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Medium Format Photography: A Brief Overview

Introduction

Medium format photography has increased in popularity in the past few years. After shooting a few 35mm cameras, many new shooters want a bit more image quality, a bit more subject-background separation, and a bit more back pain.

This is where medium format comes in. This popularity has only been exacerbated by influencer culture and the classic Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.). 

When we see a well-made photo, many of us want to know how it was made, including the camera used. Again, combine this with the prevalence of influencer culture and social media, and it creates a cultural understanding that medium format, and some specific cameras, are necessary to create great photos.

We’ll first say that this is not true. Some models deserve popularity above others, but good photos can be made with almost any setup and film format. A fancy, expensive camera won’t make you a great photographer, but working within your limitations and being creative can help.

With that out of the way, let’s go over medium format. What is it? Who is it for? What kind of cameras can we expect to see? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Watch the video below to see Nico and Nuno talk about medium format, or keep scrolling to read the text version.

Defining Medium Format

Kodak introduced 120 film as we know it today in 1901 for their Brownie No. 2 camera. The intent with 120 was to create a consumer film, but the famous Red Dot standardized the 35mm film format, which relegated 120 to professional use.

The introduction of 120 came only about ten years after Kodak invented flexible rollfilm, and would become the most popular “medium” format film despite competition from the likes of 620 and 127 film. 

Kodak itself even bet against 120 film, introducing 620 in an attempt to replace the format. 620 film is nearly identical to 120, just with a slightly different spool. The spools are slightly thinner and very slightly shorter.

Eventually, though, 120 won out simply because Kodak could not get enough manufacturers to completely switch to 620. The very similar film formats were confusing for customers and most likely did not spark the competition Kodak desired. Consumers could buy 620 film until 1995, even though 120 drastically outsold it for decades.

Over the decades, 120 became the de-facto film of choice for professionals. It was accompanied by 220 film, which managed to fit twice the film onto the same spools. 220 film ended production in 2018 and was never quite as popular as 120 despite affording more shots per roll.

All of these numbers, and this medium format name. What does it mean?

To speak generally, it’s a film that’s larger than the 35mm small format but smaller than the 4×5 or 8×10 sheet film, called large format.

Most medium format film is rolled, similar to 35mm, but with a much larger image size. Some medium format cameras, such as the Fujica GL690, can take special sheet film intended for quick development. 120 film in particular is approximately 6cm tall, with varying widths depending on the camera. 

So 120 and medium format are almost interchangeable these days, although medium format can be used to describe many different films. No, there is no such thing as 120mm film.

Formats

120 photography is very different from 35mm photography. One important difference is the large variance of cameras and formats. Two cameras may both take 120 film, but the images they produce can be vastly different sizes.

Take, for example, the Zenza Bronica ETRS. This SLR takes 120 film and produces 15 images per roll, at a size of 6×4.5cm. Compare that to the Fujica GL690 we mentioned earlier, which takes 8 shots per roll at a size of 6x9cm. If you can’t visualize the difference, here’s a graphic.

As you can see, all medium format.. Formats are substantially larger than 35mm. Something like 6×9, though, is twice the size of 6×4.5 and offers thus twice the detail. If 2.4cmx3.6cm (standard 35mm film) gives us an area of 8.64cm2, 6×4.5cm gives us 27cm2 and 6x9cm gives us 54cm2. It’s a substantial difference, especially between 35mm and 120.

So medium format has quite a bit of variance in image size depending on the camera. What cameras are available, though? Which one works best for you?

Types of Cameras

TLR

Twin Lens Reflex cameras, otherwise known as TLRs, are defined by having two lenses. These lenses aren’t always exactly the same as the twin name may imply, but the presence of two lenses makes a camera a TLR.

Generally, the lenses are arranged vertically, with a viewing lens positioned above a taking lens. They also usually have waist level viewfinders, although some are able to mount eye-level prisms. 

Most of these cameras will have fixed normal lenses (around 75-80mm) although the Mamiya C series of TLRs breaks the mold and has interchangeable lenses. There are also Rolleiflex cameras with telephoto and wide-angle lenses, but these are far more rare than their cousins with normal lenses.

TLRs were very popular in the 1930s through the 1960s, especially among professional press photographers. They saw their success taper off after the invention of SLRs, even though one big advantage of the TLR is that there is no viewfinder blackout. The versatility of SLRs in terms of flash, auto-exposure, and lens selection relegated TLRs to niche use.

TLRs also normally use the square 6x6cm image format due to their design. Using this format allows them to be smaller than a lot of other 120 cameras while still packing quite a punch in terms of image quality.

TLRs are often a great entry point into medium format photography due to lower overall prices. This is because they’re older, a bit more archaic to use, and offer less flexibility than their SLR or rangefinder brethren.

Companies like Yashica and Minolta made cheaper TLRs, and Rollei leads the high-end market with their Rolleiflex and Rolleicord series. 

SLR

SLRs exist in the 35mm space, and many 120 SLRs look and feel like beefy versions of these cameras. They’re larger bodies with larger mirrors to compensate for the larger image size.

Most of these cameras will have interchangeable lenses, and a good amount of them will have other accessories as well, like grips or interchangeable prisms. The prisms can vary from standard waist level finders to speed finders to TTL-equipped prisms. 

These cameras can be cheap or expensive by medium format standards, with cameras like the Pentacon Six commanding far less money on the used market than something like the Pentax 67ii.

The advantages of 35mm SLRs are mostly applicable here. Being able to see directly through the lens makes it easy to achieve critical focus and framing with a wide variety of lenses, especially telephotos.

Like 35mm SLRs, 120 SLRs will have the widest array of lenses available to them. Pentax even made a 35mm f4 Fisheye lens for their 6×7 SLR.

Most SLRs of this type will use the 6×6 or 6×7 image format, simply due to their design. The traditional SLR design works best with a slightly wider frame, but going bigger than 6×7 would necessitate a mirror that may cause issues at certain shutter speeds.

Modular SLRs

Many manufacturers, however, did not feel limited or attached to 35mm SLR design when creating 120 cameras. This led to the development of modular SLRs, which handle quite differently to their more traditional cousins.

These cameras are defined by their modularity. Many things are interchangeable, including lenses, prisms, focusing screens, winding knobs, and film backs, the latter of which is the most significant difference.

Interchangeable film backs allow the photographer to load multiple rolls before a shoot so that they spend less time reloading when they could be shooting. Loading 120 film is a bit more finicky than loading 35mm, and happens more frequently. Having the ability to quickly switch between multiple film backs allows for rapid reloading.

These backs also allow for switching between films, or even between formats. A photographer can have color film in one back and black and white in another, with easy swapping between them. This makes comparing film types a breeze.

Just like the traditional SLRs, modular SLRs can use a variety of prisms. Most sold new with waist level finders, as their cube-like shape allows for easy waist level holding. They can also accept metered and unmetered prisms as well as magnifying optics and sports finders.

In the past, photographers would make use of Polaroid instant backs to evaluate light conditions. With a modular SLR, you can take a Polaroid and easily switch back to the higher quality rollfilm to re-take the same image. Oh how we miss you, Fujifilm FP-100C

Even the film’s format is changeable. With a camera like the Mamiya RB67, the photographer can use the native 6×7 backs as well as backs with masks and gearing to take 6×4.5 images. They even had a panoramic 35mm back!

This interchangeability even extends to digital photography. Companies like Phase One made a name for themselves by selling digital backs for modular SLRs like Hasselblads. Even with the rise of medium format digital cameras from companies like Hasselblad and Fujifilm, using a digital back on an analog 120 camera is still a valid option.

The defining word for these cameras is versatility. They take the SLR format and improve it with interchangeable backs and varying film formats, while offering the same lens and prism versatility found on 35mm and traditional 120 designs. 

Modular SLRs can be almost any film size, from the 6×4.5 Mamiya 645 to the 6×8 Fujifilm GX680. There are no widely popular 6×9 SLRs, though, again due to the size and heft necessary to house the mirror movement. Even the 6×8 Fuji is a massive camera that more or less requires a studio space.

Smaller SLRs, like the Mamiya 645, Pentax 645, and Bronica ETR, are generally cheaper than their larger counterparts, whereas cameras like the Hasselblad 500 and Mamiya RB/RZ67 command hefty prices for large images. The Mamiya in particular has risen dramatically in price over the past few years. 

Rangefinders

Rangefinder cameras, popularized by Leica in the 1920s and 30s, were also scaled up to fit 120 film in much the same way as SLRs. Just like SLRs, this scaling up brought the same advantages and disadvantages.

While rangefinders can have interchangeable lenses, the variety of lenses that are usable is far less. Because rangefinder users aren’t looking directly through the camera’s lens like they are with an SLR, framing will only be accurate if the focal length of the lens is close to the one the rangefinder was designed to use. 

Normally, this is a normal lens. A rangefinder like the Fujica GM670 or Mamiya 7 will have rangefinders built around their standard lenses. They may have alternate framelines for some other lenses, but if you go outside the rangefinder’s comfort zone you’ll be forced to use an external finder. This drastically slows down the shooting process.

In terms of advantages, rangefinders have quite a few. They’re generally smaller, quieter, and lighter than SLRs because they have less moving parts and don’t need a large mirror. In 120, a lot of rangefinders have lenses with leaf shutters, which further cuts down their weight and noise of operation. The Bronica RF645 is an example of this.

Another advantage is that the viewfinder window can often see more than the lens is able to. This means that the photographer can know what’s outside of the frame. For some people, this helps them frame more accurately or be more prepared for street shooting that requires waiting in the same spot.

In 120, this effect is only exacerbated. Because the cameras are bigger, their rangefinder windows are bigger as well. These viewfinders can be huge when compared to 35mm cameras.

Rangefinder cameras have the widest variety of formats in the pure medium format space. There are 6×4.5 options, like the Bronica RF645 and Fujifilm GS645, 6×7 options like the Mamiya 7ii, and even 6×9 options like Fujica GW series.

In terms of price, the Fujifilm (and Fujica) made a number of realtively cheap rangefinders, such as the GL690 and GS645. The Fujica GW690 series of fixed lens cameras as well as the Mamiya 7 and Plaubel Makina 67 are higher-end options. Also towards the cheaper end are a number of folding cameras, but we’ll cover them shortly.

Folding Cameras

By shortly, I meant right now. Folding cameras are defined by their bellows and by the ability to fold the lens back inside the body for safety and compactness. There are some folding cameras in 35mm, like the Kodak Retina series, but the format was more successful in 120.

Folding cameras were popular in the early days of photography, as they allowed for compact size and portability. This allowed everyday people easier access to photography. Kodak produced folding cameras as early as 1897.

Folders will generally have a fixed lens of around normal length and a more limited selection of shutter speeds and apertures than other, newer cameras. Which brings us to the main disadvantage of the folding camera, its age.

While there are newer options, including Fujifilm’s GF670 that only ceased production in 2014, most folders are from the 1950s or even earlier. Companies like Voigtländer, Mamiya, Agfa, Kodak, and Zeiss Ikon made many folding cameras that used 120 film.

Some folding cameras will come with a built-in rangefinder, and some will only come with a viewfinder. There were many combinations of shutters and lenses, even within the same models.

Folding cameras can also be a few different formats. Some will be 6×4.5, such as some Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta models, some, like the Mamiya Six, will be 6×6, and some will be as large as the 6×9 Moskva-5.

On the lower end, there were many consumer-oriented cameras such as the Zeiss Ikon Nettar and many Agfa models. These may only have two or three shutter speeds and a smaller aperture than their more professional models. Moving up in price a bit are some of the higher-end old models, like the 6×6 Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta 533/16 or the Fuji GS645.

While folders may not be the most versatile, or the most powerful performers, their charm is right there in the name; they fold. If the old adage “the best camera is the one you have with you” is true, then a folder could be the best medium format camera available simply because it will fit in a bag more easily than an SLR, TLR, or rangefinder.

Lens Equivalents

You may have noticed I avoided mentioning any focal lengths for lenses while describing the various cameras above. This was deliberate, and comes from another interesting thing with medium format; lens equivalency.

Basically, the normal lens is a different focal length depending on how large your image is. If you’ve used APS-C or Micro 4/3 cameras before, it’s the same principle. An Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 25mm f1.8 gives the equivalent of a 50mm lens on a full-frame sensor or 35mm film.

There are calculations to calculate the exact equivalency, but for our purposes I’ll lay out a few common focal lengths and what they would be in a few common formats.

35mm50mm100mm
35mm35mm50mm100mm
6×4.5~55mm~80mm~160mm
6×6~60mm~90mm~180mm
6×770mm100mm200mm

As you can see, the larger formats require longer focal length lenses to create the same equivalent focal length of a 35mm camera. It’s the opposite effect of the crop from APS-C or Micro 4/3.

Because of this, a normal lens, generally meaning a 50mm equivalent, is a different focal length for each film format. For Micro 4/3 it would be 25mm and for 6×7 it’s 100mm. Despite being vastly different focal lengths, they produce roughly the same field of view on their respective cameras.

Sorry for all those numbers. Let’s get back to cameras.

Popular Models & Hidden Gems

Hasselblad 500C

The Hasselblad 500C is an iconic modular SLR introduced in 1957. The 500C takes photos in the 6×6 format and uses a wide variety of lenses made by Carl Zeiss as well as a wide variety of proprietary accessories, like winders, finders, grips, and film backs. 

It replaced the earlier Hasselblad 1000, and made some distinct changes that would make it the far more successful model. 

The addition of lens-based leaf shutters made by Compur was the biggest change. The leaf shutter allowed for flash synchronization at any speed, which was a desirable feature for professionals in studio settings. 

The main difference between the 500C and the 500C/M is that the C/M has interchangeable focusing screens. The 500C was the first widely popular Hasselblad camera and took some of the most iconic images of all time, including on the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Bronica ETRS

The Bronica ETRS is an interchangeable lens modular SLR released in 1976. The entire ETR series uses the 6×4.5 format along with a variety of leaf-shutter lenses designed and produced by Zenza Bronica.

The ETR was largely successful, and received slight revisions until its discontinuation in 2013. Upon release reviews praised it as technologically advanced compared to its competition, like the Mamiya 645 and Pentax 645.

The 645 SLR space is a small field, and the Bronica differentiated itself by having leaf shutter lenses and interchangeable backs. Early Mamiya 645 cameras had fixed backs, as did all Pentax 645 cameras.

The ETRS brought the versatility of larger format SLRs down to the small 6×4.5 frame, and did it at a reasonable price. This reasonable price can still be found today on the used market.

Plaubel Makina 67

The Plaubel Makina 67 is a collapsible, fixed-lens rangefinder released in 1979. The Makina features an 80mm f2.8 Nikkor lens with six elements in four groups. It takes photos in the 6×7 format and uses a collapsing mechanism with bellows to make it extremely compact when not in use.

The Makina is one of the most sought-after medium format cameras because of its combination of small size, low weight, and excellent performance. The rangefinder is bright and easy to use, and the Nikkor lens has incredible resolution, probably only second to the 80mm lens found on the Mamiya 7ii.

One interesting thing about the Makina is that the focus is done via a knob near the shutter advance, rather than anywhere on the lens. Another is that the meter reads through the rangefinder window, and thus metering can be incredibly precise and accurate. When looking through the viewfinder, the metering area is the same as the rangefinder patch.

Fujica GL690 / GM670

The Fujica GL690/GM670 are interchangeable lens rangefinders released in 1974. They were the follow ups to the successful G690, and use a small series of breech lock Fujinon lenses ranging from 50mm to 180mm.

I’ll admit my bias on this one, as the GM670 is my medium format camera of choice. If you follow our weekly Q&A sessions, you know this. I believe it can’t be beat in terms of price, size, and quality.

The newer, plasticky, fixed-lens GW690 series tend to overshadow them even though the GL and GM are technically more versatile cameras. The only advantage the GW has is the newer Fujinon EBC coatings. Although they are fantastic, the ability to change lenses is more useful in my opinion.

The lenses for the G series are no slouches, either. The 100mm is a Tessar design, and the 50mm f5.6 is a very well-regarded 25mm equivalent.

The 6×9 model only competes with folding cameras, which they easily outperform. The 6×7 model has stiff competition from the likes of the Plaubel Makina 67 and the Mamiya 7ii, but the 6×7 is about ⅓ of the price and delivers almost the same shooting experience. Strap a Doomo Meter D on top and you’re all set.

Mamiya RB / RZ67

The Mamiya RB & RZ67 are interchangeable lens modular SLRs released in 1970 and 1982 respectively. They are not the same camera, but share a number of features that make them worth pairing together. 

Both use leaf shutter lenses in Seiko #1 shutters, with an internal bellows focusing system that allows them to focus closer than a lot of their competition from Hasselblad or Bronica. Mamiya marketed both on having rotating film backs that allow for portrait or landscape photos without rotating the camera.

The main difference between the RZ67 and its predecessor, the RB67, is that the RZ is electronically-controlled, transferring exposure information around the camera with electronic couplings.

RZ cameras, with proper adapters and settings, can use RB lenses and film backs as well, further increasing the wide variety of accessories available for these cameras. It’s also possible to use film backs that support a wide variety of formats, from panoramic 35mm to 6×4.5 and even 6×8.

Both cameras have a maximum shutter speed of 1/400th in each lens. With its wide range of adapters and accessories, the RB/RZ system is incredibly versatile. The only downside is that the cameras are large and heavy, even by medium format standards.

