Medium Format Cameras on a Budget: Five Under $50

There comes an inevitable time for most people who shoot 35mm to consider stepping up a larger format.  The 135 format is certainly tops when it comes to convenience, film and camera selection, and image quality in relation to its size and yet despite all of these great attributes in this comfortable format, there is often something alluring to the moving into medium format to get a larger image size, or simply to broaden one's experience in photography as a hobby.  

For the medium format novice, the options are often a bit confusing, and this combines with price tags that can provide some "sticker shock" to someone used to being able to find a trusty old SLR on the cheap.  Given this, it is readily understandable that many who may actively shoot 35mm and are looking to do some exploratory dabbling in medium format, may never elect to try it out based upon the prices they see for gear.

But there ARE options out there; options that will enable the photographer a great deal of photographic control and provide some outstanding image quality without breaking the bank.  At the challenge of my buddy James at The Casual Photophile, I've assembled a nice starter list of medium format cameras that one can find for under $50 that run the full gamut of what medium format has to offer. These vary between formats as well as camera style to encompass the breadth of the "medium" so to speak. 

Keep in mind that many of these cameras will NOT be what most people who have only shot 35mm may be accustomed to.  Depending upon the model, they will require manual focusing (often without any visual aids to do so), they will require manual exposure, and they often will require the shutter be pre-cocked before firing.  Sure, this can be a pain, but it doesn't have to be.  Part of the fun of photography is learning new aspects to it, and while many of these extra steps will slow you down when taking an image, they can also help greatly improve your images and make you an efficient shooter in the process.  As well, there are some "baby steps" the new user can take (discussed at the bottom of this article) to make the whole process far less daunting.   

It goes without saying to keep in mind that there are always ever-present risks when buying a used camera online, but these risks are by no means limited to budget-conscious cameras. Most second-hand cameras will have some idiosyncrasy that require you to either work around a limitation, or to take matters into your own hands mechanically to do some impromptu servicing to your newly acquired camera.  This, of course, varies with each individual camera (and as well with each specific user) and with a little bit of reading, comparing, scrutinizing, and luck, there is usually no reason why you can't take a used camera out of the box in which it was shipped, give it a quick cleaning, load it with film, and start taking quality images with it. 

One of the most popular resources for acquiring used film cameras is ebay.  Loved by many, and despised by likely just as many, this online auction site and market place can be a treasure trove for interesting used cameras from decades past.  I've purchased over two dozen used cameras from sellers on this site and have had overwhelmingly good results, along with a few duds.  Many cameras are listed as a "Buy It Now" listing which might provide a good value, though most tend to be priced at an excessive premium of what a seller hopes to get for an item.  There are also used camera auctions on Goodwill's website, as well as many sellers at the online marketplace Etsy doing direct sales of some great used cameras as well. If you are fortunate enough to have a used camera store or "non-prestige" Antiques seller nearby, these are also potentially good options, though you may not be able to pick up the cameras listed (if you are able to find them) below the $50 threshold.  Even in ebay, patience will often be a requisite to find and score a good medium format camera for under "a Ulysses," but it can happen, and it does happen all the time.  I've managed to do it time and time again.

Each of the cameras (as well as the alternates) listed below were chosen as they tend to lack collector premiums and are reasonably common, thus aiding their ability to be picked up for a reasonable price without excessive competition or biding your time.  My minimum criteria for this medium format list was the ability to focus as well as the ability to vary exposure settings.  Extras such as metering or focus aids tend to be "frosting" but some selections and alternatives do include such goodies. Each can acquire a good image in a range of situations, thanks to the ability to control focal point and exposure through means of a respectable piece of glass in front of the film. I've generally avoided "obsolete" film formats such as 620, 116, and 616 in this listing, keeping largely to the readily available world of 120 film. 

And without any further lead in, here goes! My list of "Five Under Fifty" in the world of Medium Format, as well as a healthy spattering of alternatives.

