Medium format cameras- a buyers guide: Part 1

Posted on by Bellamy

So you want to get a bit bigger, but what are your options?
Right, so I hear that you are looking for a medium format camera, but you are not sure what is on offer. Due to popular request I have decided to produce a little buyers guide to medium format cameras.I have decided to break this piece into bits to make it a bit easier to digest. The first being TLR cameras.

Firstly I should probably give you a little bit of an explanation about what medium format actually is. 35mm format is generally the most popular form of photography, and I am sure that I don’t need to tell you what it actually is. But when you want to get bigger then you are going to have to move up a size, to a width of 6.5cm to be exact.
As medium format negatives (and sensors) are bigger, the images require less enlargement, which will give you greater tonality and sharper images. You can read a whole lot more about the ins and outs of this by clicking here.

The usual suspects
What I want to do with this guide is give you an idea of what you can get and a rough idea of how much you should expect to pay. Now, there are a few different types of camera that you can be looking at, so I am going to break them into categories to make it easier. So lets get started with the first type of camera that we will be looking at.
TLR (twin lens reflex) cameras
The TLR camera uses two objective lenses of the same focal length. One lens is known as the photographic objective lens, this is the lens that will be taking the picture. The other lens is used as a view lens, through the viewfinder, which is most commonly used as a waist level finding system. The reflex part of the name comes from the fact that the viewfinder incorporates a 45 degree mirror. The two lenses are connected so that the image that you see through the focusing screen will be the same as the image you shoot. Most TLR cameras are fixed focal length cameras, though the more expensive models might have a rudimentary zoom function. The majority of TLR cameras use a leaf shutter, which allows reasonably high speeds, quiet operation and low shutter vibration. Pretty much all TLR cameras are film cameras, using the 120/220 film sizes, though some cameras use the 35mm format, but we are not talking about them.

The plus points for a TLR camera are the quiet operation, the leaf shutter will sync with flash at any speed, the image you seen in the viewfinder is the same size as the negative and there is no viewfinder blackout. The down points are the reversed image can take some getting used to, there can be parallax problems at close range, heavy and fragile cameras, and lack of depth of field through the viewfinder. But don’t let these things put you off, using a TLR is a very rewarding experience. With practice using one of these cameras can become second nature.

Budget TLRs
If you are on a budget then you have a few options, though not many of them are much cop.
First up we have the bargain basement Holga TLR. This is not a quality camera, but if you are looking for cheap laughs and interesting effects (due to a crap lens) then you cannot go wrong for $30. There is also the Blackbird Fly, but it doesn’t count as it is a 35mm.
If you want to spend a bit more money and actually get a camera that is not a total load of crap then you could look at the Seagull TLR, made by The Shanghai General Camera Company in China. Not a bad camera and you would be able to pick one up for around $200.
Another option is to go for the Yashicamat 124G. The advantage of this camera besides the cheap price is the camera has got a built in light meter. You can pick these up in Japan for around 25,000 yen, depending on condition.
If you want to spend a bit more money but still stay in the realms of reality then you could not go wrong with a Rolleicord. There are loads of different models, but some of them are now collectors items, so you may be better off with a Va or a Vb, which can be found for around ¥35,000 in reasonable condition. You will need to get a light meter though.
Other than this there are a lot of different budget TLRs around, the Minolta Autocord, The Flexaret or the Mamiya C are all options that are also worth considering. The Mamiya C cameras hold the distinct advantage of being the only TLR that have interchangeable lenses. A really clean C330 will go for about ¥60,000 now.

TLRs that cost a bit more
As for mid range TLRs there is not a lot of choice before you get into high end ones, you are limited really to the Rolleiflex range. After that pretty much the most expensive TLR cameras are Rolleiflex cameras. There are many different models, but basically the camera is essentially the same, it is based around the lens. The earlier cameras were Tessar type lenses, these are becoming collectors items now and they can get expensive. The most common and easiest to find are the Planar type and to a lesser extent the Xenotar type. The Planar type is the cheapest, especially the 3.5F without a meter. The Xenotar is quite a bit more expensive. In Japan you can spend as little as 80,000 yen on a Planar 3.5F, right up to 300,000 yen for a gleaming Xenotar 2.8F with meter. There are shops here that literally have shelves heaving with Rolleiflex cameras, so finding one is no problem, you just need to set your budget.

‘I have more money than sense’ TLRs
When Mamiya released the C220 and C330 cameras Rollei decided to counter this with some special type cameras, The Tele-Rolleiflex and the Wide-Rolleiflex. These are speciality cameras and you can expect to pay speciality prices for them. The 4.0FT and FX cameras were the last cameras the Rolleiflex actually produced, and they are often classed as instant classics (despite the fact that they are not actually all that good).
If you really want to see how expensive these cameras can get, go over to e-bay, type in Rolleiflex and then sit back and rock quietly to yourself, it gets very silly.

Conclusion
To be honest with you, the options are almost endless as there were hundreds of different brands of these cameras made, so it really is up to you what how far down the rabbit hole you are prepared to go. By looking for collectors items you could end up spending into the many thousands of dollars. But this guide is not for that. This guide is to give you an idea of cameras that you can use and enjoy without killing your bank account.

Do you have a favourite TLR camera? Perhaps you can recommend one to the rest of us. Comment and tell me what you think or what I have missed.
In part 2 we will look at your options with Hasselblad and similar type Medium format cameras. Send you suggestions and I will do my best to include them.
Cheers
Japancamerahunter

24 Responses to Medium format cameras- a buyers guide: Part 1

Mark Olwick February 21, 2012 at 10:28 pm

As you mentioned, there are many options out there. One correction though. You said medium format was “a width of 6.5cm to be exact”. All of my medium format gear is 6cm x 6cm. You can also get 6×4.5cm medium format gear.

