Five Reasons to Shoot Medium Format Film

Five Reasons to Shoot Medium Format Film

Let us venture back in time for a minute. 35mm film was always considered small. In fact, it was developed in the early 1900s as a means to make high-volume shooting and consumer photography possible. If you were a working professional, you were shooting at least medium format (6x4.5-6x19 cm) or even more likely, large format, like 4”x5” or 8x10”. The idea is that the larger the format, the more detail you can see. As we fast forward to digital, full-frame is the ideal format for many working pros in a variety of genres. While full-frame can be expensive and yields incredible image quality, there is something more.

Digital medium format cameras have been around since the dawn of digital. However, they were extremely limited up until 5-10 years ago. Digital medium format is special in that it renders in a totally different way. Digital backs also offer resolutions far above current full-frame bodies. For example. Phase One just launched the incredible XF100 back, a 100 megapixel sensor. They also offer incredible image quality in terms of color, dynamic range, and tonality. The only real downside to digital medium format is the cost. 

I recently spent a week or so with the Credo 60 back on a Mamiya body, shooting a variety of studio portraits and fell in love. I’ve been shooting medium format film a bit now and wanted a comparison. Brand new digital backs run anywhere from $10,000 (Hassleblad CFV-50C) with a rebate, to $45,000 for the new XF100. This is where the used market comes into play. While it certainly gets more reasonable, my D800 (36MP, full frame, great AF, decent low light, huge lens selection) is still half the price of digital backs from over 10 years ago. Those backs are lower resolution, slower, and far less versatile than even the D800. However, they’re still incredible cameras if used properly. While more reliant on the proper conditions and a knowledgeable user, the medium format look is still there. The tonality, color, and dynamic range are still incredible. If you are a studio, landscape, or flash photographer, even older medium format backs are viable options. If versatility is an absolute must, a full frame or APS-C DSLR may be a better choice. 

But you’re just dying to shoot with medium format! You don’t want to pay for the rental fee and you certainly don’t want to sell your soul for a current digital back. There is a solution, and it’s film. 

1. Cost 

Let’s say you want a medium format body that operates similarly to your DSLR, shoots film, and isn’t crazy expensive. Used Mamiya 645AF/AFD bodies are attainable for under $1000 easily. Now, for the film: my personal favorite film for studio portraits is Kodak Portra 160. At less than $6 a roll, it’s hardly expensive. You have to get film processed, however, and that costs. For processing, you’re looking at around $11 a roll for developing and basic scans at most labs. Luckily, my local lab is only $6 a roll, excluding scans. You can save a whole load of cash by scanning yourself. I use an Epson V600 and have been quite pleased with the results. So, let’s look at $12 a roll. A really nice, used back would be the Phase One P65+. It’s a monstrous 60 megapixels and costs (at the time of writing) around $12,000. Let’s say you buy your camera and lens for $1000. That’s about $11,000 of budget left. That allows for over 900 rolls of film to be bought and processed, should you scan yourself. 900 rolls is 13,500 frames. That’s a lot. 
2. Learning Curve

As what some may call a "digital native," film has always been fun for me, because I never really grew up shooting it. I have learned entirely on digital. Film only came to me because of some high school class work and the desire to shoot medium format, despite the gaping hole in my wallet. Film handles so much differently in terms of image quality. Unles you’re shooting on digital medium format or the most expensive full-frame bodies, you won’t be used to the incredible dynamic range of modern film. On top of that, the color that is produced by film is unique, so unique, that photographers spend hours upon hours trying to create presets to mimic certain film stocks. Film will also make you shoot a little differently. Because you only have a handful of frames per roll, you tend to be more careful and particular about releasing the shutter. For me, cost never caused that, more the laziness of having to reload the magazine or the thought that maybe I didn’t have another roll on me. 

3. Formats

One thing about film that digital has yet to conquer is the sheer size of some of the formats. Medium format film starts at 6x4.5 cm. The largest medium format sensors aren’t even that large. There are even panoramic cameras that utilize nearly an entire roll in two frames. The legendary Mamiya RZ Pro II yields a massive 6x7 cm frame that is ideal for printing. 

