought it new obviously was a bit fastidious in its keeping, reminding me of younger self. With age, and the accumulation of stuff that comes with it, I’ve gotten much less eager to save boxes and paperwork these days, but I’m glad whoever had this camera chose to do it, and I’m also pleased that Camera Exchange in Michigan — the eBay seller of this camera — chose to keep everything together and intact.

Unpacking the camera, I was surprised and pleased to find that it was everything the listing description and accompanying photographs promised, if not more. The camera itself is nearly mint, the lens is nearly mint, and aside from a small and very old water stain on the corner of the camera box, it honestly looks like it was purchased, used a few times, and put away for a few decades. Perhaps that was in fact the case.

The C220 is generally regarded as the simpler, more consumer-friendly version of the C330, which was ostensibly targeted to professionals. In truth, the differences between the C220 and C330 aren’t that great. They use the same lenses, most of the functions are actually very much the same, and I can attest that if you can use one, you can use the other. The C330 adds replaceable focusing screens, an in-viewfinder parallax correction pointer, and automatic shutter cocking — all things you can rather easily do without.

Because both cameras are fully manual, you need to use the Sunny 16 method of setting exposure, or as I do, carry an exposure meter with you. I can’t imagine anything “consumer grade” that would require such technical knowledge just to take a photograph, but perhaps back in the day, expectations were different. Still, it’s difficult to envision mom, dad, or Uncle Bob calculating aperture settings and fiddling with a shutter speed dial when they struggle enough these days just touching the part of an image on a smartphone screen they want its onboard camera to focus on.

Also difficult to envision is a consumer fiddling with the required parallax and exposure corrections. Parallax correction first: Remember, on a TLR, there are two lenses; the viewing lens, and the taking lens. The former is the one you’re looking through from the waist-level viewfinder, and the latter is the one that’s used to project an image onto the film. Because their optical centers are a couple of inches apart, what they actually see is very slightly different. That difference is immaterial when the subject of your photograph is yards or miles away. But if you’re availing yourself of the bellows on the C220, and focusing on something nice and close, it suddenly matters a great deal, and what you’re framing in the viewfinder is not what’s framed on the film when you snap the picture. Second, exposure correction: Just like extension tubes on other cameras, moving the lens away from the film plane means there’s some reduction in the volume of photons of light in a given measure of time (e.g., when the shutter is open) that actually reach the film, and thus, you need to correct exposure to allow more light into the camera.

Oh, one other thing: The required corrections for parallax and exposure? They’re different, depending on which lens you have on the front of the camera. One more thing for mom, dad and Uncle Bob to think about before snapping a photo of Johnny on the jungle gym.

In any case, to allow the photographer to make these corrections, the C220 has a scale on the side of the camera; it’s one of two scales shown in this photo:

The first scale is a black and white one at the bottom called the Exposure Scale. Above it is a tri-color one called the Distance Scale.

The Exposure Scale is easy to understand; find your lens on the left, and read the setting by where it sits against the edge of the camera body on the right side:

This is from the C220 manual; the red arrow is not really pointing to the read position; that’s slightly to the right, at the edge. But for a standard 80mm prime lens, with the bellows extended as shown (you can’t see the bellows, but they’re extended some distance), you’re just within the “2” region of the scale (as the red arrow is indicating). This is supposed to be a multiplier, but I find it easier to simply subtract “1” and that’s the number of stops you need to increase to get a proper exposure. So, the indicated 2, minus 1, equals 1 — one stop more light needs to be allowed into the camera. So, if your meter says f/8.0, then open it up a stop to f/5.6 and keep the shutter speed the same. Alternatively, if it says 1/125 for shutter speed, you could open to 1/60, and keep the aperture the same. If you’re in the “1.5” section of the scale, you need to open it up half a stop, which on the C series lenses is simple; the aperture has no detents, so just adjust it manually a half stop more open. (You won’t be able to adjust the shutter speed by half a stop, so the aperture has to be used. Otherwise, adjust either value by the number of full stops needed.)

That takes care of the necessary exposure adjustment. Now, for parallax adjustments. These same values (1, 1.5, 2 and 3) are used in the viewfinder to mentally adjust for the top of the image you’re actually taking. The two middle values (1.5 and 2) are indicated on the ground glass by engraved horizontal lines:

Essentially, if you’re in the “1” range on the scale, no correction is needed; the top of the viewfinder is pretty much what you’re recording on film. But if the camera says “1.5” on the Exposure Scale, then the top of the image you actually photograph is approximately at the uppermost engraved line in the focusing screen. If it says “2” then the top of the image is at roughly the lower engraved line. And if it’s at “3” then the top of the photographed image is at approximately the very center of the finder image. Keep in-mind, then, that the bottom of the image is not even visible; the entire square of the 6×6 image is shifted downward. This makes it a bit of a guess as to precisely what you’re getting, and you have to sort of imagine the actual image composition, as shown in this diagram:

As you can see, by the time you get to the “3” area, the center of the photographed image is smack dab at the very bottom of the viewfinder frame, and fully half your photograph isn’t even visible. Again, be prepared to use your imagination.

