Let’s face it, film isn’t dead. If anything, film is enjoying a bit of a renaissance particularly in the realms of toy cameras and medium format cameras. In fact, you are likely reading this because you are part of that wave of photographers interested in owning your first medium format camera. Buying your first medium format camera is a big decision, not so much because of the cost, but more due to the overwhelming variety of medium format cameras available.
So where to begin? As you may have discovered on your own, there are a lot of different medium format cameras out there. Some of them are boxy, some are sleek. Some have interchangeable lenses, some don’t. Some are old, others brand new. Waist-level, eye-level, meter, no meter, square, rectangular, SLR, TLR, rangefinder. Ay carumba! Where to begin, indeed.
Begin with yourself. You know your aesthetic tastes and preferences. Hopefully you know your hopes and expectations for what kind of photography you would like to make. Give yourself a quiz by running through the following flow chart. It is designed to ask you some simple questions about your preferences and boil your resulting answers down to a few suggestions. Following the chart, you will find additional information regarding aspects of this decision making process as well as a slightly deeper look into some of the cameras listed. So if confusion rears its head, read further down.
One final note before delving on: this guide is not meant to be exhaustive. You will not see every medium format camera ever made on the chart below. There is no mention of the Brooks Veriwide, Kodak Medalist, Kiev 88, or the Holga WPC. This chart is a streamlined primer to help an aspiring medium format film photographer with little direction and lots of confusion increase the former and reduce the latter. Along those lines, the cameras mentioned below represent the most common choices made by those buying medium format cameras. So, without further ado…
Having ventured this far, you hopefully have a much better idea about which direction you are heading. In case there is any residual confusion still hanging around, let’s shed some light on a few of the more common points of discussion involving medium format camera.
Square vs. Rectangular:
Always a good place to begin the medium format discussion. By deciding early on if you are more interested in continuing to make rectangular photos or experimenting with a square frame, you can pare down the overwhelming number of options by about half. Medium format cameras generally produce negatives in one of four sizes: 6×4.5cm, 6x6cm, 6x7cm or 6x9cm. Many of the most popular medium format cameras are part of the 6x6cm branch. The format of the camera determines how many exposures you can fit on one roll: 6×4.5cm gives you 15 or 16 depending on the specific camera, 6x6cm has 12 exposures per roll, 6x7cm is ten frames a roll and 6x9cm a mere eight exposures before reloading.
TLR vs. SLR:
This stands for Twin Lens Reflex and Single Lens Reflex. If you are coming from a digital or 35mm film background you likely already have experience with SLR cameras. TLR cameras are boxy cameras that sport two lenses on the front of the camera. The top lens is used for viewing, usually via a waist level finder on the top of the camera, and the bottom lens is the taking lens; it is responsible for exposing the image on the film. TLRs are unique looking, quiet and relatively lightweight and small. They have become very popular choices amongst photographers venturing into the medium format realm for the first time.
Unlike TLRs and SLRs, rangefinders do not use a lens for viewing and focusing, instead opting for a separate focusing window in the body of the camera. Since you are not seeing through an actual lens, you do not see the effect of focus, depth of field or flare. The upside is rangefinders have no behind-the-lens mirrors (which are required by SLRs and TLRs), making the cameras smaller, lighter and much quieter. Rangefinders can be easier to focus in lower light conditions but more tricky to focus on moving subjects, unless one is very well practiced.
You cannot really have a discussion about medium format without talking about Holga and Lomography. These cameras occupy a branch of medium format photography characterized by cheap (or at least cheaply made) cameras designed to give quirky and unpredictable results. The relatively low cost (though some of Lomo’s cameras can be quite expensive) and unpredictable effects are the defining traits of this branch of cameras. You can include old folding and box cameras in this section for the same reasons. Historically mass produced and therefore easy to find, an old Kodak box camera can be a fun way to get one’s feet wet in the ocean of medium format photography before taking the full plunge. All these cameras tend to produce low quality results and don’t usually provide the photographer with much control in terms of shutter speeds, aperture or focus.
