Medium format cameras- a buyers guide: Part 1


by Bellamy /

5 min read

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.

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.

33 comments on “Medium format cameras- a buyers guide: Part 1”

    trevor williams February 21, 2012 at 10:25 pm / Reply

    Just grabbed a Ricohflex New Dia for 6000 yen. A total bargain. It is in amazing mechanical shape and it not bad aesthetically either.

    Bronica might be a name for the next post as a low, low price alternative to a Hassie-style medium format.

      Jay-R February 21, 2012 at 10:31 pm /

      Bronica and Kiev for sure :P

    Mark Olwick February 21, 2012 at 10:28 pm / Reply

    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.

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

    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!!

    dizzy_chicken February 21, 2012 at 10:33 pm / Reply

    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.

    Dieter Fröhling February 22, 2012 at 12:00 am / Reply

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

    knt February 22, 2012 at 12:38 am / Reply

    “Most TLR cameras are fixed focus cameras” – they are fixed focal length, not fixed focus

      Bellamy February 22, 2012 at 7:52 am /

      Changed. Thanks.

    Jerome February 22, 2012 at 1:50 am / Reply

    The funkiest looking MF camera I’ve ever seen is certainly the Fuji 6×17 :)

    John Berner February 22, 2012 at 3:11 am / Reply

    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.

    Greg Williamson February 22, 2012 at 5:28 am / Reply

    Good article. Looking forward to the next.

    Hate to point out an error but you wrote – “Most TLR cameras are fixed focus cameras”. I think you meant “fixed focal length”.

      Bellamy February 22, 2012 at 7:09 am /

      You are correct, that is exactly what I meant. In my defense I had been hunting all day long :)

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

    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.

    Alvin February 22, 2012 at 9:59 am / Reply

    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?

      peter August 9, 2014 at 5:19 am /

      TLR is twin lens reflex, it uses 2 separate lenses, one for viewing, one for taking, no mirror slap, small, light, simple to use. I believe the Fujifilm GF670 is a rangefinder like the Mamiya 7 and Leica M. Rangefinder uses a coupled mirror system for focus which also eliminates the use of a mirror so reduces size and weight.

    Pavel Vnukov February 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm / Reply

    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

    Kelvin A.K February 22, 2012 at 9:22 pm / Reply

    I liked TLR ever since I tried once using a Shanghai brand Seagull TLR. Is Rolleiflex really that expensive? :(

    Kitok February 22, 2012 at 9:54 pm / Reply

    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!

    Clinton February 22, 2012 at 11:33 pm / Reply

    Great article. Hope you cover medium format rangefinders.

    john dowle June 1, 2012 at 11:50 pm / Reply

    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.

    darren December 27, 2012 at 12:00 am / Reply

    Very happy with my C330 too, which I got for 30,000 yen. I’m not sure I could describe it as clean, mind you…. but it is functioning!

    Berndt March 31, 2013 at 11:51 am / Reply

    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:

    Cheers from Tokyo,


    Brewster Shaw June 12, 2013 at 1:50 am / Reply

    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!

    Duncan August 4, 2013 at 8:43 am / Reply

    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.

    cinkciarz June 21, 2014 at 3:02 pm / Reply

    I have seen plenty of useful things on your internet site about pc’s. However, I have the judgment that notebooks are still not nearly powerful sufficiently to be a good choice if you normally do tasks that require lots of power, including video croping and editing. But for website surfing, word processing, and a lot other frequent computer work they are just fine, provided you cannot mind the tiny screen size. Appreciate sharing your opinions.

    Tom in Florida July 14, 2014 at 2:02 am / Reply

    Great Article, and feel compelled to reply after sixty plus years of being an avid amateur although I did do some pro work years ago. I had an Uncle teach me to take photos and do my own darkroom work when I was 13 years old. Still at it at 79. Started with his hand me down Bolsey B-2 and then found A Rollieflex D that I bought in camera store in 1967 for $35.00. Suddenly I was taking great photos and now realize, that it was because of that Rollie. Traded up to a 2.8E with meter (broken meter) which I ultimately fixed but never used as I always use hand held meter. Traded Rollie for Nikon F3HP several years ago. Great camera, but my photos are not the same. Suddenly realized that the main reason was waist level vs. eye level viewfinder. Photos definitely look better from knee or waist height, especially children and people. Has anyone ever touched upon this subject ? It is a fascinating topic.

    Jye July 27, 2014 at 9:38 pm / Reply

    Hi, I went to an estate sale and there is a Rolleiflex TLR. The seller simply marked it as Rolleiflex F2.8 80mm lens. I can’t tell what model it is and it is priced at $510 but I am sure it can be negotiated. The camera appears to be in decent mechanical condition but the light meter (I assume is the display on the largest knob) doesn’t seem to be working. It came with strap only, no case or lens cap. I am wondering if any one of you can tell me what model it is and what will be the fair price for this little gem!

    Thanks for any input!

    Robert H. bruce June 15, 2016 at 11:16 am / Reply

    My first foray into big real estate that medium format brings to the amateur photographer was with dad’s old Mamiya Standard 23. It is not a very attractive camera like the mythical and well travelled Hasselblad, but it was free, had two lenses, a 90 mm and a 65 mm and I added a third one a 150 mm into an attractive systems case with lens shades, viewfinder masks, etc. it was a complete system for me to enjoy for free!