Reply
Jay-R February 21, 2012 at 10:30 pm

For those who’s just starting at TLR/Medium format, i recommend the earlier Yashica model with auto film advance. It’s a plain camera, no light meter. All you need is there, and the Yashinon 80mm f/3.5 lens will not fail you to produce sharp images and creamy bokeh. Try to check ebay for those Yashica TLR’s, they are cheap now.

Cheers everyone!!

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dizzy_chicken February 21, 2012 at 10:33 pm

I highly recommend the Rolleicord IV. Same lens as the V, Va and Vb models and are very very similar but the IV us usually overlooked while the others in good condition are usually overpriced. I picked mine up for just under $200 in great condition with case.

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Dieter Fröhling February 22, 2012 at 12:00 am

Have myself (from my father’s an older Rolleiflex (1932 model) . Optics great. Yep.
Best part: Transport and shutter are two systems. Not synchronized:-(

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John Berner February 22, 2012 at 3:11 am

I’m sure you’ll have them covered but for my two cents the Pentax 67ii and the Mamiya 7ii are the two greatest cameras ever made. Though to be honest I have never really played around with a Hasselblad for more than a couple minutes.

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Stephan (Kagamiyama) February 22, 2012 at 7:38 am

As already tweeted I use my Mamiya 645 Super at the moment for different reasons. The body and the really nice lenses are pretty cheap, the image quality is nice and this SLR is not too heavy, so you can take it for a longer walk and hold it all the time.

For traveling I have two pretty different cams. One of them is a 1950s Agfa Box 6×9, the other one is a 1995s Fujifilm GA 645 kind of rangefinder.

My “Hasselbladsky” Kiev 88 is sold. While I had not problems with light leaks and filmtransport, another buddy had leaks in magazine and body and trouble with the shutter.

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Alvin February 22, 2012 at 9:59 am

As somebody new to this, I wonder what the difference is between something like a TLR camera and a Fujifilm GF670 W Professional, which looks more like a SLR?

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Pavel Vnukov February 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Yashikamat 124g is almost as good as it gets, but for one point – it uses obsolete 1.3 V batteries and once you use new 1.5V battery the lightmeter starts to go bad. As for the second part – Hasselblad is the clear winner in the SLR field because of the best lenses

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Kitok February 22, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Thank you for the article Bellamy,

Ergonomically, the TLR camera is my favorite format to shoot. I prefer it over both the Rangefinder and the SLR.
I vote for the Mamiya C330 series as my TLR of choice.
The interchangeable lenses swayed me over the Rolleiflex, and the price was right as well. The camera has proven to be bullet proof and I am happy with the images I am able to produce with it!

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john dowle June 1, 2012 at 11:50 pm

I love all my three MF cameras,Mamiya RZ67, Fuji GW690III and a Minolta Autocord so I have a great choice, if I could I’d get a Rolleiflex at some point hopefully.
The Minolta Autocord is a real bargain at the moment, can’t recommend it enough.
I’m new to medium format but much prefer it to digital.

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Berndt March 31, 2013 at 11:51 am

I am collecting rare japanese early postwar TLRs ( among other cameras ). Those do often have exotic names but the quality is mostly excellent and on the same level. You can get them often much cheaper than 10.000 Yen and the pictures do look great. Important is to check the shutter though. Those old leaf shutters are very difficult to repair, but the lenses can be disassembled very easily. So, if just the lens is a little bit dirty but the shutter still okay, go for it. If the shutter is just a little bit slow, a few drops of lighter fluid may do the trick, but if it is broken, the camera is simply junk.
I also wrote a little article about my very first japanese TLR, a not so rare Airesflex from 1954. I bought it at Shibuyas Kitamura for 2.600 Yen and it takes brilliant pictures: http://www.lomography.com/magazine/reviews/2011/08/19/airesflex-1954-a-wonderful-vintage-twin-lens-reflex-camera

Cheers from Tokyo,

Berndt

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Brewster Shaw June 12, 2013 at 1:50 am

I have a Yashicamat which I assembled 40 years ago from 2 dissimilar ruined Yashicamat cameras purchased for $20. The meter does not work so I use the exceptional and vastly superior Weston Master II handheld meter. The single most frustrating thing about it is I can find absolutely nothing deficient whatsoever with either its splendid operation or its sensational image quality to justify purchasing another medium format camera!

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Duncan August 4, 2013 at 8:43 am

I can vouch for the Yashicamat, having used my Dad’s for a couple of years. It is simple, straightforward and easy to use. Dad’s had a slightly tilted front panel, so focus wasn’t even across the frame at wide apertures, but now he’s passed on, the ‘mat will pass to me, and maybe I can fix that problem. Just got to get it safely from UK to Australia :-/

Later I bought a Mamiya C330S, which was such a fine camera. With a long bellows extension, you can get really close, although you have parallax issues that you have to allow for. As I recall, Mamiya made a contraption that fitted between camera and tripod, to raise the camera after you’d focused, so that the taking lens would be where the viewing lens was. Another thing about the Mamiya (IIRC) is that it was the only TLR with a straight film path, so no risk of a slight kink if the film has been sitting across a roller for a while.

I’ve used many cameras over the years, but loved just two: the C330 and the Canon EF. I I were to buy another TLR, it would be a 330, or possibly its simpler brother, the 220.

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