Education

Choosing the Right Medium Format Camera

Previously, I wrote a two part post (Part 1 and Part 2) comparing the small herd of medium format cameras I had at that time.  I gave no definitive answer on which medium format film camera to choose, because there is a lot of personal choice involved when choosing a relatively uncommon means of capturing images. My goal was to provide some information on each for those looking at some or all.

Disclaimer: Not saying this is the only one I have. Some I kept are relatively irrational choices due to cost and feature set, but turn out such stunning results when used right and some are such screaming bargains that they earned a spot on my “cold, dead hands” shelf.

What did I personally choose as my go-to medium format film camera? None of them, but close to one. One camera I  recommend to others with a clear conscious and the other I grab when I want the whole package. Before I announce which camera I decided on, lets see if you can guess taking the description I have below: 

  • Sturdy build: I often joke about appreciating cameras that could double as melee weapon in the event of a zombie apocalypse. This camera feels that solid without weighing like a Buick. Others feel good in hand, but are precious legends that should be treated as such no matter how sturdy.
  • No odd ‘don’t’ lists:  I love Hasselblad’s and other lovely heirloom quality cameras. There are mechanical safety measures built in, like not allowing you to remove the back unless the dark slide is in place.  I also feel pressure when using them due to the many non-obvious ways you can wreck a camera if things are done out of order, like removing a lens when the shutter is not cocked. Not difficult, but the camera I chose has no such concerns. It is as straightforward as a modern SLR.
  • Controls:  Lovely modern digital Fuji before digital Fuji dials for everything. Want auto aperture or shutter speed? Set to green. Want aperture or shutter priority? Move one off green. Want all manual? Move both off green. AE is available in all manual. All other controls are just as simple and intuitive. (Except perhaps the ML button which means AE memory lock and not Mirror Lockup.) Again, it is as easy to use as any of the myriad of SLRs in existence.
  • AE: Speaking of AE purist ramblings aside auto exposure is really nice. Two cameras on my previous list had AE, but one required extra kit and a weight belt to lug around (exaggerating admittedly) and the other was not as consistent as I would have liked (may have been my copy). The one chosen has proven to be rock solid with a near unimpeachable hit rate.
  • AF: None of the other cameras in my prior evaluation had AF.  Accurate AF that has single or servo focus modes or AF-S and AF-C in Sony speak and center point or center zone focusing even better.
  • Relative value: I say relative, because if you do not care about automation secure yourself a Yashica TLR for ultimate value in my humble opinion. Rollei like goodness for $200 or less. For a full feature set at a reasonable price this camera is hard to beat. Other similarly spec’s cameras that rhyme with Ron-Fax cost much more. Value is also earned by it being a 645 format camera that squeezes not 8, 10, 12, or even 15, but 16 exposures from a roll of 120 film while still retaining that medium format thin DOF and detail rich goodness. Also, takes run of the mill and easily sourced AA batteries. The lenses are a screaming value when compared to other systems. I picked up a fantastic zoom lenses for this camera from KEH.com for a fraction of what that lens new (still on sale) or a competitor would cost.
  • Reliability: Solid electronics from what I can tell from reviews and in use. Another similarly spec’d brand has more prestige (again rhymes with Ron-Fax), but I have been warned off its medium format camera offerings based on other’s experiences. Love the brands 35mm offerings, but it does not seem like the medium format variant is as robust. 
  • Modern accessories: A TTL bounce/swivel flash is available at a very affordable price. None of the others mentioned had this as far as I know. Bounce flash used in shot below.

  • Lens compatibility: Lenses, whether manual focus or AF, are fully compatible with this company’s modern digital medium format cameras if you should ever hit the lottery.
  • Swift and unobtrusive in use: One thing most medium format cameras are not good for is anything remotely resembling stealth. While not silent, like the Yashica TLR, it is a good margin swifter in use and I would not call it noisy either. Square up your shot get the subject in the middle of frame and you are done. Shot taken. None others are as quick in use. Especially important when notice could go south on you.

What camera is this? You may have already figured it out based on the list above. The Pentax 645N. I alluded to the Pentax 645 being one of my favorites on the previous two part evaluation.

 

Well the 645N adds:

  • More accurate AE.
  • Better control layout. Dials > Buttons.
  • Sturdier build. For reasons I am not clear on,  the necessary grip for the 645 is removable whereas, it is all of one on the 645N.

Admittedly, this is not my ultimate sentimental favorite. When I have the time needed to frame and expose, my go-to is the Hasselblad all day. The 645N gets much more use in my day to day travels when I need something that gets the job done quickly and efficiently, (which my wife and family appreciates) with stunning results. Also,  it is the only medium format camera (and one of few 35mm film or digital cameras) I can hand off to a relative novice with little instruction and let them have at it. My sister- in-laws handiwork below during a recent family vacation.

Probably the most ringing endorsement I can give it is the fact that I no longer own many cameras on my previous post. Three have been sold or traded away. More significantly, while I appreciate them all I do not miss them.  A large reason for that is the Pentax 645N.

Happy shooting.

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2 comments

  1. The 645D isn’t that pricy any more – $2,500 for a 40mp CCD based setup. So going from film to digital is not as far fetched as other systems.

  2. I am surprised you favor the 645N over the 645NII which has mirror lockup.

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