If autofocus is a primary concern of yours I would advise against medium format. There are medium format cameras capable of autofocus but they are nowhere near as fast as their DSLR or 35mm SLR cousins. If speed is not your main reason for wanting an auto-focus medium format camera then look at the Hasselblad H system, the Mamiya 645 AF or a Contax 645; be prepared to spend a pretty penny for any of these cameras though. A less expensive alternative is the Pentax 645N and 645NII.
Camera specific notes:
Hasselblad 500C/M – If you have the budget you can potentially buy your last medium format camera first. Long considered a pinnacle of camera evolution, Hasselblads are sublime mechanical cameras with some of the best lenses ever made. A full kit (including the body, film back and lens) usually starts close to $1000 and can quickly get more expensive based on the model and vintage you are buying. Considering that some DSLRs cost three times as much and that Hasselblads make negatives 3-4 times the size of a full frame DSLR, the Hasselblad makes a compelling argument not only for photographers who like the aesthetic of the older camera but are interested in getting as high quality an image as possible.
Mamiya 645 – Once the main camera used by professional wedding and portrait photographers, the Mamiya 645 cameras got left by the wayside when the digital revolution began and the aforementioned photographers transferred to DSLRs. The 645 branch of medium format is full of cameras that are very well built, produce excellent images and yet are dirt cheap. Additionally, with the surfeit of these cameras on the market and most buyers opting for Hasselblads, TLRs or other cameras, competition for 645 cameras is very light. Cheap, easy to find, excellent quality, versatile. What’s not to like?
Mamiya RB67 – If you are a studio photographer you cannot really find a better value than the RB67 or RZ67. True, these cameras are beasts. Large, heavy and about as easy to hand-hold as a car battery, the RB67 belongs on a tripod in a studio. But once ensconced there, they really shine. Their modular design allows you to not only change out lenses, but film backs and finders as well. These cameras use a leaf shutter in the lens providing flash sync speeds up to 1/500th of a second. Their focusing rails also make use of a built-in bellows permitting them to focus much closer than many other medium format cameras, making them great for product photography or still life.
Pentax 67 – They look like a normal 35mm SLR on steroids. They handle just like one too. If implementing the 6×7 format in the field interests you and the price of the Mamiya 7 does not, the Pentax 67 is a great option. This beast is surprisingly easy to hand-hold and operate for a camera of its size. They also boast exceptionally nice lenses. If you go looking, make sure to pick up a later model 67 body that has mirror lock up. The earliest version of the 67 lacks a mirror lock up switch which is handy to have with this camera’s giant mirror.
Mamiya C330 – Most TLR cameras do not have interchangeable lenses. On a Rollei or Yashica this helps make the camera compact but is limiting to the photographer who wants to build a versatile kit. Not only does the C330 have interchangeable lenses, but it can also focus much closer than the 3.5 feet typical of most TLRs. C330s also have parallax correction in their viewfinders to help accurately compose those close-focus exposures. The C330 was the last in a line of cameras that includes the C2, C22, C220, C3, and C33. There are minor differences between all the models but in broad-stroke terms they are all similar cameras and all make good options for those looking for a TLR with interchangeable lenses.
Bronica SQ-A – Bronica are the darkhorse underdogs of the medium format world. Due to the earliest Bronica S camera’s lack of reliability, they do not have a terribly great reputation. Later Bronica models were built in a much better fashion and as long as you avoid those first model S cameras you will probably have little to no troubles with the Bronica system in terms of durability. Of course, Bronica didn’t support any of their systems for nearly as long as Pentax, Hasselblad or Mamiya so finding accessories, lenses or spare parts can be tricky. Still, they make an excellent bargain option for someone looking for decent quality optics without the money to spend on a Hasselblad.
There you have it – enough information to be dangerous. The world of medium format photography is a vast place: large plains of well-established knowledge combined with a plethora of nooks and crannies for adventurous explorers. This vastness can be intimidating and even confusing to the uninitiated photographer. If you are eager to learn even more, here is our suggestion: tell your boss you are going to take an extra long lunch, get in your car, drive on over to Blue Moon Camera, then spend an hour at the counter holding cameras and generally geeking out with our staff. Be warned though, you may just end up leaving with a happy new addition to the family.