What's the best film camera for medium-format hand-held photography?

Discussion in 'Medium Format' started by rexmarriott, Feb 3, 2019.

  1. Which SLR systems are better suited for handholding? Lots of wedding work was done with the 645 systems right? Pentax 67 and fashion work was pretty prevalent. How about the rZ/rb ? Sure the heavy, but I've heard users say they're well damped? I'm finding color negative work in 35mm less and less enticing
  2. Most weddings (percentage varies with the decade you're looking at) were shot with a 6x6 Hasselblad or similar knockoff like Bronica SQ, or bulletproof 6x6 Mamiya TLR with changeable lenses. Less popular but still significant were 645 systems like Contax, Bronica ETR, and in Japan perhaps Pentax 645. Bringing up the rear were 6x7 systems, usually the Mamiya RB/RZ (the Pentax 67 was a bit loud and had other drawbacks for wedding work: not to say it wasn't used, but probably not a lot). Weddings tend toward a lot of fill flash: this helps reduce vibration effects.

    Fashion work was all over the place, and got a lot more confused and trendy in the last 15 years before digital. As with everything MF, Hasselblad 6x6 was the front runner early on (along with Rolleiflex TLR, which everyone seems to forget was THE handheld fashion cam for awhile). As the Hasselblad knockoffs got better (Bronica leaf shutter ETR and SQ replacing their S2/EC focal plane concept, etc), they gained ground quickly. The Mamiya RB/RZ made huge inroads in this niche as well. Towards the end of the film era, fierce competition for a distinct "look" among fashion pros + the development of more advanced pro flash led to a fetish trend for things like the Pentax 67 and Contax 645. Previously these were severely constrained for fashion by their large focal plane shutters.

    Today, we can choose whatever we want from the much depreciated used market. A mistaken purchase which doesn't quite gel with your own work is less of a disaster, more easily rectified. Non-pros have no requirement for rental availability or assistants, factors which gave a huge boost to Hasselblad during the heyday of film. So its less stressful now to prioritize a lens line preference or frame size preference or body style preference.

    As to which system lends itself most to handheld use, the truest answer is "none". To maximize results and really exploit the larger film frame, they all really need to be tripod bound and/or used with flash to freeze any movement. That said, each system has its adherents for handheld work: its very subjective, what works great for one photographer will be terrible for another. Example: the huge Mamiya RB/RZ are very well damped, so can be credibly handheld at slower speeds approaching a 35mm SLR, but this is countered by their enormous size/weight and potentially clumsy operation. The Hasselblad is sleeker, faster and lighter, but can be a cruel joke handheld: it has minimal damping, so almost jumps out of your hand when fired. Many 'blad aspirants discover to their horror they can't get a sharp handheld shot at anything less then 1/250th.

    Then you have the "comfort factor" to consider. Despite appearances, the clumsy-looking Bronica ETR or SQ with side mounted speed grip, or Pentax/Contax 645 with motor grip, are often easier to hold steady than "scaled up Nikon F" systems like Pentax 67 or Pentacon. These designs look ideal for hand holding, but in reality have clumsy gripping surfaces, and their huge focal plane shutters (esp the Pentax) are prone to shock and awe vibration impact. Once you've processed that, you have noise to contend with. The loudest non-military camera anyone ever heard was the once-popular Bronica S2, whose focal plane shutter and viewfinder roller blind could wake the dead. A Hasselblad or leaf-shutter Bronica is quieter, but surprisingly not by that much. The big Mamiya RB67 is quietest- the firing sequence is slower, so the sound lasts longer but is less obtrusive.

