Simon recently reviewed Lomography’s new LC-A 120 and, much to our (read: my) surprise, the verdict was basically “it’s not bad”. It seems like, after the unholy hell of problems that was the Belair, Lomography have started to learn the error of their ways and moved towards slightly higher quality products.
But the problem of the sticker shock remains: £339 is a lot of money for a rudimentary zone-focus medium format camera – even one with an in-built light meter – in a world where old professional cameras are being offloaded for much, much less. And it was with this in mind that Simon set me a challenge: Can I find five medium format, light-meter equipped cameras for less money that I would happily recommend over the LC-A?
The Kiev 60
The Kiev 60, unlike the more well-known Kiev 88, is based on the Pentacon Six design. As such, it’s basically a tank of a camera, and like the LC-A 120, suffers from effectively being a familiar 35mm layout scaled up. Unlike the LC-A, however, these things are solid; there’s no hint of empty space or a lack of heft, and instead you’re left with a camera that could kill a potential mugger. Also, like the Pentacon Six, it has the major benefit over the LC-A of being a system camera; the metered finder can be swapped out for a lighter and more compact waist level finder if you so choose, and lenses in the P6 mount are plentiful. While the standard 80mm Volna-3 you get with a Kiev is a fine lens, you could upgrade to the 80mm Zeiss Tessar or even move to the 50mm or 65mm Zeiss Flektogons without a great deal of additional expense.
So why take this over the Pentacon Six? Well, the Pentacon is renowned for shutter problems and issues with not winding the film on correctly. The Kiev, in comparison, is a much hardier machine, and can often be found very cheaply. At the time of writing, MW Classic have a boxed Kiev 60 outfit with both waist level and metered finders, the standard Volna-3, UV filter and extension tubes for £129. They’re also carrying a range of lenses for it; a 65mm f/3.5 Mir for £79, a Krasnagorsk 150mm f/2.8 for £69, and a 250mm f/3.5 Jupiter-36B for £59, all in mint condition with caps and cases. At £336 for the whole set, that’s a much more versatile outfit for almost the same price.
The Bronica systems are, basically, your poor man’s Hasselblad. They follow much the same layout, and like the Hasselblad, are complete system cameras, with everything being interchangeable – the lenses, finders and (unlike the Kiev) the back can all be removed and swapped for something else. But don’t let the poverty price-point put you off; these are amazingly useable cameras for the price, and while I’m not a fan of the modular medium format SLR design, a lot of people use these (and similar systems) extensively to meet any photographic need. Ffordes currently have a complete set with an unmetered waist level finder, 75mm f/2.8 lens and a 120 back for £249; add in the metered prism finder for £39 and you’re still below the £339 you’d pay for the LC-A, but with a lot more room to grow in the future.
And while you’d struggle to find much for the £51 left over if you had bought into the Hasselblad system, Bronica give you a few options; an “EX+” 150mm f/3.5 would only set you back £49 at Ffordes – perfect for portraiture, which is what these cameras really excel at – or you could buy a Polaroid back for £25 and easily get a pack of FP-100C with the £26 you had left.
Ah, now we’re talking. Whereas the previous two cameras are veritable tanks, TLRs represent, in my mind, the best balance of size, weight, cost and usability in medium format. Yes, a Mamiya 7 would be nicer, but we can’t all afford the £1000+ price tag; meanwhile, a good non-Rolleiflex TLR will rarely cost more than £300, and there are a lot of solid options out there.
So why go for the Yashica 124G? Well, simply because it has a meter. Unfortunately, the meters expect now unavailable mercury batteries, but cheap adaptors can solve that problem. The 124 is also a viable option – with very little difference between that and the slightly later 124G “upgrade” – and the 12, while similar, is much rarer. The layout of a late Yashica is very similar to the Rolleiflex, but the major difference is that the winders aren’t as smooth and the viewfinders are much, much brighter. Optically, they’re also stunning cameras, and considering the price, you’d be hard pressed to find something capable of producing “better” images without paying considerably more.
The downside to this is that (thanks largely to people like me who keep talking about how good they are) prices of the Yashica TLRs have been climbing steadily to the point where even the basic Yashica A is now worth a tidy sum of money. Worse still is that they don’t seem to be moving around much – while dealers often have Mamiya C330s and the odd Rolleiflex lying around, Yashica TLRs seem to be hung onto for much longer. A quick skim of eBay gives a wide range of prices, from £120 all the way through to £375 for various “CLA’d” 124Gs. As ever with eBay, buy with caution; you’re much better to buy from a dealer wherever possible. Realistically, expect to pay around £180 for one in decent condition.
The Fuji GS645 series
This is the closest comparison to the LC-A I can think of, but – as far as I’m concerned – a considerably better option all round. The various Fuji medium format rangefinders (of which there are many) are fairly well-regarded, but the 645 series is the best deal as far as this exercise is concerned; not only do they have internal TTL metering (which is more accurate than the non-TTL meters of the LC-A and Yashica TLRs), but they have coupled rangefinders (again, more accurate than zone focusing) and come in three variations with different lenses fixed on the front: The 75mm-equipped GS645, the 60mm-equipped GS645S, and the 45mm-equipped GS645W. I’d go for the 75mm purely because it collapses back into the body, but the 60mm lens of the GS645S is similar to a 35mm lens on a 135 format camera, which many people would find more useful.
Again, these cameras seem to be a pain to find in England meaning eBay is probably the easiest way to pick one up, so buy with caution; a quick search shows a lot of GS645S listings coming straight from Japan for around the £200 mark, which is a bargain for one of these. Hunt through local dealerships before going the import route, though.
Any folding camera, ever and any light meter, ever.
Okay, that’s a bit flippant. More than a bit, actually. But when you consider the specifications of the LC-A 120, a folder is a fairly equivalent replacement; most folders can match the f/4.5 lens of the LC-A, they’re just as (if not more) compact, scale focusing isn’t too dissimilar to zone focusing and many allow for easy multiple exposures due to uncoupled shutter cocking and film advance. Where they almost all fall down is the lack of an inbuilt meter – and, apart from the expensive Voigtlander Bessa III, I can’t think of any with automatic exposure – and the fact that the LC-A 120 has an almost untouchably wide 38mm lens. But when you think that folders can be found in 645, 6×6 and 6×9 across all price ranges, with or without coupled rangefinders, and external meters are obscenely cheap*, I’d always recommend the folder over the LC-A. Quite what folder depends on what you can find; often times, you’re better just getting whatever you can find locally in good condition. That said, I still have a weird desire for the unbelievably huge and fiddly Moskva cameras – so much so that I’m actually hovering over the dreaded “buy it now” button as I finish this article. The lure of the 6×9 negative is STRONG.
Anyway, as much as I’d recommend all of the above over the LC-A 120, the reality of it is simple: Lomography have actually managed to produce a camera that is hard to match. Super-wide fully automatic 120 compacts simply don’t exist – but there’s a reason for that. 120 film is expensive (on a shot-by-shot basis) and twelve shots don’t go very far. If you’re dead set on fully automatic shooting and burning through film, go for the LC-A. If you really want to do some great work with medium format film, any of the aforementioned cameras would be the better option. So what if you can’t spray and pray? If all you want is to point and shoot, you’d probably be better with digital anyway.
*My top pick for a light meter: a Weston III. Solid, hardy, small and cheap.
If you’re into night shooting and are happy carrying around an oversized meter along with a tripod and cable release: A Gossen Luna Six.
If you’re really cheap and don’t mind faffing around for a while unlocking phones: any light meter app available for your smart phone.
Failing all that, just get a clip-on one for the accessory shoe; it’s like having a built-in light meter, but it’s easier to replace if it stops working! Huzzah.
Header by Rodrigo Silva (https://www.flickr.com/photos/rodgsilva/8308012955)
Kiev 60 by Tom Hart (https://www.flickr.com/photos/thart2009/6223583985)
Bronica ETSRi by Antony Shepherd (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ajshepherd/4147118941)
Yashica 124G by myself
Fujica GS645 by Rafal Stegierski (https://www.flickr.com/photos/rafal-stegierski/4781196922)
Moskva 5 by Alfred (https://www.flickr.com/photos/alf_sigaro/6267479694)
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