    However, I had to put it in storage due to a light leak caused by crystallized sponge seal at the front of the body where the lens release button is located. Nobody in Costa Rica had the experience in these cameras, perhaps they had passed away and this was found very latter in the Internet era with the expert help of a retired in Florida, Mamiya tech that asked me to send him a picture of the Standard 23!

    Afterwards, I purchased infrared film from Rollei and with correct filters I enjoyed the vast expanse of film showing silver foliage and dark skies.

    I also offered (did) a photo shoot of a family reunion using EKTAR 100, the pictures were enlarged and the quality was very good, despite the skepticism of my older brothers I gave the, enlargements of these pictures to them as presents! It seems that the 6 X 9 and 6 X 7 film carriers are more suited for urban landscape and rural landscape, and I believe that this is going to be the main usage of this camera, however, I shot the family reunion entirely in 6 X 6 which to me is a more people’s format!

    By the time thatI began to use the Standard 23 more and thus refused to buy a very used and 3 in 1 oil smelling Hasselblad 501 C, I was given a Mamiya C220 from a friend. It was a bit dull from improper storage, the normal lens had fungus or balsam separation but the pictures came out superb. I bought into the system getting a 180 mm and a 55 mm, a Para-mender, a new screen, despite the fact that it is not supposed to be replaced and finally lens shades for all the lenses! I also purchased a used copy of Robb Smith’s Mamiya Professional Systems Handbook a hard cover superbly printed and written book comprising the TLR’s and the press system cameras all the way to the SLR’s and lenses.

    I have grown very fond of this Mamiya and have used it mostly with color film Ektar 100 and now Portra 400 but I have decided to put black and white film into it. It is most definitively a people’s format, however, I have made some nature pictures that have come out great.

    I have yet to replace the door seals and there is an issue with the lens changing shade that when flaps into place it liberates tiny dust particles that affect the next frame. It also has a worn bushing in the film advance knob that seems to be complicated to replace. The Hasselblad seems so father away!

    Maybe the Bruce’s of Costa Rica are Mamiya men!


    Robert H. Bruce
    San Jose, Costa Rica

    Hilomart December 31, 2016 at 2:14 am / Reply

    I know this comment comes very late, but if you’re in Japan, I HIGHLY recommend looking for a Ricoh TLR . Either a Diacord model or the Ricohmattic 225 (the latter made in 1959 only) would be a great buy. They hold a 3.5, four element lens which is very contrasty , and which has a lot of character . I’ve found the subjective “look” to be quite unique and difficult to replicate via a Hassy system, or of course via digital means.

    Peter Boorman March 11, 2017 at 6:22 pm / Reply

    I have an old Rolleiflex 3.5E Xenotar and it’s a lovely, jewel-like thing. Probably my equal favourite ‘walking around’ MF camera along with the Fuji 645 rangefinders. The Fujis are unbelievably sharp and very portable, but they seem to me a little fragile compared to the Rollei, which is just a joy to use.

    I also use the Fuji 6×7 and 6×9 rangefinders (the old, interchangeable lens, ones) and they’re incredibly sharp, fabulous cameras, great for travel – but old and hard to repair now. And, for things that an SLR and square format makes sense for, the old Pentacon P6 / (‘new’) Exakta 66 bodies take a range of truly superb Zeiss East and Schneider lenses – the bodies are flaky but cheap, so to use the great glass it sort of works out. I did (eleven out of the twelve shots of) a calendar with them some years back and was very happy indeed with the results.

    Probably the largest part of my MF work these days though is done on (pretty old) Arca-Swiss monorails which are my studio and architecture workhorses. Either the 6×9 models that are designed for rollfilm backs from the outset and are really very portable or else with RFBs on a 4×5 Monolith – which is a fabulous studio camera. Supplemented with a Century Graphic as my ‘super-portable but still has some movements’ option for rollfilm, I find this way of working very flexible. I even shoot up to 612 this way with the 4×5 cameras and have a 617 back that I can also use, though it only works with a limited range of focal lengths (I’m thinking of making one for a 10×8 camera so I can use it with a wider range of glass.)

    Maybe I have had just a tiny bit of GAS in the past ;) but it certainly has given me a lot of flexibility.

    Now, if I could just afford a Fuji GX680…

    Ray Rapkerg August 29, 2017 at 8:06 pm / Reply

    The Yashica-Mat 124G is a great camera, superb in every way, by far the best bang per buck in the TLR arena. I love Rolleiflex TLRs, but to be honest they are fetish items at those prices.

    ardiance reyes January 18, 2018 at 2:35 pm / Reply


    I am looking for a budget-friendly, fully-mechanical, tlr camera. it wasn’t mentioned here. As a beginner, is there anything that you can recommend? I’m eyeing the yashica mat 124g but I’ve read some reviews and comments that the mechanism for the film advance lever gives out easily. do you have any suggestion for me. I hope it’s okay that I asked here.

    thank you and more power to your blog jch!


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