4. Lenses

Some of the most legendary lenses ever created were for medium format film bodies. Zeiss created the bonkers 80mm f/2 (think 50mm f/1.0 in terms of field of view and dof) for the Contax 645 system. Mamiya has the 110mm f/2.8 for the RZ series bodies, and Hassleblad’s 110 f/2.0 may just be the most brilliant portrait lenses to grace the earth.

5. You can always go digital

A lot of film bodies are compatible with digital backs. Mamiya cameras like the 645AFD bodies are compatible with backs from about 2004 onwards. So, should you make it in the big leagues and need digital for workflow and convenience, you aren’t stuck with a useless camera. In fact, many photographers still take advantage of this, Dave Hill being one of the best examples I can think of. He has shot some major ad campaigns on both film and digital in the same shoot. 

Now, there are two issues that film presents: clients are used to digital workflows nowadays and you can’t shoot tethered. Tethered shooting is incredibly helpful whether on location or in the studio, as you can see focus and composition better, clients and hair and makeup artists can more easily see what is being produced, and you have a great form of organization. Clients can’t see what’s happening with film, and neither can you. While you may trust yourself, they may be uneasy during the shoot. From there, scans can produce very high res files, but they aren’t raw files. Color, shadows, and highlights aren’t nearly as easy to adjust in a TIFF file as they are in a raw. What this means is that you have to shoot it right. If you’re one of the few that have the luxury of access to a color enlarger, things are a little different, but nowhere near as easy or convenient as Capture One or Photoshop. 

There is one camera that I will mention that, in a way, makes digital medium format viable to hobbyists and semi-pro shooters: the Pentax 645D. There is the 645z, the current model with a CMOS sensor, great low light, and even video, but it’s around $7,000 brand new. The 645D, while more limited due to the CCD sensor, can be found for about $3,000 used, and still provides some absolutely incredible images. There is a decent lens selection available, and they’re built like tanks. What seems too good to be true probably is, but in this case, only slightly. The 645D can’t tether to a computer, which is a bummer, but not necessarily a deal breaker, and it has a lousy flash sync of 1/125th of a second. There are no leaf shutter lenses available either. So, for certain types of shooting, like studio portraiture, landscapes, macro, product, and food photography, the 645D may be a decent option. 

If you’re really interested in trying medium format, I urge you to try film for a few shoots. If you really want a cheap camera, manual 645 bodies can be had for a few hundred dollars. Combined with the relatively low cost of film, this can be an amazing alternative for hobbyists and semi-pros looking to get that classic look. 

Do any of you actively shoot film or digital medium format? If so, how do you think they stack up?        

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Sean Shimmel's picture

Spencer, such classic portraiture (my favorite is the 2nd model down) and solid points.

Yet here's a fun counterpoint with my own experience shooting medium format film:

Sean an interesting article, but as one who has shot digital and film side by side since the early digital years I feel you just need more experience with film. It is an uneasy experience for a digital shooter to give up the security of seeing the shot on the back of the LCD, I love that myself, but there is also something to be said for having the skill and confidence not to use it. I love my digital, but when shooting black and white there is just no substitute for the real thing. Oh, and ditch the ride to the drug store to pick up developed film and prints. Just get a changing bag and developing tank. I put that off for too many years, now I shoot, drop a couple rolls in the tank, develop them, dry them and scan them. It is easier than you think.

Sean Shimmel's picture

Thanks for your respectful reply. Would love to see any of your BW examples.

I still shoot film (most recently with a Nikon F100), but the previous allure now no longer compels me. I just never quite saw a worthy difference.

Sean, it seems like the benefits of film and medium format aren't there for *you*. I'm honestly astonished that you don't perceive a difference in perspective of DOF vs. FX, but hey, different strokes for different folks. It also sounds like you had some missed frames with models blinking (happens with digital, too) and maybe didn't have a lot of time to learn the different medium (which can be quite arcane, compared to a D800, for sure). Which is totally fine - an artist has to be comfortable with his tools.

I'd contend that I saw the difference with the first roll of 120 that I ran through a 30 year old Bronica ETR last summer. Immediately. No question, 100% - THIS is what I was missing with my Nikon. Bigger lens to the world, less perspective distortion, shallower DOF, better rendering of bokeh and out of focus areas for an eminently affordable budget ($300 buy in with body, back, polaroird back, finder and 80/2.8). Liked it so much I bought a Mamiya 6 - now THAT's a camera. Then bought a 4x5. All for the cost of a 70-200 2.8 and a 50 1.4 on the Nikon platform. Now I can shoot images that are great and pleasing to me with different formats and different media - I love that flexibility - it works for *me*.