Rolleiflex 3.5

Rolleiflex cameras are fixed-lens TLRs released as early as 1928. There is a wide variety of models, with different lenses, features, etc. that make the Rolleiflex one of the most varied cameras ever sold.

People love to talk about the 2.8 models of Rolleiflex as they’re the fastest, most expensive ones. The 3.5 cameras, however, are just as iconic, far more common, and arguably better cameras to use. 

Our Rolleiflex technician Toni’s first response when asked about the Rolleiflex 2.8 was to say that it’s too front-heavy, and that he’d prefer a 3.5 model. The better balance combines with a wide array of models and options to make a really nice package.

Rolleiflex 3.5s sold from 1928’s original Standard to 1976’s 3.5F Model 3, and came with a variety of lenses. These lenses came from either Carl Zeiss or Schneider-Kreuznach, two of the most respected lens manufacturers in the world who quality tested their lenses to extreme degrees. 

The Zeiss lenses were of either Tessar or Planar design, and the Schneider ones were either Xenar or Xenotar to match. Tessar/Xenar lenses are a bit softer and vignette more, but have a stronger character to the bokeh and intense center sharpness. Planar/Xenotar lenses are clinically sharp throughout the frame, which can lead to the photos looking a bit flat.

Pentax 67

The Pentax 67 is an interchangeable lens traditional SLR camera released as the 6×7 in 1969. Pentax sold their direct descendent, the 67ii, until 2009. These cameras have a wide variety of Takumar lenses, finders, and accessories designed to make them easy to use in any situation.

The 67 is famous for the large wooden grip that often adorns its left side. This grip also functions as a cold shoe, allowing flash sync at the 67’s dedicated speed of 1/30th. Some 67 lenses use internal leaf shutters, and can thus synchronize with flash at any speed. Most lenses, though, use the Pentax’s built-in focal plane shutter.

Despite the popular notion online, the Pentax 67’s mirror shake is very seldom an issue in actual use with the camera. The size and weight of the camera counteract mirror shake, even if the camera is loud.

All 67 models require a battery to fire. Later models added features like mirror lock up and improved the film transport mechanism, which has proven to be the least reliable part of the camera over time. 

Who is it for? / Conclusions

So do you need to get a Mamiya RZ67 because your favorite YouTuber uses one and you like their photos? No, of course not. Most of those shots of gas stations at night would be just as good on 35mm Cinestill.

However, there is still a legitimate case for using medium format over 35mm. Just like the jump from APS-C to full frame digital, the jump from 35mm to 120 gives a few notable advantages.

Medium format film can give you increased depth-of-field, increased dynamic range, and increased quality.

Depth-of-field increases with a larger sensor due to some complicated math, but an f2.8 lens on medium format is quite fast even if it’s a bit slow on 35mm. Dynamic range and quality increase because you’re simply capturing more data. 

Kodak Portra 400 in 35mm is the same exact film as Kodak Portra 400 in 120, just smaller. The extra space of 120 with the same grain density and structure means you’re capturing objectively more data.

Another reason why medium format photos often look much better than 35mm ones is the cameras. Designers had professionals squarely in mind when they created almost every modern 120 camera.

The lenses, bodies, prisms, film backs, and accessories were all made to a higher standard of quality than a lot of consumer-grade 35mm equipment. With this in mind, and considering the price of new medium format digital cameras, most medium format cameras are quite affordable even if their prices have doubled in the last five to ten years.

So who is medium format for? Well, it’s for anyone, really. At the end of the day, collecting cameras is a fun hobby. For those who chase the highest quality photos possible it only makes sense to end up in medium format at some point. Even the new digital options can’t match the image quality of a 6×7 or 6×9 camera.

Maybe it’s not necessary for hobbyists, but it’s fun and provides a different experience to 35mm. Some of the most iconic cameras ever made are medium format cameras, and G.A.S. is real. Don’t buy a camera because someone tells you to, not even the trained experts here at Kamerastore.com. Buy a camera because it will expand your photography, make you WANT to shoot, and make you happy.

To end the article with a quote from Hasselblad’s early marketing material for the 500C, “Sooner or later, you too will own a Hasselblad. Sooner or later, nothing but a Hasselblad will satisfy your requirements. As your photographic skill improves, you want to engage in more ambitious and interesting picture-making. You want a camera that can cope with your future photographic problems–and conquer them with consummate ease… Think over what a Hasselblad can do for your camerawork”.

Filmi, Technical/Educational

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