I have to say, I’ve read a lot about folders on the internet and in my opinion about half of what I’ve read is useless. One of the biggest misconceptions is that an old, medium format folding camera is a good introduction to medium format photography. I can’t tell you how many times I have read this posted on some forum. If you don’t believe me, go and look for yourself. I’m not really certain that the people who are recommending this have actually used a good folding camera and then compared that to using a decent medium format camera. Actually I think they make this recommendation thinking that it is a less expensive alternative. But in reality a good, useable, medium format folding camera will cost as much, if not more, than a more traditional medium format camera. I would suspect that there are a lot of people out there who have bought a folding camera to get into medium format, and then regretted their decision later. In my opinion, if you are interested in dipping your toe in the water and testing out medium format then there are better ways to do it.
Before you get the idea that I hate folding cameras let me assure you, that is definitely not true. At last count I own 7 folding cameras that shoot 120 roll film and another that shoots 35mm, and I shoot them a lot. In fact one of my most used medium format cameras is a folding camera that captures truly beautiful 6×9 images on 120 roll film. One of my “carry everywhere” 35mm cameras is also a folding camera. I use these cameras regularly. There are a lot of great reasons for using folding cameras but I would never recommend one of these as a way of introducing someone to medium format. I can think of at least 5 reasons why another type of medium format camera is a better choice.
1. ARE YOU SERIOUS? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO USE THIS?
Folding cameras went out of style years ago. Although Fuji still makes a version, these type of cameras have not been in regular use since the 50s came and went. So almost everyone who may want to try medium format has probably never seen one of these beasts, let alone tried to use one. Medium format is a different experience to start with and there is already new things to learn. Why would you purposely confuse the issue by saddling the initiate with a completely alien style of camera. Most people today have never had to load a roll of film, let along thread and advance it entirely by hand. The large majority have never heard of a camera without a rangefinder and zone focusing is a completely unknown concept. A folding camera is an awesome piece of equipment but using one requires a completely new set of skills.
2. I CAN’T FIND IT A MY LOCAL SUPERMART?
Folding cameras are not found on the camera shelf at your local super department store. Not even the film is available there. They can’t even be found at Amazon.com. Usually they are found either in second hand shops or on-line auctions. They probably haven’t been used in decades, are coated in dust and almost certainly need to be serviced before they will work at all, let alone work as designed. It is going to be challenging to find a good, useable example, let alone finding someone out there who is actually competent enough to service the camera. An awful lot of these cameras take marginal medium format images to start with. And that is assuming that they work correctly. If they aren’t working properly you may end up getting discouraged with medium format before you have ever really been given a chance to experience that awesome feeling that you get from that truly beautiful medium format print that hooks you for the rest of your life. By recommending a folding camera as the entry point for medium format I am afraid that we may be ruining that wonderful experience for a lot of people. Of course, medium format folding cameras are fully capable of taking those truly stunning images. Done right these images will make those pictures you are getting from your digital point and shoot, or even your 35mm, look truly pale in comparison. But that requires a camera that is really in top condition, and the knowledge to use it right.
3. WASN’T THIS SUPPOSED TO BE AN INEXPENSIVE ALTERNATIVE?
The medium format folding camera probably isn’t the inexpensive alternative that everyone makes it out to be. Yes, theoretically it is possible to find a medium format folding camera in excellent condition for a very low price on your friendly local on-line auction site, but the chances really aren’t that great. In reality a reasonable price for a folder in decent condition starts around $200 and goes up from there. The really good ones start at $400. I can’t think of anything in the world that will work without service for over 50 years, not even a beautifully designed camera. So your new purchase should probably be serviced. You can expect to pay $80 for a simple CLA (cleaning, lubrication and adjustment.) If your bellows needs to be replaced the cost jumped by another $100. So, although there is an outside chance that you may find a folder in good condition for under $100 the reality is that you will probably pay over $300. For that money you can almost certainly find a used Mamiya M645 or a Pentax 645 in good shape. Both of these cameras will be far easier for the novice to pick up and use because they are far more familiar designs to start with. Next, each of these comes with a standard lens that is considered to be top of the line so you have a better chance of getting a decent shot when you find something to photograph. The lenses are coated so they are far less prone to flare which can cause that beautiful picture to fade drastically. Folding cameras also come with coated lenses, but an awful lot of them did not. They will still take beautiful pictures, but it will not be anywhere near as easy.
4. DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH THIS FILM COSTS?
Using medium format film is not inexpensive to start with, so if you are going to try using it you might as well get the most out of your investment. The cost of the camera and the lens is only the tip of the iceberg. Film will cost around $5 per roll and once you have used that roll of film you can’t develop it at your local drugstore. You will have to find a lab and then mail them your film. Developing and prints will almost certainly cost you another $20. So, in addition to the equipment needed to take the picture, it will cost you a minimum of $25 to see those pictures in the first place. Since I seriously doubt that most people will shoot only one roll of film and then walk away, I expect that the film costs will end up being a lot higher than the cost of the camera and lens. With this in mind you may as well buy a camera you will really understand how to use. Learning to capture great images with medium format film takes time, don’t complicate that with a camera you also need to learn how to use. I can’t count the frames I have double exposed because I forgot to advance the film, or the shots I have missed because I forgot to cock the shutter on my wonderful folding cameras.
5. HOW DO I ZOOM IN?
Folding cameras were the digital point and shoot cameras of their day. They were certainly capable of great images but they were never really designed to produce big enlargements. In fact, the 6×9 negative was almost always contact printed. It was the 4×6 print of its day. Enlargements were possible for sure, but they were no more common then than they are today. So these were never intended as system cameras and it will not be possible to extend their capabilities very much. You will not be taking close up pictures nor will you be able to zoom in tight with one of these cameras. They all use what is commonly known as a normal prime lens and you cannot exchange these lenses. They are beautiful triplet or 4 element designs and I truly love working with them. But they are not as versatile as the zoom that comes with your digital point and shoot. If you do find that you actually like medium format you will eventually feel a bit restricted with what you have. Exploring medium format even further will almost certainly require extending the capabilities of your camera. This means buying into another system down the line. It makes more sense to buy a system that can be extended in the first place.
SOME BETTER OPTIONS
I love using folding cameras and I shoot film in them on a regular basis. There are lots of good reasons for using them. They are extremely handy. They are quite portable. They can be a challenge. They are a great way to experience what it was like to take pictures in the middle part of the last century. There are many very good reasons to shoot folding cameras, but using one to try out medium format almost certainly isn’t one of them. Instead, go out and buy a Mamiya M645 1000S or a Pentax 645, or a Yashica Mat 124G twin lens reflex. There are a number of great options. Do your research and explore them all. If you do decide to buy a medium format folding camera then do it for the right reasons. Don’t do it because you think it is an inexpensive way to try out medium format, because it really isn’t. If that is your reason for buying a folding camera than you may go away disappointed. I would much rather that you enjoy learning to shoot medium format film with a more versatile camera, and then buy that folding camera because you want the challenge of learning to do something different.
Now that I have tried my best to talk you out of a folding camera, if you decide to buy one anyway, I truly hope that you enjoy the experience. Until the next time, stay healthy and take lots of pictures.