Getting into medium format can seem a bit daunting at first, especially since much of the equipment you find costs hundreds or thousands of dollars. However, it is possible to get into medium format and do quite a bit without spending am exhorbitant amount of money. I started my foray into medium format with a Rolleicord V I picked up for $125, and only last year upgraded to my Bronica ETRSi. If $125 seems too expensive, you can still find a number of folding cameras with good coated lenses for $50 or less, and actually start out in medium format at less expense than a 35mm point and shoot! However, if you’re on a budget or not, there are a few things to keep in mind about medium format.
The quality of medium format images far surpasses 35mm. Even older medium format cameras with uncoated lenses are capable of taking photographs which will have more shadow detail and create better enlargements than a modern 35mm AF camera.
Medium format equipment is almost always fully manual. Automatic exposure is a luxury found only on current professional level equipment. Don’t expect a built-in meter, either. Expect to use a hand held meter or have your 35mm camera around to meter.
Film can be a bit harder to find and a bit more expensive to process, so keep this in mind (unless you do your own black and white photography, in which case it cost’s about the same as processing some 35mm film, but you will need an enlarger and lens capable of printing the negatives). However, film itself will be the same price as 35mm (and in some cases, less)
Now down to business – the cameras! If you have questions, comments, or additions, please e-mail me.
Believe it or not, there are a number of great medium format cameras available for very little cost. There are a number of old folding cameras which take 120 film in a variety of formats, from 6×4.5, to 6×6, to 6×9. The Agfa Isolette is a good example; it can be bought for $50-75 (or less), has a decent lens on it, and takes 120 film in 6×6 format. However, please keep in mind that these cameras will not offer the best results or the greatest features – they are nice medium format starter cameras, but the lenses are often not the sharpest and it’s hard to find a coated lens. But if you’re just interested in trying things out or want a cheap medium format camera to carry around, the folders are *great*.
Also available in this price range are the Holga and Lubital cameras. The Holga is a $20 “Diana”-type camera which takes 120 film. The image quality is poor, but they can be fun cameras to play with. The camera (and other “Diana”-types) have a cult following as some people enjoy the look of the images produced by the camera. The Lubital TLR is another plastic camera, but offers better quality than the Holga. The image quality isn’t the greatest, but at $40 new these cameras offer a great deal without the expense typically associated with medium format equipment. To simply test medium format and get an idea of what it’s like, the Lubital or one of the older folding 120 format cameras provide an excellent opportunity without leaving your wallet empty.
In this price range, I recommend finding a good quality TLR. The Yashicamats are excellent, though I feel the124 and 124G are a bit overpriced (though they do have a built-in meter unlike most other TLR’s in this price range). You should be able to find an older Rolleiflex in this category as well – an Automat with Xenar lens or a Rolleicord III, IV, or V. My personal favorite in this category is the Rolleicord V. Yashica A and C models are also excellent and can be found for under $100. Another popular camera in this range is the Minolta Autocord. In terms of new equipment, you can find the Chinese-built Seagul TLR for about $200-250.
This is where things start to get interesting. On the lower end of this range are some of the better Rolleiflex TLR’s, such as the MX and MX-EVS. A 3.5E would also fit in this range, but towards the mid to upper end of this category. Another excellent option is to find a Mamiya C-series camera with lens. The Mamiya TLR’s offer interchangeable lenses and a multitude of finders, from prisms to metered chimney finders. In this range, you can expect to find a C-3, C-33, or C220 with 80mm lens (though sometimes you can find one of these with lens for a $150-200!!!). For more information, check out the Mamiya TLR FAQ, which offers complete information on the cameras.
Another great option in this category is a Koni-Omega Rapid. There are a few different models – the plain Rapid, the 100, and the 200 (I think). The Rapids are 6×7 rangefinder cameras with interechangable lenses and film backs. These gems are relatively easy to find, cost between $250 and $350 for a complete camera. Although I have not used one myself, the cameras have an excellent reputation both for reliability and optical quality. The available lenses are a 60mm, 90mm, and 180mm, if I remember correctly. If anyone has a link to a FAQ for these cameras, please let me know. The Mamiya Press/Universal/23 cameras also fall into this range, and like the Koni-Omega have solid reputations.
In this category, there are only 2 real options – Mamiya C220/C330 TLRs or an older Bronica SLR such as the S2a or the EC. I exclude Rolleiflex at this point as I feel the cameras in this price range are simply not worth the price; the quality is excellent and the optics are top-notch, but for the same price you can find a Mamiya or Bronica and gain the advantage of interchangeable lenses.
The Mamiya C-series TLRs, as mentioned earlier, offer interchangable lenses and finders. In this range, your best bet is a C220 or C330, which were the latest cameras in the Mamiya series. They still have a solid following by wedding and professional photographers, and the black lenses offer excellent image quality. Expect to pay $400-500 for a body with lens, and another $150-300 for each additional lens you buy. Lenses range from a 55mm to a 250mm and are widely available; just check out the dealer ads Shutterbug Magazine. The only downside to these cameras (beyond the usual TLR parallax issues) is weight – these cameras are significantly heavier than Rollei TLR’s and weigh as much as many of the modern SLR cameras.
As for the older Bronica SLR’s, they can be one of the best bargains out there. These cameras offer interchangeable lenses and backs, a features usually found only on current professional level equipment. The lenses are relatively cheap and are very easy to find, especially since there are so many of the darn things. A number of different manufacturers made lenses for these cameras, including Nikon. If you want to get a medium format SLR but can’t afford one of the current SLR’s, these cameras offer a worthy compromise. A body with lens and back can often be found for $400-600, and additional lenses aren’t very expensive. For more information, visit the Classic Bronica Homepage.
It should also be noted that at the upper end of this range (around $700-800), you start finding some of the older versions of modern 645 cameras. A Bronica ETR with 75mm MC and 1 latch back or Mamiya 645 (original, J, or maybe even a well used 1000s) with prism, 80mm lens, and insert is available at this price range. These cameras are simply the outdated versions of the current models, and thus lack certain features but offer compatibility with current lenses and most of the current accessories. If you would prefer to invest in a modern system but cannot afford to purchase new equipment, these cameras can be bargains. However, if you just want to have fun with medium format and you aren’t concerned with expanding into a modern system, I think the Mamiya TLRs or older Bronica SLRs are a better buy.
In this range, you have a decision to make – do you want an extensive multi-lens medium format system, or a modern SLR? If you would prefer to get a complete system with a number of different lenses right now, I recommend the Mamiya TLRs. Professional results, and for about $1000 you could easily find a C220/330 and have 3 black series lenses – a 65mm, 80mm, and some sort of telephoto (something in the 105-180mm range).
However, if you want a modern SLR, then at this range you can easily find what you need. I recommend checking out Danny Gonzalez’s Medium Format Overviews for an idea of what the modern systems offer, and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Expect to pay at least $1000 for a modern SLR with body, lens, back, and finder.