Photographing Australia’s High Country with the Mamiya RZ67

Hello and welcome to Field Notes!

Field Notes is my irregular blog and photo journal where I’ll occasionally share essays (& photo essays!); reviews; thoughts on culture & pop culture; behind-the-scenes from weddings, personal, and editorial projects; and anything else I feel warrants, for whatever reason, the time it takes to write and share it. This is a bit of a sketchbook - I hope to visit and update it regularly. Thanks for joining me!

I would note, for the sake of amusement if nothing else, that renowned (for better or worse) photographic agency Magnum Photos, just three days before I began my Field Notes, announced a weekly newsletter by the same name(!). My first thought: Oh dear, that’s going to absolutely ruin my SEO. My second thought: I don’t care! That’s not what this blog is about.

As to what this blog is about… About a fortnight ago, my partner Phoebe Watkins and I gleefully spurned our university studies in favour of grabbing as many cameras and rolls of film that we could possibly carry, smuggling them out to the car, and gallivanting on a righteous, spontaneous road trip through southern New South Wales. Our destination was vague: somewhere near Gundagai.

What followed was a rather lovely trip (despite us never actually stopping in Gundagai). We traced a route up into Yass before swooping down to Tumut for the night. We hit up Burrinjuck Dam for sunrise photos the following morning, before Cooma in the early afternoon, and took the ‘back road’ (literally a dirt road with some serious holes and crevices) up to Tharwa as our gateway back into the ACT.

I actually had a pretty clear plan in place for the images I wanted to make on this trip (something which came as quite the surprise to me). I’ve recently been looking at the work of a number of photographers who work almost exclusively with medium format film to make bright, airy, sparse, minimalist, colourful, and incredibly detailed landscapes. I hoped I could try my hand at that kind of work in rural NSW, and the best camera for the job was undoubtedly my Mamiya RZ67.

I’ve owned the RZ67 for over a year now. I first started in medium format film photography with an old Pentax 645, which unfortunately bit the dust when the batteries corroded, and subsequently, some of the internal electronics failed. I had high hopes for the RZ; I’d seen photographers like Rosie Matheson, George Muncey and Willem Verbeeck producing incredible work with that camera, and I’d hoped to do the same. However, the biggest impact the RZ had on my work was not actually the quality or nature of the images it’s capable of producing; rather, it was the mechanics, workflow, and ergonomics that proved most significant. Namely, the RZ67 is a very heavy camera (not quite as heavy as the Pentax 67 - which is known to produce blurry images due to it’s heavy internal mirror and resulting meaty ‘mirror slap’), and it’s a bit of a process to operate. Taking a photo with the Mamiya RZ67, even after film is loaded, requires the following steps:

1. Remove the dark slide.

2. Unlock the shutter lock and/or focus lock.

3. Rotate the film back to your desired orientation.

4. Open the viewfinder & compose your shot.

5. Take a reading with an external light meter and change your aperture and shutter speed accordingly.

6. Nail your focus.

7. Make the image.

Yikes. That’s a lot of steps, even in the world of analogue photography. That lengthy process, combined with the fact that you only have ten images per roll, means that you’re forced to be very intentional with what you decide to shoot and what you decide to pass up. For me, shooting like this has been a fantastic learning experience (when I did my first ‘photoshoot’ with a friend in high-school, I shot over 900 images in under two hours(!)); despite my final images becoming lesser in number, they have become far greater in quality.

This led me to seriously consider making landscapes for the first time, as having to deal with a heavy, cumbersome, and slow camera lends itself to only shooting landscapes that you know will turn into great images, as opposed to, in the absence of those limitations, optimistically shooting many mediocre landscapes that might turn into great images (but very few do).

And so, as we set off on the road, I applied the same rule I often apply to relationships: Hell yes, or not at all. If I saw a landscape that didn’t make my jaw drop and immediately imagine it printed and framed on my wall at home, I’d pass it up. This resulted in comparatively few landscapes compared to what I had hoped for - but at least, in my opinion, they were good ones.

I also snapped one of my favourite portraits of Phoebe that I’ve ever taken, too. She also made some really lovely photos on this trip, one of which is currently gracing her website homepage.

I have to admit that initially, I wasn’t thrilled by these images. The scans I received from the lab (shout-out to Ikigai Film Lab - I highly recommend them!) were beautiful, but not what I’d expected. I had overexposed each roll by a stop, and made sure I metered for the shadows, too - this should theoretically have produced a negative with minimal contrast and lots of detail, particularly in dark areas of the images. However, I was surprised to discover that the scans had a pretty solid black-point and white-point. I managed to compensate for this in the edit, but had hoped that the images would’ve turned out ‘flatter’ with more ‘pastel’ colours.

So I reached out to the lab for more info. Huge thanks to Ikigai for such a generous and detailed response. They essentially said that they use a standard histogram with a healthy black-point and white-point to get the best contrast out of the average photo - however, if I’d shot my rolls with a certain look in mind, they said I should just let them know in the order comments and they’ll scan accordingly. Hooray for fantastic customer service! I can’t wait to see the scans from next batch of film I send their way.

To wrap up, I think the Mamiya RZ67 is a wonderful camera for landscape photography, especially if you’re able to pony up for high-resolution scans of your film (approx. 4600px on the long edge from Ikigai’s ‘pro scans’ option). I’m hoping these will make fantastic prints when the time comes. More importantly, I was absolutely blown away by some of the scenery and vistas we encountered in southern NSW, particularly in and around Kosciuszko National Park. I’ll definitely go back there, with more film in-hand, and see what else I can find.

That’s it for the first Field Note. If you have any thoughts, comments, feedback or suggestions, or would just like to say hi, my email is hello@chriswalshcreative.com. You can also reach out via my Instagram.

Have a great day. Thanks for dropping by!

 - Chris