Bigger Than 'Full-Frame': Picking a Medium-Format Camera

mamiya-rz67-medium-format-camera

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.

645

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.

6x6

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. 

6x7

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. 

6x9

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.

Panoramic

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

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.

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46 Comments

Jonathan Lobb's picture

I'd like to dip my toe into medium format film at some point in the near future. But the one problem I've finding in my shopping and research is that I see very little information about the lenses. Most of the cameras are sold with a 75mm or 80mm f/2.8 lens, but I don't see a lot else, i assume I"m looking in the wrong place. Where is the best place to find reviews, information, etc. about different lenses? This article seems to talk exclusively about bodies, but that's clearly only half the story.

Part of that answer would likely depend on which system you're looking into.

Hasselblad resources:

http://www.hasselbladhistorical.eu/HW/HWLds.aspx
https://isurplus.com.au/manuals/Hasselblad%20Lens%20Guide.pdf

Adam Ottke's picture

While there are some variations for sure, what's nice is that a TON of medium format lenses, almost regardless of manufacturer, are considered excellent. Pentax's lenses for their 67 are excellent. Hasselblad's Zeiss-branded lenses are of course also excellent. Lenses for the Contax 645 system are excellent. You get the idea. You can get adapters for many of these, but in many situations, I would recommend simply getting the lenses you would like to get for a particular system based on focal length, and then simply stick with the same brand so you don't have to deal with adapters, various incompatibilities, etc.

Of course, some lenses are more modern than others. But in many, many cases, it's pretty self-explanatory in terms of what the differences are. And you'll find that the optical designs vary very little while the coatings and other smaller things change over the years.

For Hasselblad lenses, you really want the T* coating if you can find/afford it, but it's not 100% necessary. Moreover, CFE lenses are better than CF lenses which are better than C lenses. But that's extremely simplified. And if you don't have a body that can take advantage of those other features of the CFE lenses, than who cares?

Of course, if there's more interest in this, I can actively begin doing reviews and write-ups on a lot of this stuff. Do you think that would be helpful/useful to a lot of people?

Jonathan Lobb's picture

I can only speak for myself, but I would find that very interesting. Maybe even something as basic as "what to look for in a second-hand medium-format lens." That CFE/CF/C stuff I have to go look up now.

Adam Ottke's picture

Okay. Sounds good. I'll start thinking about some topics that will be more helpful. I've been wanting to do a bit more writing on film cameras/gear recently anyway. Stand by ;-)

Robert Raymer's picture

Here is a quick rundown of the C/CF/CFE lenses. C lenses were the first lenses introduced with the Hasselblad 500 series. They were leaf shutter, and some of the later ones had the T* coating. CF lenses made some changes, including adding a DOF marking scale rather than the moving needles on the C lenses, and are called CF because they have an F setting allowing them to be used on cameras with focal plane shutters.They also have a Prontor shutter rather than the Syncro-Compur shutter on the C lenses. CFE lenses are essentially identical to the CF lenses, but are designated CFE because they have electronic contact points that allow data transfer between the lens and compatible bodies. There are of course a number of other smaller differences, but these are that main ones. https://isurplus.com.au/manuals/Hasselblad%20Lens%20Guide.pdf has a ton of info on the hasselblad lenses.

Robert Raymer's picture

What info are you looking for specifically. I don't have any catch all resources that are good for everything film, but there are TONS of websites, groups, and forums on the internet dedicated to different formats of photography that are both well respected and easy to get answers from if you know what questions to ask. Let me know what info you are looking for and I can try to answer it or point you in the right direction. Also, I find that if you are willing to spend some time and effort sorting through all the noise, even a simple google search can yield great results.

Jonathan Lobb's picture

I guess what I need then is a help knowing what questions to ask, I think that's a good place to start. I've been reading some of the medium format reviews on Ken Rockwell's site, that seems to be a good place to start. This article was a great starting people, I guess the natural progression would be go to one level deeper in a subsequent article.

