For many film photographers, medium format film and the cameras that shoot it are the next and last logical step. The larger image area of medium format film provides depth and quality that’s hard to replicate with smaller formats, and some of the finest medium format cameras provide a truly magnificent user experience.
But for new and would-be medium format photographers, the ever-shifting landscape of the hobby can be a bit daunting. Of the hundreds of available medium format cameras, how can we possible know which is the one to buy?
I’ve meticulously selected five of the best medium format cameras that one can buy today, each with its own unique reason for being. Since we’re just starting out, the cameras are arranged by type, which will help would-be users who may not know what they want. I’ve also tried to keep the cameras on this list limited to those with reasonable prices. (I break this rule only once.)
For old school sophistication, buy a Minolta TLR
Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) cameras; one glance and we know we’re holding an old world piece of machinery. They’re as much jewelry as they are highly functional photographic tools, and I mean that in the best way possible — TLRs are gorgeous, and can make gorgeous photos.
TLRs have two major features which differentiate them from most other cameras. First, they shoot square images. Second, they have two lenses, one which acts as a focusing screen viewfinder through which the photographer looks to frame the shot, and a second lens which is used to actually expose the film.
The viewfinder of a TLR is typically located on the top of the camera. The photographer peers down into it while holding the camera at waist-level. Since there’s no penta-prism as we find in most SLR cameras, the image in the viewfinder can be a bit disorienting for new shooters. But stick with it and we’re able to enjoy a unique and engaging perspective.
The most popular TLRs in the world are the famed Rolleiflex and Rolleicord TLRs. However, these camera are quite expensive today, loved for their extremely high build quality and classic characterful lenses. For new shooters looking to try a TLR, I have two recommendations.
If you’re looking for a classic TLR with a capable lens, high build quality, bright and accurate focusing screen, and easy-to-learn all-manual controls, buy the Minolta Autocord. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Minolta made about a dozen different Autocord models, some with light meters and some without.
Avoid buying the Autocord L and the Autocord LMX, since these models used a selenium light meter (which in modern times will almost certainly be dead). If you require a camera with a built-in light meter, seek out the Autocord CDS II or CDS III, the only Autocords with built-in battery-powered CdS meters (these meters don’t die from age, like the selenium ones do).
An all-manual meter-less Autocord can be purchased today for under $250, and if we’re patient and careful, it’s possible to find one for under $100. I can’t overstate the value proposition of a camera this good at a price this low.
HONORABLE MENTION : Much of what I wrote about Minolta’s TLRs can be equally applied to Yashica’s TLRs. Yashica made a number of incredibly reliable, capable TLR cameras, some of which are all-manual and some of which come with light meters. Indeed, an article on this very site has gone into great detail to spotlight the Yashica TLR as a perfect first medium format film camera.
The most popular Yashica TLR is the Yashicamat 124 G, a truly gorgeous and capable camera. By the specs and the results, the Yashica and Minolta TLRs are essentially equal. I picked the Minolta because they’re less popular, and therefore less expensive today.
For those who love SLRs, Buy the Pentax 645
The Pentax 645 is quintessential Pentax. It’s affordable, easy to use and delivers quality images. It was marketed toward amateur photographers shooting their first weddings and those just breaking into the professional world. Which means it’ll be more than good enough for the brand new medium format photographer.
It offers center-weighted metering with full auto Program mode, plus semi-auto Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, as well as full manual mode. ISO ranges in 1/3 stops from 6 – 6,400 with shutter speeds of 15 seconds to 1/1,000th of a second, plus bulb mode for long exposures. Its motor drive is capable of 1.5 frames per second, which allows us to blow through a whole roll in just twenty seconds (kind of absurd).
The viewfinder has a lovely LED display. In manual mode it shows how many stops we are from a perfect exposure, which it indicates with an encouraging “Ok!” If we use the exposure compensation, a very tiny plus sign will light up when compensation is engaged. Nice touches.
It’s a relatively small and light camera, for medium format, and benefits from a truly astonishing line-up of interchangeable lenses.
All of these features combine to create a camera which, essentially, can do anything any new medium format film shooter could ever ask of a camera.
The Pentax 645 has undergone two facelifts over time: the 645N in 1996 and the 645NII in 2001. The 645N was a complete overhaul which added a more sophisticated interface, auto-focus, and matrix metering. The later 645NII added mirror-lock up. Both the N and NII are much more professional-oriented cameras, but that comes at a price. They cost double or triple the cost of an original 645.
For budget-conscious film photographers looking for a solid medium format SLR camera, the original Pentax 645 is it. Importantly, it also leaves enough money left over to buy the most important ingredient for growth – lots and lots of film.
