Where better to spend the day after the coldest night of the winter, than a derelict mansion riddled with broken windows, standing around behind a camera? Well that’s how I spent the 3rd of February – at Woolton Hall, a once grand, but now semi-derelict mansion on the outskirts of Liverpool. The event, organised by photographer John Ayliffe, brought together a number of photographers, models and makeup artists. I officially went as an assistant to my friend Rob Lycett and helped him lug his gear to the second floor and with lighting models.
I’ve been keen to try shooting my film cameras with studio lighting and this was the perfect opportunity to try it out. I went with my Bronica SQ-Ai medium format camera and my Vivitar v335 35mm SLR to shoot with my Pentax glass. (I’d have loved to use my Pentax MX, but didn’t want to be restricted to its meagre 1/60 flash sync speed).
The Bronica was loaded with good old HP5+ and owing to a sudden parting of the clouds, was mostly shot with natural light as it was just do damn gorgeous in the room we were in. The Vivitar on the other hand had the sublime Kodak Portra 160 loaded in it and was used extensively with Rob’s studio lighting setup. The light setup most used was a giant softbox on a boom to provide fill light and a gridded (or in some cases bare) speed light to add rim lighting or more directional hard lighting. We also made good use of a large reflector, both in the naturally lit shots and the strobe ones.
The models were all very professional and took the freezing conditions in their stride – helped by a copious number of hot water bottles and some time basking by infrared heaters, in the one part of the mansion where the electric still worked, between shoots.
Overall it was a great experience and something I hope to do again, albeit preferably in warmer conditions next time!
This shot was taken at the 2017 Hebden Bridge Steampunk Weekend. Captured with my Bronica SQ-Ai on Rollei CN200. These kinds of festivals where people dress up in costume are a great way to break your anxiety of shooting strangers on the street, as they usually both want their photo taken and will pose themselves for you! I got some great shots of the various attendees but they were all somewhat mired by either my poor developing of the CN200 or the film’s poor performance. I’ll have to try it again sometime, but for now I think I’ll stick to Portra for my medium format colour!
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.
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?