5 Best Medium Format Cameras for Beginners

5 Best Medium Format Cameras for Beginners

1600 987 James Tocchio

It happens to the best of us. At some point in the photographic journey, every photo geek is going to run into a wall. Things get stale. You’ve been shooting the same subjects with the same camera for too many years, and there’s no way to avoid the truth that you’re getting bored with photography.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way. There are things we can do to stave off the inevitable onset of photographic ennui. Traveling, shooting with friends or alone, and taking a break from shooting are all useful tools in the toolbox of every happy photographer.

But if you’ve tried all this and you’re still a bit bored, a bit blasé about this whole photography thing, the problem may just rest with your format. Crop sensors? Full-frame? 35mm film? Get real. That stuff is so dull, and puny, and pathetic. You need a bigger format! You need something with depth and charisma! You need to shoot medium format.

But with so many cameras to choose from, how do you know which is right for you?

It’s cool. We’ve got you covered.

Here’s a list of five excellent medium format film cameras for shooters new to the vast frontier of medium format.

Before we get going, you might be wondering why you should bother shooting medium format? Technically, there are some good reasons. Better image quality than 35mm, massive negatives capable of making exceptionally large and detailed prints, and a certain unquantifiable depth of imagery, to name just a few.

But beyond the technical stuff, there’s an even more important reason to shoot medium format. It’s something different. Shooting a medium format camera is something new to engage with, something new to learn. It’ll slow down your process, make you contemplate the craft, and force you to rethink the way you participate in photography (even when using your everyday camera). Medium format will help you grow as a photographer, help you see the world in a new way, and help open doors in your photographic armory that you didn’t even know existed.

Now that you’re keenly interested (and how could you not be?), here’s the list. There are many more cameras worth owning that aren’t included here, but if you choose any one of these machines as your first medium format camera you will certainly not be disappointed.


Rolleicord

We start with the machine that just might be the quintessential camera for shooters taking their first steps into the world of medium format. After all, the first Rolleicord from 1933 was conceived to fill this very niche; a quality camera for amateurs who didn’t need or weren’t willing to pay for the exceptional Rolleiflex.

These qualities that defined the camera from the 1930s through to the ’70s are the same qualities that make it easy to recommend to new shooters today. It’s a superb machine, entirely mechanical, beautifully built, and incredibly engaging. It looks like nothing you’ll see on the streets today, and when held in the hand it’s clear that one’s holding a truly purposeful machine.

Shooting the Rollei is a slow, methodical process, and that’s exactly what we’re looking for when we’re trying to break out of our photographic malaise. The massive, beautiful viewfinder is especially magical to shooters who may be coming from digital cameras or 35mm SLRs, and seeing the world through it is one of those experiences every photographer should have on a regular basis.

The 6×6 cm images it makes are just abnormal enough to be exciting, and shooters of the Instagram generation will feel right at home composing in a square. And for those who can’t do without 35mm, there’s a charming adapter that allows the Rollei to use the more modern full-frame format.

While the numerous models of Rolleicord all share the same DNA, it may be beneficial to hunt down the youngest model you can afford, since the taking lens benefitted from improvement over time. Even so, its optics never matched those of its more professional sibling the ‘Flex, but this discrepancy has happily kept the cost of these cameras lower than one would expect.

Buy it on eBay

Buy it on Amazon


Minolta Autocord

Our next machine is a camera that’s similar to the Rolleicord in many ways, so comparison seems inevitable. I reviewed the Autocord some time back, and long time readers will know I love it. It’s a camera I’ve chosen not to live without (which is a strong endorsement from someone who runs a camera shop). More than any other TLR I’ve used, the Autocord offers the perfect balance of build quality, photographic capability, and price.

While it’s not as robust or precise as the Rolleicord previously mentioned, it does trump that camera in some respects. For one, its ergonomics are better. Camera controls and focusing are simpler and more fluid than with the Rollei. Its optics are just as good (and some claim better) than its German counterpart, and its focusing screen is nearly as beautiful. Again showing similarity to its more expensive, German rival, images are made in 6×6 cm square format, which brings all the same assets and liabilities that come with the Rollei.

Where the Autocord truly trounces the competition, though, is surely economics. Where a beautiful Rolleicord can cost hundreds, it’s possible for a patient and shrewd Autocord buyer to secure one for under $100. That’s simply amazing when one considers the true value of this timeless machine.

