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Guide to using medium-format

David Tarn gives an account of the benefits of medium-format, including some examples.

| Film Camera Operation

Words & Pictures David Tarn
Medium-format covers a multitude of cameras, using 120 or 220 roll-film, that are larger than 35mm or smaller than 5x4inch. Roll-film is, as the name suggests, rolled, with a paper backing to keep out the light. There is no cassette, like the one you get with 35mm film, so the film rolls off one spool across onto another as it's used and doesn't need rewinding at the end of the film.

All 120 roll films are 6cm wide and the number you can take per roll depends on the format of the camera. You can take 15 pictures in 6x4.5cm format, 12 in 6x6cm, 10 in 6x7cm, 8 in 6x9cm, 6 using 6x12cm or 4 with 6x17cm. If you want to get extreme an use 6x24cm just three images can be taken! 220 film is twice as long as 120 and, therefore, gives you twice as many exposures per roll, but you often need a separate film back for the camera to accept this type of film.

The key benefit of medium-format over 35mm is the larger size of the negative or transparency, which means less enlargement at the printing or reproduction stage. Commercially the main advantage of a larger image is impact. Editors receive hundreds of picture submissions weekly, so your pictures have to grab the editor's attention quickly if you want to be successful as a freelance photographer. The quality issue is also important if you intend making 20x16in or larger prints. A medium-format transparency printed this size on Ilfochrome will, all other things being equal, look sharper than the equivalent print from a 35mm transparency. Some picture buyers, mainly in the calendar industry, still insist on at least medium-format transparencies because of the extra quality they expect. You have to give the client what they want, not what suits you, if you hope to succeed.

But quality alone is no longer the most important factor when considering buying medium-format. There are other less tangible benefits to be gained.

With traditional wedding and portrait photography, the medium-format camera gives the photographer that extra kudos that sets him or her apart from the keen amateur. It also shows in the quality of an enlarged print that the professional will be aiming to sell to his or her client.

The handling of medium-format is very different from most modern 35mm cameras, which, in many cases, will slow you down  and make you think carefully about the pictures you are planning to take. Most require that you use a tripod and that will also greatly improve your photography. The extra cost of each frame of film may slow you down making you ask the questions that every photographer should ask before firing the shutter. Why am I taking this picture? What am I trying to capture? Can this be improved?

Medium-format cameras don't always cost more than 35mm. A 35mm Leica, Contax or top of the range Nikon or Canon, for example, costs considerably more than an entry-level medium-format camera. Film and processing will cost more though, but as you're hopefully taking fewer pictures and perhaps having a better hit rate it is difficult to make a real comparison. The equipment is generally bigger and heavier than 35mm, unless you consider medium-format rangefinder cameras that defy that rule, such as the Mamiya 7, the Fuji range or Bronica's 645 rangefinder.

Medium-format lenses can be expensive and as there are no independent options such as Sigma or Tamron you therefore must turn to Hasselblad for additional lenses if you buy one of their cameras. In many instances medium-format cameras have their shutters built into the lenses rather than the body. The disadvantage is that you pay for a shutter with every lens, rather than paying just once for the one with the camera. This makes the lenses considerably more expensive, but there's a big benefit that electronic flash can be synchronised at all shutter speeds making fill-in flash much easier to use in bright conditions.

With medium-format you can choose the shape of the frame used to compose your pictures. If you opt for 6x4.5cm or 6x9cm you have the familiar oblong, just like 35mm, while square 6x6cm gives you, compositionally, a very different prospect. The 6x7cm camera is only just oblong, but is often classed as the ideal format as it scales up well to make almost full frame 10x8in prints. The longer formats, such as the panoramas of 6x12cm and 6x17cm require a whole different way of seeing the scene and can lead to some very exciting photography.

Guide to using medium-format:

Wast Water evening 3463CB
The 6x4.5cm format shares much with 35mm in terms of the handling. The resulting pictures though are still far more impressive on a light box or just held up to a window than any 35mm picture would be. This apparently tranquil view was caught at the end of the day on a trip to the Lake District in September. I used a Mamiya 645 fitted with a 55mm lens and a .06 neutral density graduated filter. The exposure was one second at f/16.

