Desert Island Cameras No. 08 – Medium Format Edition

Desert Island Cameras No. 08 – Medium Format Edition

2800 1575 James Tocchio

I’d forgive you if you’re not familiar with our Desert Island Cameras feature. It’s been exactly six months since the last installment, after all. Blame the editor. Now let’s get you up to speed.

Our Desert Island series is a recurring set of articles in which the CP writers and I draw on our unusually deep knowledge of special cameras to answer the question “If you could only have one camera of a certain type or from a certain brand, which would it be?”

And more importantly, we want you to tell us what your pick would be in the comments section.

In previous Desert Island Cameras articles we’ve picked from our favorite brands, picked our favorite film, discussed Leica with Bellamy Hunt (Japan Camera Hunter) and talked all things Pentax with former President of Pentax U.S., Ned Bunnell. Last time we talked about a camera type, the rangefinder, and today we’re picking our ultimate medium format film camera. This should be fun.

Jeb’s Pick – Rollei 6008

When picking a medium format camera to take to a deserted island, my first tendency was toward practicality. It seemed a sensible choice to pack a camera that was tough as a rock, used above a 6×4.5 negative ratio, and wasn’t reliant on batteries if it’s to last me the rest of my sunburned life. But we shouldn’t discount the value of appearance and optical superiority. So while my first instinct was something Russian and utilitarian, I’m instead going German with the Rollei 6008.

There’s a big difference between the Rollei that was famous for its medium format cameras for more than fifty years and the company that’s known today mostly for its nostalgia films and brand licensing. The 6008 was decidedly a product of the old Rollei — it’s an incredibly well-made and feature-rich camera boasting an uncompromising selection of exceptional lenses.

Medium format cameras generally aren’t known for having many bells and whistles. In fact, some of the best MF cameras don’t even have a light meter. But the 6008 is an exception to the rule. it’s got enough features to make it feel more like a professional 35mm SLR.

Multiple metering modes, shutter speeds up to 1/1000th of a second, interchangeable film backs, exposure compensation, mirror lock-up, variable flash sync, depth-of-field preview — shall I go on? Okay. Automatic film transport. Lenses from Zeiss, Rollei and Schneider. That’s still not everything. The 6008 is a professional’s camera — a medium format camera that wants to get out of the studio and show that it’s capable of handling any real-world photographic challenge.

And it doesn’t hurt that I love its design, with its black and green and red coloring, its mix of metal and rubber, its rotating and lockable hand grip, and that Euro-in-the-eighties all-lowercase sans serif typeface. Desert island or not, the Rollei 6008 is very likely the only camera I would ever need.

See what James thought about the Rollei 6008 in our review.

Charlotte’s Pick – Bronica SQ-A

My choice for the one medium format camera I’d take to a desert island is the humble, solid Bronica SQ-A. It was my first medium format camera, and like the cheap tank of a car in which most people learn to drive, you never forget your first. Paired with a 50mm f/3.5 lens, it’s the perfect combination of simple design and easy-to use operation (though that doesn’t mean my first shot won’t always be accompanied by swearing, removal of the dark slide, then shooting again).

My model is missing its winder crank, but as I tend to shoot handheld with the speed grip attached, that makes no odds to me. With a huge, clear waist-level viewfinder and the shutter button moved to a more ergonomic position, street (well, jungle) and candid photography is easy. Mind you, the loud shutter slap would probably scare away some of the more timid inhabitants of my desert island – it’s definitely not discreet. The only feature I’d miss is a proper B mode – imagine the star trails you could capture at night, on a deserted island.

Paired with a slow Ilford black-and-white film (Delta 100 would be my choice), a nice dark cave to develop in, and a volleyball to whom I could explain my motivations behind each shot (poor Wilson), I think I’d be happy for a good long while. And if it stopped working due to sand or salt, I could still use the hefty Bronica to easily crack open coconuts.

Chris’ Pick – Mamiya Super 23

The primary issue with picking a desert island camera is deciding whether to follow the head, or the heart. My heart adores the Pentax 67. This is easily explained. The Pentax Spotmatic is one of my favorite cameras of all time, in all of its rugged, compact simplicity, and the Pentax 67 is the same camera writ large. It’s a super-sized Spotmatic with the glorious addition of a contoured wooden handle for ergonomic and brawling purposes. The Pentax 67 offers solid ergonomics, top notch Takumar glass, and decades of variants to choose from.

