Last year, I shot about 130 rolls of film. Of these 100 were medium format - ‘120’ film. I don’t think I’d be quite so keen on film if it wasn’t for using medium format, and I thought I’d try and get across some of the reasons for my enthusiasm in words.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a bit lately, mostly whilst doing the washing up, walking to the shops or sitting at my desk when I should be writing my thesis. I’m going to split it into sections:
- Why medium format?
- The ‘nuts and bolts’ (formats, lenses, etc)
- A brief buying guide, aimed at those new to the format.
Corrections are welcome! Much of this is based on my own (limited) experience, and I don’t profess to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject by any means.
I’m going to illustrate this series primarily with my own images, because a) this is my blog, b) I know how they were taken and c) I don’t have to worry about usage rights. So yes, lots of pictures of my friends I’m afraid. Calibrated reference subjects, etc. etc. ;-)
I can’t hope to be comprehensive, but I’ll also be including some links to the work of photographers who use medium format film, and use it distinctively. I welcome any suggestions for links and will include them in my post.
Medium Format - what is it?
Quite simply, a medium format camera produces frames which are bigger than 35mm but smaller than ‘large format’ - which starts at 5x4” and normally means using sheet film.
For all practical purposes today, this means a camera which uses ‘120’ format roll film. Note: it’s ‘120’, not ‘120 mm’.
There’s also 220 film, which is the same thing but twice as long - and very hard to find today.
The film is 6 cm wide, so the various frame formats all have a ‘6’ in the name. I’ll discuss those in more detail in the second part of this article. Unlike 35 mm, there’s no one standard frame size, and the choice of format and choice of camera are closely linked.
The important thing about all medium format cameras is that, compared to 35 mm (‘135’) film, the frame they produce is much bigger. The difference is very obvious, in both scans and prints.
Here’s a ‘quick and dirty’ illustration, with some slides taped to my window:
When you get used to medium format, 35 mm film just looks impossibly small.
Why Medium Format?
Two reasons: the quality, and ‘the look’.
A bigger frame makes everything better. Grain appears finer, tones are smoother, it’s crisp, clear and full of detail. Even with the smallest medium format frame size, you get around two and a half times the film area of 35mm. With the larger frame sizes, this increases to a factor of 4 or more. Do not underestimate the benefits of sheer film area in delivering raw image quality. In terms of scans, we’re talking tens of megapixels.
Here’s a photo of the Georgian Circus in Bath, taken on Ilford FP4+ with a Mamiya RB67.
And here’s a 100% crop of the full 60 MP, 3200 dpi scan (complete with a funny scanning artifact):
Not bad for a beaten-up old tank of a camera, eh?
If your photography doesn’t demand the insane high-ISO capabilities of modern digital cameras (which are truly incredible), medium format means you have to make no excuses for quality when shooting film. Coming from 35mm, colour print film is no longer disappointing and slide film will blow you away. Black and white gains beautiful tonality and gradation, ISO 400 films look like 100-speed. Ilford PanF is creamier than a bucket of cream with extra cream on top.
Sleepy Cat. Ilford PanF+.
Grand Canyon. Fuji Velvia 100.
Sheer technical quality is only part of it, however.
Medium format has a distinctive look.
Personally, this is why I like medium format. I don’t ‘need’ the fine detail, in the sense that I don’t very often make big prints. It’s nice to have, of course. The pure image quality does contribute to ‘the look’, but it’s apparent even in small images online, so there really is something more to it. Quite what it is I’m not sure - I’ve come across online discussions where everyone agrees that it exists, but no-one can quite pin down exactly what’s responsible.
Here are a few examples - not necessarily my best photos, but ones that I think show ‘the look’ well.
Click through for details. These are all taken with a normal lens at a large aperture, and they all have, to varying degrees, ‘the look’.
Depth of field has a lot to do with it, but it’s not the whole story. A typical standard lens on medium format gives about the same wide-open depth of field as the ubiquitous 50/1.8 on 35mm, and a similar field of view. However, there’s a combination of depth, clarity, crispness and subject separation in medium format images shot at wide apertures which just isn’t there in smaller formats.
It’s hard to describe, hence the number of examples. Here’s another, where my experience with 35 mm suggests I’d get really quite a different-looking photograph in the same situation:
The look is so distinctive that some people are using small-format digital cameras, short telephoto lenses and photoshop to recreate the look of a standard lens on medium format (google ‘Brenizer method’ or ‘bokeh panoramas’ for information). To these people I say: buy a real camera. (I jest).
Here are a few examples taken with longer (‘portrait’) lenses:
Wide lenses have their own look too:
There are obviously plenty of times when it’s desirable to maximise depth of field, and in those ‘the medium format look’ is perhaps less apparent. However, the other advantages of a large film area are still very obvious - the tonality, finer grain and increased detail. Quite simply, a larger film area is capable of recording more information. These benefits are still clear in small enlargements or scans, particularly when using faster, grainier film.
I admit that depth of field is something of a crutch I lean heavily upon at times, and I don’t have the commitment to chasing the light which would really show the tonality and detail possible with medium format. I don’t even own a tripod. Here are a few examples of mine which don’t rely on depth of field. I don’t think any of these would look as good on 35 mm.
The above is really a long-winded way of saying ‘it makes your pictures prettier’. That’s all you really need to know, I think the results speak for themselves.
At this point it’s worth noting that whilst everyone knows that it’s the photographer that makes the photograph, and the photograph that matters, it’s wrong to overlook the contribution the camera, or rather the format, makes to the final image. I don’t think anyone would disagree that each type of camera (compact digital, 35mm, digital SLR, medium format, etc.) produces images with a particular character. I also think it’s fair to say that I’m not alone in feeling that the particular character of medium format film is pleasing to the eye, and can in itself bring something positive to an image. I think it’s a little like the difference between media in painting or drawing - a watercolour and an oil painting have quite different and distinct characters.
Of course, no amount of film area (or megapixels, or HDR, or cross-processed expired slide film) makes a dull picture interesting, fixes sloppy composition or guarantees an instant masterpiece. If the really important elements are in place, that’s when it matters whether your image is committed to a tiny digital sensor or a glorious expanse of lovingly-processed Velvia.
This is a wordy article, and I know tumblr is all about the NOW. I hope that if you have taken the time to read it, you’ve enjoyed it. If not, I hope you’ve at least enjoyed the pictures :-)
The TL, DR is as follows: medium format means bigger film. Bigger film means prettier photos. Simple.
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