There is also a wide variety of options in camera design too. Within the 6x4.5cm format there are rangefinder and single-lens reflex models, along with autofocus and manual focus options, plus modular cameras with separate film backs and prisms. In 6x6cm there is less variety. When Mamiya replaced the 6 with the 7 it left behind a world of modular single-lens reflex cameras, with Hasselblad dominating the format along with Rollei and Bronica. There is also a bargain basement territory with Seagull and Lubitel still producing twin-lens reflex models.

Guide to using medium-format:
Skiddaw Derwentwater Keswick 3921CB
The big advantage of 6x6cm format is that the picture is square, so there is never a need to take both an upright and horizontal version of the picture, though very often both can be cropped from the one frame of film, depending on how the picture is being used. This picture taken from Falcon Crag above Derwentwater shows the light cast on the autumn landscape by the late evening sun and shows two possible crops that can be made.

Move into 6x7cm and the variety increases with Fuji and Mamiya making rangefinders, Pentax with its 35mm style machine and Bronica and Mamiya with their large modular cameras that look like oversized 6x6cm models. The increase in size and weight is way out of proportion to the extra 1cm of transparency or negative they give you, but the ratio is everything.

Each of these designs leads to a different way of working. While there aren't rules were cameras can and can't be used, there are obvious preferences for some cameras over others depending on the subject of your photography. A large modular 6x7cm camera, such as the Bronica GS-1, is more at home in the studio, while the rangefinder Mamiya 7 is ideal for landscape and travel. The Pentax 67 by virtue of its size and weight would, therefore seem to fall into the studio category, but, in truth, is a favourite among landscape photographers because it handles like a 35mm and has the widest range of lenses of any 6x7 camera.

Guide to using medium-format:

Farmland Scottish Boarders near Scots View 3518SL
The 6x7cm format makes a well balanced frame into which you can compose your pictures. This simple view of a tree and some hay bails might not have been such an appealing view in the traditional oblong of 35mm. When cropped to an oblong you loose the blue sky above the white cloud.

Going beyond 6x7cm we move almost into larger format cameras. In the 6x9cm format there are a couple of fixed lens rangefinder cameras from Fuji. Other than that the only way into this wonderful format is through scaled down large format cameras from names such as Linhoff, Ebony, Silvestri and Horseman. I have used 6x9cm for years, first from one of the Fuji rangefinder cameras and more recently as a roll-film back on my 5x4in large format camera.  All the while I have wondered why no one makes a 6x9cm rangefinder camera with three or four interchangeable lenses, a sort of Mamiya 9.  Perhaps the nearest thing to this is the Horseman SW612, one of the options with this camera is to use a 6x9cm roll-film back. The thing is, when faced with the choice of 6x9cm or 6x12cm from the same camera, if most photographers are like me, you'd choose the 6x12cm option.
For my taste 6x12cm is the best, the most useable, the most versatile panoramic format of them all. 6x17cm is just a stretch too far for my personal preferences, but has proved itself to be an enduring and valuable format for calendars and advertising. Composing a picture in any panoramic format is a very different matter to composing within a near square format, or even the 'normal' oblong.

Guide to using medium-format:

Derwentwater Autumn view 1066CB
The 6x9cm format is almost the same proportions as 35mm being a good oblong without stretching into panoramic territory. I used the Fuji GSW69111 for a number of years and found it to be a camera that can be easily and quickly used for landscapes. My first years as a freelance photographer saw me producing a large number of pictures for postcard publishers. Many like this shot were simple and obvious compositions using a wide-angle lens and a polarising filter. The 6x9cm format just made them stand out when compared on a light box with 35mm shots.

Guide to using medium-format:

 Dunstanburgh Castle 4400NL
Remember when working in panoramic that just because most are taken landscape that is no reason not to use them in upright mode. Doing so can really emphasise the foreground of a scene. Here it was the yellow lichen on the rocks that attracted me to the scene, and the 6x12cm format has enabled me to make the most of it.

Areas of photography where medium-format cameras benefit can't strictly be defined but there are some instances, for example landscapes or formal portraits where the medium-format camera has an advantage, though for action sports and wildlife photography it's 35mm that has the lead. In general the correct use of a medium-format camera requires just a little more time and consideration than a 35mm camera, and for some subjects that's an advantage. There will, however, always be portrait photographers who produce great intuitive pictures of people on 35mm cameras and wildlife photographers working with medium-format, the 'rules' can all be broken. 

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