Medium format Leica equivalent?
Size does matter
In every photographer's life there comes a time when 24x36mm doesn't cut it anymore. This happened to me in the late 80's when I found 11x14 (darkroom) prints were too grainy and lacked the kind of definition + tonality only M-F could deliver. So I sold all my 135 equipment and concentrated on 6x7. Sheesh — what an eye-opener!
Goodbye 35mm, hello M-F.
Then a couple of years later Photoshop and the internet revolution came along. Unfortunately RAM and processing power was expensive, and MF scanners were laughably overpriced. So I was forced back into miniature format if I was going to scan, manipulate and upload my images without having to take out out a dozen mortgages.
Farewell M-F, hello Leica.
Then a decade passes. Dual-processor machines with plenty of RAM and reasonable quality MF scanners have become far more realistically priced (for example the Epson V700 or V750). Also, owing to the DSLR juggernaut, many Pros have started dumping excellent-quality M-F gear at irrational, fire-sale prices.
They dump, we buy. Hello M-F again!
Yet we have been spoilt by exceptional Leica glass and silky smooth mechanical bodies. So you cannot help wondering: "What's the Leica equivalent in medium format?…"
Lens resolution adieu
You get a larger negative for sure, but the tradeoff is having to forgo the world beyond 90 lppm. You know those ferociously detailed negatives you got from your APO-Elmarits? Fuggetaboutit. You won't see that sort of thing again!
The reasons are varied. From an engineering standpoint, it is amazingly more difficult to maintain high performance over the larger image circles M-F lenses have to project (∅ 85mm for 6x6, whereas only 45mm for 135). Another reason is that with a film area (at least) three times the size of 35mm, you don't typically need to enlarge so much.
Leica obsesses over lens resolution because Uncles Oskar und Max knew you had to greatly enlarge "tiny" 35mm negatives to get decent prints. This obviously isn't an issue with larger-sized M-F negs, so lens makers don't bother.
Having said that, some lens marques are better than others. Here is a table of M-F and 35mm relative lens performances, courtesy of Photodo:
|Rolleiflex Schneider Xenotar 80mm ƒ2.8||4.1|
|Mamiya 7 80mm ƒ4.0||3.9|
|Rolleiflex Zeiss Planar 80mm ƒ2.8||3.7|
|Hasselblad Planar CF 80mm ƒ2.8||3.7|
|M-Summicron 50mm ƒ2.0||4.6|
|M-Summilux 50mm ƒ1.4||4.2|
|Elmar-M 50mm ƒ2.8||3.9|
|Nikkor AF 50mm ƒ1.8||4.4|
Aside from the Nikkor AF 50mm ƒ1.8 — which IMO is an abhorrently crap lens — the table more or less confirms with personal experience. Although I have seen negs from Hasselblads or Rolleiflexes which are quite good, they fall a long way short of the fanatical detail you can squeeze from a 100-APO.
So when making the move from 35mm to M-F, don't be surprised at how ordinary your negs look under a loupe!
BTW if you want to see a comparative list of M-F lens resolutions, see the table compiled by Christopher M. Perez at:
ƒ4.0 is open wide
Many Leica photographers look at the ƒ4.0 lens options available for the Mamiya 7II and wince. "How useless is that? Three stops slower than my 'lux!" What is going on?
As noted above, it is very difficult to make high resolution M-F lenses with built-in shutters when the aperture is wider than ƒ2.8. Furthermore M-F has a much more limited depth-of-field when compared to 35mm…
Practically speaking, DOF at ƒ2.8 is useless at less than 20m. Take a portrait with a 80mm lens at 1½m, and even at ƒ8 you will struggle to get a depth of focus greater than 32cm. Your client's face might be sharp, but the baby on her knee will be out (as will you be when she sees the results!). As a rule of thumb, always start at ƒ22 and work your way down. Why do you think so many M-F photographers never dream of working without a tripod, or why 1980s studio 5-10KJ flashes pumped out so much light they were nicknamed "fish-fryers"?
