Why I Like Medium Format

I grew up with film photography, so it’s not foreign to me. I shoot digital images for most of the work I do for others – for my sports, and event photography – because that’s what people want. Digital has it’s place, and the quality of today’s digital images is very good – actually amazing.

There are times, and there are cases (beyond my own experimentation, and just having fun) when film is my preference. There are times I not only want to compare a film image to digital, but there are times when I feel like a film image may have a quality that it’s digital counterpart would not have.

In the past I’ve shot 35mm film quite a bit. But 35mm film is pretty small, and I’m starting to realize that I really like working with larger negatives. So, I’ve started to shoot medium format, 120 film – and especially the 6×6 format. It’s funny, because I’m very used to the 35mm format – and I would think the 6×4.5 format would be appealing to me, but there’s something very appealing about the 6×6 format.

Recently, I’ve started shooting with both Bronica and Mamiya 6×6 cameras – primarily the Bronica EC and the Mamiya C330. Both are very good. The Bronica has an electronic shutter – and built in exposure meter (but in my mind isn’t that useful), so it requires a battery. The Mamiya is all manual, requiring no batteries at all. The Mamiya has a leaf shutter. The Bronica has a focal plane shutter. I like the idea of using an external meter – but it takes some time to get used to, and it forces you to take more time to make a photograph.

The other thing I like about my medium format photography is using a waist level finder. It takes some time to get used to, but I find that once you start using it, it works very well – especially while wearing my reading glasses. Both the Bronica and Mamiya have optional prism finders, so you can use them “eye-level”. With glasses, looking through a viewfinder is a bit of a pain, though. The WLF with ground glass is very cool to look through and compose with, and I actually prefer it.

The view through the ground glass of my Bronica EC-TL with Zenzanon 100mm f/2.8 lens.

I’m also starting to appreciate my tripod more! I have always owned a tripod – and I’ve used it from time to time, as needed. Shooting medium format has made me want to use the tripod more. The tripod allows me to keep my hands free to do other things besides holding a camera. It seems to have freed me up to focus on the image, to focus on composition, and to see my subject more. With the camera on my tripod, my whole body is free to move around the subject, as well as look through the viewfinder. It disassociates me from my camera – instead of being connected to me, the camera becomes my tool. Maybe that’s what I dislike about taking photos with a phone. Although it’s very handy, it has almost become a part of me – an inseparable appendage. It’s not normal, or natural. I like to treat my camera like a painter treats their canvas. It’s the tool I use to create an image, and it has it’s place. You put it down when you’re done with it. This is another reason I think students should learn photography with film (or other analog medium) before they even discuss digital.

With medium (or large) format, the lenses are generally of a longer focal length – comparatively speaking. So, the normal lens I use with my Bronica EC is 75mm. This is close to a 40mm on a 35mm camera. I also have a 100mm, which is close to a 60mm on a 35mm camera. With large format, you’re going to have even higher focal lengths – like 130mm or more with a 4×5 camera. Using lenses with a longer focal length, as everyone knows, provides a shallower depth of field – which is nice. However, I like another subtle effect of a longer focal length. The narrower angle of view provides a different perspective, or a “look” to images. I like the way my images look, not only on the final negative, print, or whatever, but I like the way they look as I’m composing on the ground glass. Images look better (to me) with the perspective provided by a longer focal length lens. You don’t see as much background, or distortion of the lines in your photo, which are enhanced or exaggerated by shorter focal length lenses.

In the comparison below, the image on the left is what I see in the viewfinder of my Bronica with a 75mm lens. On the right is what I see with my Canon DSLR and a 35mm lens. The difference in perspective is just slightly noticeable. I like the view from the 75mm lens on 6×6 film better than the view from a 35mm lens on 35mm size (sensor, in this case). It’s more apparent when viewing distant landscapes, or architectural subjects – the way perspective looks, the farther away things are, the more apparent the differences.

The images below are of distant houses – more of a landscape – for comparison.

Here’s another shot – to try to show the difference in perspective/angle-of-view between the 2 formats. In these images, you can see that the tree is about the same size, however the angles of the edges of the table are slightly different. None of this is overly dramatic – it’s subtle, but I just like the look of the images with longer focal length lenses better.

I will be testing and reviewing various medium format cameras, especially in 6×6 format, and posting my findings here. The 6×6 format is old, and was implemented in many different cameras. TLR, SLR, rangefinders, and older folding bellows cameras. It’s also an interesting format because you don’t ever have to flip the camera on it’s side to change orientation.

Do you like medium format? Do you like 6×6? If you ever get the chance to pick up one of these old cameras, I encourage to you give it a shot!