HONORABLE MENTION : The Mamiya 645 series of cameras can be very similar to the Pentax 645. The oldest version of the Mamiya is a full-manual camera, but later models offer various degrees of semi-auto and full-auto shooting modes. Prices on these start at the same level as the Pentax, but climb significantly with the spec sheet. The Mamiya was not my first choice because the Pentax is typically cheaper.
For effortless photography, buy the Fujifilm GA645
The Fujifilm GA645 is a very special, and very modern camera. Made in 1995, it is essentially a point-and-shoot medium format film camera that makes shooting medium format as easy as… well, pointing and shooting.
Focus is automatic. Film advance and rewind are automatic. Exposure is automatic, semi-automatic, or full manual. It’s compact and portable, making it a great choice for travelers or street photographers. It even has a built-in flash. Shooting this thing is like shooting the most capable point-and-shoot film camera ever made. It’s the Canon Sure Shot of medium format!
The 60mm f/4 Fujinon Super EBC lens creates stunning images. A variant called the GA645W is fitted with a wider 45mm f/5.6 lens, though this camera tends to be more expensive than the original GA645.
The only major issue with the Fuji is that it’s relatively expensive. Indeed, it’s the most expensive camera on this list. However, there really are no other alternatives for people seeking a fully-automated point-and-shoot medium format film camera, and this one is a true wonder of modern photographic engineering. As Aldo Gucci once said, quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.
For medium format on a budget, buy an old folder
Contrary to oft-repeated opinion, it is in fact possible to buy a compact, high quality medium format film camera with a stunning lens for under $150. And I don’t mean a Holga (don’t buy a Holga). We just need to know what to look for.
Medium format folding cameras are the best kept open secret in the medium format world. Collectors and “the olds” have known about them for decades, and we can often find these photographic saints spreading the good word of folding cameras as far as their Facebook groups’ organic reach will allow.
Medium format folding cameras are essentially simple, light tight machines with shutter and lens assemblies mounted to the front of a collapsible bellows. The lens, shutter, and bellows are typically protected by a folding door, which can fold open to extend the whole business into the position needed to make a photo.
When closed, they are incredibly compact (I once used one during a vacation in Disney World). When opened for use, they can make incredible images in a variety of image formats (6 x 6, 6 x 7, and 6 x 9 are most popular).
The downside to these cameras is that they’re all manual and often lacking in any sort of focusing aids. This means that we’ll need to understand light or carry a light meter, set our aperture and shutter speed manually, and even focus by eye using the scale focus method (estimate distance to subject, set that number on the lens, and hope for the best). For this reason alone, medium format folders are not necessarily a great choice for beginner photographers. But for those who know what they’re doing in the 35mm space, the price is low enough to justify the risk.
Medium format folding cameras were made by plenty of companies – Zeiss, Agfa, Kodak, and more. Which means that their are plenty to choose from. The big peril in buying a folding camera is that we need to make sure we’re buying one that’s fully functional.
As a result of their age and their rather delicate design, folding medium format camera can be a bit fragile. When looking to buy one, make sure that the bellows are free of leaks and pinholes, ensure that the lens elements are free of haze and fungus, and confirm that the shutter and aperture function as they should.
The models that I would seek out are the Agfa Isolette, Super Fujica 6, or the Zeiss Ikonta.
For the biggest possible negative, buy a Fuji Panorama G617
I admit, this final addition to my list is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Nobody should buy this camera as their first medium format camera, and it shouldn’t be on this list. But it’s been so long since I was able to write about the G617, and I really want to do so.
Because there’s simply no other camera like the Fuji Panorama G617.
The biggest selling point for the G617 is hinted at in the name; the enormous image area. Measuring a truly massive 6 x 17 centimeters (2.25 x 6.5 inches) in a 3:1 aspect ratio, the G617 is capable of exposing unbelievably large swathes of film. First produced in 1983, it was intended to be a specialty tool for landscape and architectural photographers who were looking to expose gigantic negatives in a relatively portable camera.
It features a fixed Fujinon 105mm F/8 lens providing a diagonal angle of view of 80.3º (the approximate equivalent angle of view of a 25.8mm lens in the 35mm format). The lens’ aperture spans from a maximum aperture of F/8 to a minimum of F/45, and this sits behind a Made-in-Japan Seiko No. 0 inter-lens leaf shutter capable of speeds from 1 second to as fast as 1/500th of a second, with additional Bulb mode for long exposures and flash sync at all speeds.
Focusing is handled via the scale focus system, film advance is achieved via a thumb-powered advance lever on the top plate, and aperture and shutter speed are all adjusted via rings or levers on the lens. Multiple exposures are possible by resetting the shutter with the lens-mounted lever and firing it again via the release on the lens without advancing the film between shots.
Essentially, that’s all there is to the Fuji G617. It’s just a gorgeous specialty camera made for creating super-wide, extremely massive images on medium format film. And if you want to see what it can do, check out my review here.
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