This entire subject is part of the charm of the camera in my mind, and it’s really an issue only if you’re taking things really close-up. For the majority of the photos you’re apt to take, you don’t have to think much about it; what you see in the viewfinder is what you’ll get.

As for that Distance Scale, well, it’s there mostly for reference, and/or for situations (such as flash photography) where the subject might be just a bit too dark to get an accurate focus visually through the finder. Using the scale, locate the lens you’re using on the left side, and follow its line at the camera body edge, adjusting the focus knob based on the distance of the subject from the lens. So far, this feature has been of pretty much no value, but then, I’ve also not set-up indoor flash portraits or other shots with this camera with limited ambient light.

As I said earlier, one of the more unique aspects of the C220 — well, the Mamiya C series TLRs in general — is the changeable lens system.

As you can tell from the photo, the lens is actually a lens assembly since both of the two are a single structure. And as you can see, since getting the C series cameras, I’ve pulled together a small collection of lenses. In total, for the two cameras, I now have a pair of 80mm primes, a 65mm wide angle, a 135mm mid-telephoto, and a 250mm long telephoto — the longest focal length Mamiya made. There are still others available (a 55mm and a 105mm), but I don’t think these add much to the shooting experience beyond the ones I already have, and I don’t have plans to hunt them down.

Changing the lenses is simple enough; turn the lock knob to “unlocked,” which light-seals the body and prevents you from ruining the loaded film. Then, unlatch the lens catch, and move it out of the way. Lift the lens off, put the new one on, latch the lens catch, turn the knob back to “locked,” and you’re done. This has to be done with some care, since the lens catch tends to rub right against the top of the viewing lens barrel. Most lenses you’ll find have their black anodization rubbed away in a small spot for that reason.

The two lens covers (front and back) for C series lenses are not always provided with the lenses, but I’ve managed to replace all the missing ones from KEH. They, as well as eBay and other used stores, are probably your best bets. Note that the caps fit specific C series lenses, and are not uniform across the line. And, this many years on, most are in less-than-ideal condition (as you can see below), but it’s better to have some protection than none. (Seems like a market opportunity for someone with a 3D printer and right 3D models.)

Lenses for these cameras can be hit or miss. Like any leaf shutter lens, the shutters can gum-up and slow over time. The main thing is this: use the camera, and use the lenses. It’s really not much harder than that. Two camera techs I’ve spoken with have said straight-up that these cameras do not like to sit around (probably true of any camera), and I’m honestly a bit surprised that the 80mm lens that came with my C220 was perfectly dead-on with its shutter timing, given that it seems to have done a lot of sitting around. (Why else would it be in mint condition?)

Once I got the C220 outfit including its boxed 80mm lens, I decided not to try and use that lens for the C330f, and sought-out a second 80mm so that both cameras had their own prime. I found one on eBay at a good price, but the lens purchase turned-out to be as bad as the C220 purchase was good. It was only semi-honestly represented as having “slightly slow shutter speeds.” It was not “slight” in any way. On the contrary, it was gummy, very slow, uneven and unusable. Rather than make a fuss with the seller which I should have done, I had Cameraworks in Colorado Springs (see my resource page for details) repair it. For $110, they disassembled the lens, cleaned and lubricated the timing mechanism (a common need), and put it all back together. Had the optics not been pristine, I wouldn’t have done it, but it made sense — even if it meant that the total spend on the lens was more than it should have been. Better this than another lens thrown on the scrap heap of time.

Speaking of lenses, one common thing that people seem to do with these lenses for some stupid reason is to glue the flash selection lever down. As changeable leaf shutter lenses, flash triggering is built into the lens, not the camera body, and there’s a lever on each one that’s a reflection of the time they were made: M for flash bulbs, and X for electronic flashes, reflecting their slight timing differences. I don’t really care that nobody’s going to be using flash bulbs anymore, gluing the switch into the X position is as stupid as gluing the windshield wipers of your car into the “off” position because you live in a desert and won’t ever use them. It is, as they say, the principle of the thing.

In any event, while nothing to do with this review or the C220, the 65mm lens that came with the C330f was in fact glued into the X position. Cameraworks took care of that for me as a courtesy, which I truly appreciated. While I could have done it myself, I suppose, I was afraid I’d scratch the lens barrel in the process. Their repair tech removed virtually all traces of the glue, without any evidence that it had ever (stupidly) been done in the first place.

Loading and unloading film in the C220 is straightforward, and with the simple, straight film path, easier than most. The new roll goes at the bottom of the camera, empty take-up spool at the top. Buttons on the side pull outward to make it easy enough to get the spools in and out. Tear the closure tab off the film roll, pull it toward the take-up spool, thread it in, and wind the knob until you see the start line on the backing paper align with the red dots inside the camera body. Close the back, turn the lock, then use the knob (with its fold-out crank if you like) to wind until it stops automatically.

