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I love lists. I’m pretty sure people in general love lists. When I am flipping through my subscriptions on flipboard, I will invariably come across lists that I know bring nothing new to the table, but I cannot resist reading anyway. You know, in case there’s something I missed in my photographic journey (there never is).  I suppose it is because lists help us organize a rather chaotic world. So in honor of this great human tradition, I present to you a list of Five Types of Medium Cameras to Own!

My medium format collection, current as of Aug 27th

My medium format collection, current as of Aug 27th 2011

This piece arose from an observation I made a couple of years ago, about which I had intended to write a post (I’m sure I have a draft somewhere on the blog….). I started shooting 135 film around 4 years ago. I’ve really enjoyed the process, since it represented a much larger image than my then-APS-C Digital Rebel. I was actually able to use my lenses at their design focal length! Soon after, I purchased my first medium format camera – a Mamiya M645 in horrible shape. This opened my eyes to the world of medium format photography, in particular that there exists a whole world of photographic history that I had never known. And here’s my observation: There are way more types of medium format cameras than any other format (except perhaps the subminiature)! I will now list the five most common ones.

Box Camera
This is the granddaddy of them all.  When Kodak first came to prominence, it was on the back of the Kodak Brownie No. 2. The camera (and its variations) are behind the “You press the button, we do the rest” campaign that Kodak ran at the turn of the 20th century. The box camera, which uses 120 film, probably did more than any other camera in popularizing the snapshot, though it was eventually supplanted by the smaller 135 format.  The most amazing thing about these cameras is that they still work pretty much perfectly today, some 110 years later. Mr. Eastman will be proud.

Kodak No. 2 Brownie

Kodak No. 2 Brownie

The folders can perhaps be considered the simplest “serious” portable camera (though inevitably drawing the derision of field-camera-toting professionals of that era), because they are the first to feature aperture, focus and shutter speed adjustments. Like the box camera, these were in fact aimed at amateurs, though perhaps with greater technical proficiency than the users of the former. They have the added advantage of being extremely pocketable, fitting easily into a coat pocket. Early versions were almost exclusively scale-focusing cameras, though later incarnations, notably the Russian Moskva-5 and German Voigtlander Bessa series had coupled rangefinders.


Voigtlander Bessa 66 – The smallest medium format camera?

Twin Lens Reflex (TLR)
TLRs are perhaps the most iconic of the medium format cameras. Indeed, as far as I know, they are exclusive to medium format film. I don’t know any reason for that, except perhaps that only very few companies ever made these – Rollei, Yashica, Mamiya, Ansco and Seagull are the only ones that come immediately to mind. These cameras scream “vintage”, and the characteristic waist-level finder allows you to take photos without anyone realizing. Regardless of the make, these cameras are typically beautiful objects in their own right.  Although I have known about the existence of these cameras for a long time, I had always imagined them to be much larger than they actually are.  These pretty much fit nicely in your hands. 🙂  They are typically single focal length cameras, though the Mamiya professional series of cameras, e.g. C330 feature lens sets.  It should be obvious that TLRs suffer from significant parallax, and are thus not well-suited to macro work.


Yashica Mat 124G – The last Yashica TLR made

Single Lens Reflex (SLR)
SLRs are relative latecomers to the scene. The first one that I know of is the Hasselblad 1600 series, a focal-plane shutter camera that is very similar to a standard 35mm SLR. The camera is fairly unique, in that most cameras to date had used a leaf-shutter, i.e. the lens and shutter are in the same assembly. Focal-plane shutter cameras, on the other hand, do not contain any moving mechanical parts in the optical assembly. Perhaps because it is difficult to manufacture a large, reliable mechanical shutter, the design was soon discarded in favor of the V-series leaf-shutter cameras.  However, the design was inherited by Zenza Bronica, in the classic series that culminated in the mechanical beast, S2A. Firing one of these is like firing a cannon. Not for the faint-hearted. Hasselblad, on the other hand, continued to develop its now legendary cameras, including a special 500EL/M Space Edition for the NASA missions.  Other notable SLRs include the Pentax 67 and Mamiya cameras (645, RB- and RZ-67).


Zenza Bronica S2A – Fires like a cannon

While some folders had rangefinder focusing mechanisms, what I am referring to here are those that are the rigid, and compact rangefinders. Most of these are of Japanese make, from Bronica (RF645), Fuji (GS and GA series) and Mamiya (6 and 7 series). Of these, Mamiya’s represent perhaps the pinnacle of medium format rangefinder quality, with the interchangeable lens 7 Series system regularly fetching 2,000 USD on the used market. The Fuji’s tend to be a lot flimsier – the only medium format rangefinder I own is a GS645, a good little camera but feels distinctly plasticky.

[I sent the camera overseas before I had the chance to take a photo of it. Sorry.]

So there you have it. The five radically different types of cameras, all called medium format. You can get these for pennies on the dollar these days, and given the quality of the negative, it really makes sense to at least try these cameras before film goes the way of the dodo.