So you are interested in medium format film photography. There are a litany of follow-on questions including: where do I get film, how do I develop film, and what kind of camera do I use?
There's a bit of good and bad news when it comes to medium format film cameras: there are not a lot of choices. And while there were more choices back in the 1970s, there are only a handful of cameras and brands that have survived the test of time well enough to seriously be considered for a photographer today.
There are two general categories for most of the medium format film cameras - Rollei style or Hasselblad style. Camera makers like Bronica, Mamiya and Yeshica are similar in design to the Rolleiflex and Hasselblad counterparts and the difference is largely related to price.
Since Rolleiflex and Hasselblad are both kings of their respective categories, and they are the cameras I own, I will use them to compare and contrast medium format cameras and you are welcome to extrapolate for another brand as appropriate.
Let's take a look at each camera individually before comparing them side-by-side.
There are several models of the Rolleiflex - they were built for several decades- but the general design of a Rolleiflex (or Rollei for short) is straightforward. It is a twin lens camera - the top lens is used for focusing and composition while the bottom lens has a shutter in it that actually takes the photograph. The benefit of this design is that you are focusing through a bright lens and that can make using the camera in sunlight easier. The Rollei is completely manual; no batteries or circuits. Every time you fire the shutter, you rotate a side crank that advances the film and rechecks the shutter simultaneously.
There are several designs used in Rollei cameras to set the aperture and shutter. One version (seen on the model T) has a plastic ribbon that moves shutter speeds and apertures simultaneous; adjusting just one requires pulling out on a metal tab. Other Rollei cameras use a set of spinning wheels on either side of the lenses to adjust the settings. Some Rollei cameras also include a solenoid meter gauge, but at this age, they are hardly reliable.
Rolleiflex are fairly compact and much of that is because the lens is fixed - you cannot swap to a different focal length. There are two common focal lengths offered in a Rollei that convert roughly to a 50mm equivalent on 35mm film (remember that a 80mm lens on medium format = 50mm on 35mm film). There are also a selection of different apertures available (ranging from f2.8 to f3.5, or a difference of a half stop). Finally, there are different types of lenses offered for Rolleiflex cameras. Each of these differences has an incredible affect on the pricing; a beginner looking to start can save considerable money by getting a Rollei with a "less desirable" lens or aperture. I've had both sides of the spectrum and think they are both great cameras.
Focusing a Rollei is done by flipping up the top hood and looking down through the top of the camera. The image that is seen is reversed and this causes some initial confusion as panning the camera right moves the image to the left and vice versa. But with practice, you'll get used to a reversed image. From there, you rotate a big knob on the side to move the entire face of the Rollei forward or back, bringing the image into focus.
Almost everyone has heard of (or at least seen) a Hasselblad in their lifetime. Why? Because it's the camera taken by the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Of course their version was modified to accommodate their gloves and space stuff, but that camera is remarkably similar to the ones produced through the 1990s. When looking at a Hasselblad for medium format film photography, most people are looking at something coming from the era of 1950-1990, starting with the model 500CM.
There are lots of online resources for learning about all the differences between Hasselblad models (and this isn't one of them), so we'll just look at the big picture. Hasselblad cameras are designed to be tough, to withstand work and use by a professional, and to be very modular. Virtually everything is modular, which is one of the best parts of the system.
Unlike the Rolleiflex, this is a single lens camera, so the photograph is composed and shot via the single lens on the front. As a result of this design, the camera has a mirror that flips out of the way of the image, much like modern dSLR cameras do. To protect the film from accidental exposure to light, there are two shutters-one in the lens and another in the back of the camera (although its the timed lens shutter that captures the image, the back shutter is controlled by pressing and holding the shutter). Lenses are interchangeable and you can opt for a wide angle 50mm for one shot and then a 150mm portrait lens for the next.
The modular system of a Hasselblad also means that you can change film mid roll. That's right folks, you can switch between black and white and color film mid roll and not have to 'sacrifice' exposures. This was one of the most important features for me - I often want to switch between film types between shots - be it for color or a different ISO speed, etc. You can also use the removable film back to create multiple exposures easily.
If that wasn't enough modular-ness, you can also switch out viewfinders, prisms, grips, electric winders, etc. The list of Hasselblad modular components is nearly endless!
With a 80mm lens (50mm equivalent on 35mm film), the Hasselblad is only a little bigger than the Rolleiflex, although it is certainly heavier, which is the result of the sturdy construction. Like the Rolleiflex, it is a completely manual camera (later versions used batteries to control metal shutters or for the electronic winder) and focusing is again achieved by looking down on the viewfinder from the top. Settings like aperture and shutter speed are set on the lens itself, removing any controls beside shutter from the body of the camera. Film advance and shutter cocking are done simultaneously from a knob / twist arm on the side of the body.
In my experience, a Rollei is a little more forgiving for a beginner than the Hasselblad, but that's not to say the Hasselblad is a hard camera to use. For instance - Rollei is more "point and shoot" while the Hasselblad requires you to remember to remove the dark slide, make sure you load correctly (its more involved than the Rollei), etc. I would strongly suggest a buyer of either camera visit YouTube for a variety of video tutorials on both types of cameras. Film's too good to be wasted learning (and I've wasted my share......)!
- Small size
- Less expensive
- Easy to use
- Great image quality
- Quiet shutter
- Easy to hand hold down to 1/30 and 1/15th second
- No interchangeable lenses
- No removable film back - can't change film mid-roll
- Used cameras can have mold, fungus, etc as problems
- Not very modular. Accessories are limited to filters and a terrible Rolleikin (35mm film adaptor that doesn't work well)
- Interchangeable lenses
- Carl Zeiss optics (considered the best medium format lenses)
- Modular film backs allow for hot swap of film mid-roll
- Possible to buy newer cameras from the 1990s
- Solid construction and design
- Bigger and heavier
- Pricey; some models can cost more than a digital SLR camera
- Not as easy to use, more steps and things to remember (not hard though!)
- Noisy shutter (clop-clop sound)
- Hard to hand hold because of flip up mirror at slow shutter speeds
Looking at this list, you may have a strong inclination one way or another, but I encourage you to really think about the features rather than which camera has more pros or cons. For instance, I place tremendous value in the removable film back, so I'm willing to sacrifice price, shutter sound, and size to get that feature. I also recommend you search for high quality used versions of these cameras and maybe pay a little more for one from a photography shop that specializes in the cameras. eBay can be wonderful, but a camera shop is more likely to catch that fungus in the lens or a shutter that doesn't 'feel' right. Here's some recommendations of places to look:
There are other places to buy these cameras, but I have experience with these, hence my recommendation of them as resources for buying. And I don't get any kick backs or perks for recommending them!