If you’re looking to pursue photography as a career, you’ve likely looked into the commercially-adept side of the medium, only to find that high-end, rarely-affordable cameras have achieved dominion — and rightfully so. For years, the world of medium-format photography has served as a mainstay for print, advertising, and artistic expression, with the advent of small, form-fitting file sizes, camera bodies, and development arriving only within the last 20 years.
While many of the industry’s contemporary medium- and large-format systems are a bit “out of reach” for aspiring creators, that doesn’t mean that getting your hands on a reliable platform has to be difficult. In fact, it’s relatively easy — if, and only if, you’re willing to make some concessions. The truth is, retro and vintage cameras are a fantastic way to dip your toes into the world of medium-format, thanks to their affordable price, interesting aesthetic, and illustrious history. This makes it easy to round up a handful of the past’s most prolific variants, which we’ve done below. If you can look past the nostalgic body, film-focused back, and archaic systems, you’ll find something of pure beauty. And for your efforts, you’ll be rewarded, whether that be through knowledge, understanding, or a newfound appreciation for the photographic medium.
What Is A Medium-Format Camera?
Complex For Complexity's Sake
In the past, analog-based medium-format cameras were a dime a dozen. Nearly all of them utilized an industry-favorite 120 film size and called upon a 43.8×32.9mm to 53.7×40.2mm format that was dwarfed by the common large-format at the time, an all-encompassing 102x127mm. While the size and structures of these camera’s varied, they stood head and shoulders above the 36x24mm variants introduced at a later date (under the monicker of the full-frame camera). Today, APS-C and full-frame formats can be found in nearly every consumer camera, adopting either a 1.6x crop (for APS-C) or the same 35mm integrity found in the 36x24mm of old.
But why does size matter? In layman’s terms, medium-format brings with it a slew of advantages over its APS-C or full-frame counterparts, including unparalleled accuracy when it comes to color reproduction, exceptional image quality, and iconic lineage. If you think of a medium-format camera’s performance in terms of a modern DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can surmise that a bigger sensor would mean more “megapixels” — in turn, these larger variants resolve more detail and color than their 35mm counterparts. For commercial, fashion, and architectural work, this means that photographers will have access to roughly 70% larger photos than those taken on a contemporary full-frame camera, making them highly sought after for magazine and editorial shooting. Tack on the fact that 6×6 and 6×7 orientations are considered to be the industry standard for print and editorial work, and you’ll understand why medium-format is a natural, less invasive solution to resizing and cropping. Now that you have a foundational knowledge of the medium-format camera, let’s dive into our picks.
Retro & Vintage
The Most Obtainable Icons
Zeiss Super Ikonta B 532/16
Zeiss is a legendary name within the world of high-end optics, and since the company’s conception almost half a century before Leica, it’s safe to say that their cameras and lenses are among the best. The Super Ikonta B 532/16, which was produced from 1937 until 1955, is one such example. Even after all these years, the Super Ikonta is considered one of the most capable medium format cameras to have ever been devised, and thanks to the introduction of more advanced camera platforms, its price is inconsequential. This folding variant produces 11 6×6 images and uses 120-type roll film — a departure from the traditional 12 of the era — to remedy issues that its predecessor had with frame overlapping, and was often paired with a Tessar 2.8/80 mm lens to cater toward amateur photographers who had an interest in larger formats, and didn’t want to buy into Zeiss’ less-favored Contax 35mm platform.
If you’re an avid connoisseur of retro and vintage camera bodies, Minolta’s name should be immediately recognizable. In the early days of medium-format photography, the company released a handful of variants to compete with brands like Rolleicord and, most notably, Rolleiflex. During the 30s, 40s, and 50s, the Japanese twin-lens-reflex market grew considerably, leaving little room for underwhelming products that couldn’t stand the test of time. To compete, the Autocord was created as an affordable variant that was priced well below that of its counterparts. But, that doesn’t mean that its performance was any less attractive to prospective photographers. Each variant introduced a crank film advance with automatic shutter cocking and frame counting and was paired with an industry-revered Tessar-type four-element Rokkor f/3.5 lens to create stunning photos in either a 12 or 24 exposure count. As with most cameras in the era, 120-type roll film was the baseline, and today, the Autocord is still regarded as one of the best retro medium-format cameras around.
On the surface, Mamiya’s reputation as a medium-format company is unparalleled. Consequently, platforms like the RB 67 are ritually sought-after by retro camera aficionados, collectors, and aspiring shooters, even though it made its debut all the way back in 1970. The camera’s latest iteration, the Pro SD, is a single-lens reflex model that’s been lauded as the “workhorse of the pros,” thanks to advents in the photographic space that came well after the medium’s Golden Era in the 1930s and 40s. Modernized (for the period) implementations like a revolving back, multi-format adaptability, and bellows focusing made the Mamiya RB 67 a strong camera for professional use, and its iconic, fully-mechanical standing has made it a go-to platform for every shade of medium-format shooter since. Regardless, the camera still utilizes 120- or 220-type roll film backs and calls upon either 10, or 20 exposure increments to supplement its 6 × 7 formats.
Rolleicord has fostered a reputation as one of the industry’s longest-running camera manufacturers, and from the time the initial model (aptly named “Rolleicord) was introduced in 1933 until production was inevitably ceased in 1977, its durable models were seen as an industry mainstay. The Rolleicord V, which was produced from 1954 until 1957, is perhaps its most legendary TLR, calling upon 120-type roll film to capture 12 6×6 exposures. At its front, a Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar 3.5 75mm lens lends its strength to the V — a platform that introduced piecemeal iterations of a Deckel Synchro-Compur MXV/CR00 shutter, self-timer, and M flash-synchronisation.
The latter half of the 1950s were dominated by Yashica-Mat, a company that produced affordable, intuitive 6×6 cameras for the masses. These simplistic knob advance and crank advance TLR models brought a 75mm 3.5 Lumaxar to the forefront, a series of lenses that have a shrouded past as either Japanese or German variants that were made to mimic the Tessar-type stylings of the era. As such, it utilizes the same 120 roll film as its counterparts and produces 12 stunning 6×6 frames per roll. Although the company’s other offerings, the LM, EM, and 124 /124G improved upon the shortcomings of the original, the Yashica-Mat remains one of the most iconic, and sought-after medium format cameras from the generation.
Bronica’s SQ series was created to bring a modern flair to the medium format landscape, and for the most part, it succeeded in its role. Making its debut in 1980, the leaf shutter-based silhouette called upon an updated, Seiko-manufactured electronic shutter and an interchangeable back system allowing for use with either 120, or 220 (12/24) film backs. A pairing of an ISO speed dial and metered finders set the 6×6 apart from its brethren, evolving into the updated SQ-A, which was released in 1982 with a newly-developed mirror lockup/viewfinder system that supported auto exposure. But, with modern camera systems like the digital single-lens reflex coming into play during the late 1980s, and early 1990s, it wasn’t long before the demand for complex medium-format cameras reduced drastically. In 2003, Bronica closed its doors with the release of the SQ-Ai; and today, the original SQ-A is still sought after by many professional and amateur photographers who are looking to delve into the medium-format world.
Mamiya is making its second appearance on this list with the 645AFD — an upgrade to the company’s lauded 4.5×6 645AF, and compatible with modern digital backs at the turn of the century. In 2001, the AFD made its debut, accenting the company’s first auto-focus camera model with a versatile digital back that could be swapped to, and from film mid-roll, bridging the gap between the industry’s more cutting-edge models, and its film-focused progenitors. At its front, a newly-developed bayonet lens mount was introduced to work alongside modern autofocus lens suites, changing the game for medium-format photographers who had spent the majority of their lives working on manually-focused models. As is the case with the vast portion of its medium-format brethren, the 645AF and AFD utilized either a 120 or 220 film roll, with a rotating pressure plate that could be adjusted to permit the differing thicknesses.
Perhaps the most famous name in the medium-format industry belongs to Hasselblad, a Swedish camera manufacturer founded in 1941. Though the company has received endless praise for its precision optics, sharp imagery, and dependable camera bodies, the 500C/M is remembered as one of the most legendary platforms in the history of the medium, thanks to its innovative backstory. After creating both the 1600F and 1000F some years prior, the 500C/M was proposed as a replacement camera to remedy irreconcilable issues with the company’s shutter system. As such, it was built, quite literally, from the ground up, introducing a newly-developed Compur shutter that mimicked the tried-and-true system popularized by Zeiss. The resulting 6×6 series was imbued with an interchangeable focusing screen and an improved automatic back that could take on a 12-shot 120 film roll, and boasted one of the industry’s fastest flash synchronization systems at all shutter speeds, making it a go-to platform for professional studio photography.
Modern & Magnificent
The Contemporary Standard
Hasselblad X1D II 50C
Looking toward the future, Hasselblad developed the X1D II 50C, a sleek, stunning camera body that embodies the heart and soul of today’s medium-format systems. Aside from its award-winning design, this portable photo device has been upgraded with a slew of modern upgrades, including a 3.6-inch touch-screen display, a crisp electronic viewfinder, and a live review interface that offers a substantial improvement over platforms of old. To keep the revered Hasselblad name intact, a stunning 50-megapixel sensor has been implemented alongside the company’s bespoke color solution, which retains a recognizable look different than any other system on the market. And with 16-bit RAW images at its beck and call, it’s become a surefire sign of status and professionalism within the photographic realm, finding use within a number of high-profile studios since its debut.
Fujifilm GFX 100
Fujifilm’s presence within the world of photography is never understated, and as one of the most time-tested brands in the industry, its expertise is dependable and true. Recently, the outfit revealed its GFX 100, an ultra-attractive medium-format monster that calls upon a 100-megapixel CMOS sensor to do its bidding. To call this camera a medium-format model might be an injustice, but the proof is in the pudding; a modern-day X-Processor 4, 4K video capabilities, 10-bit color depth, and full-sensor phase-detection provide a well-rounded (albeit, overzealous) alternative to any professional shooter who’s looking to take his workflow to the next level. Weather resistance and lightweight capability aside, the GFX 100’s $10,000 price tag might be a bit steep for the aspiring medium-format photographer who’s hoping to get his feet wet. So, for now, it’s best that we admire from afar.
PhaseOne XF IQ4
There are few modern medium-format platforms worth their salt, but the PhaseOne XF IQ4 takes the cake in nearly every category. This 150-megapixel behemoth is the industry standard for medium and large-format work, providing unparalleled resolution, incomprehensible detail, and dynamic RAW images that can be pushed and pulled for mesmerizing results. There’s not much else to say about the king of cameras, and with a price tag of $50,000+, you’d be lucky to bear witness to one in your lifetime.
On The Precepice
Leica’s iconic name carries hard-hitting weight within the industry, and when it’s not creating some of the most minimalistic, awe-inspiring camera platforms around, it’s innovating upon the medium’s cutting-edge systems. A recent announcement from the company has slated the upcoming S3 — a comprehensive, tailor-made platform that promises to change the landscape of photography as a whole — for release sometime in 2020, calling upon a robust 64-megapixel Leica ProFormat sensor, medium-format Cine 4K video, and outstanding adaptability to create something truly special.