Robert Raymer's picture

I think the answers you are looking for depend in large part on what questions you are asking. Are you looking for general reviews of MF lenses or are you looking for information about how to tell whether a used lens is in good condition. If you are looking for reviews on lenses, I have found that good old fashioned research is the best. I tend to shy away from any one particular review site in favor of multiple reviews, and I also tend to focus on objective information. If I am basing a purchase even partly on subjective information, I try to make sure that that information is coming from a professional working in the field that I will be using that lens for (i.e. I would not rely on a landscape photographers opinion on a lens I would be using mainly for portraits. If on the other hand you are looking for what to look for in a particular lens as far as determining if it is in good enough condition to buy, that is a different story. In general you would look at the overall condition of the body (dings, scratches, scrapes, any obvious major damage), making sure all the parts are there ,making sure the focusing ring and aperture ring turn freely without any grinding, making sure any other moving parts (such as the coupler on the zeiss CF lenses for example) move freely, making sure any flash contacts (x sync) are there and if possible testing to make sure they work, check the glass for any loss of coating if applicable, checking for any scratches that will likely cause image quality loss, checking for any haze or fungus in the lens or any peeling/flaking of internal coatings (especially in older lenses). Lastly you could check the aperture blades, making sure that are not obviously damaged, making sure they have no obvious oil build up, and making sure they all stop down to each aperture as you turn the ring. For large format lenses and any MF lenses with leaf shutters you would also want to make sure that the shutter fires at all speeds and seems accurate (they make cell phone apps that help with determining accuracy). Finally, if it is a newer lens with any sort of electrical contacts you want to make sure that they are all there, appear to be in good shape, and if possible test the lens to make sure the data transfers from lens to body.

Vladimir Byazrov's picture

Fstoppers, you make it really really really hard for readers to comment on articles.
Almost daily I read something on this site but since the day one it keeps logging me off after I close the tab. One needs so much motivations to go up and log in and then go back to article and leave a comment.... every time.
What's up with that? I've notified about this few times, but nobody seems to give a ...

Adam Ottke's picture

Hi, Vladimir. Sorry you're having trouble. I don't think others are having any issues. Are you making sure you are checking the "Keep me logged in on this device" option? Also, your browser's privacy or cookie settings might be responsible for this as well. Best of luck!

Clearly a code 13...

Ale Vidal's picture

It happens to me as well, some times, but now I am answering directly... so.. idk :D

Lenn Long's picture

Jonathan, That 75-80 range is the "Normal lens" for a medium format system. Compares to a 50mm for fullframe 35mm/DSLR. Look for telephoto lenses that are going to be 127 or 180mm for portrait use. NYC websites like B&H and Adorama may have some, but also checkout listings on sites like KEH.com in Atlanta for a good selection as well.

Jonathan Lobb's picture

thanks, I understand the focal length conversion fine, I think especially the normal lenses is pretty apparent. But I mean more about quality. We're all fairly used to the pricing and specs for 35mm and DSLR lenses, as well as the brands and features. But somebody like me doesn't have any of this knowledge about medium-format lenses, and they're rarely if ever reviewed on the sites I frequent. I wouldn't even know where to look.

Christian Hartmann's picture

I'd first choose a body/system depending on your budget and then check google with different "best quality lens for xx-system"- questions. Usually you will find a few forums where MF-nerds hang out and discuss a lot. If your are not into Portraits only, like rangefinders, money is not an issue and you don't want to do the searching, reading and creating your own opinion about it. Get a Mamiya 7 // 7ii system All of the lenses are said to be gorgeous. :)

Adam Ottke's picture

Also, the Fuji GX717 is an awesome and relatively affordable 617 system...

Richard Johnson's picture

Now where did I put that extra $33k I had lying around?

While their methodology isn't perfect, I have yet to see another film vs digital comparison that comes close to being as thorough as this one (even those that also come down on the "film can be better" side). Most comparisons use very poor quality scans and/or films that have larger grain.

If you have evidence as compelling and thorough to offer in the contrary, I'd certainly love to read it.

