Medium Format Cameras (MFCs) are cameras that produce frames, which are larger than 35mm but smaller than large format cameras that produce frames starting from 5x4”. So, these kinds of cameras use a 120 format film. There is also a 220 format film, but this is harder to procure. The width of the film is 6 cm, and since there is no standard frame, the choice of camera and film are closely interlinked. In short, these cameras produce much bigger frames than your standard 35mm cameras, resulting in sharper images and more tonality.
Purpose of the Guide
There are different types of medium format cameras, and choosing between them can get quite confusing. This guide will help in clearing the fog, and help you choose the type of camera most suited for your needs.
What is a Medium Format Camera?
Medium format cameras produce larger images. Since they have a larger film, upon development, the grains are finer, and the images are crisp, clear and rich in detail. There are digital variants of medium format cameras also, and they have a larger sensor, and have the same size as their film counterparts with the advantage of higher ISO settings. MFCs also have a very healthy second hand market. They were being produced since early 1900s, and were only replaced by SLRs in the fifties. There are quite a few older models that are viable even now.
Features of Medium Format Cameras
Leaf Shutter or Focal Plane:
If you require flash sync at all speeds then the leaf shutter is the best option. Many focal length shutter cameras have a very slow flash synchronization speed, ranging from 1/30 to 1/90.
If outside portraiture in bright sunlight is your goal then the leaf shutter camera is the right choice for you. This will prevent ghosts (double exposures) which may happen due to long exposure time in focal length shutter cameras.
Unfortunately, the leaf shutter system prevents the use of lenses from other manufacturers (except miniview cameras). Also, having a leaf shutter system for every lens can really add to the expenses of an interchangeable lens camera system. Sometimes it is also possible to find two leaf shutter lenses adapted to be used with a focal plane camera. This may be an option for those who have a constrained budget.
Types of Medium Format Cameras
MFCs come in different flavors, namely:
Twin Lens Reflex (TLRs)
TLRs use two objective lens of the same focal length. The photographic objective lens is the one that is used to take the picture. The other lens, called the view lens, is connected to the viewfinder. Most TLRs are fixed focal length, and the more expensive models may incorporate a rudimentary room function. Most TLRs use a leaf shutter system, resulting in high speeds, quiet operation and low shutter vibration. There are also close-up, wide angle and telephoto adapters for TLRs.
The SLR is the same as your regular SLR cameras except that they work with a larger film size (120/220). They are the most flexible, possessing the widest range of standard optics, and are excellent for both closeup and telephoto photography, providing precise composition with very wide angles.
Rangefinder cameras are medium format cameras with a range finder. This negates the waistline, viewing that most TLRs carry. They are also much smaller than TLRs, and allow for easier point and shoot photographs. They tend to have limited focusing ranges, and do not have lenses larger than 180mm or 200mm. Rangefinders are quieter and easier to focus in dim light. They are mostly fixed lens models, but higher range models also provide for interchangeability.
The better viewfinder cameras will be simple, with lightweight designs, and will often contain a fixed leaf shutter system.
Most of the MFCs are generally old rangefinder or viewfinder models. Fuji has come up with a modernized version of the foldable cameras, but they contain their own quirks that require further investigation. The folding cameras are great for traveling, but are usually supplementing another MFC.
There are also miniview cameras, which use medium format roll film. Press camera style models are also available along with field cameras and monorail studio cameras in the roll film range. These are aimed at clients requiring perspective control movements like architectural and cityscape photographers.
In the end, there are unconventional cameras, like the panaromics, aimed at specialty needs. The panoramics range from 6x9 cm to 6x12 cm, and 6x17 cm, with torpedo cameras going up to 6x24 cm range. There are some that give a 360 degree image. Others offer ultrawide swinging lens designs. There are also stereo and 3D cameras with some being surprisingly old in design.
If you require movements beyond the shift lens capabilities of SLRs then go for the mini-view or press type camera. If your requirements are diverse, ranging from close-ups to wide angle and the longer telephoto, then SLRs are the ideal choice. If you need to be discreet and unobtrusive then either a TLR, rangefinder or viewfinder is the ideal choice.
The cameras are differentiated also by the size of images they produce.
The square image format is quite different from regular 35mm film cameras, and will require cropping if you want the familiar rectangular frame. This type of frame is most popular in wedding and portrait photography.
Top 5 Manufacturers
There are many MFC manufacturers in the market. Some popular ones are:
Fuji is one of the forerunners when it comes to medium format cameras. They have a wide range of TLRs, and some of their older models fetch a very good price in the used market.
Mamiya is a Japanese company that achieved fame due to their professional medium format cameras. They have since moved from film to digital compact cameras and digital medium format cameras.
Hasselblad has been manufacturing cameras since World War II. Their cameras have been used in the Apollo moon mission. Their traditional V-system cameras remain widely used among both professional and serious amateurs alike. The newer H-system cameras are leading the market to keep pace with their competitors.
Bronica is another Japanese brand that excels in MFC’s, although they do manufacture rangefinder and SLRs as well. Being the workhorse camera for weddings and portrait photographers for a long time, they are still in wide circulation.
Pentax is the name given to the camera, sports optics and binoculars division of Ricoh. They started off spending the majority of their early years catering to military contracts. From the 1950s they have been concentrating on the consumer market, and at one point becoming the biggest exporters of cameras from Japan.
- Twin Lens Reflex. It means that the system is two lens based - one for capturing and the other for viewing the image.
- Leaf Shutter:
- A shutter system is a type of camera shutter consisting of a mechanism with one or more pivoting metal leaves, which normally does not allow light through the lens onto the film, but which when triggered, opens the shutter by moving the leaves to uncover the lens for the required time to make an exposure, then shuts.
- Focal Plane Shutter:
- A focal-plane shutter is positioned just in front of the film, in the focal plane, and moves an aperture across the film until the full frame has been exposed.