I now develop my own B&W as well as C-41 and print and scan in a co-op wet/digital darkroom. It's fantastic - for *me*.

Is medium format comparatively heavy? Do I pay for missed frames or my own mistakes? Do I still shoot digital and love that, too? All "yes". (Though a Mamiya 6 or 7 aren't heavy at all).

It doesn't have to be an either/or question, but it's one that photographers owe it to themselves to ask and answer to see what works for *them*. And I'm a guy who wants a D800 as well as a chance to make a real, honest to goodness Daguerrotype. Call me crazy. It's all fun.

Sean Shimmel's picture

Supercool answer. Thanks for the thoughtful details.


Joshua Mattox's picture

I regularly shoot film on my Mamiya 645 and love it. Has great resolution but what is even better is I don't have to spend the time afterward to process the raw files and get the "look" I'm after. I simply send it to the lab and they take care of the rest.

One of the reason I love my fuji: No dicking around for hours with Lr (ALOT less really... )

Joshua Mattox's picture

Yeah I actually wish it were financially feasible for me to shoot film full time. I REALLY like not having to post process.

Alan Klughammer's picture

Back when I shot film, I spent a lot more time in the darkroom than I do now in photoshop. Every time I now shoot film, after the pain of scanning I still spend as much time in Photoshop as I do with straight digital capture...
In other words, it depends on what you want your final product to look like. Either medium may or may not take up time post processing. In fact I would argue that film takes more, it is just that many photographers hire others to do the work for them....

Bought a Hasselblad 501CM November of last year. Absolutely love is such a joy to use. I recently did a digital and film vintage Hollywood-type shoot with flash. The film absolutely crushed the digital files in getting the effect I was after (digital required quite a bit of processing to come close). I'm not quite seeing the same level of detail in the film yet, though some of that is technique, some is film choice, and a lot of it is the scanning process.

In any case, I think both film and digital have their place. Tonight I'll be photographing dancers in low-light; the Hasselblad will stay packed away and the Nikon will come out to play.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

There's a huge difference in scans and operators, it's an art unto itself.

Yep, there really is. Right now, the lab I use offers really cheap scans, but I'm finally getting to the point where even the cheapness just isn't worth it. My DSLR scanning rig is quite a bit better, but still nothing like a good operator with a Hasselblad Flextight.

John Sturr's picture

Really well done -- and well said. Digital has easy utility - but film is gripping.


Sean Molin's picture

The 80mm f/2 on 645 isn't as dramatic as a 35mm f/1.0 equivalent. It's actually closer to f/1.4. It would have to be 80mm f/2 on 6x6 to get to f/1.1. The Hasselblad 110mm f/2 is a 6x6 lens and does get you into that look-of-f/1.0 range.

Of course, it's hard to really truly compare. Medium format cameras tend to have more dramatic falloff than their 35mm counterparts, so an f/1.4 look on MF tends to look a bit more 3D for the same f-stop.

Sean Molin's picture

I'm not a huge fan of 645 myself. I prefer the compact convenience of 35mm (and being able to shoot Leicas) or the serious resolving power and heft of 6x6 or 6x7. I find 645 to be baby medium format and not worth the compromise these days with digital being as good as it is. I understand film-only wedding photographers wanting to shoot 645 because of the higher shot-count-per-roll but still wanting better-than-35mm quality (read: smaller grain). But if you're a hobbyist, casual pro, or studio photographer, I recommend skipping 645 and going straight to 6x6. There's a supreme joy in shooting square, too.

Don't buy into 645 until you know you need the 16 shots per roll. Sometimes I have a hard enough time as it is filling up 10 (6x7) or 12 (6x6) when shooting casually.

I own several medium format cameras from Hasselblad to Pentax... but my absolute favorite I've ever owned is my Rolleiflex. I suggest a Rollieflex (or similar TLR) as a first MF camera because they are fixed lens (and oh what an amazing lens it is), and that's one less thing to spend money on. Also, they're compact and light making them easy to travel with. I find you'll shoot more with a camera that's easy to take with you. Plus, the Rolleiflexes rival Leica in terms of luxury engineering, and those Zeiss TLR lenses are legendary... especially the 3.5F Planar.

