A DSLR Shooter’s Guide to Medium Format Film

A DSLR Shooter’s Guide to Medium Format Film

For the last 2 years I've made my living shooting architecture with DSLRs, mostly short videos of California's fanciest multifamily apartment communities. When my client Synergy Corporate Housing asked me to continue that mission with all of their international properties in 10 major cities across 8 European countries, the first thing I thought when I saw the 32-day itinerary was, "bring a Hasselblad."

Thing is, I knew nothing about shooting film. Zero. Let alone about shooting 120 film (what most medium-format film is called because it is comes on a roll of 12 frames, or maybe because it's in 6cm x 6cm square frames, who knows). So I went to one of my local rental houses, Keeble & Schuchat in Palo Alto, CA and rented a Hasselblad 503cw, an 80mm f/2.8 (full frame 50mm equivalent), and bought 5 rolls of 120 film. They explained to me that a medium format film camera system is 3 parts: lens, body, back.
In this post I'm going to take you on my trip with me from Paris to Tel Aviv and show you the few things this DSLR shooter learned about shooting medium format film. I'll show you metering test shots from my Nikon D800, the corresponding film scan from the 503cw, what important lessons I learned about this iconic camera system from each shot, and why I bought one when I got back. None of the film has been retouched or digitally processed in any way.

1996 Hasselblad 503cw, an 80mm f/2.8 lens and a roll of 120 film.

Lesson 1: You can't change your ISO

In medium format film, your ISO is a fixed measurement of the sensitivity of your roll of film. For at least 12 shots at a time you can't change it. 160 speed film is the same as your DSLR being set to ISO 160 and is best for outdoors. 400 and 800 speed are common for indoors. This is critical to understand for metering your shots and knowing your roll’s limitations.

Lesson 2: Your DSLR is a great light meter

Medium format film camera systems have no metering system. Gasp. You're shooting in full manual and what you see through the waist level viewfinder is not necessarily what you're going to get. Most professionals handle this by using a light meter, but to start I recommend taking your DSLR with you too. Bringing your DSLR with you when you shoot medium format film not only offers you an accurate light meter, but shows your subject's focus distance, a rough composition and a test exposure too. Set your DSLR to the ISO of the film you have loaded and apply your shutter speed and aperture settings from your DSLR to your medium format lens (that's where all the settings hang out) and fire away. There is no white balance setting, it’s in the film.
And if you’d rather only carry one camera at a time but don’t have a Sekonic light meter, there are a ton of accurate enough light meter apps for your smartphones.


Lesson 3: You'll use primes lenses, and they're good exercise

For 99% of people, a medium format telephoto zoom lens isn't in the budget, and there sure aren't many made for this camera system. You'll most likely be using an 80mm f/2.8 lens, the flagship kit lens for this camera and the equivalent of a 50mm full frame lens.
So if you can, leave your DSLR telephoto zoom behind. No sense in carrying around all that weight. Instead, bring an equivalent focal length manual focus lens for your DSLR if you have one. It will give you an accurate focus distance reading with hard stops on the outside of the lens, much like the Hasselblad's, and it will teach you that you don't always need to shoot wide open (especially since the shortest exposure is only 1/500). I often chose my Nikkor 50mm Ai-s lens. Because I'm so used to my 24-70mm workhorse though, I found myself having to run around a lot more with this prime lens to get the shots I had in my head, especially ones of big monuments I'd normally shoot closer to 24mm.


Lesson 4: You should bring a tripod

On this camera system, the shortest exposure is 1/500, the longest exposure is 1 second, and your ISO is fixed (and its low). This means camera shake and vibration plays a significant role in more of your shots on medium format film than on your DSLR, especially when it gets dark. If you have 160 speed film loaded from sunny lunchtime and you want to take a shot inside after dinner, it's literally impossible without a tripod, and even then you only have 1 second max to collect enough light to capture what your DSLR has no trouble with at ISO 3200+. Don't believe me? Go outside after dark tonight and try to take a nice handheld exposure of your street at ISO 160. 
This is the point I started seeing what folks meant when they suggest that this camera system makes you think a lot more and teaches you multiple ways to expose the same image.
To help illustrate this tripod point in DSLR terms, here's a situation I found myself in in Paris. I’m in Notre Dame Cathedral on Sunday evening during mass. This room is absolutely epic when you look up, but it’s crawling with people. There’s no way I can get my sticks down so I have to shoot handheld. Here is a test shot from my D800 to see if I'd be able to shoot handheld on the Hasselblad during the tourist madness and still get sharp detail in the architecture. 

Nikon D800, 14-24mm @ 14mm, ISO 160, 1/1, f/4

The short answer is it wasn't going to happen. I couldn’t shoot handheld in this dark room with the Hasselblad and get a sharp image. So instead I cranked my D800 up to ISO 2500 and took this handheld instead. 

Nikon D800 14-24mm @ 14mm, ISO 2500, 1/50, f/2.8

I'd rather take this shot on a tripod and stop down with either camera, but without, only one was actually capable of a sharp exposure here. This next shot at Sainte Chappelle was different. I had just enough time to get my sticks on the ground and take a few exposures before being asked to put it away (the tripod ban in Europe is epidemic). 
With a tripod and a steady hand, you can shoot almost anything on medium format film, but limited to being handheld or in a crowd of people your DSLR is much a more versatile choice for many reasons, which should surprise no one. This is not a run and gun camera system your first time out with it.

Lesson 5: You can use off-camera flash

The Hasselblad leaf-shutter lens is where all the settings live, including a PC sync-cable out. This means I can use my existing cheapo Cowboy Studio radio triggers to fire my speedlights off-camera. I gave it a shot with this lovely Australian couple I met at the Eiffel Tower and found I needed to take test shots for exposure like normal and then for many more for lighting making this shot take 4x longer to set up than any other in Paris. 

Hasselblad 503cw, 80mm, ISO 160, 1 sec, f/??. Nikon SB700 in a reflective umbrella directly above camera at full power.


Lesson 6: You can go handheld...in bright sunlight

When you're in bright sunlight this is a very intuitive camera system. Crank up your shutter to 1/500, meter your aperture from there and as long as your subject isn't out of focus, you're going to be impressed with the results. The dynamic range of this film is very impressive compared to digital and somehow so much closer to what your mind remembers actually seeing.
The good folks at Camera West in Walnut Creek, CA taught me that a good rule of thumb is your shutter should never be longer than 1 over the lens’ focal length. So if you're using an 80mm lens you should try to keep your shutter speed faster than 1/80 unless you're doing it for effect. This helps keep your subjects from being blurry from camera shake and their own movement. So when you'd normally crank your ISO up in the dark on your DSLR, medium format shooters are taught to open their aperture instead, not lengthen their shutter speed.
Here are some handheld exposures from The London Eye. ISO 160, 1/500, f/11. 

Lesson 7: Loading film is easy. You can do it

The A12 back has two places for film spools, one on top and one on bottom. The new roll goes on the bottom, and you’ll take the empty spool from your last roll and put it on top. The exposure you’re working on will sit on the black surface between the rolls, and as you shoot the cranking motion will transfer your roll one frame at a time from the spool it comes on to the one you recently finished, leaving another empty for your next roll. Rinse and repeat.
And if you want to see just how easy it is, watch this guy do it

Lesson 8: You will mess up. It's ok

The most common mistake I made when shooting medium format film was that I forgot to match the ISO between the D800 and the Hasselblad when test shooting. Now, for this portrait I wasn't sure if my subject was a murderer or a stunt man, but he was wearing massive skull rings and I thought that if I wasted any of his time he might tear my face off and take it with him.
So in my haste, I overlooked the D800's ISO still set to 100. I took my test shot and liked my initial exposure of f/2.8 at 1/125 so I matched it on the Hasselblad. I took my shots, found out he is indeed a German stunt man named Frank, and I hurried back inside only to go through my settings again in my head and realized what I'd done.
So I went back out with my D800 to get the right test exposure without Frank to see whether I just botched his portrait. Turns out, you can err a few stops in either direction and the film with its massive dynamic range can recover more than you'd expect. In this case, it seems it was a happy accident because this is one of my favorite exposures. 

Lesson 9: You will open your prints and feel something special

As DSLR shooters, we get used to taking hundreds of photos, cherry picking the best few, retouching them until they’re unrecognizable, and somehow that’s an accurate representation of our photographic skill. I spent 32 days shooting in 8 countries. I took only 48 photos with this camera system (I didn’t get a lot of free time). The suspense that builds from that kind of delayed gratification ensures that when you get your prints back, you will feel heavily invested in their success.
The ones that didn’t come out will disappoint you, but the ones that come out beautifully will give you butterflies like the first time you saw yourself truly represented in your photo. This camera system is as much about the journey as it is the destination and it creates a connection to the result that feels so different than anything I’ve experienced in the DSLR world. That’s why I bought my own the day after I returned my rental. 

I never thought my first Hasselblad would shoot film. Hasselblad 503cw, Carl Zeiss 50mm f/4, 150mm f/4.

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Previous comments
gabe s's picture

If you really want to take away all control while shooting film, and only be able to choose your iso, shoot a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera. Technically it is medium format since you can shoot 120 film on it, you just need a 620 film spool.

One button to take the photo, one lever to take a long exposure, and thats it. No lenses to swap, no f stopps to worry about, you get what you get. Ive shot and developed three rolls on my own and am very happy with the results. Something about having no control really makes you value the photos you get.

Dylan Diblik's picture

I believe 120 film is called "120" because it is 120mm squared in surface area of the frame(the same naming convention is responsible for 35mm film).
Also, if you really need exposure longer than a second(and want to be more precise than bulb) some medium format systems will allow you to lock the mirror and take multiple exposures on one frame. Assuming nothing is moving you can add the times together to get a proper exposure.

José Rozón's picture

It is great to read these experiences, good job.

Awesome fun to read, glad you enjoyed your journey in the world of film. You just gave me the want to pull out and dust off my monster Mamiya RB67 and go out for a fun shoot. :)

Great article. Thanks for sharing.

Once I though if I shoot MF film, converting the analog media to digital archive afterwards, would jeopardize all the benefits of the MF film (dynamic range, hi resolution, etc.) unless the process is made by specialized bureau or by purchasing expensive pro scanner. I assume that your satisfaction comes either from not going through digital at all (film to final print) or by implementing pro digital post processing. Is my reservation about digitalization unfunded? I will appreciate your comments on the matter.


Old article, but amusing. There is a lot of misinformation here. I'm still amazed that so many photographers have never shot film, and bet quite a few couldn't get a decent image with a fully manual film camera.

Really appreciated the article as a native digital shooter.. Definitely continue creating awesome work!