I have GAS.
Not the gas that makes you a risky dinner guest, but a kind that costs a lot of money. The GAS I have, stands for Gear Acquisition Syndrome, and as I understand, is a common affliction found among many photographers with an irresistible desire to procure camera equipment.
Hopefully, it just stems from a quest for perfection - finding the best tool for a particular job - but when it comes to cameras, there are added complications in that it is very easy to covet them for their own sake, their being beautifully constructed machines of accuracy and precision capable of capturing time, and very often ownership of the most expensive or rare comes with a sense of kudos and pride. Indeed, they are the only jewellery I have.
I like to think I am a purist, and would absolutely love to be a one camera, one lens kind of photographer. However over time, I have been exposed to a large variety of influences within the industry, and the common notion that having something different to what you already have will improve your work in some way, has unfortunately taken root within me. - I have obsessed over the quest for the perfect camera, and hoping that someday, I will happen upon a unicorn with one wrapped around its collar.
When I started getting into photography, my first 'proper’ camera was a Nikon FM2 with a zoom lens I bought from a shady bloke in a pub for £50 and a double scotch. That camera was my baby, and I used it for everything. Portraits, landscapes, concerts, still life, street photography, and my first forays into fashion testing. Not once did I question the camera’s abilities or results, and I still rate some of the images taken with that camera as my best work - although this is probably due to a combination of a youthful eye unbound from convention, arrogance and sentimentality.
Nowadays, with awareness of, and access to a plethora of equipment to choose from, GAS has become a luxury problem. Over time, I have worked with a many renowned photographers, and it is impossible to not be influenced by the work of those you admire.
Exposure to multiple techniques means I often end up choosing different cameras for different work - which is kind of fair enough when it comes to picking tools- but when you want to head out to take a simple picture or project you have in mind, having multiple choices of how to achieve that image can hamper my thought process. When you go to take an image, there are so many variables to contend with anyway - I don’t want to add to the process having to lug a pack with a few grands worth of heavy metal about. Added to that, if you are working on a variety of ongoing projects, which I often am, switching between formats can create inconsistency when it comes to presenting the finished work.
So - I decided to do this test, to hopefully finally figure out which camera system I prefer. There is so much information online, sites and blogs with people debating about whats the best this and that, when the simple fact is no one can really tell you what is best for you. Aesthetics is not particularly mathematical, and some cameras are just more instinctive in the hand than others.
A good example of what I mean was when I was saving up for a Leica lens for my everyday carry M6. I knew from having a 28mm 2.8 Zeiss I wanted something faster, narrower, and if there was something to yield a nicer result. I did bags of research, looked at blogs, forums, and finally made a decision on getting the most recent, cleanest ASPH summicron I could ‘afford’.
I love the lens, and it is sharp and clean, contrasty and lovely. Then I did a job with a guy I work with who was shooting his Leica with a battered 1950’s Elmar with half the coating rubbed away from the front element, and the results were absolutely stunning. Magical. Flares all over the place, whacked colours, vignetting, warmth, buttery focus… but then having Keira Knightley in the shots didn’t hurt either. Point being, clarity is overrated.
I got together a group of the usual suspects. Medium format cameras I most commonly work with, or are championed by many of the people I respect. Unfortunately I was limited by time and finance as to how many varieties of lenses I could get my hands on, so tried to keep it simple by using what are the ‘standard’ lenses for each system. Of course, I understand there are many variables to a test like this - some systems have multiple choices of lenses of the same focal length, and any test I do can only give the results of the particular example I have in my hand - but to that end, every camera I tested here was a shining example, and all the lenses were immaculate.
The test was shot in studio for consistency. Film was all the same batch, I opted for Kodak Portra 400, as that seems to be pretty much industry standard in my area of work. The film was rated, metered and exposed at 400 ISO, was all processed at normal, at the same time, scans were at the same settings on a Noritsu.
The key light on the model was a daylight balanced Arri M40 HMI with a softbox with full diffusion, and behind camera was a northwest facing skylight adding ambient fill to the room. The ambient was mostly consistent, as it was a clear blue sky for the duration. I added a tungsten clip light towards the lens and left some elements in the background so the effects of fall off, depth of field (DOF), light halos and bokeh could be observed.
The plan was to repeat the same photograph with each camera as closely as possible.
Firstly I had the cameras mounted on a tripod locked at a medium distance for the primary shots, then I moved in, taking handheld shots with the lenses at their respective minimum focusing distances and widest apertures, to demonstrate the fall off, bokeh, vignetting and the qualities of any aberrations.
This is a test of industry standard cameras, so I stuck to 120 format. This test was done for myself and paid for by myself, so I chose cameras which I am personally interested in using, as well as which are popular choices for professionals. I skipped 645 systems - yes, I know the Contax 645 is an amazing camera, but they are incredibly expensive, and 20 year old, battery heavy, highly electronic cameras with scarce spare parts are not something I could consider prior to a lottery win..
The 6x7’s - Mamiya RZ67 (110mm), Mamiya RB67 (90mm), Pentax 67 (90mm SMC v.3)
The 6x6’s - Hasselblad V (501 CM) (80mm, 50mm), Rolleiflex 2.8F Planar TLR (fixed 80mm)
The Rangefinders - Mamiya 7ii (90mm, 65mm), Fuji GW690 (90mm fixed), Fuji GSW 690 (65mm fixed), Plaubel Makina W67 (55mm fixed)
Control Camera - Canon 5D Mark 3 with 50mm 1.2L USM
NOTABLE OMISSIONS AND PROBLEMS
I would have love to have tested the Plaubel Makina with the 80mm lens, the Fuji GW 670, Fuji 667 (AKA Voightlander Bessa iii), and a Rollei 6008, but couldn’t get my hands on them.
I could only get a 110mm for the Mamiya RZ67, which although is considered ‘standard’ by many (including Mamiya), for me standard is the 90mm. The 110 has a 35mm equivalent of 53mm, the 90mm is a 44mm equivalent. I prefer the 90mm as have a bias for wider and feel it closer to my field of view.
The RB67 jammed up immediately, owing to a dodgy back I borrowed for the purposes of the test, having lost my own 120 mags for it years ago. So that was that. Sadly I had completely forgotten that I could have used the 90mm RB lens on the RZ, as the RZ has a feature enabling it to accept the older lenses.
Given the joys of hindsight, there are a few things I could have done differently for consistency - one thing for certain is I should have brought in an assistant on the test, as it got a bit more manic than I had expected. The test took much longer than I estimated, so probably should have blacked out the studio to guarantee there would be no variation in the ambient light. In haste, I omitted to shoot the round of close ups on the ‘chair’ set with the Mamiya 7 (see ‘extra images’ section).
Once I had all the cameras in front of me, I realised that things would not be as straight forward as I expected, as - duh - the different cameras have DIFFERENCES!
I had figured if I set the light to a standard value, an exposure of 1/125 at f8, that would cover all the bases for me easily cycling through the different cameras aperture/speed combinations and still be able to handhold without causing motion blur. However, of course, the cameras are not all standardised - some of the cameras have intermediate apertures, and shutter speeds.
For instance, the RB 90mm has a maximum aperture of f3.8, and the next stop down is 5.6 - so is that a stop? Well maybe, I guess, but not on my meter… the RZ has a maximum shutter speed of 1/400 - most of the others have 1/500, and so on, so it meant I had to tweak the HMI’s output and meter constantly to meet the values - and then my meter doesn’t have every increment either, so some intuition was involved along the way. One of the joys of neg film though, is the latitude of it, so I wasn’t really that troubled by being over or under a little on the HMI/ Daylight mix, as long as the light on the model was constant.
What was most difficult was composition.
I started off with the subject centralised and focused on the eyes. As I switched between cameras, I had to pan the tripod up to get the focusing patches on the face, and then recompose for the shot - it was very difficult to resist the urge to recompose the shots as I classically would - to be aesthetically pleasing, so yes, there is some variation in the composition, but otherwise the tripod did remain at a fixed point.
The first image shown from each camera is the widest aperture, gradually closing down to show the depth of field increase, and with such you will notice the vignetting decrease.
So here goes, aside from being resized for the blog, all images are straight from the Noritsu scanner full frame including key lines, without exposure or colour tweaks, or retouching.
THE 6X6 SQUARE FORMATS
Just before digital cameras took over, the RZ was the industry standard for the majority of fashion, portrait and commercial photographers for good reason. It is a versatile modular system with many inbuilt functions and accessories, reliable, relatively fast to use with experience. The RZ has a bright viewfinder with a variety of focusing screens, waist level and prism finders available, a wide choice of excellent lenses, can accept polaroid, and even digital backs ( the pro ii D version, requiring additional specific accessory plate and some patience), has interchangeable film magazines which rotate for landscape/ portrait format, which can be changed mid roll, and the leaf shutters mean flash will sync at all shutter speeds up to 1/250 second. The RZ can focus very close even without extension tubes (requires exposure compensation as the bellows rack out), and has mirror lock up for slow exposures. Focus is made with wheels on either side of the body, which can be locked to prevent accidental shift for static work. It also sports a hotshoe, and a setting so it can shoot manually even if the battery fails (1/400 second only).
The cons are, it is big and heavy. Add a motor wind, prism finder, a few lenses and a couple of film magazines to your outfit and you have a seriously unwieldy bag or case, so you might need an assistant to help, and the number of a decent osteopath. Many add tripods when using the system. For handheld work I like adding a Mamiya speed grip which screws to the tripod plate, this attachment restricts access to the hotshoe, but it has a coldshoe on top of the grip so you can still connect a radio flash trigger via a pc cord. Note - Profoto’s air remote comes into contact with the focus wheel hampering movement when in the hotshoe. If the camera jams or locks up along the way, as can sometimes happen when quickly changing lenses etc, there is usually some motions you can go through to reset it and get it working again. The body battery last for ages, but when they go, you are done other than shooting at 1/400 sec so pack a spare. Cable release is in the shutter button.
Battery is 4LR44 6V or 1.5volt.
A lot of fashion and portrait photographers love these cameras, as the lenses have a great quality for skin, and lovely tonality to them. The 105 Takaumar lens is a thing of legend for its pin sharpness and swirly bokeh at wide apertures. The cameras are immediately intuitive to those familiar with 35mm slr, as it is basically an slr on steroids. This means it is a joy to shoot, as you’re seeing what you get, and camera movement is instinctive as it is up to your eye.
Many pro P67 shooters I have worked with would rotate through multiple bodies on a shoot, for a few reasons. Speed - The cameras are a bit fiddly to load, so even if you are practiced at loading on a busy shoot you can rattle off the format’s 10 frames to a roll in less than the time it takes to load one.
Variety - Once the body is loaded, it’s loaded, so in order to have colour and black and white available, you need multiple bodies.
Security - because the cameras were originally relatively cheap, simple build quality meant even though they are strong, they are not massively reliable, so many develop issues you won’t know about until the film comes back.
You can get them with a dedicated polaroid body - assuming you still have polaroid to shoot, the downside to this is although you can use polaroid to check the lenses are working, you won’t know if there is a problem with a body, so if the nature of your work is shooting people quickly, better to watch your back by covering a shot on 2 or more bodies. No one ever said film photography was cheap…
Functions on the P67 are pretty simple - shutter speeds on top, apertures and focus on the lens, a battery test lamp and button, pc socket. Some versions have a mirror lock up function which is helpful as the mighty mirror causes camera shake below 1/125 second!
Unlike most 35mm cameras however, the P67 has an interchangeable viewfinder of which there are a few kinds available, chimney, waist level, metered and unmetered prism. There are strap lugs on both sides, as well as a third one on the left hand side so you can carry the camera lengthways with a strap, or add a speedgrip which has a coldshoe on to for adding a flash trigger you can then connect with a pc cable. The speedgrip also has further strap lugs. Cable release is in the shutter button.
The cons - again, it is big and weighty, and could be cumbersome if you have smaller hands. The mirror is a whopper, and when it flips up to make an exposure the camera shake is like recoil - so shooting below 1/125 handheld leads to motion blur, unless you use the mirror lock up function - which means you have to shoot blind for that fraction of time it takes to lock the mirror and press the shutter.
The standard prism viewfinder is not especially bright, and if you use old or long lenses in low light focus can get pretty tricky. There are brighter ground glass screens available. And as I mentioned, although these cameras are solid lumps of metal that can take a beating, they are prone to breaking - the earlier versions (6x7, 67) have plastic gears in the advance mechanism which can break (so go smooth and steady on the advance), and the camera can misbehave in extreme temperatures. Avoid changing lenses with the prism off, as the aperture linkage chain is delicate and can break if mashed. The camera also needs a battery to run the shutter, so no battery - no camera. The film advance is one stroke, but that stroke needs to be steady and positive, slippage can happen if you are not careful resulting in the occasional overlapping of exposures on the film.
Flash sync is a frustrating 1/30th second, limiting what you can do with flash in strong daylight situations, however there are a few lenses available that have leaf shutters - so they can sync at speeds up to 1/500 to get around this.
Takes a 6V PX28/4LR44 battery, without which the camera is inoperative.
The Lexus of medium format rangefinders, the Mamiya 7 has a sibling in the Mamiya 6, which shoots a 6x6 format and with a collapsible lens mount, makes a slightly more compact camera. the 7 and 7ii have interchangeable lenses, and are electronic cameras. The internal metering is remarkably accurate, and the 7ii has an AE setting which makes shooting a breeze - too easy in fact - the camera is such a joy to shoot you can burn through a roll pretty quickly. The shutter is very quiet indeed and has a hair trigger, so be careful to avoid accidental release. The shutter has a lock switch, which also is off/on for the power.
Simple settings, shutter speed on top, apertures on the lens. internal meter indicators are illuminated > and < arrows, and shutter speed is indicated. It also blinks when it believes you have the wrong exposure settings. There is an AE lock button on the back for shooting in aperture priority mode. Cable release is on the front of the body.
The camera has a built in curtain you have to close in order to change lenses so as not to expose film. This is done with a dial on the base, and you release it once the new lens is attached. The camera will not fire if you forget to open the curtain (which happens a lot to me in a hurry). The mark one version had a simple ridged dial, the mark ii has a flap which folds out to twist - unfortunately the plastic lever is fragile and they often split, I found a seller on ebay who makes a replacement from brass for around $40 and it took minutes to replace.
The camera has a lovely ergonomic grip so is great in the hand, and a large, bright viewfinder. The focus patch is not bad, can get a bit lost shooting into backlight.
The lenses are incredibly sharp from corner to corner and exposures come out immaculate and true. If anything, they are almost too good, by which I mean they are such an accurate rendition, the lenses do not add any ‘character’, which I can find desirable.
The only real criticism I can find with the camera is the shape - the lenses protrude quite a bit and makes it difficult to carry under arm, and a nuisance to fit into a small bag - but the cameras are light for everyday carry, and makes for a fantastic travel camera. It has a third strap lug bottom left so can be carried on its side as well as horizontally.
Being a rangefinder, minimum focus is not great, and there will be some parallax error close up, so it is perhaps not ideal if your main stay is tight portraits on a wider lens.
Battery is one 4SR44 cell and the camera will not shoot without one.
Makina Plaubel W67
A surprising amount of people have not heard of this camera. They are a bit rare, and as such go for silly prices. They are fantastic though.
A visually simple rangefinder with chunky large features it kind of resembles a child’s toy. Basic functions -shutter, aperture, and internal meter which is initiated with a button press. The joy of this camera, (aside from the beautiful rendering of the lens) is that the lens retracts and it folds flat against the body, so it is a fantastic everyday carry camera if you don’t mind walking around with a few grands worth on your person.
Quirks are that the aperture ring, which has a smooth operation (so no positive clicks for stops) and the shutter speeds are on the lens. The focus, which is on a thumb operated dial on top, surrounding the large shutter release button. And the advance - this camera is a two stroke advance to wind the film on.
I love the design of these cameras, but a downside is that despite the ergonomic, solid construction, once the lens is open you need to be careful with them. They have a bellows, on a scissor mechanism, which could get hurt if knocked, and the bellows themselves could develop leaks if they get caught in the folding scissor mechanism, as can the shutter and meter cable - to which end it is recommended the camera must always be focused to infinity before closing the bellows, or you could be looking at an expensive repair.
No interchangeable lenses, there is a standard version, and a wide version, both lenses are made by Nikkor, 80mm and 55mm respectively. They have a definite render to themselves which I think is contrasty with a lovely bokeh.
If you look carefully at the full frame scans, you will see the gate has rounded corners, and on the version I used here there is a faint line just on the edges of the frame. I haven’t measured to see if the negative is actually larger than 6x7, but images might need the edges cropped slightly.
The meter is illuminated arrows and a spot in the viewfinder - in the version I have it’s a little temperamental, so I use a hand held meter when using the camera. For me, I find the wide version a little too distorted for close portraits, so I would probably just have this as a street or travel camera. I’m not sure I would be comfortable pounding one on a commercial shoot, but that is probably a mental thing we me having too much reverence for the camera, rather than a reliability issue.
The shutter release is a big button on top, which is guarded from accidental release by the focus wheel surrounding it. As a rangefinder, there is no mirror so it is easy to make handheld exposures at slower shutter speeds.
Fuji GW 690 & GSW 690
i’m going to do these together as much of the same applies.
Known as ‘The Texas Leica’ because it looks like a scaled up version of the classic rangefinder, it shares another similarity to the 35mm camera - the aspect ratio - these fuji’s being 3:4 as opposed to the 4:5 ratio of the 6x7 cameras. So given the film format, you end up with mahoosive negatives for amazing detail.
These cameras are great. Super simple, very affordable, and tough as old boots. Totally manual, no batteries needed but no meter either. Functions are the basics - shutter, aperture, release and a pc sync. Shutter and aperture controls are on the lens which can slow things down a bit as you tend to need to look at what you are doing. One thing I love about this system is they have 2 shutter releases - one on the top as per normal, and one on the front of the camera - which I end up using most of the time as it just makes sense given the size. Cable release is in the top shutter button.
The shutter has a lock to prevent accidental release in transit, which considering you only get 8 frames to a roll is a wincingly expensive mishap. Film advance is a two stroke, and again it needs to be done positively to avoid slippage and overlapping frames, also when loading, be sure to keep the roll taut as you wind it on as when I first used one I let it bag a little and experienced light leaks.
I prefer the ergonomics of the Mark 2 versions over the 3, the 3 is just as rugged, but looks a little plasticky and toy like in not a good way. The Mark 3 however does come with a built in spirit level, which actually comes in very handy, as for some reason - possibly the size of the camera or the size of the negative, it is easy to skew the horizon. I actually resorted to buying a little bubble that fits into the hotshoe for doing tripod work.
The cameras are surprisingly light for the size, especially compare to the Pentax, however they are not subtle. The sound upon shutter release is ridiculous, although apparently the noise of this comes from linkage to a counter in the baseplate, which records how many rolls have been through the camera, as it is recommended to have a service after 8,000 rolls. Handy when buying a used one online.
The lenses are very sharp for the price, but the ones I tested have a kind of ‘milkiness’ which might not be for everyone - but does add something to landscapes. The viewfinder on the wide version is quite distorted to look through, but that is not reflected so much in the results. I know a portrait photographer who loves the wide!
Ah. The Bentley of medium formats. Bloody expensive, but luxury. The cameras that went to the moon, survived the swinging 60’s and remained pretty much unchanged until phased out for the dreadful H system monstrosities made in conjunction with Fuji.
Modular system, the body is a beautifully made metal and leatherette box with a winder, mirror and shutter release system. The shutter, apertures and focus rings are on the lenses mostly made by Zeiss, and it has interchangeable backs - including polaroid and some special purpose variants, as the cameras were founded in military and aviation use.
Very simple, the standard functions are basic. No meter, unless you get a metered prism. Flash sync is on the lenses with the exposure controls. Old lenses work on newer bodies, and there are a myriad of lenses available. Flash sync at all shutter speeds to my knowledge.
The camera is a square format, giving a 6x6 negative, so for standard editorial and full bleed printing purposes images need to be cropped - so you may wish to drop a 645 mask into the viewfinder, or shoot a bit wider - the sharp negatives will allow for zooming in. Again, there are a variety of finders and prisms available, the camera as standard has a collapsible waist level finder, with a flip up magnifying glass for fine focus. Finders are easily switchable, as is the ground glass focus screen which you can switch out in favour of another kind (split screen, grid, etc).
No battery, 12 frames to a roll and the images speak for themselves - sharp as can be. The shutter sound is not quiet, but is reassuringly satisfying so you don’t care. There is a winder knob on the right you can twist to advance, it also has a fold out handle which is quick to use if the camera is on a tripod. The CW version has a removable winder handle, and you can throw on a motor wind which also has an infra red wireless release unit. Cable release is in the shutter button.
The system is quite compact in its basest form - i.e. a body, back and lens with wlf, and can be carried via a stap to swing down by your side, or out front. It will also fit into a small carry bag so it could work as an every day carry, but it is all solid metal so a bit weighty. The whole system exudes precision, and can be a little fiddly and film loading can be a chore as things have to be lined up just so - but they are ruggedly built.
The glass though…
Lastly, the oldest of the bunch.
As most of you will know, these cameras are iconic for good reason. The one I have is from the 1970’s, and has not been serviced since I got it 15 years ago. The desigh of these cameras is so goood, it has barely changed since the 1930’s.
The rollei is a 6x6 box camera, the viewfinder and focus is done through a lens that sits just above the taking lens. Aperture and shutter adjustments are via dials at the sides of the lens, focus knob is on the left of the body and in my camera’s case also holds a needle lightmeter, which is still accurate, although only gives a wide reaching incident or reflective reading. Film advance is via a very traditional fold away lever on the right, and the shutter release is as the base. The shutter release has a lock to prevent accidental release, and the shutter sound is a barely audible ‘snik’. Cable release is within the shutter switch, and there is a flash sync socket on the lens with a bulb setting.
A built in waist level finder as standard, it also has an unusual ability of having a ‘battle’ viewfinder, so you can hold it up to eye level and look straight through the viewfinder, while half the mirror can still be seen to aid focus. An optional prism finder is also available but adds a load of weight to the camera.
Close up rings are available, as are lens hoods and filters. The standard is 80mm, a wide angle version is available - although very rare and eye wateringly expensive.
One of the most portable of all the systems here, easily hangs by your side, can fit into a big pocket or pack and is great for street photography as people are either not threatened, or intrigued by something so old fashioned. The almost silent shutter is helpful in being inconspicuous, and the big viewfinder can come in handy for shooting from the hip.
The only downsides to the camera I can see are that you need to be mindful of obstructions to the taking lens, as it is lower than what you see in the finder, and - being picky because I have to - that the glass, in my version at least, is a little milky when shooting colour film.
Balls. Do I have to make a decision?
I really don’t know if I have made any decisions for myself. All of the systems have their own merits and foibles, and they are all in this mix because, indeed, they are the creme de la creme of the film systems out there.
What was great about doing this test was the actual shooting of the cameras in succession. Some were just so pleasurable and instinctive to work with.
The RZ - is a workhorse that gives great results for any job, but its a bit of a lump.
The P67 is instinctive as its like a 35mm. Looking through the lens you see what you get, and it looks great, reliability and the vibration is a worry though, but probably my choice for fashion with available light.
Mamiya 7 is lovely to shoot and clean and light so a great travel camera, if the results are a bit dry.
Plaubel 67 are fab and fun and beautiful, but fragile and expensive for globetrotting - a great city everyday carry
Fuji 690’s are a joy to shoot, and can happily throw them in a bag without worry - except the format is very expensive and indulgent. I might try and get a 67 version and see how it goes.
Hasselblad - I had forgotten how gorgeous this is to use. The shutter is so sexy to a geek like me I was grinning at using it. If I could shoot square all the time, this would be the one.
The Rollei will always be my ‘New York’ camera. It’s great for the city, press shot style. I just couldn’t part with it.
To the lads at GAS production hire for the studio, camera hire and equipment https://gasph.com/
To my patient model Ellie, for her time and attention span,
And to Cos and the gang at Labyrinth, for the processing and scans… https://www.fourcornersfilm.co.uk/labyrinth-photographic
I hope this was of interest to you, and if I helped you make a decision to stick with film and keep it alive!