Having used digital cameras over the past fifteen years or so I have long yearned to return to film photography. One particular format I had never shot, and was always intrigued with, is medium format. Using a film negative much larger than 35mm (up to six times larger) allows for numerous benefits, both technically and creatively. Firstly, it allows one to produce images at a huge resolution thus making it possible to print at a gigantic size, without any loss of quality. It also allows for more control over elements in an image such as depth of field.
I purchased a Mamiya 645. The name of the model refers to the negative size (6cm x 4.5cm). The lenses I bought, also Mamiya, comprised of a 45mm f2.8, an 80mm f2.8, and a 150mm f4. Within the camera kit came two viewfinders; a prism viewfinder with a built-in lightmeter, and a waist level finder, and a host of accessories such as a flash, an L-Grip holder and a shutter cable release to name a few.
For a camera older than myself I could not believe the condition that this camera was in. Mechanically, everything seemed to work smoothly and the electronics worked fine. Aesthetically, its a beautiful looking camera. All that was left to do was load some 120 film in it and shoot. I chose a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400(black and white) film.
As I mentioned, I had the choice of the prism finder which is used at eye level and includes a light meter for correct exposure or the waist level finder. Although the waist level is completely manual in terms of exposure, the experience of looking down to waist level at a huge clear screen is something that had originally attracted me to this format. It’s a joy to use and I would recommend that every photographer try it at least once. Its also worth noting that most waist level finders are a fraction of the weight of the more cumbersome prism finder due to the absence of a battery.
I chose a local estuary with an overhead motorway as my first location to shoot. I brought my 45mm f2.8 (equivalent to a focal length of 28mm on 35mm film), a tripod, and my digital Sony camera, to meter the light. After arriving at the location I soon noticed the increase in weight of the Mamiya compared to my little Sony. I handheld the Mamiya to compose the shot. I then mounted it on a tripod. I set my ISO on my Sony to 400, which was the film speed I had loaded. Still using the Sony, I then set my desired aperture and metered the light. Getting my shutter speed I transferred these settings back to the Mamiya.
Taking photos with a MF camera took a lot longer than expected. Dials such as aperture and shutter speed aren’t exactly ergonomically well designed as on modern DSLR’s, of which I had become so accustomed to using. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable experience. Some people would argue that this ‘slowing down’ is in fact a huge benefit to improving ones photography. It definitely made me think more about what exactly I was trying to achieve with each exposure, rather than merely pointing and shooting that’s usually associated with more modern cameras.
Using the 80mm f2.8 lens I took a number of indoor portraits of my kids. Handholding the camera I used a wide aperture of approximately f2 to gather as much light into the camera as possible. What I did not take into account is the extremely shallow DOF that MF creates. When used correctly, this shallow DOF can create eye pleasing out-of-focus backgrounds but when not controlled correctly can also lead to blurry subjects. Also, when viewing the projected image on the viewfinder, everything is reversed compared to what is actually in front of the camera. I found this difficult to get used to when composing my shots.
Please note that these photographs have been scanned in order to upload them. I did not make any adjustments or alterations in any way in post processing as I would normally do with my digital images.
Images created on medium format, be it scanned negatives or prints, have a certain ‘look’. Granted, they may not be as sharp as one produced by a high end digital sensor but MF offers other benefits such as a wide field of view without any of the usual distortion usually associated with wide angle shots. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of an MF image is its shallow depth of field and the beautiful bokeh it produces. It is often suggested that MF mimics how your eye actually sees the world.
I have no intention whatsoever of replacing my current digital camera kit with a film based kit. I did however find the experience of shooting a MF camera a very enjoyable, if a slightly expensive one. I plan to explore and shoot more types of film and with each roll hopefully I will continue to learn more and improve.