Unlike the C330, the C220 doesn’t auto-cock the shutter with the film advance. Like my Yashica-A, manually cocking the shutter isn’t any sort of big deal, and if you try to take a photo and it doesn’t work, it’s probably that the shutter isn’t cocked. A simple motion of the finger, and you’re ready. And unlike the Yashica-A, you can cock the lens freely — even after each shot if you’d like — and it’s fine. A cocked shutter does not preclude adjusting the shutter speed (as it does on the Yashica-A).

The Experience

Enough about the details of the camera; what’s it like to actually use it?

First, the subjective, emotional parts of the equation… To have and hold a camera that is decades old but that bears no marks of the passage of time is a strange experience. I was deathly afraid of dropping it (and still am, although less so with my Op/Tech strap installed), and I’m fearful that carrying it around and using it will cause marks or blemishes no matter how careful I am. That’s bound to happen at some point, and while $250 is not a lot of money to have spent on the C220, I didn’t buy it so it could be a shelf queen — some sort of museum piece that only gets looked at. No camera is made for that life; cameras are made to be used, and while this camera may not be my primary, it’s going to get used.

On the more practical, objective parts… Let’s start with film and exposure. Given the relatively fast 1/500 maximum shutter speed, and the small low-end aperture of the lenses (f/32 on the 80mm lenses, up to f/64 on the 250mm lens), you can easily throw fast films into these cameras and still use them in a wide variety of situations — something I struggle with on my Yashica-A (which has maximum values of f/22 and 1/300.)

Using a flash with the C220 is simple enough, and the Godox TT600 flash, flash bracket and sync cable that I got months back work perfectly with it, as expected. That leaf shutter means flash sync works at any speed, giving lots of flexibility for flash photography. You’ll need a flash-capable meter, like my Gossen Sixtomat F2, to properly meter the scene and set your flash, but once set-up, it works great. Just be sure to set the lens to “X” flash sync.

The Results

The first roll of film to go through the C220 was primarily a test to prove that there were no light leaks or other issues, so no effort was made to score points for composition or anything else; I just shot a roll as quickly and conveniently as possible to see how it turned-out. Here are some of those images, all taken with Kodak Ektar 100,  processed by Englewood Camera, and scanned with my Epson V800.

Achieving focus was relatively easy in the daylight, although as always, deploying the closeup lens in the viewfinder (you can see it folded in the viewfinder image farther up the page) and holding it near the eye was essential to getting it right. (The “waist-level” in “waist-level viewfinder” is a nice fantasy — if you want accurate focus, anyway.)

Exposure is simple enough as well. While you need Sunny 16 or an exposure meter, Mamiya has made it simple with an identical system for aperture and shutter speed setting across all the lenses. Determine the desired exposure settings, dial them in, cock the shutter, shoot, and advance. Nothing really much to it. As I mentioned earlier, shutter speed has detents at each setting, while the aperture is continually adjustable — the latter thus providing half-stop adjustment where and when desired, as shown below.

You can see Tiffen UV lens protection filters in the image above. You’ll need double the filters if you like using protective glass, otherwise the lens cap won’t fit properly. Obviously, effects filters can be placed on the taking lens only, then removed after the shot. And good luck figuring-out the size of filter you need; they are not marked on the lens, or the lens caps, and every resource I’ve found online has different answers. I decided to concern myself only with protection for the prime lenses (80mm), and both of the two I have require ⌀46 filters.

Shooting with a TLR is interesting. Very few people recognize what you’re doing as photography, because the cameras are so exceptionally unusual by today’s standards. Even among people my age, I’ve not really met a single person (other than fellow photographers) who has seen or used one. I get a lot of looks when I use my Hasselblad, or my Pentax 645 — both are also pretty unusual looking compared to a modern DSLR. But the TLR? It might as well be an alien visiting from another planet. Or rather, I’m some sort of alien using a strange scientific device. Either way, I love shooting TLRs in general — and the C220 specifically.

And I don’t just love shooting it, I love having it, and I even love looking at it. To my eye, they’re cool, unusual, and fun. And the pictures? Well, those speak for themselves, but the examples above should give you some sense. Nice, clean, crisp optics, sharp images, not even a hint of chromatic aberration or softness or distortion… Just pure film photography enjoyment.

And given the price — $250? Well, it’s some of the cheapest good photographic fun I’ve had in a long time. If you have the chance to grab one in good condition, along with a lens or two that are free of fungus, separation, scratches, etc., and with accurate shutter timings? Don’t think about it, just do it.

But for the love of God, please don’t glue down the &$@%#!!! flash sync selection lever.

The Specifications

Dimensions
4.5″ (115mm) W (including knobs)
3.25″ (80mm) W (not including knobs)
6.5″ (165mm) H
4.5″ (115mm) D (with 80mm lens attached)
4.0″ (100mm) D (body only)

Weight
3 lbs., 6 oz. (1.522 kg) (with 80mm lens attached)
2 lbs., 19 oz. (1.189 kg) (body only)

Film
120 medium format roll film
220 medium format roll film