1 - The "Pocketable Pal"
Zeiss Ikonta A 521

As if price isn't enough of a deterrent to trying out medium format, size can often be a discouraging factor.  A 35mm shooter who may be used to shooting a small camera like a Rollei 35 or a Olympus XA may not be particularly thrilled about lugging around a clunky medium format shooter.  But there are options that are not only affordable but compact, squeezing 16 shots efficiently onto a roll of 120 film with an image size more than 3 times that of 35mm, using what is typically called 645 format.

As with any used camera, there is a bit of a hunt involved, but if you find a working Zeiss 645 folder like the Ikonta above available, my advice is to take it! 

Among the more easily found of these compact jewels are folding cameras made by Carl Zeiss under a number of "lines" such as Ikonta, Ikomat, Nettar, and Bob.  The differences between these models are of varying subtlety and vintages, but all fit the basic bill of a no-frills, compact folding design that allows the user a good level of manual control.  Perhaps the most readily found of these is the Ikonta A, as it is the most recent incarnation of this esteemed lineup.  As Zeiss made this line in various 120 configurations, some care must be taken to get the right size for 645, which will often have an "A" suffix.  At the sub-$50 price point, the most readily attainable examples are equipped with a Novar triplet lens with either an f/3.5 or f/4.5 maximum aperture, but with some perseverance and luck, you may be able to score a 4-element Tessar lens equipped version. 

As good as they are, the Zeiss folders are hardly the only capable, compact folding camera options to break into Medium format for under $50, though they are generally the most easily located.  Fewer and father between are a number of other designs of German and Japanese origin, often available with lenses as fast as f/2.9.  These include the Balda Lisette or Baldax, the Welta Perle,  the Rodenstock Ysar or Citonette, the Waltax and its successor: the Zenobia, and the Semi Proud.

2 - The "Focusing Friend"
Yashica MAT

Coming from the world of 35mm, where visual focusing confirmation is so often a given, even on cameras costing under $20, it is understandable that the whole idea of guessing one's focusing distance on a folding camera like the one above and then having to wait to see the results to find out if you got it right can be a little daunting for those used to already knowing their shots were properly focused. Fortunately, there are some camera options for those in need of some additional assurance.  

Yashica's lineup of TLR cameras is quite diverse, and actively searching across the models listed below from the MAT to the 12, such as seen above, will often provide fruitful. 

One of the most popular manufacturers of medium format cameras from the 1950's to the 1970's was Yashica, whose Twin Lens Reflex cameras (TLRs) came in an array of options and names over the years of production.  Among the most popular of these was the MAT, a basic yet capable twin lens camera that focuses through a waist level finder through a top viewing lens, with the photo taken through the bottom lens.  The MAT had a number of 120 format siblings made through Yashica's heyday, including the A, the C, the D, the 635, the EM, the LM, and the 12, all of which would make suitable cameras to take the plunge into Medium format.  The savvy online shopper would be wise to simply search for "Yashica Camera" to cull through the listings to find one that fits the bill, taking some time and care to note the slight differences between each. 

Admittedly, finding a decent Yashica TLR for under $50 will be the most challenging item in this list, but there are a few Twin Lens alternatives that are worth exploring should you get stymied in the process.  Among the most readily attainable of these is the American made Argoflex Model E, a somewhat basic yet adjustable TLR that carries with it a certain art deco chic in its styling. Beware however that the Argoflex E takes 620 film, identical to 120 film in width, but with a different spool, necessitating a mundane but easy process of respooling 120 film to fit.  In native 120 format, a great option are models in the Ciro-flex lineup, yet another great example of a 1940's based TLR.  And there are still more options that can be found in the sub-$50 price point, including the Czech made Meopta Flexaret, the Beauty and its rebadged version known as the Wardflex, and the more recent vintage Chinese Seagull TLR cameras.

3 - The "Indispensable Instagrammer"
The Ansco Speedex

Today. it is so often hip to be square, at least when it comes to film format, something that is readily embodied in the social networking app "Instagram." And what better to capture some organic, film look, square format photos than an affordable square format camera. For this purpose, the Ansco Speedex (sometimes referred to as the B2) fits that bill ideally. While the preceeding pair of cameras on this list may require a bit of searching and patience to find a good example under $50, I can all but guarantee that a visit to ebay will yield several results of working Ansco Speedex cameras available for purchase for under this price point. It may be the best bargain around for the budget-savvy film shopper.  

If you are patient, you may be able to score a fast Franka Solida just like this one, but if you want a square frame medium format camera that you can bring home soon, have a look for the Ansco Speedex,

With the Speedex, you get a folding camera with a 75mm, f/4.5 lens that has a decent selection of shutter speeds in a form factor only slightly bigger than the "Pocketable Pal" above.  The camera is the American version of the German "Agfa Isolette." Its years of distribution here make it a pretty common find, and yet it seems to lack the problems that befall it's Agfa cousin that uses an infamous "Green Goo" lubricant that tends to seize up and freeze the focusing ring on the Isolette models.  It lacks much of anything in the way of bells and whistles, but its feature set is just ample enough to make it a very valid and affordable option for the beginner in the world of Medium Format.

But not so fast!  Before you rush off to buy a Speedex on a listing, be aware that there are some other options that may be offer just a bit more to stretch your dollar.  In addition to the aforementioned Agfa Isolette, be sure to check out the Franka Solida, the Certo Six, the Welmy Six, and the Voightlander Perkeo. These will be fewer and farther between at the value price point, but will often offer faster optics and a wider range of shutter speeds than the Ansco if you are willing to be patient.  

And if you are in the UK, you may want to check out the Kershaw 450.  It's feature set is quite similar to the Ansco, but more readily available "across the pond."

4 - The "Big Buddy"
Agfa Billy Record

One of the most attractive aspects about the step up to Medium Format is the ability to get massive negatives and transparencies compared to 35mm, and in no case is this more easily apparent than with the 6x9 size in the 120 format.  To me, a 35mm slide looks microscopic compared to a colorful. properly exposed 6x9 transparency.  Viewing these lovely images directly on the film without any actual need for magnification is one of the real treasures of the 120 format.

For 6x9 images on 120 film, you can take great photos with a nice affordable Agfa Billy like the one shown here, but if you want a faster lens or more shutter speed options, be sure to look at the full breadth of alternatives. 

My recommendation for a readily attainable 6x9 camera comes with something of an asterisk* that will be explained in the paragraph below, but that recommendation is the Agfa Billy Record, a basic folding camera that carries an f/6.3 lens, three shutter speeds (plus bulb) and a form factor that despite my moniker above is easily portable.  It is also marketed and easily available under the companion line up's name of the "Ansco Viking." With these specs, you will have all you need to capture stunning well lit landscapes in the glory of 6x9 and even after-dark time exposures.  Be aware however that the Agnar lens is very prone to flare when pointed even in the general direction of the sun.

* - But there's that asterisk.  So what of it?  The Billy Record is a basic yet capable camera, and I have taken some of my favorite photos with this simple yet effective machine. Admittedly though, it was my featured choice here because it is most readily found at the price point, and though my copy is in great shape, it does carry a risk of frozen focus from Agfa's choice of lubricant at the time.  If you have some patience and perseverance, and are willing to pay near the upper end of the sub $50 spectrum, I would actually suggest at least seeing if you can find something more capable (faster lens, more shutter speeds) for 6x9 shots,  The truth is there is a such a wide array of less common options that it was tough to choose a camera to feature in this category.  Canvassing camera sales outlets for cameras like the Balda Pontina or Juwella, the Zeiss Ikonta 521/2, the Franka Rolfix, the Beier Beirax, or the Voightlander Bessa may provide a lucrative premium option for a 6x9 folding camera.  If you're feeling lucky, you might even hazard picking up a Moskva folder, many of which include rangefinders, and are Russian made clones of the Zeiss Ikonta and Super Ikonta models.  

5 - Conniving Conversation-Starting Compadre
Revere Eye Matic EE 127

Despite their intended purpose of recording images, cameras are not simply humble functional devices lacking any real aesthetic, like say, a computer's hard drive. The majority of photographers take some degree of pride in what they own (and talking about what they own), and this is certainly true of those of us who shoot film as well. For some, this means taking pride in owning (and using) a well known, expensive, and prestigious camera such as Hasselblad or Rolleiflex, while for others, the pride is in owning (and using) a camera that few others have heard about, let alone seen.  If you are in the latter fold, the Eye Matic EE 127 may be right up your alley!

Love it or hate it, there is no denying that this unusual Revere Eye Matic camera is not like any other you have ever seen.  And as long as it is functional, it is capable of some pretty great photos on 127 film.

None of this is to allay that the Eye Matic is nothing but a poser's camera. It is actually a surprisingly capable machine compared to the majority of its competition of the time. Equipped with a coupled rangefinder, a fast and adjustable f/2.8 lens, light metering, and a handy 1/100 shutter speed, the EE 127 is pretty well equipped to handle a wide range of shooting situations.  But at a hefty 2.3 pounds and dressed in "Refrigerator White" with brushed metal trim, the Eye Matic looks like no other camera out there, and is almost certain to get looks and comments from people nearby.  Despite some pretty user-friendly specs, this camera shoots 127 film, which is not nearly as readily available as 120 film, and might lead to some debate about whether it is really "medium format."  However, the largest of the 127 formats has an image size slightly larger than the 645 format of 120 film, so it certainly is in the ballpark of the medium format genre, while the 4x4 format of the Eye Matic enables a savvy user to create "Super Slides" that are significantly larger than their 35mm brethren.  As of this writing, there are several examples of the EE127 on both ebay and Etsy under the $50 price point.  

If you're not so thrilled about the look of the Eye Matic and want a more portable conversation starter in which to easily shoot 127 film, the similarly monikered Bell and Howell Electric Eye 127 makes a great alternative.  Though this fixed focus camera is lacking much of anything in the way of manual controls, it's surprisingly hardly selenium cell exposure system can be coerced into over or under exposure using a few tricks, and it is also readily available at prices often in the sub $20 range!  For those interested in stepping up to 127 who want a more traditional option, the Yashica 44 offers the TLR experience and can often be found around the $50 price point, give or take. 

Some Parting Thoughts

Please note that these cameras were all selected without ANY regard whatsoever to the possibility of flash photography.  I've not done film-based flash photography for years, and have no intentions of doing so, and thus, I made these selections based entirely on natural light photography.  Some of the options and alternatives do have hot and cold shoe or some cord connections for flash capabilities, but this aspect of the hobby is beyond my knowledge base or interest. 

And though it was alluded to earlier in the article, I realize that the majority of these options are dependent on focus estimation, something which many people who have never had to do before are surely not comfortable with.  If you elect to hazard down this path, my suggestions to this are to start with basics, first shooting some landscapes stopped down with the focal point set to near infinity, move to a city or town scene with a focal point of about 30-40 feet (four parked cars or a city bus length) and then try a shot at about 6 feet away, slightly beyond the average height of a person.  It doesn't hurt in the last example to try to bracket focus, either by moving the focus reading to both 5 and 7 feet to see the results, or by taking a half step both forward and back to shoot comparison shots.  Lacking this exercise, you can also readily invest in an "accessory rangefinder" for no more than $15 and fairly readily found online.  Before long, you should be pretty comfortable in estimating distances in most situations, or at least know what apertures to use to allow for some fudge factor.  The fun part is when you guess the distance when shooting wide open and you nail it. 

And that's what it's all about anyway, isn't it?  FUN! Enjoy and keep shooting!  

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