Buy it on eBay  

Buy it on Amazon


Mamiya RB67

Up to now the cameras on our list have been TLRs, but here we have something else entirely. The Mamiya RB67 is an SLR, just like your Canon AE-1 or Nikon D810. As such, its operation is a little less archaic than the ‘Cords listed above. But that’s not to say it’ll be familiar. No, this camera will retain the perfect degree of mystery to shooters unaccustomed to medium format.

It’s easy to recommend for many of the same reasons as the Autocord; it’s strongly built, affordable, and charming. But it’s more advanced than that camera in some really important ways, not least of which is its ability to swap an incredible number of lenses, viewfinders, and film backs. Mamiya’s lineup of medium format lenses is second to very few in the MF game. Their glass produces incredible images across the range, and the prices for many key lenses are unbelievably low. The inclusion of a bellows focusing system means that any lens can be used as a macro lens, and the camera’s ability to shoot a number of different image sizes adds untold versatility to an already impressive feature set.

Of course, all this modularity comes at the cost of size and weight. The Mamiya system is large and heavy. At over 2000 grams, it’s more than double the heft of the TLRs. Does the bulk outweigh the joy offered by this glorious machine? I don’t think so. It’s a truly wonderful camera that’s worth its weight in (if not gold) film. For those with deeper pockets, spring for the more advanced RZ67.

Buy it on eBay  

Buy it on Amazon


Pentax 645

No list of great medium format cameras would be complete without a Pentax. The often-overlooked company is one of the best in the business when it comes to this sort of thing. And one of their cameras that’s easiest to both use, and recommend, is the 645.

This machine is another SLR camera with interchangeable lenses, though unlike many other medium format SLRs it lacks the ability to change film backs and viewfinders. In a way, this simplifies things and creates an ecosystem more familiar to 35mm and DSLR shooters. There’s less to think about when we’re forever shooting 6×4.5 cm images through a fixed pentaprism.

But while this might drive some to think it’s a feature-light machine, this isn’t the case. It offers many advanced features not found in similarly priced cameras, such as motor-drive capable of 1.5 FPS, TTL metering system, and multiple auto-exposure modes (the only camera on our list to do so). A drool-worthy selection of SMC Pentax lenses signals the camera’s intent to be a world-class machine, and it’s a camera that will be happy to grow with you.

For what you get with the 645, the price is remarkable, and I for one am looking forward to the day I get to review this venerable machine.

Buy it on eBay 

Buy it on Amazon


 

Holga 120

Easily the most approachable, affordable, and easy-to-use camera of the group, the Holga 120 is something of a legend in the toy camera world. The now-famous plastic box from China has found unmitigated success with photographers all over the world. And whether you love or eschew its lo-fi, unpredictable images, there’s no denying the Holga deserves a spot on any list of influential cameras.

The massive variety of models, lenses, and features across the Holga 120 range ensures that there’s a Holga for every desire. Want a pinhole Holga? No problem. Looking for a Holga with a glass lens? Easy to find. Wide-angle Holga? Stereo Holga? Panoramic Holga? TLR? TLR with glass lens? Color flash? 3D Holga with two pinhole lenses in an ultra-wide body?

Yes. There are a staggering number of Holga 120s out there. They’re light, cheap, and produce images that are objectively low quality, and that’s kind of the point. The Holga is what it is, and it makes no apologies. And if you think gorgeous art can’t be made with one, think again.

Though the factory that made these cameras was closed in 2015, massive supply ensures that these plastic wonders will be available for a long time to come. For shooters looking for a cheap but extremely fun entry into medium format, the Holga is it.

Buy it from B&H Photo

Buy it on eBay 

Buy it on Amazon


And that’s our list. If you’ve got another medium format film camera on the shelf that you think would be ideal for a new shooter, let us know about it in the comments.

Oh, and don’t forget to buy some film. You’re going to need it. 

Buy film on Amazon 

Buy film on eBay

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
38 comments
  • Sadly I couldn’t put my hands in a medium format camera, but in my top list for size is a Fuji GA465z1, a medium format point and shoot; a Bronica GS-1 that is a 6×7 camera. One impossible for the momente is a Rollei 6006. All those had great galleries in Flickr. The more affordable could be a Pentacon Six with Carl Zeiss Jena lenses. But for now they are dreams… Thank you for the list.