Yet if I’m being wise, I would follow my head. And I believe the wise choice is the Mamiya Super 23. The Mamiya system contains a total of ten lenses and an array of interchangeable backs ranging from 6×4.5 to 6×9, effectively broadening the range of available focal lengths. While the stamped-aluminum Mamiya may lack the Pentax’s appealing form, it is a functional masterpiece. The brick-like Mamiya offers a tilting bellows mount for the interchangeable film backs, rangefinder coupling, and switchable framelines for 100/150/250mm lenses. That’s serious versatility. 

All of this ignores the system’s greatest merit – Mamiya’s glorious lenses. They’re contrasty, resistant to flare, and all feature leaf shutters allowing flash-sync at all speeds. Removing the film back and affixing a ground-glass screen allows the shooter to rapidly re-angle the film plane and focus with ease.

It moves, my word, it moves.

This ingenious system allows the Mamiya to achieve a greater degree of creative flexibility than with virtually any camera I’ve come across. If I’m stuck on a desert island with the Mamiya for the rest of my life, at the very least I’ll never be bored. 

See Chris’ full review of the Mamiya Super 23.

James’ Pick – Hasselblad 500 C/M

The Hasselblad 500 C/M is an obvious and somewhat boring pick – but hear me out. Before I’d ever held or even seen a Hasselblad in the metal, I’d shot plenty of medium format cameras. I’d even shot many MF cameras that were at least somewhat influenced by the design of the Hasselblad – Mamiya’s RB and RZ, the smaller 645 format SLRs from Pentax and others. I’d always come out of those experiences wondering, “How much better can a Hasselblad be?”

The first time I held a Hasselblad, that question was answered. The difference is profound.

It starts with its size. The Hasselblad is easily held in the hand, unlike a lot of medium format cameras, and there’s really no comparing it to some other SLR style machines. Different beasts entirely, but look for example to the Pentax 67. Shooting the 67 is like wearing a rubber boot clamped tight in the jaws of a rusty bear-trap, while the Hasselblad is like dancing in a glass slipper.

Its ergonomics are surprisingly perfect. There’s a simplicity of control that just feels wonderful. Everything is where it needs to be, and there’s really nothing here that we won’t use regularly.

Lastly, its build quality is unrivaled. The Hasselblad 500 C/M is such an elegant camera that it makes other machines seem like tractors. Its clockwork mechanisms whirr and click and ratchet into place with a precision that I’ve never felt in another medium format camera. Advancing the film and cocking the shutter is like winding the mainspring of a wristwatch, where the incremental advance of gears can be felt through the fingertips. It’s an impossible thing to quantify, and I wouldn’t have believed it myself before I’d spent a few months with one. But the Hasselblad really is that good.

I mean, NASA brought a Hasselblad to the Moon, right? That’s about as much a desert island as one will find.

Josh’s Pick – Rolleiflex 2.8 Planar

West Coast hip-hop legend DJ Quik once said, “Life is much too short for you to not be fly.” I agree. So for this medium format desert island article, I’m picking the flyest of all medium format cameras to take to the grave – the Rolleiflex 2.8 Planar.

The Rolleiflex 2.8 Planar is the TLR all TLRs wish they could be. It’s gorgeous, and the envy of shooters, collectors, and manufacturers alike. Its beautiful Art Deco design has been widely copied, but its ergonomics, imaging capability, and signature high quality of build has never been matched. None of the Rolleiflex TLR copies have the same charm and raw quality as the real thing, and I suspect that no other medium format camera out there does either.

Visual appeal and legendary mystique aside, what makes the Rolleiflex 2.8 truly great is its lens. The Carl Zeiss 80mm f/2.8 Planar found on the Zeiss variants of the Rolleiflex 2.8 is my favorite lens on any format or system, film or digital. It’s one of the only lenses I know of that offers smooth, understated vintage character while also producing a technically incredible image. Modern lenses with modern accoutrements may produce sharper images, but none of them can recreate the look of an old school Carl Zeiss 80mm f/2.8 (for proof, see my full review).

Other medium format cameras may be able to shoot different formats, mount different lenses, and change between different films on the fly, but none of them can make an image pop quite like a Rolleiflex 2.8 Planar. It might look a little ostentatious these days but hey, life’s way too short for you to not be fly.

And those are our picks. Pretty amazing machines, but what do you think? Was your favorite medium format camera mentioned or passed over? Let us hear about it in the comments.

If you like this piece, check out the rest of our Desert Island Cameras series to see which camera we’d choose if we could only have one.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Marcus didius falco (@falcos2012) December 12, 2018 at 8:52 am

    Canny article:) My choice would be a TLR-like my Yashica 24:) Light, easy 2 carry, easy 2 load etc. And I would get 24 shots as opposed 2 other similar cameras!

  • Great choices, and as for every Desert Island camera pick it’s a tough choice… My old Rolleiflex Tessar 3.5 comes first in mind if I had to choose one medium format… But the Bronica RF645 would also be a great choice…

  • I would vote for the Mamiya C330 TLR. It is quiet and vibration free. It has some lens interchangeability. Parralax is not really an issue unless you are shooting close-up and it is correctable with the Paramender. The Yashicamat 124G would be my second choice.

  • My desert island would be a Rolleiflex 2.8. Looking down through a WLF on a TLR is so, so lovely, it’s a lot of fun to use, and it takes the best photographs I have ever seen from a camera–any kind of camera.

    Looking at the other comments so far, it sounds like the TLR gets the people’s choice award!

    • You’re right about TLRs. They’re a really special type of camera. I was very close to choosing the Minolta Autocord (my first medium format camera) and our writer, Josh, planned to choose the Rolleiflex 2.8 that you mentioned! He ran out of time before the publishing deadline, but we may add his choice in later if he gets it penned.

      Great choices so far in the comments.

  • Ľubomír Brindza (Halka) December 12, 2018 at 10:41 am

    Charlotte, while the SQ-A does not have a bulb mode; you can grab long exposures using a ‘T’ mode switch on the lens 🙂 (at leas I _think_ all of the lenses have that). I’ve used it to photograph lightning at night. Just don’t forget to flip it back 😛

  • My pick? Folmer & Graflex Miniature Speed Graphic. It was the most advanced camera for its time and not too many cameras have been able to match it’s capabilities until not too long ago. Imagine a camera that does not require batteries, has a focal plane shutter that offers many shutter speeds, can take different film formats in different size formats, has a backup shutter if you use a leaf shutter equipped lens, can take barrel lenses, etc. Sure, it doesn’t have some modern amenities but it gets the job done. You can shoot 2X3 sheet film if you can find some, 120 roll film in 6X4.5, 6X6, 6X7, and 6X9 interchangeably by simply changing the back. Some people even load Instax film into 2X3 film holders and capture images using that, though, it’s not exactly instant. I shoot landscapes and an occasional portrait and this camera will allow me to slow down and take my time capturing these. Sure, it was intended and equipped to be a fast handling handheld camera, complete with rangefinder and sports finders, but, I shaved a considerable amount of weight by removing all of that relying on framing and focusing on the ground glass back. It’s not for everyone, but, it suits me just fine. It’s also a gateway camera for larger formats like 4X5 since the workflow to capture an image is pretty much the same as using a large format camera.

  • I’m assuming this desert island has a fully supplied darkroom, but no computers, so the basic premise (film) is a good one. I’m also assuming Amazon won’t deliver batteries there, so fully manual is required (sunny 16 would almost always work). The island would have a lot of sand, so I don’t want interchangeable lenses. Desert islands being on the small size, I’d want a wide-angle lens (I don’t want to stand out in the water to photograph the palm trees and get eaten by sharks). So my camera would be . . . the Fuji GSW690III!

  • I think I would choose a mamiya 6. I borrowed one from a friend once ant it was sooo fun. the other camera I might choose would be a Hasselblad swc to take excellent wide landscape shots of the island or maybe just a 503 with a 50mm lens (This zeiss lens is amazing)

  • On a desert island the first thing I’d look for is shelter. The RB67 is big and robust enough to house a small group of castaway photographers for many months until help arrives.

    Silliness aside, I’d pick the C220 which was my first MF camera. It’s built like a tank and doesn’t have batteries or a light meter so it will work for years. Have to get up to scratch with my Sunny 16’ing though.

    • haha.. yeah, I remember the time when I didn’t need to go to fitness center.. just lug a RB67 around and you’ll reach your peak in a week

  • My choice for medium MF desert island would most humble and probably one of the most reliable one cameras ever made, Kodak Brownie No. 2 F. Of course it is very limited spec camera but in the other hand there’s not much can break either. Hasselblad went to the moon but this particular Brownie has survived 87 years without pampering. Only service it probably had when I cleaned it’s lens last year. Loaded with 100 ISO Tmax and lots of creativity it would be my ideal desert island MF camera. 🙂

  • For the most universal I would pick the Mamiya RB 67 together with the ultrasharp 4,5 140 Macro.
    But from the joy aspect the Pentax 67 with the amazing bokeh monster 2,4 105 lens.

  • Ya know i love all these picks! It’s hard to go wrong when u step up to MF thanks to that big honkin slab o film. But u can go wrong! I had a new old stock Lubitel 166 Moscow Olympics edition. Terrible focusing screen but a really characterful lens. First roll was great, sold a few images. 2nd roll for some reason I only got 8 shots when there should have been 12. 3rd roll – 6 shots! Yep after one roll the film transport mechanism had broken….

    Now I’m using Rolleiflexes, Fuji GW690, Hassel H1, and my fave – Brooks Plaubel Veriwide 100. The Veriwide has the 35mm equivalent of a 21mm lens and phat 6×10 negs with a soft silky smooth shutter release unlike the GW690’s sproing!

  • Straight up my desert island pick would be the Pentax 67II, fully kitted out with the metering head and the full selection of lenses and bellows for macro close ups for those tiny crawling insects that share the island with me and the swimsuit fashion model, so ubiquitous with the 67 Pentax. Naturally with the addition of the lovely wooden handle on the camera so that I could club off any dangerous wild beasts that may attack me. The upgrade from the 6×7 and 67 versions to the 67II is just sublime, it keeps all of the great handling feel of a modern SLR teamed up with an amazing choice of lenses from fisheye to super telephoto as well as specialist use lenses such as the Leaf Shutter Portrait lenses as well as the very 80’s Soft Lens. But mostly it is just to hear that wonderful thwack as you press the shutter button to take a shot……..

  • Initially I was going to pick Mamiya 7, unfortunately it’s an electric camera.
    Must resort to something mechanical… guess I’ll pick Graflex Norita 66. Think of the little brother of Pentax 67 🙂

  • My goodness. So many wonderful cameras…and some not even listed .But really…the questions are: for how long would one be on the island…is there any electricity on the island…and things of that nature. I will answer under the pretence that I would be on the island for maybe 5 years…no electricity available and have as many rolls of film of my choice and a dark bag to store them.
    With that said, just about any camera which does not require batteries would work. Would half to have a light meter though…so personally I would choose a Gossen Luna Pro (any model). The battery lasts a very long time…so not to worry. Now….personally I would choose the following, in defending order (maybe):
    Hasselblad 500 CM
    Any Rolleiflex TLR
    Mamiya C330 Pro S or F
    Mamiya RB 67
    Pentax 67
    And any others you could help me name. Hey…maybe I should try this???

  • Bronica S2A. Fully modular, fully mechanical, no battery needed, no electronics to die. Focal plane shutter in camera with 1/1000s, faster than most leaf shutter based alternatives. Back can be switched out with shutter cocked! All kids of backs are available, I have a 6×6 and 6×4.5. Really ingenious lens mount system with an outer larger mount and inner mount that allows adaption of large format lenses (with leaf shutters), a bellows system or native lenses with leaf shutter if desired etc., most lenses are excellent Nikkor lenses. The whole system is super inexpensive still. A great condition S2A with standard Nikkor lens, waist level viewfinder and back will set you back ~USD500 currently, minor maintenance might be required to fix the foam seal issue typical for these cameras.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio