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.
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.
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.
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?