A Minolta Autocord currently for sale on Ebay* by seller w911jan
Here's my sense of the ten-year trend in medium format:
As the world rushed to digital, medium-format camera sales, always extremely modest as a percentage of camera sales in general, diminished a lot further. Several medium-format cameramakers went out of business; a couple of others stopped making medium-format cameras. Here on TOP, we linked to a sobering set of pictures of Hasselblad's abandoned headquarters building.
On the world's virtual flea markets, the bottom dropped out of used equipment values. There was an interlude of a few years' duration during which bargains abounded.
Buggy whips. Nobody wanted the stuff.
Recently, however, a small, steady undercurrent of demand has begun to reassert itself. Not all photographers and hobbyists want to own and use medium-format film gear...but some do. The demand never disappeared; it's just that it's beginning to catch up to the supply again. A number of people, perhaps limited in means or driven by enthusiasm, had snapped up some nice bargains and found medium format to be a fun and rewarding way to practice their photography. A thriving sub-sub-culture was...well, not born, because it has always been there. Revived, let's say. Revivified.
And so prices have just barely begun to rise again. People are realizing that much less medium-format gear is coming to market as new product now, and that they might want it...someday; if not now, then later. And the best bargains are receding, as people begin to compete for the best stuff that's left.
Does that sound about right?
It's not a huge change, mind you. Just a barely perceptible trend. But I see medium-format making what could actually be called a comeback.
Of Kievs and Knebs
Since I posted the notice about the closing of the Arsenal factory in Ukraine a few days ago, I've been corresponding with several enthusiasts of cameras from the former Soviet bloc. I was surprised to learn about Arax, which sells—new, for very modest prices—a camera of a design that I'm personally familiar with. (It's not often I come across camera brands I don't know about, even esoteric ones.) I don't really know that much about the design, but I know it's been around forever—first as the Practisix, then Pentacon Six, then Exakta 66 and Kiev (or "Kneb," depending on whether the nameplate was in Roman or Cyrillic characters) 60. Seems that several importers do their own quality control on selected Arsenal (Kiev) products. Arax does that and more.
The Exakta 66 and Kiev 60 were made by entirely different companies, as far as I know; they just shared a common ancestry.
I reviewed the Exakta 66 Model 1 for the old Darkroom Photography magazine when it came out. It was a modernized Pentacon Six that was "rubber armored" as the phrase was. The rumor at the time was that it had been the boyhood first camera of then-Schneider and -Rollei Chief Heinrich Mandermann, who revived it partly out of love—love, and the same enthusiasm we all have for old favorites. I owned my Model 1 for maybe a couple of years; tried to buy a second one (a Model 2 by that time) a few years later, and was too dumb to realize that my brand-new camera had come out of the box with the focusing screen installed upside-down. All I knew is that the focus was maddeningly inaccurate. The frames overlapped, too (a common problem with the Exakta 66. Baier Fototechnic can now fix that). I "deaccessioned." You know what they say: Oh well.
I liked the camera, though. Who knows why some cameras "fit" us and others don't? It's a "chemistry" thing, if that's not too highflown a concept for this context. I suspect it's because I did a lot of work with that Exakta 66 that I liked it so much. I was photographing a lot in those years. I learned to guess my exposures (an experience I commemorated in an article called "Train Your Brain...To Guess Exposure"), because the camera didn't have a light meter (I used the waist-level finder), and I carried the camera without a strap, because the Exakta 66 needed a funky style of strap with a custom bracket on it and I didn't have one (the genesis of my hidebound, lifelong dislike of any sort of special strap connectors on cameras). I had a show of the work I did during that period at a Park Service gallery in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., so it was all framed, meaning that it's been hanging on my walls, off and on, ever since, because what else are you going to do with framed pictures but put them on the wall somewhere? The quality of the pictures from that camera was lovely.
Being as I'm basically a sentimental fool, the Arax 60 tempted me. But it turns out that the Schneider lens made for the Exakta 66 has become unobtainable. (It's called the Schneider 80mm ƒ/2.8 Xenotar MF, and if you have or know of one for sale, please let me know. I'll pay top dollar). So, no Arax for my closet—for now.
Bargains to be had
Anyway, I already have a couple of medium format cameras in the closet. I acquired both a Bronica SQ-A and a Bronica RF645 after Bronica went the way of all things. I don't use either one much, but they're there in case I want to play with 'em. I always liked Bronicas.
I bought both at the bottom of the market, both for great prices. Even those cameras, from defunct Bronica, are more expensive now than when I bought mine. There are still lots of good bargains out there in medium format, though, and a plentiful field for play.
People nowadays mostly know the names that were until recently "big" in medium format: Hasselblad, Mamiya 7 and RZ67, Rolleiflex, Pentax 67II. But with a little digging, you can learn about a whole raft of lesser-known names that you can hunt for. The quality leader is probably the Mamiya 7 and 7II, which has never gotten cheap as far as I know. The Leica has never been made that will hold a candle to Mamiya 7 prints, at least once you get up into the bigger paper sizes. (The Mamiya's lenses are much slower, too, so it's peaches and plums, really.) Most TLRs are still potentially serviceable, including the Minolta Autocord pictured atop this post and the various iterations of the Mamiya interchangeable-lens TLR from the C3 to the c330s. Good Bronicas are still out there for mostly very good prices, although you should be aware of the fact that the backs can be unreliable under hard use (get a spare or two). Mamiya Press and Universal cameras are clunky but fun. The Kowa Six was a Japanese Hasselblad copy of very good quality. And so on.
A couple of principles: first, there's a sort of topseyturviness that goes on in used markets like these. People prize bargains, so items that were once bargains actually sometimes become more expensive than the original. The Rolleicords became popular as bargain Rolleiflexes, but now, late 'Cords have gotten as expensive as some good 'Flexes. In 35mm you don't have to look far to find this topseyturviness: some Leica copies, for instance, are now more rare and hence more expensive than actual Leicas (compare, say, a Nicca 5L to a Leica IIIf), and the Leica R4s, which was desirable as a simplified, cheaper R4, is now more sought-after than the actual R4. Second, the existence of a "last" or "latest" or "ultimate" model of any given camera tends to make that model more pricey—and earlier iterations less so. In 35mm, the Leica IIIg has always been expensive, earlier III's not so much. In medium format, the ultimate Pentax 67II is expensive, but the penultimate 67, which was made with few changes for a longer span of time, is quite cheap. The Rolleicord Vb comes with a price premium, but earlier Rolleicord models are still very reasonable. In most cases like these, people vie for the latest and best, so you can swoop in and find prime bargains among the little-bit-earlier models of most things. I mean, does anybody really care if the hood is removable from their Rolleicord? It's a half-century-old camera. You can probably deal with one that's a half-century-plus-a-little-bit old.
Another thing I'd be interested in hearing from the Brain Trust: does anybody know of a really good lab for getting medium-format filmed and scanned for a reasonable price? I think I asked this question once before, but I can't seem to dig up that information now.
So, what about you? Got an old medium-format camera? Bought one recently? Which ones do you like? How'd you find it and how much did you have to pay? Got any nice pics you could link (to put a link in the comments, try this: <a href="URL" target="_blank">text</a> )? Do you make prints? If so, how?
I'm not saying medium format's day hasn't passed, mind you. But I've been talking to some people lately who are still having an awful lot of fun with it. Seems there's still a lot of fun out there to be had.
Mike*This is not an endorsement of a particular product or seller. Hugh Crawford notes in the comments that this one's focusing lever is broken off! Featured Comment by robert e: "Hi Mike, I'd like to address (or evade) your printing/scanning question, and bring up a 'fun factor' I think you overlooked, by noting that medium format presents in many ways a DIY sweet spot.
"For one thing, frames on contact sheets (or bare negatives) are at a size that can be perused easily by most people, and reasonably judged for fine detail with a common magnifying glass.
"For another, the low magnification needed for average print sizes means that even budget enlargers and lenses can produce decent prints. Most of those can handle at least 2 1/4, often 6x7. These days, they are free or nearly free via the local classifieds, craigslist, or auctions. One might want want to splurge a bit for a slightly longer, better lens (also low cost these days—again, you don't need the best for modest print sizes from medium negatives).
"Some of this holds true for scanning. Much easier to get resolution good enough for average-size prints from medium format than from 35mm, including IMO from modestly priced flatbed-with-transaparency-adapter scanners (used, these are also nearly free these days).
"Big neg/small magnification also means dust is not as big a problem (literally) as it is with 35mm.
"I suppose it's arguable whether 120 film is easier to develop, but for me, the larger size and often thicker base is easier to handle, and makes 35mm seem fiddly and fussy in comparison. For the more adventurous, 120 film is nice for cutting up and taping inside a pinhole camera.
"Moving up to large format, on the other hand, entails bigger, more cumbersome equipment all around, and a significant jump in costs.
"You also didn't mention the spectacular quality to be had from even average taking optics. Yes, to eke out the all the resolution of medium format, and to best DSLRs, you'll need more serious methods. But medium format offers major bang for buck/effort."
Featured Comment by JackM: "I just sold my Rolleiflex 2.8 to a friend who would appreciate it and use it. I learned a lot about photography with it. The key learning was not composition or f-stops. The key learning was that photography and drinking do not mix. I was once invited to a party and asked to shoot some film of the party while participating. I shot two rolls, and was convinced that I was shooting some of my very best work creatively. I was so excited to see the results that I went home and developed the first roll while still under the influence. I looked at the negatives and was horrified to discover blank film. I had used color developer to develop B&W film. The bleach step removed all the images. I decided to develop the second roll the next day, cold sober. The second roll was perfectly developed, but every frame had been double exposed, which with the Rollei was possible to do if one is drinking and shooting. I told the hosts of the party that I had some very creative shots, and they agreed. They also suggested that the photos be viewed only after consuming as many drinks as were consumed when I was taking the pictures.
"Drinking and driving is illegal. Drinking and photography should be."
Featured Comment by Don Mohr: "I'm the guy from Anchorage with the motorcycle in his living room [Note: see last featured comment at the link —Ed.], so you knew that I would have collected some medium format gear.
"I did buy the Kowa as the poor man's Hasselblad, knowing I would never have the money for a Hasselblad, and then found that I could, and then found I could even get a great price on a superwide."