The Kodak Medalist is one of the more interesting cameras that Kodak ever made, and is arguably the best American made camera that ever came out of Rochester NY. Designed by the famous American industrial designer, Walter Dorwin Teague, the camera is also one of the most unique and pretty cameras that I’ve ever come across. The original Medalist I was first introduced in 1941, and was immediately chosen by the US Navy for service in WWII.
Built from nothing but metal, glass, and leather, it is a rather large and heavy 6x9 rangefinder camera, with a coupled rangefinder, superb lens, and some unique design features - most notably the exposed focusing helicoid.
The camera was produced in two versions: the original Medalist, and the Medalist II which came out in 1946. For the purposes of the review, I will refer to them as the Medalist I and Medalist II. The two versions are nearly identical in features, with some small differences. The Medalist I came with a Kodak Supermatic shutter, and most earlier cameras had lenses that were only coated on the interior surfaces. The Medalist II had a Flash Supermatic shutter and all lenses are coated on all interior and exterior surfaces. I could be wrong, but I believe some of the later Medalist I lenses are fully coated, even though they don’t have the Kodak “L” coating mark.
The Medalist I has a micro focusing knob on the front below the lens, which was not carried over with the Medalist II. The Medalist II has a large flash connector in the place where the micro focusing knob used to be. The Medalist I also had a shutter button lock that the Medalist II lacks. This shutter button lock can be a big problem if not used correctly, which I will discuss more in-depth later on. Most other differences are mainly cosmetic. The focusing helicoid and ring on many Medalist I cameras is anodized black, whereas all Medalist II focusing helicoid and ring remain silver. Other differences include the distance/DOF scale, wind knob size, and the writing on top of the viewfinder.
Type: 620 Roll Film - 6x9 format.
Lens: Kodak Ektar 100mm f/3.5 - 5 element, 3 group design (Kodak Lumenized coated)
Diaphragm: f/3.5 continuously adjustable to f/32, one stop markings
Shutter: Kodak Supermatic No. 2 (Medalist I), Kodak Flash Supermatic (Medalist II)
Focusing: Horizontal split image coupled rangefinder focusing, 3ft to infinity
Shutter Speeds: 1/400, 1/200, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25, 1/10, 1/5, 1/2, 1s and B
Viewfinder: Eye level finder, separate from the rangefinder, parallax correction
Film Loading: Manual - hinged back but can be removed completely as well
Film Transport: Manual wind knob with double exposure interlock prevention and frame counter. Also cocks the shutter.
Flash: PC socket on the body, sync for F and M type bulbs (Medalist II only)
Tripod Socket: Two sockets, one for the flash and one for a tripod, standard 1/4"
Filters: Series VI type
Once film is loaded, the camera is fairly easy to use. The cameras are essentially a collapsible lens design, and so to take a photo you need to first extend the lens to its taking position. This is done by turning the main focus ring until the distance scale reads infinity or closer. The camera will prevent the shutter from being released while the lens is retracted.
The distance scale (one of my favorite features on these cameras) is a circular wheel, inside the window on top of the camera, that is coupled to the focus ring so that as you turn the ring the wheel inside the window also turns, and should give you correct focus distance and depth of field.
The viewfinder is surprisingly big and bright, and features parallax correction. Focusing takes a bit to get used to, but once you do, it’s very easy and very accurate, assuming the rangefinder is calibrated.
The eyepiece has two openings: the top is the viewfinder and the bottom is the rangefinder. If you put your eye to it and look straight ahead, you see the main viewfinder. Look downward slightly, and now you will see a magnified split image of the center of the frame.
Setting shutter speed is fairly straightforward. The shutter speed ring has two arrows on it, one (black) for fast speeds, and the other (red) for slow speeds. As with most leaf shutters, it’s best to select the speed before cocking the shutter, and if you try to select 1/400s after the shutter is cocked, it will damage the shutter.
Setting the aperture is also fairly straightforward, but the ring is a bit hard to grip. Don’t try to adjust the aperture by moving the ring using the aperture selection pointer, you will likely bust it.
Once you take a photo, and assuming you’ve loaded the film correctly, you just wind the wind knob until it stops. The wind mechanism should automatically stop, and the frame counter should advance, and the shutter will be cocked. When you press the shutter button, you need to press it all the way down, otherwise you may unlock the advance mechanism but not actually trip the shutter. If you press it slowly enough you should hear two clicks, the first one is the advance mechanism being unlocked, and the second click is the shutter firing. I’ve had a few blank frames, and as near I can figure, I didn’t push the button down enough.
Once the frame counter reaches “8” and the shutter is triggered, the advance mechanism will fully unlock, allowing you to wind up the film and unload the camera. The frame counter should move from 8 to 0 when the film is finished winding.
The 620 film issue
One of the biggest hurdles to using a Medalist, is that unless the camera has been modified, it requires the use of 620 film spools.620 film and 120 film are identical except for the spools. 620 spools are just slightly shorter in length, have a slightly smaller diameter flange, and they have a narrower shaft. In the case of the Medalist, the shaft diameter is critical, because it sets the frame spacing with the film advance.
I won’t go into why Kodak decided to use 620 for the Medalist, but it is something often complained about. I personally like the fact that it is 620, if only because it has kept the camera quite affordable. Consider that the closest camera (in features etc.) to the Medalist is the Voigtlander Bessa II. A nice Heliar equipped Bessa II will typically cost you around $800-$1200, before the added cost of a CLA, while you can usually find a nice Medalist I or II for around $100-$250 before CLA.
If you’re going to use a Medalist, you currently have a few different options, depending on how much you use it, and how much money you want to spend. The simplest option is to buy rerolled film directly from B&H or Adorama (I think they sometimes have rerolled film available), but this can get fairly expensive, and can be quite limiting with the types of film available.
Another option is to buy new 120 film that has had the spools modified to fit in the feed side of the Medalist, and use a 620 spool for the take-up side. Blue Moon Camera in Portland, Oregon sells modified 120 film, but I don’t know of any other place that does.
Probably the most common option is to just reroll 120 onto 620 spools at home in a darkroom or a film changing bag. With a bit of practice, this is pretty quick and easy. Once you have a few 620 spools, you can reroll any type of film you have in 120.
The most expensive (and extreme) option, is to send the camera away and have it permanently modified to use 120 film spools. This is done by machining out the film chamber, and modifying the film transport to work with the larger diameter spool shaft. You can have a partial modification, where only the feed side is machined out, and then you use 620 spools for take-up.
I personally don’t really like the idea of heavily modifying the camera, and I either reroll film, or buy modified 120. If you look on ebay, you can often find very limited quantities of original 620 film, but it’s usually very old, and fairly expensive.
Of all the cameras that I’ve ever used, the Medalist definitely has the most complicated loading procedures.
Here’s the rundown on loading film.
Step 1 - Make sure the frame counter is set to “0” by pushing down (outside only) and turning the small dial next to the counter
Step 2 - Open back (back opens from either side, or can be completely removed. The hinges are the latches! Very cool.)
Step 3 - Insert take-up spool, and new film, and get film leader started on take-up spool. Be very careful not to turn the big roller, as you can damage the film transport.
Step 4 - Close back.
Step 5 - Open red window and advance the film until the number “1” just starts to become visible at the edge of the window.
Step 6 - Set the frame counter to “1”, then continue winding. The wind knob should stop after about ½-¾ of a turn, and the “1”should now be centered in the window.
You should now be ready to shoot. I’m never certain if the shutter is cocked during that sequence, so I always manually cock the shutter (using the lever by the eyepiece) for the first frame.
The Ektar 100/3.5 lens
One of the best features (photographically speaking) of the Medalist, is the superb Ektar 100/3.5 lens. The 100mm f/3.5 has 5 elements in 3 groups (Heliar type), and is often referred to as probably the best Heliar type ever made for medium format. I won’t try to persuade you it’s the best, but I will say that it’s very very good. As I stated previously, the only lens differences between the Medalist I and II is that the II has lens coatings on all interior and exterior surfaces, while the Medalist I lens has coatings on only the interior surfaces. The coatings used on the Medalist I were softer and so were not used on the exterior surfaces.
I may be wrong, but I think some later Medalist I lenses are fully coated but don’t carry the L (Luminized) mark. I personally wouldn’t let the lens be the deciding factor for choosing a Medalist II over a I.
The Medalist I shutter lock
The Medalist I has a lever at the base of the shutter button which is for long exposures. To use it, you set the shutter to B, press the button down and then lock it down by moving the lever away from the distance scale. The problem though, is that if wind the film with the lever in the wrong position you will damage the shutter cocking mechanism. Always make sure the button is unlocked, and the lever is up against the rangefinder housing whenever you advance the film.
It is often remarked that the Kodak Medalist is a huge, heavy beast. There isn’t really any arguing that it is big and heavy, but when you compare it to many more modern medium format cameras, the Medalist is actually fairly compact. The Fuji GW690 is 7.4”W, 4.6”T, 4.8”D, and weighs 1430g. The Medalist II is 5.5”W, 4.4”T, 4.8”D (with lens @inf), and weighs just over 1300g, making the Medalist nearly 2” narrower, and 125g lighter. A Canon F-1 with finder and 50/1.4 will end up being nearly as big and heavy as a Medalist. The body shape of the Medalist does however make it a bit hard to hold.
The body, lens helical and housing, and the rangefinder housing are all solid die castings of special alloys, making it one of the sturdiest cameras ever built.
Of all the cameras I’ve owned and used, the Medalist is one of the most interesting, coolest looking, and best built. As a photo making tool, it is exceptional. The 100/3.5 Ektar lens is capable of producing very high quality and unique images, and the build quality should ensure decades more of use. My camera is now nearly 70 years old, and working perfectly.
The design is beautiful. The exposed helical on the lens barrel, the centered viewfinder and rangefinder windows, the distance scale that turns as you move the focus, the big cast strap lugs, the big stepped viewfinder and rangefinder housing, the deep body, all work together beautifully to create a work of functional art.
The Kodak Medalist cameras represent (to me) a pinnacle of American camera design and manufacturing, and if you like and use old cameras you should definitely try to find a Medalist.
Colton Allen is a film photographer from Oregon. See more from Colton Allen on our website, or connect with him, here: