Jumping from 35mm to 120 can at first be a bit daunting. Larger negatives mean less frames to play with, a different ratio, and a range of cameras to choose from. In the latest of our 52 Photo Tips series with photographer Stephen Dowling, we’ll show you a few of our favourite medium format cameras that you could start with.
When looking for your first medium format camera take your time in choosing, try the cameras out, go to camera shops and hold it in your hands.
Medium format means medium sized film that is inbetween 35mm and large format. 120 film is 6 cm in width and the amount of images per roll varies depending on the camera format; 6×4.5 (16 frames), 6×6 (12 frames), 6×7 (10 frames), 6×8 (9 frames), 6×9 (8 frames), and so on even some up to 6×17 (4 frames!).
Compared to 35mm, medium format uses 3~4 times as much film surface. Technically speaking, medium format film gives you clearer, crisper images with more tonality. This is due to the fact that the light-sensitive silver halide crystals, which are actually the grain of your film, are more evenly distributed as the film is larger in size, this results in less grain and more information to be collected.
Using medium format does require you to have slightly more patience as you often tend to be using more awkwardly shaped cameras and your playing with less frames too. They do take time to get used to, especially if it utilises a waist level finder instead of a eye level viewfinder. A waist level finder (WLF) is a box shaped finder where you look down at your image rather than holding the camera right in front of your eye. With waist level finders you don’t have a prism like you do in an SLR to flip the image the right way round, this can work in your advantage as your seeing the world inverted, allowing for a new perspective. The image is viewed the right way up but reversed left-to-right. WLF’s also allow you to shoot from very low perspectives, again helping with composition.
Here are some of our favourite medium format cameras that are easy to use:
Pentax 67 – A beast of a camera or as we like to call it an SLR on steroids! The lenses are beautiful on this, and they’re built like tanks, weighing in at over 1.2kg with a plain prism and F2.4 105mm lens.
On the Pentax 67 you get 10 frames, or if you have 220 film 20. Originally used by most photographers as a studio camera, it can be used well on the streets if you have the muscles for it. If you’re just coming from 35mm to 120 we would recommend this as it is completely laid out like an standard 35mm SLR.
There’s four types Pentax 6×7, 6×7 (MU mirror up), 67 and the 67II. The first three versions did not have a meter so either you can buy a hand held meter (Sekonic is a great brand and you get more accurate readings) or you can invest in the even heavier TTL Pentaprism attachment which replaces the standard prism but adds a light meter.
We’d highly recommend the 6×7, 6×7 (MU) and 67 as they’re relatively cheap (£280 – £500). Photographers such as Bruce Weber and Tim Walker use them to this day.
Rolleiflex 3.5 F – Rolleiflex (Rollei) are one of the kings in the TLR game, having made a long line of diverse high end cameras from 1929 up to 2012, when they introduced the Rolleiflex 2.8 FX at Photokina.
The Rolleiflex 3.5F is a beautifully designed and above all easy to handle camera. The first model was made in 1958, followed by model 2 and 3/3-I in 1960. You have three choices in terms of lenses Tessar, Xenotar or the Planar 75mm. The Planar tends to be, in most people’s eyes, the best one of the bunch as it’s Zeiss glass.
The entry level Rollei TLR, the Rolleicord is known to be a lot cheaper as it was originally made for amateur photographers. Although they work out a lot cheaper you don’t get the same options with lenses.
If you prefer having a range of detachable lenses then a TLR is definitely not for you, but if your looking to have continuity throughout you’re photographs then this is perfect. This does not mean that you can’t add on attachment lenses using the Rollei Rolleinar attachment close-up lens. These little lenses can create stunning results yet you can only get closer in focal lengths allowing closer focussing under 1m, they also give you a much smaller depth of field, great for portraits!
Rolleiflex cameras have been used by some of the best photographers such as Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Philippe Halsman and of course Vivian Maier.
Yashica Mat-124G – A great camera, easy to use and light weight. The design is pretty much the same as a Rolleiflex but significantly cheaper, you can pick one up for around £150/£200. Yes it doesn’t have the same mechanical qualities as the Rolleiflex and is not as ‘reliable’ as Rollei but this camera can produce great results, and is very easy to learn on.
The Yashica Mat-124G also has a great light meter, allowing you to read the light and view your setting in one place, this is definitely one of our favourite things about this camera!
The lens is a fixed F3.5 Yashinon 80mm lens and like the Rollei you can get close-up attachments too.
Hasselblad 500CM – The 500 series was born in 1957 and became a real turning point for the company as the design for that series formed the basis for Hasselblad’s product line for the next sixty years. Hasselblad built up a reputable name for it self for being the first system camera, meaning virtually everything is interchangeable: lens, prism/finder, cranking knob, and film back
The 500 series also became known as Hasselblad’s best series as it used German-made Carl Zeiss lenses with built-in leaf shutters.
If that wasn’t enough it is also known as the first camera to have gone to space as one of the astronauts on a Apollo mission brought a 500C and documented what he saw in space. From then on Hasselblad and NASA developed an extremely strong relationship.
A beautiful system camera, allowing you to switch backs so you can shoot both colour and B&W if you need to.
The prices of these can range between £350 – £800 depending on the condition.
Probably one of the most popular medium format system cameras having built a strong reputation for precision and ease. Used by Patrick Lichfield, Ansel Adams, Lee Friedlander and many more.
Mamiya RB67 – Not really recommend for the street (yet some people do if you have arms of steel) but this is a brilliant camera built like a tank and the prices for these are now ranging only between £200 – £400.
It features a swivel back allowing you to use the waist level finder for portraits and landscapes.
These are just a few of our favourites but other popular ones include Fuji GW690, Contax 645, Mamiya 6/7 (rangerfinder) all of these beautiful, reliable cameras!
After shooting with medium format cameras you will probably forget all about 35mm and realise why so many professionals choose this format to work with.