But you can get into a TLR for even cheaper than most worth-while 645 bodies anyway. You absolutely cannot go wrong with *any* Rolleiflex or Rolleicord. Condition matters more than the model since they're all top performers. Even a Minolta Autocord, Seagull, or YashikaMat will get the job done well.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Totally agree, when I shot film I felt 645 was too much of a compromise, not as small and light as 35 and not the medium format juiciness of 6x6 or 6x7.

Alan Klughammer's picture

Way back when I shot film, I carried 35mm for convenience, but shot 4x5 for quality. Medium format was too much of a compromise.....

The RB 67 was my main choice for medium format. I liked how my friend's 645 handled, but the quality over 35mm was not worth the investment.

Kristi Woody's picture

JUST bought a 645 two days ago. I got a Pentax, because I didn't have a lot of money to spend, but I'm super excited to try it out. Got a project in mind for my first few rolls, and hope to also use it at some weddings. Maybe someday I can move up to a Contax :)

Ramon Acosta's picture

I guess part of the reason I love fast and ultra fast primes on my DSLR is that I want to achieve that medium format look. I will try to save and maybe I will finally get a texas leica as a christmas gift to myself.

Sean Molin's picture

I loves me some ultra fast primes, too, but even the fastest primes don't have quite the same look as medium and large format film. The depth of field's fall-off is just totally different on larger film/sensors. If you want medium format, you gotta shoot medium format. ;-)

So many issues with this I don't no where to start. First and foremost is that there's nearly no one printing using a direct optical path. What that means is that your film is scanned by the lab, so it is now digitized. If they are just printing your work it is THEIR interpretation of your image or maybe just the systems analyzer not even a human, that you will receive. If they scan it, you already have a generational loss, and you'll receive it as a processed jpg, again their interpretation. It is simpler for the photographer because your not doing any of the computer processing but you have also given up the control to someone else or again to an automaton. Why? So you can say it was film? But is it really?

Spencer Lookabaugh's picture

If you scan yourself, even on flatbed scanners, TIFFs can yield detail that easily rivals my D800. As far as printing, 16x20 is certainly feasible. The main goal of the article was to highlight an inexpensive way to achieve the look of medium format, not necessarily about the film.

Sean Molin's picture

This, and honestly, 99% of film shooters just flat-out don't *need* drum scanner quality, nor do they have the *need* for optical silver-gelatin prints (as beautiful as they are).

And even (properly) scanning film will still maintain many of the features film provides that people love it for.

Derek Yarra's picture

I shoot on both regularly. To be honest, I greatly prefer the file quality and ease of workflow is so, so much better with digital. I am perfectly happy with full frame CR2 files.

However, I am absolutely in love with the physical feeling of shooting on my Mamiya 645. There is nothing more satisfying to me than the sound and feel of both the focal and leaf shutters actuating and the motor of the grip advancing the frame.

Also, 6x4.5 is my favorite vertical aspect ratio. I almost always crop my 35mm digital files to 6x4.5, which I find quite annoying and wasteful of pixels.

DJ Toman's picture

I love integrating MF film into my work, and my Mamiya 645 Pro TL is an absolute gas to use, but sync speed pretty much sucks, making studio work with flashes tough.

Tim Foster's picture

The RZ has leaf shutters. You'll also get more street cred. ;)

Jacques Cornell's picture

"full-frame is the ideal format"

"Full-frame" is not a format. ANY uncropped image is "full-frame". What you're referring to is properly called "135-format" or "35mm-format".

Let's not heedlessly validate the marketing BS of certain manufacturers.

Tim Foster's picture

I wouldn't say 35mm format, because there's plenty of movie film that runs vertically. It made sense when the majority of digital cameras had sensors smaller than 135 and manufacturers were trying to convey this to their mostly amateur market. "Full frame" means nothing today, and the mention of "crop factor" drives me up a f***ing wall.

Sean Molin's picture

Anything other than the physical measurements is marketing. No doubt about that and no need to be pedantic.

6x7 was termed "ideal format" by marketers. Those same marketers downplayed 645 by calling it "half frame". I always appreciated Nikon coining "FX" and "DX" to differentiate 35mm and APS-C since it wasn't misleading that one was better or worse than the other, just different.

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