Tenkara is a Japanese form of fly fishing with an emphasis on simplicity. It was born in the mountains of Japan as a means of commercial fishing in times long since passed. In recent years it’s popularity has risen, particularly outside of Japan where the focus on simplicity draws people in.
The focus of Tenkara is making what you have work and doing so in a manner that is simple and elegant. Many fisherman use only one type of fly in a couple of sizes and only a couple of lines to choose from for their entire kit. There is no reel, no matching the hatch, nothing other than a line, rod and a fly; it is fishing at its purest. Photographically the equivalent of Tenkara would be to have only one camera, one lens, and few film stocks with which you had to shoot all of your photos.
Tenkara and the Mamiya 7II seemingly have little in common outside of both being made in Japan, but for me they share a great deal. I have only one Mamiya 7II camera body, two lenses, and two filters and feel that it was enough of a kit that I sold off a large amount of my gear after purchasing it. Like Tenkara, using the Mamiya 7II with little else is easy.
Similar to photography there are no rules in Tenkara, which I like. There are general guidelines which make life easier while fishing, but they are only guidelines. Similarly, in photography there are a number of rules that act more as suggestions rather than absolutes.
When I arrived in Japan I had misplaced a large sense of myself. The wedding photography I had done in the states had stopped upon my arrival and I struggled to make sense of what my life in Japan meant. The void that I felt in my professional life was largely filled by buying cameras. A lot of people I think fill the voids in their lives, or at least in their photographic lives, by buying cameras.
At the end of that journey I had few photos, had mastered none of the cameras I bought, and was largely unhappy with my choice to invest in gear rather than investing the time and emotional energy into figuring myself out. I purchased cameras in 6x6, 6x9, 6x4.5, 35mm and more in an attempt to figure out why I was struggling on a personal level only to be let down. My insanity was such that at one point I sold my 4x5” camera and all of the lenses only to purchase another, albeit “better one,” two months later.
I made a conscious decision to settle into one main camera and simplify everything which is how I ended up with the Mamiya 7II. It’s ironic, I know, that my solution to being unhappy about buying cameras was to buy another camera, but it worked. I bought the Mamiya 7II and sold off my Hasselblad, my Fujifilm GW690 III, and a number of 35mm cameras.
If the shoot doesn’t require a backup I now only travel with the Mamiya 7II and a digital point and shoot. For just about every situation I feel prepared. In the rare case that I do need a backup camera I travel with the Fuji GA645 that I reviewed previously. It’s a great travel companion as it weighs about as much as an SLR lens and has everything you need built right in.
The Mamiya 7II is not the end all be all camera, and I don’t think it’s for everyone. It has some shortcomings, but by and large it’s the best medium format rangefinder I think you can buy. A lot of people fret about the build quality of the body which is something that I honestly worried about too, but in practice it isn’t something that I notice. A lot of people were worried about the build quality of the Fuji GW690III as well since it’s outer most body is covered in a sort of rubbery plastic, but in practice it was a fine camera too with no build issues to report.
On my first outing with the Mamiya 7II, to Japan’s ancient capital Nara, the camera got a scratch in the top plate while in my camera bag. At the time it confirmed everyone else’s concerns about the build quality for me. Now, when I’m standing on the banks of the Owens River with it strapped to my back, I am not concerned. Getting the first scratch out of the way was a necessary evil and now I am only concerned about taking photos.
My Mamiya 7II kit is simple in the same way my Tenkara kit is simple. I have only two lenses, the 65mm f/4 and the 43mm f/4.5; a couple of filters, and no intention of adding anything. The lenses work so well I don’t feel the want to add to my kit.
To my eye the 65mm lens is sharper than any I have used from any manufacturer, including Leica. In some respects the sharpness is a bit of a downfall as it lacks some of the character I grew to love the character of the Zeiss lenses of the Hasselblad, but if what you’re photographing requires absolute sharpness and resolution this is your lens.
The 65mm lens is so good, in fact, that I often don’t bother with carrying the 43mm lens at all. For all around photography I think that the 65mm is your best bet. The 80mm would probably be better suited for portraits, but to my eye, the 65mm feels the most natural. The choice of a focal length here will be a lot like choosing a Tenkara line and is a matter of preference.
The Mamiya 7II is light for a medium format camera and bringing it to your eye for a photo is hardly a chore which at this hour of the day is good. The ergonomics and handling of the Mamiya 7II is one area in which it shines. In my hands it feels slightly oversized, but not overwhelmingly so. It’s just North of just right.
In use the camera is a breeze. It features Automatic Exposure and internal metering which takes a lot of the effort out from the beginning. The film advance is powered by your thumb and is located on the top of the camera. The camera is capable of shooting either 120 or 220 film. It can also shoot 35mm panoramas with an adapter.
The viewfinder of the Mamiya 7II is bright and for those who have spent time with a rangefinder focusing is a breeze. A little of the viewfinder is obscured by the 65mm with the hood affixed, but not so much so that it is problematic. On occasion the viewfinder seems to be prone to flare, it’s worth noting, but it’s nothing to write home about.
When I fish the Owens River I stop by a bend in the river where a bridge once was. It affords me a great place to sit and think about what it is in the simplicity of both fishing and photography that I like so much. My mind has this constant narrative in it that is more of a distraction than anything useful. It’s like a constant ticker running across my forehead.
The ticker reads witty things I should say, inappropriate things I shouldn’t say, and things that I need to do but will procrastinate about almost indefinitely. The beauty in Tenkara for me is that the ticker turns off when I am on the water. It matters not whether I catch fish, but that I am allowed a few hours of intense focus on something other than those words in my head. Photography operates a lot like this for me as well, something I realize after the last time I snapped a photo on the Owens River, and I thought to myself that the Mamiya 7II is a fine tool and one that is simple.