  • Amazing as always! I’ve actually – just a few weeks ago – bought a Mamiya RB67, so it’s good seeing that is was a good priority 😀
    Hope you’re well

    – Emil

  • Great Article, but no mention of any Yashica’s? I suppose if you’re limiting the list to five it’s understandable but I love my Yashica D and I’d argue it’s got a similar level of quality to the Minolta in being as good as it’s more expensive German rivals.

    • After handling a Yashica TLR late last week, you have no idea how close I was to including one in this list. But you’re right. They’re fantastic cameras and anyone interested in shooting MF should take a look.

  • For me was The Rollei SL 66, do you know that one ?

    • I know of it, but have never used one. They look gorgeous, and from what I hear they’re quite comparable to the ever-lauded Hassy. I’m happy you got to use such a good camera!

  • I can certainly agree that the cameras here are good for beginners as they are “safe” in that you either have focus confirmation or fixed focus, and some even have metering. I’d echo the poster above in suggesting the Yashica TLR line as a great (and more cost effective) alternative to the more prestigious Rollei and Minolta lineups.

    One thing that none of the cameras above really have going to their advantage as a transition from 35mm is portability, which could be a sore spot for someone used to smaller rangefinders or a more compact SLR. From the portability perspective, one can find a range of various folding cameras in 6×4.5, 6×6, and stunning 6×9 starting from cost effective ($20-$50) triplet-lens based models with guess focusing to more robust Tessar-lens based models ($100-$250) such as the Super Ikonta complete with coupled rangefinders. Either type can provide outstanding results, particularly for (but certainly not limited to) landscape photography.

    That said, depending on one’s comfort zone, the concepts of having to estimate focusing distances on the chearper models for the sake of portability may not be the ideal first jump into the world of Medium Format from the largely WYSIWYG world of 35mm SLRs and RFs, but it does provide a new challenge to shooter who has plateaued with their comfort zone who wants a more portable alternative in making the jump to 120 film.

    • Well said, Adam. While there is certainly nothing wrong with the 5 cameras listed here, I’ve seen many of these articles on other sites touting the excellency of expensive Rolleis, Mamiyas, Hasselblads, etc.

      I was once a beginner and my introduction to medium format photography was on a Yashica-Mat TLR I paid $50 for. Another was the ANSCO B2 Commander which is a 6×6 folding camera. There are literally hundreds of inexpensive folding medium format cameras on eBay at any given moment that are excellent first choices for a beginner.

      I think that articles like this sometimes dissuade people because of the high cost of entry. There are so many other great medium format cameras that are significantly cheaper that are well suited for beginners to ‘step up’ to a Rolleiflex or Minolta Autocord.

  • I just got an RB67 last month, took it to New York last week. Although heavy, it was a great experience, can’t wait to develop the rolls.

  • What about a Mam C220 Or C330. I know those cams are built like a tank- but in term of professionality, these cameras are still my favorite to play with. I always get from ’em that extra safe feeling. Those cams never disappoint.

    I see only one downside: They are heavy.

    • You’re right for sure. Another worthy recommendation. I only didn’t include them to avoid the article becoming too TLRcentric.

  • Affordable and great glass the Russian Kiev 60, accepts also Carl Zeiss Jena glass

  • Rolleicords are terrific cameras and often overlooked, unfairly, in favour of the more prestigious Rolleiflex models. But they are capable of excellent image quality and represent excellent value. That said:
    “While the numerous models of Rolleicord all share the same DNA, it may be beneficial to hunt down the youngest model you can afford, since the taking lens benefitted from improvement over time.”

    I’m not aware of any improvement in the Schneider Xenar used in the III to Vb models after they began coating them. Actually possibly the best performing Xenar I ever had was that on one of my Rolleicord Vs, easily a match for the ones on my Vas or Vb. Age is not as important in considering a prospective Rollei as condition. You’re always seeking out the best-cared for and most original specimen you can unearth for your budget. If you insist on a pentaprism option you will need to hold out for a Vb. But depending on whether your preference is for left or right side focusing the Va and V models both represent great value for money and deliver image quality every bit as good as the Vb.

    “Even so, its optics never matched those of its more professional sibling the ‘Flex, but this discrepancy has happily kept the cost of these cameras lower than one would expect.”

    Well, the above is quite simply not historically correct, because a number of Rolleiflex Automat models were also fitted with the identical Schneider 75mm f/3.5 Xenar taking lenses used on several models of Rolleicords. In this case the optics not only matched they were identical. I will concede that some features such as Eg. viewfinders may have been better equipped on the Rolleiflex models (the Rolleicords never had the eye level focusing windows Rolleiflex models featured).

