The Kodak Medalist is a high-quality (but bulky and heavy) medium format rangefinder camera making 8 6x9 exposures on 620 film. The Medalist was made in the U.S. by Kodak from 1941. The Kodak Medalist II is a post-WWII version adding flash sync but removing the self-timer and fine-focus knob due to the space occupied by the new flash socket and synchronizing mechanism. The camera was designed by Walter Dorwin Teague and Joe Mihalyi, at that time the partnership that produced most of the high-end Kodak cameras.
The first model was reportedly used by multiple branches of the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII, when the great camera makers in Germany and Japan were fighting on the opposite side. In many ways, this was an ideal camera for military use, being solid cast metal with a fairly rugged mechanism, as well as an extremely sharp camera producing a large negative. It was also said to be easy to repair with simple tools, given the right parts.
Indeed, some enthusiasts argue that Medalist and Medalist II were the apex of American camera design; the U.S. has a long history in the camera industry but, in the mid-twentieth century, cameras produced in the U.S. were overwhelmingly of lower quality and simpler design than German and Japanese cameras. Indeed, the bulk of Kodak's domestic-made output in 1941 consisted of various types of medium-format box camera, aimed at casual users. Their high-end models had been made in Germany, predominantly branded as the Retina series. However, with Germany fighting the U.S., Kodak showed they were capable of producing a uniquely American high-end design.
Moreover, it can be argued that the Medalist represents an American style of engineering that contrasts with the German style of engineering of cameras like the Contax and Leica rangefinders. German cameras of this era are not typically so individual as the Medalist, and generally have a higher priority placed on miniaturization and range of features and a lower priority on ruggedness and ease of operation. It is unlikely that a designer of Teague's artistic credentials ever intervened in the design of a Contax, and this could be taken as a commentary on the different engineering culture of the two countries.
The Medalist is in some ways an elaboration on the classic collapsing camera, with a lens barrel consisting of two counter-rotating sleeves with helicoid grooves that allow them to collapse down into the camera body, while holding the front standard at a fixed orientation. This is not to say the Medalist is a vest-pocket-sized model like many of the collapsing cameras of the 30's and 40's, as it is larger than most small- and medium-format SLR's even when collapsed.
Almost all controls and indicators are positioned to be visible from the top of the camera, for convenience's sake. The exposure settings are immediately adjacent on the top of the shutter body, so that one can glance over the top of the viewfinder and see both the shutter speed and aperture at a glance. The wind knob, film-type reminder (a rotating disk with a few types of Kodak film marked on it,) shutter release and manual cocking lever (for double exposures and use of the accessory sheet-film back) are all also on top of the camera.
There is also a striking and unusual depth-of-field indicator, in which a disc marked with distances (in feet) rotates beneath a ring-shaped glass. In the center of the ring is a fixed disc on which curved marks indicate the range of distances, marked on the rotating disk, that are currently in focus for a given f-stop. Also present is a small window in which a red dot appears when a frame is exposed.
The top also shows the frame counter, part of the same mechanism that stops the film from advancing too far and also cocks the shutter. This involves small toothed wheels that press down on the film at either side and sense how far it has advanced. At the beginning of a roll, one sets the counter to "0" and winds until the "1" mark on the backing paper appears in the very edge of the red window. The counter is then set manually to "1", and the winder is turned a fraction of a turn further, until it stops and locks. After this mechanism has been set there is no need to open the red window, as every time the film is advanced the mechanism will stop the advance knob when it is in the correct position, advancing the counter and cocking the shutter automatically. It is important not to force the knob past the point where it stops, as it is obstructed by a metal lever that can bend under stress.
Focusing and view-finder
The rangefinder is unusual compared to other rangefinders, as there are no silvered mirrors in the rangefinder or anywhere else, only prisms and a glass beam-splitter. Like many early rangefinders, the rangefinder is not integrated into the full-frame viewfinder, but unlike, say, the Argus C3, both the viewfinder and the rangefinder are shown in the same eyepiece, one above the other. This allows the photographer to position his or her eye carefully and see both at once.
The rangefinder is a split-image finder of the type common to Kodaks from this era, having two windows placed symmetrically on the camera body below and to either side of the viewfinder. The rangefinder has been criticized for its high magnification, leading to a small field of view which can make it unwieldy to use. However, this high magnification does increase the effective rangefinder base several-fold; given that the physical rangefinder base is already larger than average, this leads to a highly accurate rangefinder when properly set up and used with care. Camera reviewers have also noted that, in the present day, the rangefinder image is brighter and clearer than that of many other antique rangefinders, due to the lack of silvered mirrors to deteriorate over time. The viewfinder is a basic telescopic one, with no bright frame or other complication, but it does possess a moving sheet-metal mask to correct parallax over most of the camera's range.
Focusing is by twisting the same ring that opens and collapses the lens tube, a very large, textured metal ring that makes fine control possible. For finer control the original Medalist has a knob next to the lens tube, where the Medalist II has its ASA-bayonet style flash socket.
In other ways, the camera is less idiosyncratic. The Supermatic leaf shutter is a conventional between-the-lens model with five blades, made in-house by Kodak and offered for third-party view cameras as well as the Medalist. It boasts a serviceable range of speeds and is potentially quite accurate at all of them. The shutter cannot fire when the lens is partially or fully collapsed, beginning just behind the point at which infinity is in focus--incidentally meaning that it is possible, while generally pointless, to take a picture with the focus slightly beyond infinity.
Wishing for flash capabilities, the modern photographer may be frustrated. The original Medalist offers no flash capabilities whatsoever, beyond the old "bulb" method of simply triggering a manual flash by hand while keeping the shutter open, given a darkened setting and relatively slow film.
|Medalist II with the recommended flash|
image by George Parkins (Image rights)
On the other hand, the Medalist II does offer a multi-speed built-in synchronizer, but it likely presents problems as well. The manual recommends the Kodak Flashholder, a large flashgun for #5 bulbs that came with an L-shaped mounting bracket to attach it to the tripod socket of a compatible camera, such as a Medalist or a Tourist. This flashgun is based on the ASA bayonet socket; in fact, the ASA socket is the only flash connector on the Medalist II. It is placed exactly where the fine-focus knob of the original model had been. Adapters from ASA to PC socket exist, but are scarce. The synchronizer is a modification of the original camera's self-timer. It must be manually cocked separately from the shutter, by pushing down on a lever on the side of the shutter body. This lever springs up with some force when the shutter is released, and cannot be cocked while the shutter is uncocked.
The Kodak flashgun is heavy when loaded with C batteries and requires the long-obsolete #5 bulbs, which as of 2018 average a dollar and change per unit online. It also seems that some grades of flashbulb may not fire consistently with modern batteries. The modern photographer will likely be best served by finding an adaptor from ASA to PC and using a modern electronic flash, bearing in mind that some kind of mounting bracket will be required as the camera has no mounting shoe.
The Medalist shoots in the original 120 format, approximately 6 by 9 centimeters, in landscape position when the camera is held horizontally. This format yields an aspect ratio identical to full frame 35mm, but a much larger negative that handles enlargement much better and is large enough for useful contact prints as well. It is likely fairly trivial to temporarily mask the camera for the popular 6x6 format, although this would yield four frames fewer than a dedicated 6x6 camera and so it is likely just as useful and more versatile to crop the resulting images if square formatting is required.
The Medalist has perhaps its closest cousin in the contemporary 35mm Ektra, as both were top-of-the-line rangefinders designed and built entirely by Kodak and engineered by Mihalyi; a similar rangefinder anatomy is visible on both cameras. The smaller Ektra, however, dwarfs the Medalist with a long list of perhaps gratuitous features such as interchangeable film backs with automatic dark slide. The intended successor for the Medalist is the later Chevron, which improved on the top shutter speed and offered a lever film advance, while changing the format to 6x6--perhaps a poor choice given that it caused the Chevron to compete directly with TLR's such as the Rolleiflex, which as a group dominated the 6x6 market. As the Chevron seems little more than a footnote in Kodak history, it might be argued that the Medalist finds its truest successor in the Signet 35, another rugged Kodak rangefinder that saw military service (this time for 35mm.)
As a shooting camera for a modern photographer it has its attractions. The 6x9cm image size combined with a sharp, coated Kodak lens yields negatives of very high quality, even compared to later 6x9 cameras. It is generally mechanically simpler and easier to repair than many comparable cameras, owing to the American philosophy of straightforward engineering, and it does not tend to be damaged by accidents that would render comparable cameras partially inoperable.
However, this design philosophy comes at the cost of a physically huge camera, which, while lighter than it appears, is still hefty and awkward. Combining the aforementioned difficulty with flash sync with the difficulty of rewinding 120 film onto 620 spools (or having the camera modified to accept 120 spools), it becomes apparent that only a certain type of very idiosyncratic photographer would attempt shooting on the Medalist in the present day.
- 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 corrected
- Film Loading: Manual - hinged back with double latches to be removed entirely
- Film Transport: Knob winding with shutter cocking, double exposure prevention and frame counter
- Flash: Medalist II only: ASA bayonet socket on the body, sync for F and M type bulbs
- Tripod Socket: Medalist: Standard socket. Medalist II: Two sockets for mounting flash bracket and tripod simultaneously, standard 1/4" bushing, diagonally staggered
- Filters: Series VI type
- Lens hood
- Kodak Pola-screen (polarizer)
- Kodak Portra +1/2/3 close up
- Sky filter (UV/Haze)
- Three yellow filters that increase in strength, Color -> K1 -> K2
- Deep yellow "G" filter, stronger than K2 for panchromatic films
- Red "A" filter
- IR620 filter for infrared film
There is a ground glass back available that allows the use of sheet and plate film, as well as Kodak's short lived pack film. There are also a range of filters for the camera, close up adapters and coloured filters for black and white.
image by Rick Soloway (Image rights)
|Top view of Medalist II|
image by Christopher Robin Roberts (Image rights)
- Kodak Medalist group on Flickr
- Manuals for the Medalist I and II, Kodak Medalist brochure at Mike Butkus' site