So if you think you can use M-F in available light at 2m at ƒ4.0 or ƒ2.8, the way you do with your Leica, then think again. Nothing will be in focus. And you thought a Noctilux was bad.
At typical people-shooting distances of 2-3m, it is always ƒ11 or beyond. Hence another reason Mamiya (and Bronica) limited their widest rangefinder apertures to only ƒ4.0!
M-F cameras and issues — links
Check out the following sites for a broad overview of M-F camera issues:
- Jafa Vakshour's M-F introductory page
- KBCamera's M-F Rangefinder "shoot out"
- Table of M-F vs 35mm camera body weights
M-F camera suggestions
Okay — enough foreplay. Rather than list every M-F camera ever made, I have picked out a few favourites for the following. If you think an obvious candidate is missing, then drop me a (detailed) note!
- There are lots of models, but I am mainly thinking of the 2.8E, 2.8F or 3.5F; Zeiss Planar or Schneider Xenotar; with serial numbers greater than 2 million.
- 1960s craftsmanship, and when properly CLA'd, the all-mechanical bodies work beautifully. An excellent complement to your 1960 M3 :?)
- Very sharp lenses, 75mm or 80mm, but they aren't multi-coated like modern optics. A strongly partisan Rollei owner claims these lenses are actually better than modern Zeiss designs, but I am somewhat sceptical. He is the proud owner of four 'flexes, so he is hardly going to say they are dogs, right?
- What about the newer "FX" or "GX" models? Frankly, it's a M6 vs M3 kind of thing. The newer models have a more accurate built-in meter, multi-coated optics and no film auto-load mechanism (so no chance of missloads, see below). OTOH the older 'flexes have the 60's smoothness and feel. See this Mar 2005 discussion at <Photo.net: #00BTcL>
- TLR's are easily hand-holdable and have very quiet shutters. There is no flapping mirror, so it is easy to work at slower speeds (1/30th, 1/60th) and all you get is a quiet little "snip". Because of this, Rolleiflexes are excellent for street photography, although IMO their double-lens face makes them a little too conspicuous nowadays.
- They all have film auto-loading, so there is no need to line up arrows with dots. OTOH if the auto-detection mechanism fails, you are sunk. Since there is no way to manually align the film, the entire roll will wind through the camera without stopping at Frame #1. This isn't as rare a problem as you think! See this discussion at <Photo.net: #00AgEl>
- Keep in mind these things were the professional press and magazine photographer's camera in the 1960s. Which means that despite hundreds of thousands of them being made, you will have a hard time finding examples which haven't been thrashed to death.
- Don't worry about the built-in selenium light meter. It is practically useless in anything but bright sunlight, and even then it isn't accurate enough for colour transparency work.
- TLRs have become very popular lately, so they can be very expensive, especially late 120/220 film 2.8F models. For pretty examples don't expect much change from $US 1300, to which you should add $US 200+ for a CLA by a "name" technician. 2.8E's are cheaper, but they are older models (1950s) and harder to find in good condition. You also cannot change the focus screen yourself. Either way, Zeiss Planar lens models attract a small premium due to brand-name-idolatry.
- A similar sort of thing applies for 3.5F's — expect to pay approx. $US 650 for "Ex-" condition. This presupposes you can actually find one — which is Not Easy.
- While getting a CLA, get the technician to install a Maxwell brightscreen focusing screen. You won't believe how much brighter it is!
- Learn from The Great Rolleiflex Fiasco and only buy cameras you can inspect personally. Don't dream of buying online or mail-order as you will be scammed, even by supposedly reputable dealers!
- Speaking of Rollei scams, beware some TLR's have been hacked to have two pretty lenses from different camera bodies. This unfortunately destroys the focusing accuracy, as the lens focal lengths become mismatched. The pair will (say) focus well at infinity, but will always be out at closer distances (or vice-versa). The problem cannot be fixed due to the slight difference in focal lengths for each optic (each pair was carefully matched for each camera at the time of manufacture), meaning if you get one of these babies, then you are stuck with a lemon. See this Dec 2004 discussion at <Photo.net: #00AVcc>
- General Rollei Links
- Rollei TLR models
- Rollei serial numbers by year
- Rollei technician contact details
- Rollei 3.5F shutter differences
- Take a Leica M, inflate it to double size — and that is basically what you get with the Mamiya M7II: a rangefinder camera with a reasonable selection of wide, normal and short-tele lenses (limited to ƒ4.0 maximum aperture).
- The Mam7II delivers a 6x7 image, while the older Mamiya M6 is a square format camera (6x6). Although the Mam6 has a fine reputation for lens resolution, quietness and compactness (the lens collapses into the body when not in use), Mamiya no longer has certain parts for repairs. So if an Mam6 breaks, it might be impossible to repair. For this and other Mam6 issues, see this March 2005 discussion at <Photo.net: #00BW9q>.
- Mam7II lenses have very quiet shutters, electronically triggered and governed, so they are more accurate than all-mechanical alternatives. The wide and short-tele lenses require auxiliary viewfinders though. Some people hate this, but for Leica M users it is no big deal, right?
- It is generally acknowledged the Mamiya lenses are the sharpest and highest resolution of the M-F crop. See the Perez Tests mentioned above.
- Some people complain that the Mamiya lenses are a litte too sharp, leading to harshness. Others dislike the harsh bokeh (I agree). Of course this is all very subjective, so YMMV.
- The camera body features a lot of plastic, and the between-the-lens shutters are battery dependant, so it isn't the complete Leica experience. Being able to shoot rangefinder-style OTOH with a v.quiet shutter more than makes up for it.
- Works with 120 or 220 film.
- The built-in viewfinder suffers the fate of other rangefinder cameras — it doesn't provide exact framing. It is also polarized, which may lead to misleading expectations of more strongly coloured and saturated images than you actually get!
- Due to unrealistically high prices in the USA, it may be cheaper to buy your new or used Mam7II overseas. In particular have a look at the "Robert White" UK website in the links section below.
- Robert White — UK Mamiya Dealer
- Robert Monaghan Mam7 Overview
- Phillip Greenspun Photo.net review
- Ken Rockwell review
- Dante Sella's Mam6 page
- Jack Zyberk Luminous Landscape review
- Leica M users discuss the Mam7II and Mam6
- Leica M users opinions on the Mam7II
- Mam7II vs Hasselblad for landscape shooting
- All-mechanical, all-metal, modular and yet simple SLR design. The 501cm has a modern Palpas interior anti-reflection coating, a "Gliding Mirror System" to prevent viewfinder vignetting with longer lenses, and also the latest and brightest Accutematte focus screen (which is user interchangeable).
- The 503CW has all the features of the 501cm, plus flash TTL and built-in support for a 0.8 FPS winder. Unfortunately these extras substantially inflate the price, so if you don't need them then stick with the 501cm.
- What about the 500c or 500cm? These are 20-50 years old. My advice is — with the glut of used 'blads on the market, why bother? Get a modern 501cm with the latest features and pocket the CLA and focus screen upgrade savings!
- In the last few years Pros have been dumping 'blads as if they were radioactive. So you can easily buy a mint condition used kit (80mm CF lens + 501cm body + waist-level finder + A12 back + Kiev NC-2 finder) for well under $US 2000!
- The fully modular design gives you a broad choice of viewfinders. There is the standard fold-away waist-level finder, or a rigid "chimney" mangified viewer, or a variety of metered or non-metered pentaprisms (45 or 90 degree). You can also get an antique sports finder for only @ $US 20.
- A huge benefit of the 'blad is its interchangeable film back. No need to carry around a spare body or fiddle with relaoding, just clip on a different A12 (or A16 or A24) back and keep shooting. The replaceable back also means it is the only camera reviewed here which is digital ready — just clip on a digital back (see below).
- A huge disadvantage is the LOUD shutter, much louder than most of the other cameras listed here. The between-the-lens "click" isn't too bad, but it is followed by a "KER-THWOP" from the mirror as it flips up, followed by a "KLOP" as the rear film baffle closes. You can work around the body-flopping by pre-releasing the mirror, but then you lose the SLR viewfinder. Grrr.
- Like Rolleiflex TLRs, Hasselblads are trivially easy to get repaired because: (1) they are fully mechanical and (2) there are thousands of competent technicians located all over the world.
- Do Hasselblads tend to suffer from "jamming"? Not really, only if you try to change an uncocked lens. Thus when in 'Blad Mode — Always Cock The Lens. This also applies when loading film or changing film backs!
- Zeiss 80mm lenses are reasonably good, but they are not in the Leica or Mamiya M-F league. For this you have to use the much more expensive Zeiss 100mm ƒ3.5, which everyone agrees is stunning. Whether you really need this kind of performance is another matter. (See the "Lens resolution adieu" heading above.) Likewise the 50/4 FLE or 180/4 are considered very good, but don't expect too much change from $US 1.5k (for used "CFi" versions).
- Nice smooth bokeh, but the Zeiss five-blade aperture diaphragm creates pentagonal highlights. Some find it distracting, others hate it, others don't care.
- If you have the money, you can easily turn a 'blad into a digital camera using a Hasselblad CF back. The price? Think of a large number and multiply it by "Ouch".
- Hand-holding a 'Blad is not easy, especially at slower shutter speeds. The camera is relatively heavy, suffers from mirror-shake, and the shutter release has a long way to travel before tripping the shutter — increasing the likelihood of jerking the camera at the time of exposure. My advice is to use a cable-release, and think seriously about using a monopod + mirror pre-release when the s/speed drops below 1/60th. See this Sep 2005 photo.net discussion.
- The big body and loud, floppy mirror makes a 'blad is useless for candid "street" photography, right? Wrong! See the examples I have done for my "Sydney Unposed" project!
- Introduction to Hasselblad bodies and lenses
- Hasselblad Historical camera models table
- How to date Hasselblad bodies and lenses
- Hasselblad vs. Rolleiflex — which lens is better?
- Hasselblad 500 manuals
- A12/24 Film-back Light-trap-seal replacement sets
- How to load film into an A12 back (German)
- Danny Gonzalez Hasselblad camera models overview
- David Odess Hasselblad repair FAQ
- D.A. Monroe Hasselblad Lens Guide
The following cameras, while not quite in the "Leica-like league", are still worth a mention due to their affordable cost, good image quality and/or ease of availability:
A high-quality rangefinder camera, spoilt by a weird portrait-format-by-default layout. In April and August 2005, Richard Jepsen sent me the following notes about the RF645:
I would like to suggest the Bronica RF645. I own the RF, a [Leica] M6 and a Rollei TLR. Although the Rollei has a similar build quality to the M6, the RF645 is the real big brother to the M6.
The rangefinder to the RF is actually nicer than the M6. Contrast/brightness is similar but the RF's larger finder makes it easier to use.
The RF is small for a medium format. It is about the size of a Nikon F-100. I think it actually is hold and reach controls than the M6.
Finally, viewing the RF645's B&W negatives is wonderful. The size allows easy visual evaluation.
[… ] The ergonomics of the RF is much better than the M6. The advantages are obvious; electronic shutter, innovative light shielding curtain for lens changes, superior camera controls, and huge viewfinder. Top it off with outstanding leaf shutter optics that have a smooth OOF finger print on a large negatives Amazing that a very refined RF645 three lens outfit can be purchased like new for $1500.00.
The argument can be made against the RFs ƒ4.0 or 4.5 slow lenses and 45/65/100mm focal lengths, yet most M users own/use one or two lenses. How many M users normally shoot at ƒ5.6 with a 35mm or 50mm lens? A monopod for low light work brings is the price that must be paid to use the RF645 in low light. That said, the RF645 will provide a superior image 1/8 @ ƒ4.0 than the equivalent hand held shot with a Leica at 1/30 @ ƒ2.0.
Bronica RF links: