Why Every Photographer Should Try Medium Format

Why Every Photographer Should Try Medium Format

2000 1333 Chris Cushing

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. 

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing
  • Andre Tampubolon May 9, 2018 at 6:46 am

    I own a medium format film camera: the behemoth Fuji GX 680 III.
    – 6×8, 6×7, 6×6, 6×4.5? check
    – tilt/shift/rise? check
    – interchangeable film back? check

    It’s big & heavy. If you think those Hasselblad, Mamiya RB/RZ or Pentax 67 are heavy, then this camera easily outsizes them :p
    Definitely not something you want to put in your everyday camera bag. Well, it’s suited for studio/architecture works, actually.
    I bought it because those movements are useful for perspective correction/manipulation, and I don’t want a 4×5 yet.

    The lenses are awesome, and fortunately are pretty cheap. Add a digital back to it, and I’m even happier 🙂

  • leicalibrararian May 9, 2018 at 7:58 am

    I shoot 120 film on a Rolleiflex 3.5F and Graflex Crown Graphic and 70mm film on a Combat Graflex giant rangefinder. The 70mm film is a pain, as nobody now will process the 15 foot lengths (50 exposures) lengths of film and the only commercially available 70mm still film is now Rollei 400S, in theory an infra red B&W film but just fine for daylight use. You always therefore, loose a few shots in the middle of the film, where it has been cut in half to process. I do have a Hewes 70mm 15 foot reel but no developing tank to put it in. 70mm cine film uses different sprocket hole spacing (type1 rather than the still photography type 2) and is a cine print film only. 70mm cine is actually shot on 65mm film, then printed onto 70mm film to allow the sound tracks to be added. Wilson

    • Wilson – Interesting about the sprocket holes. I didn’t actually know the difference there between cine and non-cine films.

      I did make a note of the capture area size, it’s in parentheses in the text. When I was researching that size film I was amazed at how many different 70-ish millimeter films were available at one point or another. There were about six different formats that were roughly similar(but incompatible) in the 50s and early 1960s! Most didn’t last particularly long.

      • leicalibrararian May 10, 2018 at 5:14 am

        Chris, by far the biggest users of 70mm type 2 sprocket film were aerial photography and surveying companies and Kodak was the main producer. This was a far more convenient format than earlier aerial cameras with huge boxes of 5×4 cut film in auto magazines or 5″ to 8″ wide roll film. The foregoing were the mainstay of aerial photography up to at least the late 1940’s. With the massive improvement in the resolution of film and lenses that occurred during the 1940’s to 50’s, a 70mm film (normal size of image 55mm x 70mm) could produce close to as good detail as the earlier 5×4 cameras. John Maurer of New York was the main exponent of 70mm film for aerial and military cameras, designing various cameras including the KE-28 with a Leica Canada 70mm/f2,8 lens and the earlier KE-4, which I have, with its 2½” wide angle, 4″ standard and 8″ telephoto lenses, all Kodak Ektars. J.M. designed the KE-4 but it was productionised for Graflex by Hubert Norwin, ex-Contax. Very annoyingly I got sniped at the last second last week on a 70mm cassette daylight loader, as loading 70mm bulk film into a cassette in a changing bag, is not a whole lot of fun. Hasselblad sold a magazine for 70mm dual cassettes, mainly again, aimed at the aerial photography market, as its 50 exposures was far more convenient in a light plane that the 12 of 120 film or at best the 24 of 220. It also worked better with motor drives, which can often be problematic with 220 film, due to its thinness. Wilson

  • Medium format has something very special indeed, you shoot less and think even more than with a 35mm camera (even if with a XPan, you got only 20 shots of 24×65 size…), and the negatives are always impressing by their size but also by the quality…
    I like also the versatility of the medium format sizes (depending of course of the camera), like the 6×4.5 that gives an aspect ratio close to the 24×36 one (and I got 16 pictures of that size on the Bronica RF645) the classical “Rolleiflex” square 6×6, or the 6×7 for shots widening the length of the square (the Fuji GF 670 is perfect for landscapes in this format, able to switch between 6×6 and 6×7), or, what I prefer for a wider view, is the 6×8 with Fuji GSW 680…
    For ultra large 6×17 negatives, you don’t specially need a highly expensive camera (but I dream sometimes about the Fuji GX 617…) as there are some fantastic pinhole cameras that can achieve impressing results, like the RealitySoSubtle 617….

    • 6×4.5 is close to the aspect ratio of 35mm, but 6×9 is identical. I currently only have 6×9, as I haven’t gotten the smaller format backs for my Mamiya yet. It messes with my brain a little because shown on a screen the images look like a 35mm image because of the aspect ratio, but with a very different character.

  • I remember the first time I looked at a screen of a 8×10″ Sinar P2 camera
    and later at the final color slides – they blow me away made my eyeballs popp !
    Hard for anything come even close to that experience…..

    The Mamiya RB67 Pro was on my budget and I loved the big(er) screen/viewfider
    and rotation back compared to the Hasselblad.

    All bigger formats teach you to take your time for composition, pay more attention
    and work more carefully – on the other side there is a lack of spontaneity, missed
    or perfect moments when you love to make portraits like I do.

  • I had Bronica ETR machine, picked it up with everything for 70$ so it was a no-brainer. It opened up new possibilities, much higher resolution (or definition, if you prefer) than 35 mm, different effect of perspective, different overall look. Sadly I let it go, because having it would mean rejecting 35 mm altogether and spending twice as much money on supplies that I used to before. But I still vouch for MF and the fact that everyone should try it at least once in their lives.

