Medium-format cameras have long been in the hands of working pros because of their combination of ease of use and incredible image quality. While large format was always the king of resolution and dynamic range, it is difficult to work with on location and cumbersome. Today, medium format is a little different. Phase One and Hasselblad have both released 100 MP options, allowing for unparalleled image quality.
The downfall of these cameras is their price: at well over $20,000, they are difficult for many photographers to justify, even those that do this for a living. Regardless, I will cover them a bit in this article. Another option exists, however, and that is film. There are caveats to both paths, and conventional DSLRs have some advantages. If, however, you’re looking for the magical look of medium format, here are some options. Much like digital sensor sizes, there are advantages and disadvantages to each.
Medium-format film starts off at 6x4.5 centimeters, commonly referred to as "645." This allows for the most shots per roll (15), decent negative size, and very convenient and easy to use cameras compared to larger frame cameras. Nowadays, scanning these negatives or slides will allow great resolution and the look that many lust over. Personally, I think that the Mamiya 645 cameras are the best options for this format. The older Super and Pro models can be had for well under $400 for a full kit. This will be a decent jump up from full-frame or APS-C cameras.
The next choice is 6x6, a format made famous by Hasselblads of the past. While uncommon now (except for Instagram), the square format was found regularly and was the choice of many working portrait photographers. If you’re scanning, you may find yourself cropping frequently. Composing square images is a little different from the standard 3:2 ratio. Camera options are readily available for this format. While Hasselblad’s will be the most popular, Bronica, Mamiya, and Yashica also made cameras in this format. A Bronica or even the infamous Kiev 88 can be had for a few hundred dollars ready to shoot.
The third option is 6x7, my favorite. Again, a weird format coming from traditional DSLRs. This format is very popular for those doing a lot of published and print work because of the aspect ratio. The negatives, however, are gorgeous. This is a wonderful aspect ratio for headshots, portraits, and the like.
The only real downside of the format is the size of the cameras. My 6x7 of choice is the RZ67 from Mamiya. It may well be the largest of the bunch, but the Pentax 67, Bronica GS-1, and Mamiya 7 aren’t far behind. These cameras get a little more expensive. The RB67 (mechanical version of the RZ67) can be had for a few hundred dollars, but I never found the lenses to be as nice as the RZ lenses. RZ67s can be had for $400-600 if you get the Pro I. The Pro II, which gives you more digital back compatibility, ends up around $1,000 for a full setup. One thing to keep in mind about the RZ/RB cameras is their incredible close focus capability without extension tubes or macro lenses due to the bellows focus system. The Mamiya 7, which is a rangefinder, runs around $1,000 for the Mark I, or about $1,500 for the Mark II. The Pentax may be a great option if you want something a little closer to your 35mm SLR. It has a layout almost identical to that of a Nikon or Canon SLR, with the film advance on the top right and the shutter speed dial on the same part of the camera, aperture on the lens, and standard focusing on the lens like you would be used to. The Pentax has one major flaw, and that is the fact there are no interchangeable backs. For some purposes, this won’t be an issue. However, wedding photographers, journalists, or anyone facing changing lighting conditions or the desire to switch between color or black and white will need two cameras, whereas a Mamiya or Hasselblad owner can just swap out the back with color film for the back with black and white film.
This next format is harder to come by. 6x9 gives you the ratio that you’re used to on 35mm and DSLRs. This format was only used in a few cameras, however, the most famous of which being the Fuji GW690 and GSW690 rangefinders (often known as the "Texas Leica" for their massive size). These cameras are great for environmental portraits, landscapes, or interiors as you see a wider frame than the other medium formats. A Fuji GW690III can be found for around $550 in decent condition. With a hot shoe, PC sync, and great design and ease of use, these cameras are great options. Size and a lack of interchangeable backs are the only two issues I can find with them.
There are two other formats that you can shoot with your 120 roll film. 6x12 and 6x17 are panoramic formats often lauded by landscape photographers. There’s a famous shot of Peter Lik holding his Linhoff 6x17 while on location. Panoramic cameras are expensive, complicated, and cumbersome, sadly. A typical Linhoff will run you around $5,000-8,000. An option that I recently stumbled across is the Shen Hao 617a. Ebony, a company famous for exquisite, handmade large-format cameras, makes a version that will run you close to Linhoff prices. The Shen Hao, however, is around $2,000 brand new. While it certainly is a good chunk of change for an extremely specific camera, there are the some great images that are better portrayed in a panoramic format.
Digital backs, everyone's favorite, have been around for a while now. In fact, they were more or less the first digital cameras. Medium-format backs range in price from $4,000 used to around $35,000 new. The pricing is certainly difficult to get past, but the image quality it absolutely astounding. With both crop and full-frame sensor sizes, there are a wide variety of options. The biggest manufacturers are Phase One and Hasselblad. The backs are available in a variety of mounts so that you can put them on standard bodies from Phase One and Hasselblad or older bodies like the RZ67 or V-mount Hasselblads. I think used is the way to buy here; it’s sort of like buying a car. There are many inherent issues with digital medium-format systems though. The autofocus, while accurate, is very slow. This makes the cameras difficult if not impossible to use for sports, action, or wildlife photography. ISO performance is (in most cases) poor. Only a few years ago did the first CMOS medium-format sensor come out; this means they’re all expensive. The low-light shooting capability on them is astounding, though. The older backs that you may find used will use CCD sensors, meaning an ISO limit of usually 800 and nasty noise past 200. If you’re in the right situation, these cameras will provide unparalleled image quality; it’s just a matter of knowing their limitations.
While I certainly love medium format, my Nikons are absolutely more capable cameras. However, the latest and greatest Phase One XF or the new Hasselblad H6D-100c may make me think differently due to their game-changing performance. With price in mind, though, the D810 and 5DS are much more attractive options to me. They even boast autofocus speeds that can be used in more demanding situations like a football game or a safari. With all that said, there is still something magical about the look of medium format, and my new RZ67 will be a cherished part of my bag.