We published our picks of the five best medium format cameras for beginners way back in 2016, and it didn’t take long for readers to ask for an updated list. A lot has happened since then. Prices have gone up on all of the models we recommended, tastes have changed, and we’ve had the opportunity to try many more cameras. Here are five more medium format film cameras that can get any aspiring shooter up to speed in 2019, and without breaking the bank.
Zeiss Super Ikonta B 532/16 (6 x 6 folder)
All film cameras are anachronistic, but some are more anachronistic than others. Folding cameras belong squarely in the latter camp. Even though some are still capable cameras, their archaic designs and counter-intuitive controls often turn away most casual or beginner shooters. Fortunately for those willing to brave the jungle of ripped bellows, hazy rangefinders, and indecipherable shutter mechanisms, there’s a whole world of surprisingly affordable and usable folding medium format cameras with truly amazing lenses. Our pick from this particular family of medium format cameras is the 6 x 6 Zeiss Super Ikonta B 532/16, though bear in mind that it’s probably only well-suited to a photographer who knows their stuff in 35mm already and is looking to step up to a bigger negative. There will be no metering here, so be prepared.
The Zeiss Super Ikonta B 532/16 hails from the Zeiss Ikonta line of medium format cameras, a premium line of compact folding cameras which dates back to the heyday of the type – 1929. Over time, the Ikonta line evolved, eventually leading to the much-improved Super Ikonta line. 1937’s Zeiss Super Ikonta B 532/16 in particular featured a speedy Carl Zeiss Tessar 8cm (80mm) f/2.8 along with a combined rangefinder/viewfinder, and automatic frame spacing, which is about as much as one can ask from a folder.
The great thing about the Super Ikonta is that, unlike a lot of vintage folders, you can actually use this one without pulling your hair out. There aren’t an inordinate amount of steps needed to take a picture, and the Zeiss Tessar lens, though uncoated in prewar versions, makes the experience worth it. The Super Ikonta is especially suited for shooters looking for a slower, more deliberate shooting style characteristic of medium format.
The kicker? This little experiment won’t cost much. A good example of a Super Ikonta B won’t run over $200 and some of the other Ikontas can be bought for about $75. That’s cheaper than almost any other medium format camera, and you get a genuine prewar Zeiss lens that spits out huge, beautiful 6 x 6cm negatives. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Mamiya M645 First Gen (6 x 4.5 SLR)
For those who are perpetually freaked out by old-world folding cameras and would prefer a more familiar introduction to shooting medium format film, there’s the Mamiya M645. The Mamiya M645 can be considered the little brother to the legendary RB67, but for my money it’s the more practical and useful camera, especially for those looking to dip their toes into the medium format pool.
The Mamiya M645 is a medium format SLR from 1975 that shoots a more compact 6 x 4.5cm negative, which means a couple of things. One, it makes the entire camera smaller, which puts it at a distinct advantage over larger formats. And two, it gives the shooter fifteen exposures instead of the twelve of 6 x 6 camera, or the ten of one that shoots 6 x 7 format. This makes the camera significantly more forgiving compared to most other medium format cameras without much compromise.
It’s also important to note that the M645 is a system camera, which means it offers interchangeable lenses and viewfinders. The Mamiya-Sekor C series of lenses are affordable and have been roundly applauded for decades for their sharpness and resolution, as well as for their gentle color rendition and fine micro-contrast. The interchangeable finders of the M645 also give the shooter a ton of flexibility, with optional eye-level, waist-level, metered, and even aperture priority autoexposure finders.
The Mamiya M645 might not be the least expensive camera on this list, but in terms of cameras that a new shooter can learn and grow with, it certainly beats out the rest. It’s one of the only medium format cameras suited both for the street and the studio, its lenses are some of the best in the genre, and it can be customized to any shooter’s taste. Not many cameras can lay claim to that, past or present.
Mamiyaflex C2 (6 x 6 TLR)
A more affordable entry to the medium format system camera category is yet another Mamiya, this time with two lenses instead of one. It’s the Mamiyaflex C2, from the well-known and well-loved Mamiya C-series of interchangeable lens TLRs.
In the history of pro-spec medium format cameras, the Mamiya C-series can be seen as a stopgap between the big transition from TLR to SLR. But instead of looking and operating like a weird middle Animorph, the C-series performed incredibly well. The series was well regarded among professionals for their ruggedness, versatility, and no-frills design, and remains a cult favorite among medium format aficionados today. Our pick from this series is one of the elder statesmen of the series, the Mamiyaflex C2 Professional.
The Mamiyaflex C2 Professional was the second in the Mamiya C-series, a refinement of the original Mamiyaflex C. It shared the same features that made the Mamiya C-series special – the interchangeable lenses, viewfinders (including the delightfully angular Porroflex metered viewfinder), and built in macro bellows. A few refinements were made as well; the C2 added focusing knobs on both sides of the camera, a longer, more stable base, and a redesigned lens mounting switch.
Are there technically better Mamiya C-series cameras? Yes, the C220 and C330. But those cameras have gone up in price in the last few years as more folks have fallen for the charm of the C-series. The C2 is, on average, much more affordable, mounts the same family of Mamiya-Sekor lenses, and does pretty much everything those two cameras can do. If you can do without the clout, the Mamiyaflex C2 will do the job.
Bronica SQ-A (6 x 6 SLR)
For aspiring medium format shooters, there’s one name that stands far above the rest – Hasselblad. We get it – it’s a pretty, compact, well-built, and widely revered camera that mounts some of the best lenses ever made for medium format. But for those that want something a little less expensive and a little less old-school, there’s the Bronica SQ-A, a 6 x 6 studio legend in its own right.
The Bronica SQ-A looks and operates mostly along the same lines as a Hasselblad 500C/M. It’s a 6 x 6 medium format SLR system camera featuring interchangeable viewfinders, lenses, and film backs (!). The biggest difference between this and a Hassy is that the Bronica is an electromechanical camera which, with the right finder, supports aperture-priority autoexposure, a welcome feature.
In use, SQ-A is the very definition of a workhorse. Its looks are a bit industrial, but thankfully its operation is too. The camera just goes. Flash-sync is available at all speeds owing to the leaf shutter, the autoexposure works wonderfully for outdoor on-the-go work, and if you need anything extra, the system probably has an accessory for it. It’s a professional’s camera through and through, and (one of the more affordable to boot).
Pentacon Six (6 x 6 SLR)
Last on our list is a camera Jeb reviewed very recently, the East German Pentacon Six. While not a traditional studio workhorse or a shining example of old-world build quality, the Pentacon Six is an example of the hidden pleasures of the cameras produced in the Eastern bloc, as well as an incredibly affordable and interesting system camera.
The Pentacon Six at first glance looks like an oversized 35mm SLR, and that’s pretty much what it is. It’s a medium format 6 x 6 SLR with a built-in waist level finder and a bayonet mount that enables mounting of lenses from manufacturers like Carl Zeiss Jena and even Schneider Kreuznach (if you’re willing to hunt). It’s built well, is simple to operate, and is surprisingly compact and portable for its class.
While the Pentacon Six may lack the modularity of the other cameras on the list, it absolutely makes the most out of what it’s got. For my money it’s got the most interesting story out of any camera on the list, the images it creates are gorgeous, and it’s quite affordable considering the current prices of medium format system cameras. It might not be an out-and-out professional’s camera, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot, and will serve any beginner well.
And those are our recommendations for starter medium format cameras in 2019. If these don’t strike a chord, try one from our original list. And if you know of a perfect low-price/high-quality medium format camera that we’ve not included, let us know in the comments.
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