I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a time that has seen a transition from 35mm film to digital photography. Although I only seriously took up 'proper' photography, as I like to call it, about five years ago, I fondly remember taking every opportunity I could to nick my fathers Canon film SLR and take a few shots that my 12-year old self unreservedly classified as 'artistic'. Unfortunately, they were not always regarded this way when the rolls of film came back from the developer, with umpteen blurry close-ups of flowers and rocks, and worse, hardly any of people.
'What's the point of photos without people in it?', and 'Do you know how much each roll of film costs??' were the oft repeated refrains of a parent. In hindsight this was not unjustified because film was indeed expensive and, to be brutally honest, most of my chosen exposures did end up in the bin.
Fast forward to the age of digital photography however, and hallelujah! No more parents whining about the cost of film. Young photography enthusiasts can snap away to their hearts content with only the capacity of their memory cards holding them back. It truly has been a quantum leap for photography.
Or has it?
Has the value of the act of pressing the shutter been lost to such an extent that we now no longer process the scene in front of us for longer than it takes to think 'snapchat'? Surely the more seasoned and considered photographers among us balk at the thought of such shutter promiscuity. I would like to count myself among this high-minded cohort, that is until I think of my last shoot and consider how many exposures ended up in 'trash', and how many I actually considered worthy of spending the time to post-process, let alone actually print. Not so high-minded after all, then.
It was perhaps this, revelation, I suppose, that got me to make a first tentative Google search for the term 'medium format photography'. You see I have been doing a course in professional photography from the New York Institute of Photography (one I can highly recommend by the way), during which the first module covers a bit of the history of photography and the early types of camera. Among them, medium format and large format cameras figured prominently, but it was the first time I had paid any real attention to these stalwarts of yester-year. Sure I have seen pictures of a chap under a dark hood stood behind his rather ridiculously large wooden camera, who hasn't? And as a 'serious' photographer I have, in passing, seen pictures of classic Hasselblad and Leica cameras, mainly due to the endurance of these brands to this day. But had I ever considered actually using a film camera again? Of course not! What a quaint little idea.
Then I stumbled upon something called a Rolleiflex.
Before I go any further I suppose I should apologise for the absurdly long preamble. For my intention with this series of articles is to document, as I potter along, my journey into the world of medium format photography. It is a journey by someone who has only really known digital, like others of my generation and certainly those younger than us. So I thought, if my trials and tribulations could be of any use to you who may be thinking of dabbling in medium format but so far have been too cautious, or too ill-informed, or too worried about things like cost and availability to take the plunge, then perhaps my experience can at least serve as a bit of a tow for you out into these previously well charted but still fascinating waters.
(Apologies to those of you who live outside the UK as most of the links to websites and dealers are UK-based, but the principles stand and you can usually find your equivalent local information through the magic of the internet!)
The first stage is, of course, to do some research. I ended up doing a lot of searching online into medium format cameras in general and Rolleiflex's in particular, and I will share some of those tid-bits with you now. But first I have to say that although I have chosen Rollei's as my route into the genre, there are other medium format cameras to consider that are perhaps a little cheaper yet still give you a flavour of what you can expect. Cameras such as the Kiev 88, Yashica TLR's, the Minolta Autocord and Flexaret's can be found for bargain prices online - just be careful to buy from a reliable dealer if you are unsure of how to check these cameras for yourself. They are, almost without exception, very old cameras so the condition can vary considerably.
In this post I am mostly talking about twin lens reflex medium format cameras because I find the system intriguing, but if you prefer a more traditional single-lens system then the above mentioned Kiev 88 would be the budget option, or if you have a few quid to indulge your hobby then you can't go wrong with a Hasselblad 500C. For an interesting take on a DSLR photographers first experience with one of these fine cameras have a read of this f-stoppers blog.
A decent 500C will set you back about £500 including an 80mm 2.8 lens, but a gold edition 500CM will take you up to the £3000-4000 mark. Contrast that with a reasonable Kiev 88 which you can conceivably get for under £300. A collectable Rolleiflex 2.8F would again cost over £1500-2000, but an MX-EVS a far more palatable £400-500. For someone like me who wants to experience the wonders of medium format without having to re-mortgage the house and sell the car, I think it boils down to a straight shootout between the Hassleblad 500C and the Rolleiflex MX-EVS. They are very different, but by all accounts equally delightful cameras, so my advice would be to do your research and find which one resonates with you. Personally I have a sneaking suspicion I might end up with both in my stable at some point, but let's not get ahead of ourselves!
Now a few factors to take into account before committing to what is a completely different camera system to DSLR and mirrorless cameras. First of all, these are film cameras. Digital medium format cameras are now available, but those are largely the remit of professionals and rather wealthy amateurs. Film has a number of drawbacks compared to digital, principally the fixed ISO rating and the limited number of exposures per roll, but the size of film can be many times that of a digital sensor and the resultant quality and sharpness can be a revelation to newcomers. Moreover, one of the main reasons to go back to film is the difference in the medium. The way light affects film and the chemistry involved in developing exposures makes the output very unique, and different from what you get with your electronic camera. Larger sensors notwithstanding, even medium format digital cameras are still, well, digital.
Another important factor to consider is the need to process film. If you really want to take creative control, then setting up your own little darkroom would be the way to go. But not all of us have the time, resources or space to do this so it becomes imperative that you do a little bit of digging to find out where you would send your film for processing and how much it would cost. Most of these cameras take 120 roll film, with 10 exposures per roll. There are still a good few labs in the UK that will process rolls of film for you so this should not put you off the genre. A few places to start are www.cityphotographic.co.uk, www.ag-photographic.co.uk, and www.silverprint.co.uk. There will usually be a lab close to you if you live in the UK, so it is worth checking the local listings to see if that is the case. There is much to be said for developing (forgive the pun) a personal relationship with your local photo lab if you shoot film.
One other thing to consider is metering. Most vintage medium format cameras do not have built-in light meters (there are a number of exceptions, but in the sub-£1000 bracket this is largely the case). Which means you will not only need a hand-held light meter, but know how to use it! The in-built meters of most digital cameras are so good these days that we take metering for granted, and I would go so far as to say a lot of amateur photographers do not really understand how a light meter works. Fortunately, it is not a difficult skill to master, and it is one of the many things shooting medium format will teach you!
Now back to my choice of TLR. Rolleiflex's are widely considered the Rolls Royce of twin-lens reflex cameras. The precision German engineering is something that users even today marvel at and wax lyrical about (see Ted Forbes YouTube video on the Rolleiflex MX-EVS). I found that the Rolleiflex 2.8F is widely regarded as the most desirable and collectable (and hence also the most expensive) of the Rollei's, with the MX-EVS being probably the best compromise between quality and value for money, and the Rolleicords being the 'budget' options but still providing excellent image quality if you find a camera in good working order. Finding such a camera is the hard part.
Mr Forbes had me sold on the Rolleiflex MX-EVS, so I figured in this day and age of us having the world at our fingertips, surely buying a nice Rollei would be no more complicated than a quick search on Amazon or, at a real stretch, one of the dedicated online photography shops such as Wexphotographic or ParkCameras. Well, to cut a long story short, it was not as easy as I anticipated. I had to use some cultivated web trawling skills to find dealers with a website, and then spent some considerable time going through their inventories to see if anyone had any Rollei's available that were in decent nick. So for those of you that are looking for some vintage TLR or used medium format cameras, here are some links to get you going:
I can't personally vouch for any of these sites in particular, but they all seem to stock the types of cameras and equipment we are talking about. The fact of the matter is you are going to have to search most of these, and probably others, to really find what you are after, and even then you may have to keep checking back over a period of days or weeks. Remember these are old classic cameras, most are not manufactured any more so it's a case of waiting until one you like becomes available.
There is one website and proprietor I can vouch for, to some degree, and that is Rob of www.vintageclassiccamera.com, for that is where I found my MX-EVS! The photos on the website suggest it is in superb condition and full working order, so I had very little hesitation in giving Rob a ring to find out more. He couldn't have been more helpful - told me everything I wanted to know about the camera and starting off as a newbie with medium format TLR's. I also got a good deal on a used Sekonic flashmate light meter as well (essential with the MX-EVS as it does not have a built-in light meter). He even threw in a Rollei tripod adapter and a couple of filters!
I will reserve my final judgement for next week, because that is when my Rolleiflex will arrive, and once it does I will be sure to let you in on the excitement! Until then, I hope I have at least given you enough to pique your interest and set you off scouring the internet for more medium format goodness!
(Disclaimer: I have no pecuniary interest in any of the above mentioned retailers or websites, and take no responsibility for the absolute accuracy of any of the pricing or other information stated. This is all quite simply what I have found through my own searches and I may be wrong on a few points. The only intention here is to give you a starting point, the rest is down to you to explore and enjoy the journey!)