    Nice to see examples other than the Yashicas and Hasselblads for a change (I say that as a Hasselblad owner, great cameras but not the only option available). Probably would have gone for the Pentax 67 instead of the original 645 though, the latter was not perfect by any means. But it’s a good article, and hopefully it will encourage a few more people to give medium format a try. It has so much going for it even in 2016. Thanks for posting it.
    Best,
    Brett

  • If you really want to try medium format on the cheap, in addition to the options mentioned above, I’ve gotten great results with an old Argus Super Seventy Five. Fixed shutter speed, but you do get f8, f11 and f16, a really bright TLR style viewfinder, and while it claims to be 620 film I had no problem with 120. I got some really great shots outdoors in bright sunlight. I’m also running some film through an old CiroFlex.

  • Bo Belvedere Christensen June 21, 2016 at 5:00 am

    I loved my Pentax 67 which shot 6 by 7 cm pictures. I even carried it together with 3 lenses on a mountaineering trip to South America – for the actual climb itself I took a Plaubel Makina. Unfortunately all my Pentax equipment was damaged by running water while I was climbing Huascaran. But the pictures I took with it before the climb was stunning, after having scanned them it feels like you can go for a walk in the pictures. You keep on zooming into the pictures, and there is still more detail to find. Wow what an amazing World this medium format photography is – love it.

  • Great collection.. I’m very lucky to have the 3.5 t model Rollei and the 3.5 F Rollei. The Rollei’s have to be the best camera’s I’ve ever shot. Picture quality is just stunning. Not mention that they are simply stunning in design.

  • Between the article and the comments we certainly have covered a lot of cameras. I would like to suggest medium format camera of choice. It is a Fuji g690 blp. The Texas Leica. It is good for beginners as it is very very similar to an oversized Rangefinder. Does size is huge. But so is the negative. And it has interchangeable lenses which are all outstanding. The price is similar to rolleicord. It is very versatile and the quality Canby is truly amazing.
    By the way I also shoot a Minolta autocord if I want to go a bit later. My absolute favorite tlr. Great article keep up the good work.

    • James – Founder/Editor October 2, 2016 at 9:37 pm

      Thanks my friend. A little bit off but I’ll be writing about the GW690 in a week or so. May be interesting to you. Thanks again!

    • Love the Fuji. The Mamiya Press (and Super 23 and Universal) is another great 6×9 rangefinder system.

  • Hi, great recommendations. Have you ever tried Kowa Six? You can get one nice well cared kit (body + 80mm lens) under $200. I really enjoyed it’s performance.

  • Whats the camera on the top of the page, with the viewfinder?

  • I lusted after the Mamiya tlrs for decades before finally investing in a C220 last year. I spent about $150.00 including an overhaul on the 80mm lens and a prism finder. I absolutely love it.

  • Too late for me lol, I already jumped in with a Mamiya 645 AFDmk2

  • I’m just a really casual medium format shooter; lucky if I shoot 3 rolls in a year so for me the Rolleicord works fine. I’ve tried all sorts including Mamiya RB67, C330, M645 as well as Pentax 645 and even a Praktisix SLR. All have come and gone but the little Rolleicord has stuck around. OK so you’re limited to the one lens but there’s just something pure and charming about it. Oh and you always get some interesting looks when out and about with it. Anyone under the age of 50 thinks “what the hell is that?!?” and anyone over the age of 50 thinks “wow cool camera. I had an uncle who had one of those…”

  • I would pick the Mamiya C330 over the RB67, since the C330 is smaller, lighter, and easy to handle. Thus, it is a more suitable camera for beginners, who might be put off by the weight, bulk, noise, and mirror vibration of the RB while trying to learn the ropes of medium format photography. The RB67 is a great studio camera but it is rather difficult to use in the field, although there are some brave souls that do not mind lugging around a six-pound camera. I personally never thought that the slightly larger negative was a good trade off for the extra weight and bulk, although some may disagree. Back in the salad days when camera manufacturers used to send reps to events at camera stores (remember those?), a Mamiya rep once jokingly told me that RB stands for “real big.” The bottom line is that the RB is a great camera for professionals and experts who work mostly in the studio but in my opinion it is not the best choice for beginners.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio