Which medium format camera ?

Lubitel 166B front view

Lubitel 166B front view

Ever since I started to have a renewed interest in film photography I’ve had the desire to own a medium format camera. I bought a Pentacon Six with the idea of refurbishing and repairing it, but that project stalled because the shutter assembly is in pretty poor condition and, having seen the quality of the engineering that makes it, I’m not convinced that buying a reasonable unit to replace it is actually good value for money. (I don’t actually class that project as a failure – I learnt a lot about mechanical shutters during that project and I may still complete it out of historical interest).

We are coming up to Christmas at the moment so I’ve decided that my Christmas present this year is going to be a medium format SLR camera, but the decision I’m faced with is which model to buy. I think I’ve settled on a 645 format camera, because the size is more reasonable to carry around than a 6×6 or 6×7 camera, and the difference in negative size is not that great.

The models I’ve got on my short list at the moment are either a Bronica ETRSi, a Pentax 645 or a Mamiya 645 Pro. I’ve also been looking at some TLR models in the Mamiya C series (C3, C220 or C330), which are 6×6 but are one of the only series of TLR models with exchangeable lenses, however I think the parallax error inherent in the TLR design has put me off that idea.

The factors which I’m considering in making my choice are

  • Good quality lenses which can be obtained easily and relatively cheaply
  • A good range of focal lengths available (ie 40, 80, 150, 300)
  • Exchangeable film backs allowing the film to be changed at any time
  • Use both 120/220 film
  • Good picture quality
  • Good metering viewfinder and/or AE option
  • Waist and eye-level viewfinders
  • Reliability/build quality
  • Readily available batteries and good battery life
  • Reasonable cost

Having looked at the models I’m considering it’s obvious that some of the models don’t meet all the criteria, so I’m working out the best compromise. The one thing all the cameras will easily succeed with is the requirement for good picture quality – having done some research on flickr and 500px any of these cameras are capable of stunning results.

Bronica ETRSi

The advantage of the Bronica is that they seem to be more readily available than some of the other models. A quick search on eBay reveals several complete kits at a price ranging from £200 to £400 depending on the amount of kit provided. While doing some research, I read one report that said the battery life on the Bronica was not very good and batteries are very expensive, but I’ve also seen reports of users who have run hundreds of rolls of film through their camera without changing the battery. A quick search on amazon revealed that batteries can be purchased for about £5 so I’m tending to not worry too much about that.

The downside to the Bronica is that the camera is basically a manual exposure camera to which you can attach a metered viewfinder. There is no auto exposure option and all readings need to be transferred from the meter to the camera body. That isn’t a huge problem, but there are some associated inconveniences – for example the film ISO is set on the metered shutter so if you change the film you need to remember to also change the ISO on the meter. Not impossible, but the sort of thing it’s easy to forget to do. The shutter speed is also a bit limited at only 1/500sec minimum.

Mamiya 645 Pro

The Mamiya 645 Pro also seems to be available although possibly not in the quantities that the Bronica is, however the lenses for this camera seem to be more easily available so I guess it’s swings & roundabouts. Although the body seems to be a bit more costly that the Bronica, there appear to be some real bargains with the lenses – I’ve seen 150mm f/3.5 units for only about £40.

The big winning  feature for the Mamiya is the auto exposure option which is built into the camera. Because this is an option which has been added to the camera from the very start, the problem with resetting the ISO as the film back is changed doesn’t arise – the ISO is set on the film back itself so as you change it the camera is aware.

There are some other nice features which probably make the Mamiya my favourite option at the moment. They are all little things like somewhere to put the dark slide during shooting, power wind options etc but they build up to looking like quite a nice system. There is also the huge plus that it is possible to get a digital back for the Mamiya which leads to the possibility of one day moving to medium format digital.

Pentax 645

The Pentax seems to be the most difficult unit to find, although I realise that it’s possible that could be down to how many people want to sell one at the moment (i.e. the same set of searches next month may produce a completely different number of results). They do seem to be reasonably priced however, and also seem to have a variety of lenses/accessories available although the lenses appear to be more pricy than either the Bronica or the Mamiya.

One of the big pluses for the Pentax is that it uses AA batteries which are easy to find anywhere, although the manual also lists a lithium battery for the exposure memory circuit which is ‘replaced by Pentax service centre’. I don’t know if that means it is impossible to replace it yourself.

The pentax does offer auto exposure modes and seems to have more of a 1980’s, button controlled ’35mm slr’ look to it, but it doesn’t have the option to replace film backs mid-roll. The film cartridge fits inside the camera body rather than attaching to the back so it means you can’t change from one to the other without completing the roll. That to me is quite a big requirement so I think it will probably be a deciding factor for me.

So those are the models I’m considering – I’d be interested in advice anyone may have regarding any of these models or any other model for that matter. Are there any particular features that you think would make a big difference ? What are the factors you think are important ?

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5 thoughts on “Which medium format camera ?

  1. as said Gretchen – Hasselblad 500/501 CM i missed in your review of this line medium format.
    actually Hassey is the best in this family – possibilities to shoot 6×6, no need in battery, dark slide, outstanding durability, film and digital back.

  2. Thanks for the suggestions – I did look at the Hasselblad 500 but I don’t think I could get one in the sort of price range I want to pay. I found a basic kit for about £600 but then additional lenses were several hundreds more and even extras like film back were in the hundreds.

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