It’s nearly the size of a cinder block and it weighs about as much, and it eats film at the rate of 15 shots a roll. It’s a Mamiya 645 1000s medium format film camera, and it’s the perfect compromise between 35mm’s portability and large format quality. And if you’re not a film shooter, none of that makes much sense yet. Let’s talk.
[…what is quality?]
Here’s what quality really means:
- Depth of Field (shallowness of focus)
- Dynamic Range
So how do today’s cameras hold up?
Point and shoots and cell phones
Digital point and shoots and cell phones offer low quality because they are pixelated (as opposed to sharp). And because of their small sensor sizes and high apertures, everything is always in focus. This causes portraits to fail when shot with these kinds of cameras. Backgrounds should blur away into a smooth, buttery bokeh mess when the photographer desires. Point and shoots and cell phones do not allow that. You can still take amazing pictures with these cameras so long as you use them within their limitations.
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras offer higher quality because their mechanics (larger sensors and wide apertures) allow for shallow focusing. Images are sharp enough to hang on the wall in all sizes. They are also convenient: thousands of pictures fit on one memory card, and you can download your shots instantly and directly to your computer. For the best combination of quality and ease of use – especially for travel – these cameras are king.
Medium format film cameras offer really, really high quality because medium format has 3x the area of 35mm film. That means it’s easier to scan onto your computer and it’s easier to print out to large sizes while maintaining high levels of sharpness. Because of the large size of medium format film and high quality, relatively low cost lenses available, medium format offers extreme depth of field effects. And film’s dynamic range is uncontested; highlights and shadows are revealed on film which would either clip or be far to noisy if captured digitally. The wonderfully grainy, high dynamic range look is why modern movies like The Dark Knight Rises and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are still shot on film.
Getting into film and The Medium Format Difference
Film is not easy or convenient. It’s challenging to take good pictures because you don’t get to look at the camera’s back to immediately see your picture. You have to take care of your film before and after it’s exposed, you have to get it developed, and you have to pay to have someone scan it for you or you can spend time scanning it yourself. Simply put, film is a pain in the ass. Yet for all of film’s inconveniences, the look and feel of film is vastly different and in many ways far superior to the look of digital.
You’ll need a scanner if you’re serious about shooting film. I use the Epson V600 which is good enough for online use and for small to medium sized prints using 35mm film from my Canon AE-1 Program and Canon Rebel K2 cameras. While I’d rather keep prints small when I scan 35mm film, my V600 scanner is a rockstar when I use medium format film because medium format has 3x the area of 35mm.
Medium format sharpness is high enough that I can print to large sizes – at least as large as I can print pictures from my 18 megapixel Canon 60D. This provides 20×30″ prints that look great on my wall. With medium format, I can take advantage of everything I like about shooting film (depth of field effects and dynamic range) without sacrificing sharpness.
My Mamiya 645 1000s is impossible to hold. There’s nowhere to put your hands, nowhere to support it’s weight. There are two shutter buttons, well placed on an otherwise ridiculously unergonomic camera. Saving spent film and loading a new cartridge takes at least a minute, and shots are imperatively dispersed given the necessary manual winding between frames. Manual focusing is all you get, and it’s a bear as you stare through the 40 year old focusing screen trying to get something, anything sharp. This is the slowest camera I’ve ever used, and surprisingly, I like it like that.
Slowing down helps me think about my shots before I take them. When you get just 15 shots per roll, the only option is to slowly, methodically think through each and every shot. No longer are you taking snapshots, hoping for something to come out. Each shot is precious with mediums format film. Each shot is one closer to having to load a new roll, having to pay and wait for development, and having to spend time scanning.
There are a lot of pictures I don’t take with medium format film, and that’s a good thing. It frees me to enjoy the moments which wouldn’t look good on camera anyways.
So what’s better?
Photography is all about presenting things in an artistic, visually interesting way. To that end, I think film does a better job. For recording memories and for convenience during travel, digital is better. It’s up to you to decide which is more important. I will say that if you’ve grown up photographically shooting digital and never really given film a chance, it’s worth it. Try it out sometime, you might just be surprised.