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.
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?