Thinking about buying a medium format film camera? British editorial and documentary photographer, Richard Beaven and Australian photographer, Thomas Brown share their photographs and insights on the best medium format film cameras out there.
You’ve made the decision to invest in a medium format film camera. It’s a big step and an assertion of your commitment to the medium of photography. With a greater size in film comes greater cost, but most importantly, greater resolution.
Before we take a look at some of the best medium format film cameras on the market, we need to understand a few technical differences that set each of them apart and may inform your purchasing decision.
The Difference Between 35mm & 120 Film
The chief difference between 35mm and 120 film, and large format film, is the size of the film. For 35mm and large format these numbers are pretty set in stone unless you’re experimenting with panorama or custom cameras. With 120 film on the other hand, the size of the film depends on the camera.
If you’re wondering what film negative size a medium format camera produces, often the camera’s names will subtly include, or not so subtly include its film size. For example, the Mamiya 645 produces 6 x 4.5cm film, the Mamiya 6 produces 6 x 6cm film, Pentax 67 does 6 x 7cm, and the Fuji GWS690 Series does 6 x 9cm.
Before you go gung ho for the biggest negative out there, you need to factor in the economics of the film as each of the different negative sizes will chew through a different amount of film per roll. You know how 35mm film comes in rolls of 36 frames? Well unfortunately, 120 film at best, will give you 15 shots per roll on a camera that produces a 6 x 4.5cm negative. But don’t let that deter you. As evidenced in this meme, there’s a bit of theory (in jest) about the Evolution of Photography and the exposures versus keeper ratio.
TYPICAL FRAME SIZES
6 x 4.5 = 15 shots per roll
6 x 6 = 12 shots per roll
6 x 7 = 10 shots per roll
6 x 9 = 8 shots per roll
The other thing worth mentioning is that as a general rule of thumb, you can halve the medium format lens focal length to receive an approximate full-frame equivalent i.e. 100mm on a medium format film camera is 50mm on your regular DSLR. There’s a great resource explaining more about medium format crop factors here.
Let’s take a look at some of the best medium format film cameras for beginners and introduce you to Port Macquarie based photographer, Thomas Brown — a medium format film camera fanatic with experience in a wide range of both 35mm and 120 cameras.
Throughout this article you’ll find examples of Brown’s attentive desire to capture the quotidian existence of life on the South Coast of New South Wales, Australia. Brown adamantly patrols the streets and highways of this stretch of coastline documenting life through the lens of various film cameras and film stocks. Brown kindly shares his insight on a handful of the cameras discussed.
The Rolleiflex has significantly contributed to the romanticisation of the art of photography. If you’ve seen a black and white self-portrait from the mid-twentieth century, there’s a great chance this oddly vertical-shaped camera is in the frame, most notably in the hands of James Dean, Richard Avedon and of course, Vivian Maier.
“The waist-level viewfinder also adds a certain layer of discretion.”
The vertical build of the camera allows a twin-lens reflex system (one lens is for picture taking while the other is for the viewfinder) and creates waist-level viewing through the finder, which has come to be known as a hallmark of medium format photography. Moving from 35mm cameras to this format allows a transition to older photographic traditions such as different ways of seeing and composing an image.
“There is something special about composing through the waist level viewfinder of a Rolleiflex, it makes for a fun and unique experience,” Brown says.
Technically, the short superior lenses of the Rolleiflex contributed to its overall compactness and light weight (no doubt a welcome change from its predecessors), paving the way for a generation of photographers who were able to handhold and quickly focus exposures on a fast-paced sidewalk.
Renowned for its portability, the waist-level viewfinder also adds a certain layer of discretion which, as exemplified by Vivian Maier’s entire corpus, makes this one of the best medium format film cameras for street photography.
A quick eBay search showed the Rolleiflex retailing anywhere between $100 and $5000 depending on its condition.
And if a twin-lens reflex camera is your jam, then be sure to check out the Mamiya C330 as a competitor.
It’s hard to understand the scale of this camera unless you see it held in someone’s hand. Truth be told that despite its enormity, the Fuji GW690II is incredibly light and portable. Producing the largest 120 negative out there at 6 x 9 cm, this rangefinder has to be one of the most affordable medium format film cameras on the market. The most expensive set-up I found on eBay was selling for just over $1000!
Near-mint condition bodies and fixed Fujinon lenses on average sell for anywhere between $500-$750, providing exceptional value compared to its more popular counterparts like Pentax and Mamiya.
Perhaps its lack of functions keeps its price low. It’s an all-mechanical camera with very few additional features. Some may view this negatively while others see the bare-bones approach as a bonus.
And though its body size may be intimidating for a prospective buyer, the clarity and size of the negatives it produces combined with its ease of use stakes its claim as one of the best medium format film cameras for beginners.
“Everything you need, and nothing you don’t.”
As Brown claims, “The Fuji GW690 series are simple but great tools with everything you need, and nothing you don’t.” Brown provides a great review of the GW690II on his YouTube channel here.
The Pentax 67 has a holy reputation. Everyone who wields one of these wooden handle weapons most likely has an affectionate nickname for it, like “The Brick” or “The Beast”. Mine’s called Penny, a more endearing name, which also refers to the pretty penny I paid for it.
I wrote a piece titled Best Film Cameras for Beginners where I explained just how painful and lengthy the process was in getting a Pentax 67 in my possession. I explained that I’d done my research into the camera’s common malfunctions to ensure I had leverage and coverage when ordering online. What I didn’t explain is that I’d also done hours and hours of artistic research before deciding on the Pentax 67, my Internet browser populated with photographs with creamy depth of field more akin to large format than medium.
I bought a Pentax 67 because it produces a large 6 x 7cm negative and it is generally agreed that the accompanying Takumar range of lenses are among the finest glass ever produced, the Takumar 105mm 2.4 taking the cake and hence making the Pentax 67 the best medium format film camera for portraits.
“The simplicity of the set-up forced all my creative energies into the portrait itself.”
In recent years, it’s hard to think of a body of work that exemplifies this point more than British editorial and documentary photographer, Richard Beaven’s All of Us project.
Now based in New York, Beaven completed a large portrait project documenting his hometown of Ghent for its bicentennial year. The project involved 276 portraits of Ghent residents, nearly 5% of the town’s population, all captured expertly and beautifully by Beaven on his Pentax 6×7 (earlier model) with the Takumar 105mm.
“This camera format and lens provide a normal angle of view but when everything clicks there is an extraordinary, almost mystical, relationship between the person in the photograph and their environment,” Richard says. “The simplicity of the set-up forced all my creative energies into the portrait itself and never into the technological distractions.” Beaven’s All of Us is now available for pre-orders.
So, Which One is Best?
Though breaking down the differences between each of these cameras may have been helpful, you’ll find the best medium format film camera for you by assessing your needs and not letting fear stand in your way. Once the camera’s in your hands, that first roll is developed and you see the quality of your photos increase, you’ll wonder why you took so long to make the purchase.