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Mamiya C330

Most photographers who have been around for a few years have a favorite camera or camera—the equipment they have taken many memorable photographs with. I can imagine it’s much like a guitarist with that one guitar that has become part of them; BB King’s Lucille comes to mind.

For me, as a photographer, the Mamiya C330 was one of those cameras, a Medium format film camera that was discontinued almost 30 years ago. It, along with the Olympus OM-1 35mm camera I wrote about previously, is a camera that has a place in my heart. Is that possible to have that kind of feeling with a camera? I think so.

The Camera Dept. At Main Drug Store

Let’s go back in time. From October of 1984 to Mid-1986, I worked as a camera salesman for Main Drug Store. For those of you who are of a certain age and grew up in Visalia, you most likely remember Main Drug. Located on the corner of Main and Locust in downtown Visalia (where the Sequoia Brewing Company is now), the store had one of the most complete camera departments of any drug store in any town. Owned by Roland and Ann Marr, who bought the store in the late 60s.

Roland was a pharmacist who had a keen interest in photography. That showed in the camera department’s breath of equipment and supplies. Main Drug carried most of the big names in cameras at the time, Hasselblad, Mamiya, (yes, the C-330 was there)  Olympus, Pentax, Minolta, Yashica, Bronica, Rollie, Nikon, and Canon. You name it, and we most likely carried it. Main Drug was an institution in the photography world of Visalia and beyond; it was where Mike Coz first worked before starting his shop, Mike’s Quality Cameras. It was where every professional in the area shopped for equipment and film.

working at main drug 1985

A stoner at the camera dept. at Main Drug. Actually at the time, not true, but I sure look like Im stoned.

Working at Main Drug: A learning experience

Working at Main Drug was a great learning experience for me. Before coming on board at Main, I spent six years selling cameras for JCPenney in Visalia. I had a good reputation in the photography community. Still, Main Drug exposed me to a more upscale clientele: professionals and serious amateur photographers, doctors, lawyers, advertising agencies, and teachers.

I learned how to work with this more sophisticated and knowledgeable customer. Plus, I learned how to wheel and deal. With Penneys, the store managers set an item’s price, and that is what you sold it for. No haggling there. At Main Drug, we were able to wheel and deal. We often tossed in some free film or a free flash with the deal. Knock off a percentage, or match Mike’s Cameras on the price. In fact, telling Roland that Mikes had a camera for a few dollars less was all it took to have him match or better the deal. Yeah, there was some animosity and competition going on there

I had just begun my photography business.

 I had just started my photography business when I got the job at Main Drug, and I was using a very basic Yashica Mat 124 G Twin Lens Reflex. (bought the year before at Main Drug) It was a well-built camera but had limitations. As a young father with two kids, I was always strapped for cash but wanted something better than the Yashica. I was surrounded by all the medium formats on the market every day when I went to work, and I soon fell in love with one of them, the Mamiya C330.

Photography is not just a business: Cameras and the equipment that surrounds them are fascinating pieces of gear. I knew more than one photographer who was more enamored with the equipment than with the photos they produced. So, falling in love with the C330 was partly true. I loved the way it felt and worked and looked.

The Mamiya C330 is a twin-lens reflex camera or TLR. It shoots the photograph with one lens, and you view the image through another lens. A mirror reflects the light onto a viewing screen, giving the camera its reflex name, and the image is normally viewed with what is known as a waist-level finder. If you have ever seen people taking photos while looking down into the camera, that’s a waste-level finder.

Advantages of the Mamiya C330

There are several advantages to this TLR arrangement. The system’s simplicity: fewer moving parts than other cameras like the single lens reflex (no mirror has to swing out of the way); With the C330, the image is always visible. This was a big advantage for wedding photographers as we often use a flash. With the C330, the flash can always be seen firing when you take the photograph. Remember, in those days (the film era), you couldn’t see the shot on a screen right after you took it. If the flash didn’t fire, you wouldn’t find it out until days later when the prints came back from the lab.

Another advantage of the C330 over other TLRs was that you could interchange lenses. The Yashica was a fixed-lens camera with just a single lens.  I had a couple of telephotos and a wide angle for the Mamiya C330. This allowed me to either take more in the photo with that wide angle or bring things closer with the telephoto. There were no zoom lenses for the C330, so compared with what I have available today, it was very limited.

The Mamiya C330 was like a Model T

In fact, comparing it to the digital cameras I use today, the Mamiya C330 seems like a Model T. All I could do was adjust the exposure with the shutter speed and aperture settings, trip the shutter to take the photo, advance the film to the next frame and select the type of film for the subject I was photographing. The camera didn’t even have an exposure meter, much less an automatic exposure system. I did add an eye-level finder with an exposure meter in that, but most all the time, I used a handheld meter to measure the light and set the exposure.

Today’s digital cameras have more than just automatic exposure; they add a wide variety of settings for different subjects; sports, portrait, and landscape, to name just a few. And today’s phones have some of the most sophisticated exposure systems of any camera on the market. Today’s camera can have over a hundred different settings. In fact, sometimes there are so many settings it’s hard to find the one you want to change; that was never a problem in the film era.

The Mamiya C330 was first made in the 1950s

The Mamiya Camera Company in Japan developed the C330 after WWII. The company began in May of 1940, surviving the war, the first iteration of the C series, the Mamiyaflex, was introduced in 1956, followed by the C3 in 1962. By the 1970s, the C330 was on the market. It remained virtually unchanged for the next 20 years. Small changes were made to F and S models but were minor. Production ended in 1996. The F model was my favorite, and at one time, I had six bodies and a slue of lenses and other accessories that were used by myself and two other photographers who shot weddings for me.

I bought my first C330 in 1988 from a guy in Fresno who advertised it in the paper. Body, three lenses, and a viewfinder for about $800. It was a game-changing moment in my photography and in my business life. I shot thousands of rolls of film with those cameras, and they were mostly tanks. I was even able to fix some minor issues myself with the help of a guide that some repairmen had self-published.(try doing that today)

It was time to say goodbye to an old friend.

However, all good things come to an end; for me, that was in late 2004; My fleet of C330s were showing their age. I was faced with either replacing most of my gear with other used C330s that I could find on eBay or going digital. By then, digital cameras were at the point that they were as good as film or as close as I needed them to be, and the writing was on the wall: film was on its way out.

I felt lucky that digital came into the business when it did. I had many photographer friends who had grown old with film and could not make the transition to digital. They got out of the business. I have always liked learning new things, and there definitely was a learning curve with digital. At the same time, the basics of photography remained the same, and the things that digital added were really quite amazing when you look at it from the perspective of films limitations.

I would never shoot a film again.

I could see that digital imaging had so many advantages over film. I’m not going to go into them in this article, but I realized in March of 2006, when I shot my last job on a roll of film, that I would never shoot on film again. That photo was of a group of doctors here in Visalia, and I had thought I needed to shoot it on film because they wanted a large print.

Still, when I got the photos back, I realized I wanted to Photoshop some things out of the pitcher, and I couldn’t do it with film, so I had my lab scan the image and retouch it. I should have shot it digitally to begin with. And so I have ever since.

So I miss those Mamiya C330s, but not so much that I would return to them again. In checking eBay, I see there is a resurgence in the Mamiya TLR. They are selling for more than I ever paid for them in the day and more than they sold for new. For me, that’s crazy.

I was reading a photography forum just this morning, and one poster said, “We can do so much more now than in the film days; why let film hold you back.” I can’t agree more.