Medium format Leica equivalent?

Size does matter

In every photographer's life there comes a time when 24x36mm doesn't cut it anymore. This happened to me in the late 80's when I found 11x14 (darkroom) prints were too grainy and lacked the kind of definition + tonality only M-F could deliver. So I sold all my 135 equipment and concentrated on 6x7. Sheesh — what an eye-opener!

Goodbye 35mm, hello M-F.

Then a couple of years later Photoshop and the internet revolution came along. Unfortunately RAM and processing power was expensive, and MF scanners were laughably overpriced. So I was forced back into miniature format if I was going to scan, manipulate and upload my images without having to take out out a dozen mortgages.

Farewell M-F, hello Leica.

Then a decade passes. Dual-processor machines with plenty of RAM and reasonable quality MF scanners have become far more realistically priced (for example the Epson V700 or V750). Also, owing to the DSLR juggernaut, many Pros have started dumping excellent-quality M-F gear at irrational, fire-sale prices.

They dump, we buy. Hello M-F again!

Yet we have been spoilt by exceptional Leica glass and silky smooth mechanical bodies. So you cannot help wondering: "What's the Leica equivalent in medium format?…"

M-F Issues

Lens resolution adieu

You get a larger negative for sure, but the tradeoff is having to forgo the world beyond 90 lppm. You know those ferociously detailed negatives you got from your APO-Elmarits? Fuggetaboutit. You won't see that sort of thing again!

The reasons are varied. From an engineering standpoint, it is amazingly more difficult to maintain high performance over the larger image circles M-F lenses have to project (∅ 85mm for 6x6, whereas only 45mm for 135). Another reason is that with a film area (at least) three times the size of 35mm, you don't typically need to enlarge so much.

Leica obsesses over lens resolution because Uncles Oskar und Max knew you had to greatly enlarge "tiny" 35mm negatives to get decent prints. This obviously isn't an issue with larger-sized M-F negs, so lens makers don't bother.

Having said that, some lens marques are better than others. Here is a table of M-F and 35mm relative lens performances, courtesy of Photodo:

Lens Rating
Medium Format
Rolleiflex Schneider Xenotar 80mm ƒ2.8 4.1
Mamiya 7 80mm ƒ4.0 3.9
Rolleiflex Zeiss Planar 80mm ƒ2.8 3.7
Hasselblad Planar CF 80mm ƒ2.8 3.7
M-Summicron 50mm ƒ2.0 4.6
M-Summilux 50mm ƒ1.4 4.2
Elmar-M 50mm ƒ2.8 3.9
Nikkor AF 50mm ƒ1.8 4.4

Aside from the Nikkor AF 50mm ƒ1.8 — which IMO is an abhorrently crap lens — the table more or less confirms with personal experience. Although I have seen negs from Hasselblads or Rolleiflexes which are quite good, they fall a long way short of the fanatical detail you can squeeze from a 100-APO.

So when making the move from 35mm to M-F, don't be surprised at how ordinary your negs look under a loupe!

BTW if you want to see a comparative list of M-F lens resolutions, see the table compiled by Christopher M. Perez at:


ƒ4.0 is open wide

Many Leica photographers look at the ƒ4.0 lens options available for the Mamiya 7II and wince. "How useless is that? Three stops slower than my 'lux!"   What is going on?

As noted above, it is very difficult to make high resolution M-F lenses with built-in shutters when the aperture is wider than ƒ2.8. Furthermore M-F has a much more limited depth-of-field when compared to 35mm…

Practically speaking, DOF at ƒ2.8 is useless at less than 20m. Take a portrait with a 80mm lens at 1½m, and even at ƒ8 you will struggle to get a depth of focus greater than 32cm. Your client's face might be sharp, but the baby on her knee will be out (as will you be when she sees the results!). As a rule of thumb, always start at ƒ22 and work your way down. Why do you think so many M-F photographers never dream of working without a tripod, or why 1980s studio 5-10KJ flashes pumped out so much light they were nicknamed "fish-fryers"?

So if you think you can use M-F in available light at 2m at ƒ4.0 or ƒ2.8, the way you do with your Leica, then think again. Nothing will be in focus. And you thought a Noctilux was bad.

At typical people-shooting distances of 2-3m, it is always ƒ11 or beyond. Hence another reason Mamiya (and Bronica) limited their widest rangefinder apertures to only ƒ4.0!

M-F cameras and issues — links

Check out the following sites for a broad overview of M-F camera issues:

  1. Jafa Vakshour's M-F introductory page
  2. KBCamera's M-F Rangefinder "shoot out"
  3. Table of M-F vs 35mm camera body weights

M-F camera suggestions

Okay — enough foreplay. Rather than list every M-F camera ever made, I have picked out a few favourites for the following. If you think an obvious candidate is missing, then drop me a (detailed) note!

Rolleiflex TLR

RFlex links:

Mamiya 7II

Mam7 links:

Hasselblad 501cm

Blad links:

Honorable Mentions

The following cameras, while not quite in the "Leica-like league", are still worth a mention due to their affordable cost, good image quality and/or ease of availability:

Bronica RF645

A high-quality rangefinder camera, spoilt by a weird portrait-format-by-default layout. In April and August 2005, Richard Jepsen sent me the following notes about the RF645:

I would like to suggest the Bronica RF645. I own the RF, a [Leica] M6 and a Rollei TLR. Although the Rollei has a similar build quality to the M6, the RF645 is the real big brother to the M6.
The rangefinder to the RF is actually nicer than the M6. Contrast/brightness is similar but the RF's larger finder makes it easier to use.
The RF is small for a medium format. It is about the size of a Nikon F-100. I think it actually is hold and reach controls than the M6.
Finally, viewing the RF645's B&W negatives is wonderful. The size allows easy visual evaluation.
[… ] The ergonomics of the RF is much better than the M6. The advantages are obvious; electronic shutter, innovative light shielding curtain for lens changes, superior camera controls, and huge viewfinder. Top it off with outstanding leaf shutter optics that have a smooth OOF finger print on a large negatives Amazing that a very refined RF645 three lens outfit can be purchased like new for $1500.00.
The argument can be made against the RFs ƒ4.0 or 4.5 slow lenses and 45/65/100mm focal lengths, yet most M users own/use one or two lenses. How many M users normally shoot at ƒ5.6 with a 35mm or 50mm lens? A monopod for low light work brings is the price that must be paid to use the RF645 in low light. That said, the RF645 will provide a superior image 1/8 @ ƒ4.0 than the equivalent hand held shot with a Leica at 1/30 @ ƒ2.0.

Bronica RF links: