Seeing Squares

I guess the trouble with medium format is that once you start down the route of ‘bigger is better’ you start itching for the next format size up from what you have. My Fuji GS645 and Bronica ETRSi are both 6×4.5 cameras and for awhile I’ve been thinking it would be really nice to have a camera that could do 6×6 square format. The big benefit of this is that it allows any kind of crop you’d like (if any) without losing too much image area. Since my preferred way of shooting is with a waist level finder on the Bronica, square format also takes away the ‘landscape only’ limitation that comes from having a non-rotating film back. In portrait orientation, even ignoring the very awkward ergonomics, the image is upside down without a prism to correct it. I can cope with the horizontally flipped image in the waist level finder, but putting it upside down is a step too far!

My first though was to find another range finder camera to get a slightly lighter setup, but after a couple of failed attempts at acquiring a working Mamiya 6 I shelved this idea and decided to go with a Bronica SQ-Ai as they are both reasonably priced and very reliable in my experience. With some eBay luck I was able to purchase an immaculate copy from the early 90s that looked barely used for £299, which is a steal frankly. It may not have the desirability factor of a Hasselblad (or the price tag), but in terms of image quality, usability and durability it’s got nothing to be ashamed of.

So far I’m really loving the square format. I feel like 12 exposures per 120 roll is a good compromise between image size and film economy. The 80mm f2.8 PS is a really lovely lens (about 40mm f1.5 equivalent) and definitely seems sharper than the 75mm f2.8 on the ETRSi, especially when shot wide open). In terms of handling the SQ-Ai, while a couple of hundred grams heavier and definitely a bit bulkier, feels much nicer to use even without a grip. I always found the on-body shutter button on the ETRS bodies a bit indecisive, seemingly needing varying amounts of pressure to fire from one shot to the next. The SQ-Ai by contrast is consistently firm and feels very deliberate. I think this along with the added heft makes it easier to get sharp results at slower shutter speeds more consistently. The SQ-Ai also has a vastly improved mirror lockup mechanism that resets after a shot is taken unless you set it not to. This is unlike the ETRSi where if you forgot to flip a switch the mirror would flip up as you wound on to the next frame.

Anyway enough of my waffling, here’s a few photos taken so far:

This was shot wide open at f2.8, the grass right into the corners is tack sharp where in the plane of focus. This is such a improvement over the 75mm f2.8 on the ETRS and honestly not a common characteristic on many modern lenses which are geared only towards centre sharpness until stopped down.

 Finally, I’m working on doing a round up of all the various film types I’ve shot with my thoughts on their rendering, easy of digitising etc. so keep an eye out for that. If you enjoy my writing and images please help support me and the site by purchasing a print from my store here or on Etsy.

From the Archives #13

Time inexorably slips by and I realise I’ve not updated this blog in far too long – so to break the silence here’s another image from my archive. This was taken fairly recently, returning from a trip to Manchester a few days after the awful terrorist attack there. Trains were still not running to or from Victoria so I had to change at Rochdale where this shot was taken in the underpass beneath the platforms. I call it ‘Underlined’. Shot on my X-Pro 2 with the 23mm f2. It was a spectacularly bright and sunny day, so the strong highlights and deep shadows begged to be portrayed in black and white and allowed to block up into something inky and graphic.

 ƒ/5.6  23mm  1/400s  ISO 200 

Falling in love with medium format

A Zenza Bronica ETRS viewed from the side with 75mm f2.8 lens, 120 film back and AE-II prism attached.

If you’ve read my previous blog post, you’ll know that at the beginning of this year I started shooting film again on a Ricoh GR1s, a tiny 35mm compact camera from the late 90s. Well, from there things have snowballed somewhat!

Getting a medium format camera

By the end of January I decided I’d really like to try medium format to see what all the fuss was about (especially with Fuji’s new GFX system launching to much fanfare). So I paid a visit to West Yorkshire Cameras in Leeds, a specialist camera shop handling only film cameras. The helpful salesperson showed me several different systems and after seeing how they worked and handled I settled on a Bronica ETRS with AE prism finder, speed grip and 75mm f2.8 lens.

The Bronica is a fairly big, late 1970s-early 80s era, modular camera that shoots in the 645 format. With the AE prism and speed grip it handles like an oversized SLR with the option of fully manual or aperture priority shooting.

I’ve never shot with a modular camera before and it’s really rather interesting. The core is a roughly 4 inch cube that houses the focusing screen, electronics and mirror. Everything else – the film back, viewfinder, lens and any other accessories you might want, all bolt onto it. This means you can configure the camera just how you want it and based on what you’re shooting. The speed grip and AE finder mean you can just treat it like any 35mm SLR, hand holding shots and rapidly firing frames with the camera metering for you. Attach a waist level finder, put the camera on a tripod and grab a light meter and you’ve got a more traditional studio or landscape setup.

Taking advantage of the modularity of the system, I’ve since gone on to upgrade the camera body to the slightly newer ETRSi model (I found I needed mirror lockup to avoid mirror slap blurring photos on my lightweight tripod), bought a waist level finder to see what that would be like and acquired a 150mm f3.5 portrait lens and 50mm f2.8 wide angle.

A different type of film

Medium format cameras all shoot on the same type of film, known as ‘120’*. Unlike 35mm film which starts and ends inside the same canister, 120 film is backed by paper and winds from one spool onto another as you shoot. Once fully exposed, you tape up the end of the roll and the paper backing keeps the film light tight until it can be developed. It takes a bit of getting used to and does make loading a bit more tricky than 35mm, but you soon get the hang of it.

The height of the negative is around 6cm, but the frame width (and therefore the number of shots you get on a roll) is down to the camera. 645 is the smallest format and the most economical to shoot with, producing 15 to 16 images on a roll that measure around 55x42mm each – dramatically bigger than 35mm/full frame and even making most medium format digital cameras (like the GFX) blush with envy. Other common formats are 6×6, 6×7 and 6×9. Typically as the format size goes up so does the camera body and lens size and of course you get fewer and fewer frames per roll.

(* You used to be able to get ‘220’ film as well, which was basically twice the length of 120, letting you double your number of exposures per roll, but sadly no one makes this anymore.)

120 film is available at specialist camera stores and easily found on-line through major resellers like Amazon. Fuji, Kodak, Ilford and a few other brands produce quite a wide range of negative, colour reversal (slide) and black and white films. So far I’ve shot with Fuji Pro 160 NS, Fuji Provia, Ilford Delta 400, Ilford FP4+ and I’ve got some rolls of Kodak Portra 400 sat in the fridge waiting to be used.

That medium format look

Describing what’s known as the ‘medium format look’ is rather difficult. You often hear people talking about things that are hard to quantify, but in the end the images rather end up speaking for themselves. A lot of the benefit is clearly derived from having such a large negative – the grain size in a particular film stock is going to be constant regardless of format, so the larger the area your image fills the more detail you’re able to record before that grain size becomes the limiting factor.

The huge negative is a real plus when it comes to digitisation. While I’ve struggled to extract more than 14-16 megapixels from my 35mm negatives, I can easily get 30-50 megapixels from a 645 frame by stitching multiple shots.*

* I use the digital camera plus macro lens approach rather than a scanner.

The images once digitised just look incredible, producing a resolution that’s competitive with modern digital sensors, while giving all the wonderful characteristics and colours you’d expect from film.

Anyway that’s enough words, lets look at some photos! All of these have been digitised with either my X-T1 or X-Pro 2 using the 60mm f2.4 macro, in some cases stitched from multiple shots to extract the most detail. Everything has been processed to taste in Lightroom – negatives are much like digital RAWs and require some processing to be turned into a pleasing image. The black and white shots were developed at home using Ilford DD-X and the colour shots processed by Ag Photo Lab in Birmingham.


Fujifilm Provia 100 (ISO 100)


Fuji Pro 160 NS (ISO 160)


Fuji Pro 160 NS


Fuji Pro 160 NS
Ilford Delta 400 (ISO 400)

Ilford Delta 400 Ilford FP4+ (ISO 125) Ilford FP4+
Ilford FP4+
Ilford FP4+

Final thoughts

I absolutely love the results I’m getting with the Bronica and I’m continuing to find the whole process of analogue photography really rewarding, especially now I’m developing a lot of my own films – something I’ll no doubt write more about in the future.

If you’re thinking about shooting film and know your fundamentals, I’d really recommend looking into medium format. I think it’s going to be a long time, if ever, that digital medium format becomes something most hobbyists (and even many pros) can really afford to use. So why not give it a go while the cameras are cheap and still easily available and film isn’t too hard to find or expensive to process?

From the Archives #12

Crepuscular rays over the ruined Red Dykes farm house, nestled on the hillside above Withens Clough reservoir. When I first acquired the 90mm f2 last summer, I struggled with it as I wasn’t used to using such a long prime. However over time I’ve come to really enjoy using it for landscape and detail work. It’s stunningly sharp, has wonderful bokeh and can produce really nice sunstars. It blows the 55-200 out of the water in these regards, although I often miss the image stabilisation that lens offers when I’m forced to shoot 1/200 at a minimum to ensure good sharpness with the 90.

Crepuscular rays in the sky over the ruined Red Dykes farmhouse.

 ƒ/5.6  90mm  1/5000s  ISO 200 

Fuji 35mm f2 WR Review

Fuji 35mm f2 R WR lens

As soon as I saw the leaked images of the 35mm f2, back in early 2015, I knew I wanted one. I’ve shot with the older 35mm f1.4 on many occasions and it’s a lens I’ve repeatedly considered buying and then pulled back from. Optically great, not too large or heavy, but showing its age in many respects with regards to its construction and AF performance. So enter the new f2 model, with it’s Leica style tapered design, weather resistance, super fast internal focusing and it already looks like we have a winner on our hands.

Construction & Handling

As we’ve come to expect from Fuji’s Made in Japan lenses, the 35mm f2’s build quality is fantastic. There’s no cheap plastic here like you’d find on a Canon or Nikon lens in this price range. Compared to Fuji’s other entry level prime, the 27mm f2.8, the quality is markedly better. I’m sure I’m not alone in suspecting that the 27mm f2.8 was originally intended to be part of the XC range of aperture ringless budget lenses.

Fuji finally seems to have cracked what an acceptable level of clickiness is for an aperture ring. The 35mm f2 offers just the right amount of resistance in that it won’t turn accidentally, but also doesn’t feel like its putting up a fight when you do want to change it. The focus ring is nice and smooth like every Fuji lens I’ve used. It’s on the narrow side, but it’s usable for manual focus.

As the lens carries the “WR” badge for weather resistance, it has a rubber gasket around the mount. This is a feature that I was used to in my Nikon days, even on non-weather sealed lenses, and I’m glad it’s finding its way into Fuji’s lineup. It helps to seal the camera body against dust as much as moisture. Of course there are plenty of other seals within the lens too that should help keep moisture and dust from getting into the internals.

Exactly how effective Fuji’s WR is I don’t know – I certainly feel less worried about WR gear getting a bit of rain or snow on it, but without any kind of official standard it’s impossible to know just how “resistant” it is. Erring on the side of caution is therefore still probably your best bet to secure the longevity of your gear, with the WR stamp being more of an insurance policy than an invitation to treat things carelessly.

One area where the 35mm f2 does let us down a little is with the supplied hood. That it’s plastic is not unexpected these days, but what’s less forgivable is that it’s a nasty screw-in design that uses the filter thread. This is despite the fact the lens has a bayonet fitting specifically for a hood. Fuji will happily sell you a metal vented hood that uses said bayonet, but of course it’s stupidly expensive. On the positive side, at least the plastic screw-in hood is small and the lens cap fits neatly inside it. If you happen to also own the new Fuji 23mm f2, both hoods are interchangeable and the 23mm version does use the bayonet.

One more slight disappoint is the introduction of yet another odd-ball filter size, this time 43mm. Thankfully now the 23mm f2 has been launched sharing this thread size, at least there are two lenses in the lineup with it. Unfortunately the newly announced 50mm f2 lens doesn’t make it three, so if you opt for the 23-35-50 f2 set you’ll need either multiple filter sizes or step up rings *sigh*.

Optical Quality

As you might expect, the 35mm f2 isn’t optically as good as the 35mm f1.4. There’s a bit of electronic distortion correction being applied and the extreme corners never quite get there in terms of sharpness. That said the center is fantastic and in real world shooting, the very extreme corners being fractionally soft has never been a problem.

Insets showing sharpness at 100% in the marked locations.

The lens’s bokeh is smooth and pleasing, with Fuji blessing it with 9 aperture blades. Out of focus highlights stay nice and round even when stopped down. The example below with the crystal ball was shot at f5.6 for example. The older 35mm f1.4 only has 7 blades by contrast and produces more angular bokeh balls as a result. F2 still provides plenty of scope for shallow depth of field photography, but obviously the f1.4 model has the edge in terms of extreme subject separation and will produce slightly sharper results when stopped down to f2.


 ƒ/5.6  35mm  1/125s  ISO 200 


 ƒ/2  35mm  1/100s  ISO 250 

AF Speed

This little lens is a speed demon! It may not have one of those fancy linear motors to brag about, but its internal focus mechanism is incredibly quick on all recent Fuji bodies. Even old X-Trans 1 models show a good level of performance. As the 35mm f2 has an internal focus design, outwardly no parts move while focus is being acquired. This no doubt contributes to its extremely quiet operation and is a boon for polariser users.


 ƒ/5.6  35mm  1/500s  ISO 200 

Compared to the Fuji 35mm f1.4

If you already own the older Fuji 35mm lens, should you “upgrade” to the new model? The answer to that question will depend heavily on the type of photography you do. If you’re mostly shooting posed portraits, desperately need that extra f stop or require the ultimate in corner sharpness then the older lens is probably still your best bet. However if you rarely shoot at f1.4, would benefit from the faster autofocus, quieter operation and weather sealing, then the new lens does look very attractive. If you have the money to spare then owning both could be a good compromise. For my shooting style and wallet the 35mm f2 just makes more sense.


 ƒ/5.6  35mm  1/1250s  ISO 200 

Conclusion

This lens isn’t optically perfect and it’s a little darker than its older f1.4 brother, but both those quibbles are largely offset by just how nice this lens is to shoot with. From its diminutive proportions, to its weather resistance, build quality, focus speed and general rendering – it’s just a pleasure to use. It pairs well with all Fuji’s current cameras, especially the X-Pro series. As part of a small f2 prime kit, along with the 23mm and 50mm, it will no doubt be finding its way into a lot of gear bags. All indications are that it is one of the best selling and most popular XF lenses available at the moment and I can see why.

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