    All these elements combine in different ways for each individual photographer, so we often need to try more than one system to find the best fit for our own handheld use. The only general rule that applies across the board is TLR vs SLR: almost always, a TLR can be successfully handheld at slower speeds than an SLR. With practice, many can get away with 1/8th sec using a TLR, while the SLR will need 1/125th or higher. The sole exception being the Mamiya RB/RZ: tests have shown these equaling a Rolleiflex at 1/15th.
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2019
  3. Thanks. I have a hasselblad and have used a Pentax 645 handheld with hasselblad lenses. The hasselblad is a bit violent for handheld use, so I don't even think about it. Will probably end up with a 645 of some sort- the rz/rb is tempting though. I don't mind the weight if it's dampened well
  4. Mamiya RB67 is incredibly well damped, given the huge mirror and other mechanics involved. It also has the nicest medium format firing sound: audible, but not raucous like a 'blad. I stupidly sold my pristine RB67/140mm Macro/65mm kit at a dead loss a few years ago: one of the biggest mistakes of my camera using life. I thought I wanted to streamline down to just two 6x6 systems: Hasselblad and Mamiya TLR. But shortly after, I drifted back toward 6x7 and 6x9, and now wish I'd kept my RB. If nothing else, I really lucked out with my body and lenses: they were reasonably priced and super-clean. Today, just five years later, you can whistle up a rope looking for nice clean RB gear: the market has dried up in North America and Europe, concentrating most of the remaining stock in Japan, and a lot of that is overpriced for not-great condition.

    Re 645: lots of choices there. The Contax arguably had the best lenses (Zeiss at their peak), but the body and accessory prices have gone thru the roof in recent years. Bronica ETR is a great little system: handles like the Pentax 645, but without the noisy motor, all lenses have leaf shutter for fill flash. and interchangeable film backs. Pentax 645 is fully integrated electronic, late models even have AF, but the better lenses are getting scarce in the wake of the digital 645D and 645Z (the two greatest bargains in MF digital, ever). Mamiya 645 is schizoid: many excellent lenses, but the newer plastic-sheathed bodies can be problem-prone. The older M645, M645J and M645 1000S are beautifully overbuilt, but not quite as ergonomic handheld with eye level prism as the later, dodgier models.
    leo_tam|1 likes this.
  5. I know the Hasselblad H series is a kludge with the V series adapter - but I may go that route... (currently have a 645N using Hasseblad lenses) - A better handheld solution for the Zeiss lenses vs. a 500C (at least for me)
  6. You already have a Pentax 645N, Hassy V series Zeiss lenses, and adapter to mate the two. How long have you used this setup? Do you also have native Pentax glass? Have you been OK with this combination to shoot film, or is there something you dislike about the Pentax 645 body? I'm asking because the most obvious digital solution is staring you in the face: a second-hand Pentax 645D (approx $2100) or 645Z (approx $3100). These are solid, integrated one-piece cameras that would work with your adapted V lenses exactly like your 645N film camera.

    The Hasselblad H digital system isn't the greatest value available for those who want to use V lenses: the big clumsy flakey V to H lens adapter alone costs $800 used or $1600 new. And if you aren't going to use Hasselblads own bespoke V to H adapter, which uniquely retains use of the leaf shutter for flash, theres no point to going the H route at all for V lenses. The kludge is (very arguably) worth it for the combo of Zeiss V optics + leaf shutter versatility, but if you just wanna use a dumb adapter and bypass the lens shutters the H body is actually useless (it has no focal plane shutter of its own).

    The H system was/is excellent, but it doesn't age all that well. Many second-hand now-affordable H bodies have electromechanical issues, and Hasselblad has gotten real cute lately about discontinuing service for the older, affordable used H systems. Today, its more of a pro tool that working pros rent or lease along with the newest AF FujiBlad lenses- the cost/risk/reward ratio doesn't add up as well for amateur/enthusiast use. The affordable used H bodies are still limited to older CCD sensors: nice if you have a specific use for them in studio/product/fashion, but confining for general use due to the poor high ISO performance. The Pentax 645D will give the excellent final-revision Kodak 33x44 CCD sensor in a more solid reliable body, while the 645Z gives you the same modern Sony 33x44 CMOS sensor used in the newer H bodies, Hassy V CF-V50c back, Hassy X1D and Fuji mirrorless at a fraction of the cost.

    Speaking of Fuji mirrorless, thats another relatively affordable way to go for adapted Hassy V lenses. The GFX50S with articulating viewfinder can be had new for about $6500, while the nifty smaller GFX-50R is more compact like a jumbo-Leica. Either gives you the incredible advantage of EVF with live view eyelevel focusing: the best way to nail focus with adapted manual lenses (just ask anyone who bought a Sony A7 for their old 35mm SLR glass).

    The most drastic option would be to ditch the Hassy V lenses altogether and just get a full-on coordinated digital MF system, such as the Fuji with Fuji AF lenses. If you don't have more than a couple of V lenses, this is usually the best course today for digital MF. The Zeiss V lenses were excellent on the 500cm with earlier full-frame CCD digital backs (the famous "fat pixel" 22MP Phase, Leaf, Imacons). But they don't do quite as well on the newer smaller denser 50MP CMOS sensors: the crop factor is extremely annoying (50mm Distagon Wide effectively has the framing of the 80mm Planar). The higher res sensors are less forgiving of tiny focus errors, and the aberrations inherent to some V lenses. The V system is still fun and produces beautiful images from older CCD backs on a 500 series body, if you can work within certain limitations. But ditching the whole 500 system to adapt the lenses elsewhere can lead to disappointment.
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2019
  7. I was actually thinking of the H series film cameras - H1/H2 - I've been using the 645N sporadically for a year or two (the only lens I had for it was a 80 F Planar because the 2000FCM my dad was letting me use stopped working reliably, but have added a 100 Planar and a 150 Sonnar) - I don't own any Pentax lenses at all - was just thinking of an "all hasselblad" solution (yes, I know the H series is Fuji) - rarely use studio flash, and if I did, I'd probably pick up another 500 series body and just use a tripod

  8. I have a Fuji 6x9 rangefinder that is perfectly hand holdable. But... even at the maximum 1/500sec shutter speed, camera shake lowers the detail in the photograph significantly. And at $3/exposure, if I want handheld film, it's 35mm for me. To really see the advantage of medium format film, one needs to use a tripod and get a very good scan from my experience.
  9. Just curious which Fuji/Fujica you have. I've been considering one. At the same time, the whole reason I was considering it was for a more compact medium format solution. Having to use it on a tripod kind of kills that thought. :)

    I already have a TLR and pretty much only drag it out if I'm going to bring a tripod with. Was hoping for a more mobile and spontaneous medium format option.
  10. Sorry: usually when people mention the H today its for digital, so I replied in that direction. Most of it still applies, if not more so: the H1 and H2 are ancient in terms of the H system, so getting one in good condition is difficult (much less the film backs). You also have the same issue with the V lens adapter: Expensive, flakey, clumsy, bulky, not integrated (manual separate shutter cock for each exposure). So, for 645 film, not really a huge improvement over your Pentax 645N. Unless you need hot-swap film backs and leaf shutter for studio.

    The 100mm Planar is fantastic, use it on your Pentax or pick up a clean 500cm or 500elx. The H1/2 won't be any more handholdable, but possibly more trouble prone.
    leo_tam|1 likes this.
  11. david_henderson

    david_henderson www.photography001.com

    link. What process do you have to go through to discern a major reduction in sharpness from handheld 6x9 vs tripod mounted? My guess would be that it would be hard to see on a screen unless you enlarge majorly, and that a print would have to be large enough so most people might not want /need to go that big very often. I'm sure that if you go right to the margin there is a difference, but how many people need that and how often? For most people its not an intellectual game to determine better or worse, its
    whether you can get the image you actually need at the size you need it. I speak as someone who has had made a number of large prints from a hand-held Mamiya 7 that have elicited no complaints. And, for any given output size, would 35mm, given greater enlargement, be any better anyway? I suspect it would actually be worse.
  12. I have a Fuji GW690III and a GSW690II. When I began with the Fuji cameras, digital cameras were only 3mpx... I scan with a Nikon LS-8000 scanner.

    I originally thought that hand holding would be easy, but then I began to see the difference between tripod and handheld, I realized that many of the hand held images had no more detail than 35mm images. Sure, the grain was less, but not the detail. Mostly due to camera shake, but also focusing on the fly can be a little bit off as well.

    I print to about 17 x 22 inches and the difference is easily seen. For display on screens, 35mm is fine of course.

    For me, it makes no sense to shoot 6x9 film at $3/frame only to scan it on a flat bed and view it online. For handheld work, I choose 35mm film or my Canon 5ds, which I can shoot at much higher shutter speeds.

    If anyone is in Los Angeles in October, I'm having a gallery show where you can see some of these images :) The show opening reception on October 26 and I'd love to see you there!

    Comrade Photographer by Bruce Alan Greene | The Perfect Exposure Gallery | Artsy
    Stephen_Prunier likes this.
  13. leo tam 1, the more I think about it, the more I feel using your 80, 100, and 150 Hassy V lenses on your Pentax 645N is probably the best compromise for handheld non-flash 645 film work. You get most of the benefits of the H1/2 with none of their drawbacks. If anything, the Pentax with its fixed film compartment and focal plane shutter is likely better damped than the Hasselblad H or 500 series (which are more complex and clunky with their auxiliary film blind mechanisms).

    That said, if you don't mind an unmetered manual exposure camera: look into a Hasselblad 500elm, elx or 553elx. These motorized bodies are the bargain of the V system: with a side grip and the old compact NC2 prism, they're a nifty (if heavy) handheld option. The motor cocks the shutter and mirror immediately after each shot, and lens auto diaphragm stop down is fully functional. The film backs are common and easily serviced, with the 645 version you prefer being decidedly cheaper than the more popular 6x6.
  14. Thanks. Elx bodies are so underrated - they sell for the price of the acute matte screen they came with.

    This whole time I thought the h series used a focal plane shutter like every other 645 system. Did not know that it was a leaf shutter system. Thanks
  15. david_henderson

    david_henderson www.photography001.com

    link Thanks for the reply. I wondered whether you were printing quite large . But the point you make on focus being more difficult with MF than 35mm also resonated and after 10 years away from MF it's something I hadn't thought of. Most of my hand-held transparencies from a Mamiya 7 printed decently as I said, but those I rejected for printing were more likely to have focus errors than camera shake at 1/250 and 1/500.

    Finally although I won't be in the USA for your exhibition ( I'll be photographing on the coast of N Spain) I did look at your site and I liked what I saw.
  16. Thanks David!!!!
    I really wanted a Mamiya 7, but alas they are too expensive for me!
    Yes, the focus thing is more difficult when one uses a wide aperture to keep the shutter at 1/500sec :) Digital cameras are much better at high ISO ratings, so I tend to use that for hand held street photography, but not always. I do like the imperfection of 35mm film sometimes. And I do use a Kodak Retina IIIc which is also very small when folded up.

  17. I use my Hasselblad hand-held all the time, but I usually use my 60mm lens. Great combination for hand-held. With a prism finder pressed to my head and a bit of effort I can hold the camera quite steady.
    andyfalsetta likes this.
  18. Hasselblad w/Flash

    Just a thought. A Hasselblad with TTL flash capability and a D40 flash plus side grip might make a great portrait set-up, with camera to subject distance of 12 ft or less.
  19. I'm surprised no one has mentioned the Rollei 6008. Although it is heavy, it is well balanced and easy to hand-hold with the action grip. I use it hand-held all the time, More sophisticated and less finicky than a Hasselblad. Downside is you will most likely have to rebuild the battery with NiMH cells, and service is difficult to find in the U.S.
    Gary Naka likes this.
  20. I had the Rollei 6008, Took great pictures but it was so complicated that it made me nervous. Bought new, it was very expensive. I sold it and moved to Hasselblad

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