Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is an oddity. A film that blends classic elements of old-timey westerns with modern sensibilities, it’s an unusual throwback. Perhaps most unusually, Hateful Eight was shot on 70mm film, an expensive and complicated format on which only a handful of mass-market films have been shot since the 1970s (Christopher Nolan shot Dunkirk with it, and the upcoming Star Wars Episode IX will utilize the format).
For those of us without the financial backing of a movie studio, 120 film offers 92% of the frame size of 70mm cinema film, allowing us to bring the same grand sense of scale to our still photography (the capture area for Panavision-type 70mm film is actually 65mm, with the other 5mm being taken up by audio recording space on copy film for projection).
Like Westerns, medium format film is well past its peak of popularity, having been ousted long ago by 35mm. But while its popularity has waned, medium format is still very much worth shooting. With big, beautiful negatives and endless variety in terms of cameras and aspect ratios, medium format can be an exciting diversion from the world of digital or 35mm film shooting.
When I made my first forays into medium format, I was bewildered by the number of available formats. In the world of 35mm there are effectively two standard sizes, and a 35mm film camera will invariably use one or the other – 36 x 24mm and 18 x 24mm, or full-frame and half-frame. Medium format cameras come in many more varieties. They can make images at 6 x 4.5 centimeters, 6 x 6 square format, 6 x 7, 6 x 9, and more (specialized cameras from companies like Linhof can produce single negatives measuring a whopping 17 centimeters or more across).
The large negatives these cameras expose don’t just offer novelty, they offer an astounding amount of clarity. Even the smallest medium format negative is more than triple the size of a 35mm frame. In practical terms this means that when enlarging, the grain inherent in any film image is less apparent. For example, if you wanted to make an 8 x 10 inch print from a 35mm negative, that negative would need to be enlarged substantially more than a 6 x 9 centimeter negative. Given equivalent films and grain sizes for each, you wind up with a much smoother looking image in medium format than 35mm.
The differences don’t end at clarity either. Thanks to the larger formats, the relationship between focal length, field of view and depth of field are very different in medium format than in 35mm.
For instance, I have two lenses for my Mamiya Super 23; a 65mm and a 100mm. Because of the size of the projection area the 65mm lens has a field of view equivalent to a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera. The 100mm lens has a 43mm equivalent field of view. And though the field of view of the 65mm lens may be comparable to a wide angle in 35mm format, the depth of field presents like a longer lens. When comparing lenses with equivalent fields of view, the medium format will render a shallower depth of field at every aperture.
With the Mamiya’s 100mm f/4 lens shot wide open at a subject ten feet away, the depth of field will be fractionally more than twelve inches. An equivalent 43mm lens on a 35mm camera at the same aperture will have a depth of field just over four feet, under the same conditions.
Despite the capacity for very shallow depth of field, medium format tends to transition towards out of focus areas in a very gradual way. Subject separation is easy to achieve without turning every modestly backlit background into a bokeh-ball laden disaster area. This difference in how out of focus areas are rendered affords medium format much of its signature look.
When shooting a fast lens in 35mm format wide open, the break from the area of critical focus to the out of focus areas can be extremely jarring. Slower medium format lenses can offer a similarly shallow depth of field on in-focus areas, with less jarring blur on out of focus areas. To my eyes, this creates a more realistic and immersive image.
Shots in the samples gallery above were made with the following cameras (links pass through to our reviews) ; Rollei 6008 Professional, Mamiya Press, Minolta Autocord, and Pentax 67 (review coming soon).
Medium format is not without its faults (real and perceived). These are most notably the film’s cost in frames per roll, and size.
Most medium format film sold today is 120, which places the acetate base on a paper backing. 220 films are also available, which eschew the paper backing on most of the roll in order to fit twice as much film on each spool. With 120 film shot in the smallest medium format size, 6 x 4.5cm, this nets just fifteen shots per roll. In a 6 x 9 camera, the same 120 roll will produce just eight shots. 220 film can allow twice as many shots per roll, but not all medium format cameras will accept 220 due to its increased roll length and lack of paper backing strip.
But the few shots afforded per roll can also be to the format’s advantage. We all know that on some days it can be impossible to make thirty-six worthy shots. For that matter, twenty-four shots don’t always come easily. But I think that most of us can load up a 6 x 9 camera and make eight truly worthwhile shots in a single session. The low shot count also makes medium format affordable, in a way. My local lab charges a flat rate for processing, then charges per frame for scans. While the cost per shot is higher with medium format, in my case the cost per roll is actually lower.
And then there’s the size factor. Though most TLRs are quite compact, other medium format camera types are anything but. My Mamiya dwarfs any two of my other cameras, and the Pentax 67’s bare body weighs twice as much as a 35mm Spotmatic. Add the wooden grip and a lens and it’s not unusual for a Pentax 67 to tip the scales at over seven pounds.
Bicep workout aside, shooting medium format is relatively easy. While many medium format cameras are much more basic than their 35mm counterparts (autoexposure medium format cameras weren’t common even twenty years after 35mm cameras offered the feature) the cameras themselves are not necessarily intimidating.
Anyone who’s shot a Spotmatic or K1000 can pick up a Pentax 67 and not only start shooting right away, but feel comfortable doing so. Perhaps doubly comfortable knowing that the brassy heft of the Pentax 67 could fend off a charging hippo should the need arise.
While medium format cameras are more challenging than 35mm cameras as day-to-day companions, the benefits in terms of image quality are easy to appreciate. Even now, with digital medium format cameras on the rise, medium format film remains viable. For the price of a new Fuji GFX 50S digital medium format camera I could buy several different types of medium format film camera and shoot hundreds of rolls of 120 (and let’s not forget that the medium format digital sensor still isn’t as large as a medium format film negative).
While medium format cameras are large and different, they do not need to be scary. Buy one. Shoot one. Love one.
Oh, and if you’re considering a Holga, just know what you’re getting yourself into.