As mentioned in the link I gave, the Nikon Scanner gives less than desirable results compared to a proper drum scan...

I have read your comparisons in the past...as I said, the link I gave is far and away the most thorough I have seen in addressing the many factors that can affect results.

Your conclusion entirely ignores convenience. Digital 35 mm is better than many common films (Tri-X for example), while being drastically more convenient...autofocus,larger lens selection, immediate feedback, much greater adjustability of color and exposure of the output, nearly infinite number of shots, etc, etc.

In my very first reply I said "not necessarily", which leaves open those times when digital clearly out performs 120 film. Despite clear concrete evidence, you insist on a blanket statement that 120 film can never outperform digital 35 mm. i asked for you to provide equally thorough evidence to the contrary and you have a single data point that the link addressed as inferior (with numbers to back it up).

Actually, no, you have not been addressing quality - quality is addressed in the link provided and you have only provided ONE single data point to refute the many they provided.

Everything else in your argument boils down to "no one uses it anymore" which does indeed come down to convenience (and ignores those who still do high-fashion photography with medium format film). When the quality is "good enough" people will default to the more convenient option. This is why interchangeable lens camera sales are crashing hard - quality of the camera in my cell phone is "good enough" for most people. If you can get good enough quality with a 35 mm digital, why would you limit yourself for an extremely small 8x10 print (which is all a magazine is)?

So no, you don't get to point to how people are using cameras as proof that the QUALITY of the image is better or worse...you need to provide actual evidence, not conjecture that fails to address other factors that, frankly, are far more significant.

So again, if you have any ACTUAL evidence to support your argument, please provide it. Otherwise, you have nothing useful to add to this conversation.

The link provided includes VASTLY superior methodology and thoroughness than anything you have.

Bruce Weber would strongly disagree that his photography is a gimmick.

As I said, provide some actual evidence...you have yet to do so....nothing you have provided is anything more than "the internet's greatest photographer's" opinion.

Since you will, yet again, fail to produce anything that remotely compares to the controlled and utterly thorough study I provided, I will bid you good life...your trolling bores me.

I also didn't intend to be so terse with my response to this, but had to run after responding....your comparison was well written and for your work flow, gives you the exact comparison you need. It is not, however, anything more than a single data point against many, many data points in the link listed. What is listed in the link has no bearing on you as you don't want to use Adox or Velvia 50 and you don't have a drum scanner conveniently and cheaply available...but it does show, quite conclusively, that 120 film can outperform 35 mm digital, by a significant margin, in some cases.

I really don't know how you get the same look of MF DOF on a FF ...

The way the DOF changes in a MF, or a 35mm of a 4x5 camera is vastely different.

While a D810 acheives the same resolution as MF film, it just can't acheive the overall look IMO.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

One additional \note regarding Mamiya RZ vs RB bodies. The RB was the first generation of 'Rotating Back' 6x7 bodies. It had leaf shutter lens with MANUAL shutters in the lens. This is an inferior way to control the timing of an exposure. Mamiya realized this and released the RZ with electronic shutter speed control in the body. As any Hasselblad or Pentax MF owner can tell you, over time the spring that is under tension to control the shutter speed in a mechanical leaf shutter lens will lose from half to one full stop of accuracy ( and manufactures know this with the industry standard tolreance of a full stop either way). Shoot a roll of slide film in a mechanical body with the shutter speed and aperture at the same setting throughout while pointed at a constant evenly lit source and notice the variability of exposure values. When you do the same with an RZ, it is always dead on because the timing is electronically timed. The used RZ market has lots of gear still available and is far superior to the RB.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

The RZ Pro II is a much better body also, the advance gearing teeth are deeper, preventing stripping and film advance issues. It also has manual half stop shutter control. The metering was improved as well.

Mike Last's picture

To be fair to the writer, isn't that the IQ140 without body starting at $10K? Or am I missing a deal on the DT website? That back was released in 2011, at a price of $21,000 USD. I couldn't even find anything older than the IQ3 listed on the Phase One website.

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