  • Nothing is as cool as looking at medium or large format slide film on a light table.

  • Agreed … the quality of a medium format negative and transparency is stunning. The variety of equipment available offers so many choices – Pentax 67, Pentax 645, Mamiya TLR, Mamiya rangefinders (6/7), Mamiya RB/RG, Fuji rangefinders, Fuji GX680, Pentacon Six, Arax, Norita, Hasselblad, classic folding cameras, etc. Upgrading from a Nikon/Canon to a Leica will not get you anywhere near the image quality difference than the move from 35mm to medium format.

  • I’ll note a couple of less expensive ways to get your feet wet in medium format – the Argus 75 or (better because it offers 3 aperture choices) Super 75 is the equivalent to an inexpensive 35mm focus free compact but for 120 film (ok, they say 620, but a little sandpaper or a file to the ends of the spool and your good). The Agfa Isolette gives you more control as a fully manual camera, just make sure you find one that will focus and had a good bellows.

  • Another great posting … Thank you!

    I love the 6x6cm square format! Shooting with a Hasselblad camera (501CM, even with 1000F/1600F/SWA) or a Rolleiflex TLR, all with Zeiss (or Kodak) lenses.

  • I have a long-term love affair with medium format. My first medium-format camera was a Yashica 635 with its so-so Yashikor triplet, which proved that larger film trumped the much better lenses on my Canon F-1 of the day. I shot my first weddings using a Mamiya C3, and later a Mamiya C33 and a C330. These were 6×6 twin-lens reflex cameras like a Rolleiflex but with interchangeable lenses, and I used them extensively for 20 years. The 55mm lens was especially good and useful for group photos.

    From there, I acquired an old Rolleiflex 3.5–the pinnacle of the small and light TLR–and then launched into a long-term affair with stuff from the Soviet sphere–Kiev 60’s, a Pentacon Six, an Exakta 66, and a Kiev 88CM. Then, to replace the failing C330 for paid work, I bought a Pentax 645NII (new!), plus a 645N as a backup, and the superb 45-85 zoom lens. To that, I added the unique and wonderful (and heavy) Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f/2.8 as a portrait lens, using an adapter. That was the perfect wedding-gig film camera, even though I did my best to avoid getting roped into photographing weddings. It was as comfortable with manual operation as with automated operation. While vacationing in Alaska a little over a decade ago, I found a neat old camera store in Fairbanks, which had a Pentax 6×7 with a 55mm f/4 lens for sale. These were Unobtanium back in the day–just too expensive. (And controlling cost while still getting interesting lenses was why I had started into the Soviet stuff.) It was like holding and studying a Rolex watch after decades of wearing Casios. I say this without in any way disparaging Casios, which are perfectly good for what they claim to be. It displayed the highest levels of manufacturing precision, beyond what is actually needed, for the sake of making something beautiful as well as functional. My Pentax 6×7 is like my Sinar P–I would enjoy owning it even if all I did was display it in my living room as an objet d’art.

    Medium format was always a compromise format. Ansel Adams famously said the right camera was “the largest one I can carry”, but often, especially in his later years, that was a Hasselblad 500C. It’s big enough so that I don’t feel like I will be constrained from making a 16×20 print that sustains the illusion of endless detail, which is a challenging standard of print-making, and which I rarely attain with small cameras, film or digital. But it’s small enough to carry in a backpack onto an airplane, and the film can be processed locally.

    And medium format provides a smoothness and tonality just not seen in prints made from 35mm film, simply because the information in the negative isn’t spread so thinly on a print large enough to appreciate the detail. I just love it and can’t help it.

  • I made a good living as a portrait and wedding photographer from 1990-2010. The first 10 years were with medium format film, starting with the Bronica ETRSi system, then the Mamiya 6 and finally Hasselblad.

    They each had their merits. The Bronica’s 645 format was the most economical as the negative closely matched the 4×5 proofs from professional photo labs of the day. This easily correlated to 8×10 and 16×20 final prints. The negatives were also large enough to be retouched.

    The rangefinder Mamiya 6 (pre-MF) was a tremendous system that allowed me to carry two bodies and all three lenses (50, 75, 150) in a Domke F2 sholder bag. It was 6×6 format and accommodated 120 or 220 film, which allowed me to print 5×5 proofs and 10×10 album prints. Whilst giving the photographer more cropping choice, it confused customers that wanted to order common rectangular prints.

    In terms of build quality, system size and lenses, my Hasselblads ruled. Their handmade Swedish bodies and Zeiss German lenses offer stellar image quality. As a professional, medium format was really the only option. 35mm was considered a snapshot format and not deemed suitable for professional use (in this market).

  • I had a Plaubel Makina 67 which I stupidly sold 8-9 years ago when all my local film labs went bust/digital. So now I’m saving up for a mint one (reserved for me at a great camera shop somewhere in Germany…). In the meantime, though, I’ve grown fond of the folding bellow camera concept and bought myself a lovely 6×9 rangefinder Voigtländer Bessa II with Color Skopar 105mm lens and Compur Synchro shutter. The smallest possible camera wrapped around the biggest possible negative, and it all goes into a coat pocket. Try that with a Hasselblad! Why do these great cameras get so little share of mind out there?

  • I started medium format on a Rolleicord Vb that I picked up in a thrift store for $70. After that I was hooked, but since I shoot mostly landscapes I wanted something with a little wider aspect. I’ve since picked up an Agfa Record (6×7) and a Pentax 645.

    The Pentax 645 has fast become my favorite.

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing