the other day a buddy of mine bought the Hasselblad he'd always wanted
but couldn't afford at the unheard price of $475. It was a 20-year-old
Hasselblad 500C/M, the functional equivalent of the current 500C/W. He purchased
it from a private seller for $475 in near-mint condition, complete with 12-exposure
back, waist-level finder, and 80mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Planar lens. A quick check
on eBay revealed that this price was better than average, but not exceptional.
Indeed, for an additional $200 or so my friend could have bought a similar outfit
complete with a one-year warranty from one of many dealers. Instead he bought
it with a return privilege, examined the camera carefully, and was prepared
to take his chances.
Now if you can get that kind of a deal on a Hasselblad, which many regard as
the ultimate in professional medium format SLRs, just imagine what a pro-caliber
Mamiya RZ67 or M645 Pro might run you these days. Or how about a Pentax 6x7
or 645? And with Bronica now out of the 21/4 SLR business entirely, you can
literally nab one of these babies for a pittance. Stepping back a bit, what
happened to cause all this? Did the bottom simply drop out of the medium format
film camera market? And if so, will prices continue to drop? We will answer
these and other fascinating questions in due course, but first some demographics.
The basic cause of the precipitous drop in used medium format camera prices,
and the less dramatic erosion in the prices of many new medium format cameras
is demographic in nature. Most 21/4 cameras, especially SLRs, are used by professional
wedding and portrait photographers, and as these businesses have shifted toward
digital capture and workflow, many switched to high-end, 35mm-system-based digital
SLRs, mainly Nikons and Canons, rather than taking the more expensive route
of adding digital backs to their existing medium format systems. The end result
of this trend is classic supply and demand--the prices of used medium format
cameras have dropped as the supply has dramatically increased and the demand
has slackened off.
This is definitely good news for serious amateur photographers who want to take
a crack at medium format at affordable prices and reap its operational and psychological
advantages. These plusses include superb image quality, large viewfinders, interchangeable
film backs, and that indescribable feeling you get when "making images
for the ages" with a real pro camera. In my opinion, it's unlikely
that the prices of fine-quality medium format cameras will sink much lower than
they are now, and it's quite possible that they'll rise somewhat
and then level off. There's even an outside chance that the prices of
medium format cameras will rebound if some electronics genius comes up with,
say, a high-resolution digital back for under $3000.
However, before you gleefully jump into the current buyer's market for
used medium format gear there are a number of crucial caveats to consider. The
first and most important one is whether you want to play the medium format film
game at all. Without doubt, you can produce images of exquisite quality with
a 6x4.5cm, 6x6cm (21/4" square), or 6x7cm camera, and that may be reason
enough to acquire one. However, you'll have to purchase 120 or 220 roll
film at a photo specialty store, and you probably won't be able to get
it processed or printed at your local minilab. Custom labs catering to pros
will process black and white, color negative, and transparency film in rollfilm
sizes, and also make contact sheets and custom enlargements. However, these
services are typically much more expensive than getting machine prints from
35mm print film.
To sidestep these added costs many medium format shooters scan their negatives
and transparencies with a high-end film scanner such as those from Microtek,
Minolta, or Epson, which start at about $400. A good high-res scan of a 21/4
film image will let you preserve the medium format image-quality advantage all
right, but the resulting image files are huge, and may not be convenient to
work with, or even necessary unless you're making prints larger than 11x14.
Ultimately, the charm of medium format lies in taking the time to produce something
of lasting quality, and it's hard to justify the additional effort simply
on the basis of cost and convenience.
If you remain undeterred and are staunchly determined to take advantage of
the genuinely great buys out there, here are some additional caveats to consider
before plunking down your hard-earned cash on a medium format camera:
1. Condition is everything. While some medium format cameras
have led easy lives as the seldom used prized possessions of aficionados, many
have seen hard use in the not-so-gentle hands of working pros. The best ways
to avoid getting stuck with a worn-out hulk are to buy a new, new old stock,
or salesman's demonstrator camera, or to opt for one in mint or near-mint
condition. With a pro camera, you can usually tell a book by its cover--well-worn
cameras usually have obvious dings, dents, and scratches. Yes, medium format
cameras in pristine condition cost more than those in average shape, but as
a rule this breed is very costly to repair, and it's far better to pay
a little extra up front in order to eliminate problems later on.
2. Stick to the basics. If you peruse the medium format selling
prices on eBay, online, and in magazine ads, you'll notice that lensless
camera bodies with or without finders and film backs are offered at the lowest
prices, and that the next cheapest category is complete cameras with normal
lenses and plain (meterless or waist-level) finders. If you are already into
the Hasselblad system, for example, you can snag a clean extra 500C/M, body
only, for a measly $300, and probably get one with standard waist-level finder
and 12-exposure back for $100 or so more than that. However, if you're
a medium format newbie, the most economical alternative is to get a basic shooting
outfit--body, film back, waist-level or prism finder, and normal lens.
3. Extra lenses are expensive! As a rule, prices for wide angle,
telephoto, macro, and other lenses for medium format cameras have gone down
far less (if at all) than the cost of basic shooting outfits. You can get some
good deals, especially if you buy extra lenses as part of a "system outfit,"
but don't expect to acquire lenses individually at bargain basement prices.
In general, prices for used "bread and butter" wide angles and telephotos
such as 50mm, 100mm, and 150mm lenses have decreased somewhat, but not the prices
of more exotic optics like ultra-wide, super telephoto, and macro tele lenses.
4. Take the system approach. The prices for used finders,
film backs, and other medium format accessories in excellent condition have
likewise held up better than cameras prices, so try to acquire these items as
part of an outfit at the time of purchase.
Which medium format camera is for you? To a greater extent than other camera
types, medium format cameras have very distinctive personalities and handling
characteristics, and that is why choosing one is a very personal decision. Among
21/4 SLRs, the 6x4.5cm models from Mamiya, Pentax, and Bronica (and the current
Hasselblad H1) score on 35mm-like handling and the ability to shoot 30-32 exposures
per roll on 220 film. Traditional 21/4 square (6x6cm) models from Hasselblad,
Bronica, Rollei, and Kiev represent a good compromise for handheld and tripod-mounted
studio use, work well with waist-level or eye-level finders, and the format
can be conveniently cropped for vertical or horizontal prints.
So-called ideal format 6x7cm SLRs are useable handheld, but really shine in
the studio or atop a tripod. Offering the biggest finder image and the largest
negative, they deliver extremely high image quality.