Continuing on in our film series, an introduction to Medium Format cameras and systems (by reader request!)...

So, you think you want to shoot medium format but don’t know where to start? There are a dizzying array of medium format camera systems available, both new and used. In order to narrow down your options, ask yourself these questions... Do you want a twin lens camera or a SLR style? Manual focus or auto focus? 6x6 or 6x7? Once you’ve got your focus narrowed, your choice may become more obvious to you.

First things first. There are many different formats that make up “Medium Format”, beginning with 6x4.5. Then there is 6x6, 6x7, 6x8, and 6x9. Just for fun there is also a panorama medium format that measures 6x17.

6x4.5 gives you more frames per roll of film, and 6x9 more closely resembles 35mm in format. 6x6 is most commonly used for weddings and portraits. 6x7, 6x8, and 6x9 tend to be used more for studio work since the cameras that shoot in this size tend to be heavier and more difficult to hand-hold out in the field. All of these may be shot on either 120 or 220 film and most brands will accept a Polaroid film back as well.

Mamiya RZ67
Once you’ve decided what size you really want to shoot, that helps to narrow down what type of camera you think you want. A twin lens camera will only shoot 35mm,6x4.5 or 6x6. Depending on the brand, you may not be able to change anything such as the lens, back or prism. The Yashicamat 124 is an excellent example of a medium format twin lens camera with a fixed lens, and no interchangeable prism or back.

If you want something that looks like a 35mm camera on steroids, then you will be shooting 6x7. The Pentax 6X7 is a popular choice for that style. The square SLR box style cameras will shoot everything from 35mm-6x8 and will allow you to swap out the lens, back and prism. This is by far the largest category and includes Hasselblad, Mamiya and Bronica brands.

Pentax 6x7
Now that you’ve looked at brand and format, do you choose manual focus or auto focus? Fortunately, with many brands you can have both. Most Medium format cameras that are auto-focusing will also allow you to manually focus as well. The only real con to an auto-focus camera is the electronics. Those can always go bad and provide you with a dead camera. However, the electronics are what make the camera so desirable in the first place. The ease of use, no carrying a separate light meter, and often a built in motor-drive make the auto-focus medium format cameras a smart choice.

On the other hand, a manual camera has fewer parts to go bad and costs less. My favorite brand for a beginner is Mamiya M645 (manual focus). It’s very reasonably priced and easy to use. There are numerous lenses to choose from, although the 80mm is the “standard” and is a good place to start. You can swap out 120 and 220 inserts. You have the option of using a waist level finder or a metered prism and it’s also light enough to hand-hold. You also won’t need too many special accessories for this camera. The camera will accept any flash unit through a standard pc cord or hot shoe on the prism, and there’s even an optional motor drive available. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles on this so it’s easy to learn how to use, and the size makes it fit into small hands easily.

Mamiya 645 (manual focus)

A few things to keep in mind: If you’ve never shot with 120 or 220 film before, the most important thing to remember is not to load the film backwards (yes, I’ve done that)! If possible, ask the sales person to show you or pay close attention to the instruction book or on-line instructions. If you are used to shooting in 35mm or digital, keep in mind that you’ll get far fewer shots than you’re used to, so you’ll end up using a lot of film or become very adept at choosing your shots. For more info. on where to buy and develop film, refer to this article.

Bronica ETRS

So, with the rest of the world switching to digital, why purchase a film camera, a medium format one at that? Well, when cameras first came out in the mid 1800’s there was an outcry from portrait painters that they would all go out of business because no one would want their portrait painted any longer. While it’s true that it’s not as popular as photographs, there are still people out there that prefer a painted portrait. The same is true for film versus digital. Digital is quick, easy and cheap to print, and it’s getting better and better each year, but there are still a lot of people who prefer the “warmth” of film. Just like portrait painting, film has become a niche market. Some people are also going to (or going back to) film once they feel like they have conquered (or are bored with) digital. You can even have the best of both worlds now that many of the medium format cameras can accept a digital back or can be upgraded to do so.


Medium Format System Options:
- Bronica: ETRS, GS-1, Rangefinder, SQ
- Contax: 645 AF
- Fuji: medium format (G series)
- Hasselblad: classic MF and AF
- Mamiya: 6 and 7, 645 AF and MF, RB, RZ, Twin Lens Reflex
- Pentax: 645, 6x7
- Rollei: Medium format, Twin Lens Reflex
- + Misc. medium format: Graflex, Koni Omega, Kowa, Polaroid, various press cameras, Rapid Omega, Plaubel Makina, Minolta, Yaschica, etc. etc.

- Chris Brooks