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 plateaued. 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 the camera are all useful tools in the toolbox of every happy photographer.
But if you’ve tried all this and you’re still finding yourself a bit distracted, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, you’re wrong.
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.
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.