First created in the early 1940s, the Kodak Medalist is a medium-format rangefinder that captures eight 6 x 9 cm exposures using 620 film. Weighing slightly more than 3 pounds, its rugged and durable tank-like build made it an attractive option for the US and British armed forces, and it saw extensive use during World War II. This version was the Medalist I and, in 1947, an improved version, the Medalist II, was released and aimed at the home market. Both versions were highly regarded upon release, and while the Medalist II was discontinued in 1953, both still hold up against the modern gear of today.
What made the Medalist unique for its time was that it contained many features not found in other cameras. This included a dual-hinged removable film back, which allowed the rear door to be opened from either side, or completely removed so an accessory ground glass film back could be installed, which allowed for the use of sheet film. It also has separate split-image rangefinder and parallax-corrected viewfinder windows, and has no mirrors or beam splitters, which means that everything is done with prisms. Not only do prisms make images in the viewfinder brighter but, without mirrors, there’s no risk of the mirror de-silvering, as there can be with other vintage cameras.
Both Medalists also feature an extremely sharp 100mm f/3.5 Ektar lens with 5 elements in 3 groups. The lens, which accepts Series VI filters, stops down to f/32 and after f/4, has full f-stop markings, as well as a focusing scale of 3' 6" to infinity, and markings for setting infrared focus and hyperfocal distance. Thanks to a collapsible design with an exposed helical, the lens mostly retracts into the body when not in use. Although the lens is not interchangeable, 100mm in the 6 x 9 format has a 35mm equivalent focal length of 43mm. While 50mm is generally accepted as the standard “normal” lens in the 35mm format, many say that 43mm provides a more accurate “normal” rendering, since 24^2 + 36^2 = 1872, and the square root of 1872 = 43.
Rounding out the lens mechanism is a leaf shutter, which is physically built into the lens. This near-silent shutter can be set at speeds of 1/400, 1/200, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25, 1/10, 1/5, 1/2, 1 second, and B, and these speeds are typical of the era. Shutter speeds from 1/400 to 1/25 are color-coded black and selected with a black arrow, while 1/10 to B are red and use a red arrow. To help make shooting long exposures a bit easier, there is a cable-release slot built into the lens. If you do use the cable release, you’ll need to press the shutter button after your exposure to unlock the camera and advance it to the next frame. If you don’t, the film won’t advance because of double-exposure prevention.
Something else unique to the Medalist is a rotating wheel to help you remember with what film the camera is loaded. Representative of the era, your choices are Kodacolor, Verichrome Pan, Plus-X, Super-XX, Panatomic-X, and Infrared, none of which are manufactured anymore.
Loading the Camera
Perhaps the biggest challenge of using a Medalist is loading it for the very first time, but this becomes second nature after a few rolls. Here’s how to load a Medalist:
- Make sure the frame counter is set to “0” by pushing down and turning the small dial next to the counter
- Open the back, make sure there is a take-up spool on the left side, and load your film in on the right side
- Draw the backing paper across to the take-up spool on the left, making sure it runs straight across the film plane and pulled somewhat tight (don’t touch or turn the big roller, as this can damage the film transport)
- Close the back, open the sliding cover for the small red window that is on the back, and advance the film using the film advance knob until the number “1” is visible in the window
- Release the window cover and rotate the dial of the frame counter so it also reads “1”
- Rotate the film advance knob clockwise until it locks into position and manually cock the shutter using the lever beneath the viewfinder
Why 6 x 9 and Kodak
Aside from a brief stint with a faulty Pentax 645 that scratched every roll of film I put through it, my first real foray into medium format photography happened during Photo II. While I enjoyed shooting with a Mamiya RZ67, with its interchangeable lenses and the ability to swap film backs in the middle of a roll, the whole setup was heavy. I soon discovered some Fujifilm GSW690 cameras, which are 6 x 9 rangefinders with a fixed focal length lens. Depending on the model, the GSW690 either had a 65mm f/5.6 or a 90mm f/3.5 lens. Another reason I gravitated toward 6 x 9 is because I grew up shooting 35mm, and Photo I had us exclusively using 35mm film, the point being that images shot on 35mm and 6 x 9 have the same aspect ratio of 3:2, but a frame of 6 x 9 is 6.25x larger than a frame of 35mm. 6 x 9 is also about as big as you can go in medium format and still get standard images. There are larger medium format systems, such as 6 x 12 and 6 x 17, but those are panoramic formats.
So, after shooting extensively with Fujifilm, why did I choose a Kodak camera that was, at best, 54 years old? The Medalist features a superior build and cost a fraction of the Fujifilm, although I do miss the wider 65mm lens that Fujifilm offered. I purchased my Medalist II during the summer of 2007, and it included the original case, plus a metal 620 spool inside the camera.
620 vs 120
I mentioned earlier that the Medalist natively takes 620 film, which was introduced by Kodak, in 1932. While 620 and 120 formats use the same film, the difference is that the spools from 620 are slightly shorter and not as wide as spools for 120, so 120 spools won’t fit in a 620 camera. I had no desire to re-roll 120 film onto 620 spools and, while 620 film is still available, the selection is limited. I instead opted to have the camera converted to 120 by Ken Ruth, who used a machine-grinding process to bore out the film chambers for 120 spools. Just to be safe, I did shoot some 620 film before having the conversion done, and I was happy to see that my Medalist was in tip-top shape. Now, in 2019, the youngest my Medalist II could be is 66 years, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Medalist I & Medalist II Differences
Considering a Medalist? Here the major differences between the two models:
- The Medalist I has a fine focus adjustment wheel. This was removed to add flash sync on the Medalist II. The addition of flash sync also necessitated the removal of the self-timer. The Medalist II will work with both X sync and flash bulbs.
- The Medalist II had a Lumenized coating put on the inner and outer lens elements. The Medalist I just had the inner element coated.
- The Medalist I had a black coating on the helical, and the Medalist II has a silver coating. Both coatings are anodized.
- The Medalist II had a revised logo on the top plate and a redesigned depth of field dial.
- The Medalist II had the shutter lock collar removed. The shutter lock was used for long exposures in Bulb mode, but could damage the shutter-cocking mechanism if the film was advanced while the shutter lock was engaged.
- The Medalist II had an improved film transport mechanism to help reduce chances that the film transport mechanism / frame counter could fail.
Even in today’s digital era, which has seen the rise of medium format digital bodies, the Kodak Medalist holds its own, thanks to solid construction, sharp optics, and a large 6 x 9 canvas. It’s best used for street, landscape, and portrait photography because of its slower, rangefinder-style manual focusing, but the amount of detail held by a 6 x 9 negative is stunning.
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Thanks for the article on this fine camera. I own a Medalist I, which differs somewhat from the description of the M1 in your article,
in that mine has a a silver helical (not a black one) and does have the cable release slot in the lens described as being only on the M2.
Perhaps my M1 is a late model with some of the features of the M2. Any ideas?
Thank you for your remarks. When I was researching the Medalist I and II, I didn't come across any info that had the Medalist I with a silver helical and a cable release slot. Perhaps there was was variation as Kodak began to transition to the Medalist II. I'll definitely look into this more.
My Medalist 1 also has the silver helical and cable release.
My M1 definitely has the cable release in the lens, however it's a black lense.