The Glorious Land of the Medium Format

Have you ever thought about venturing into the big scary world of medium format? Fear not, it’s not as complicated as it sounds! I’m here to help. Hopefully I can answer some of your questions as I show you my thought process while purchasing my very first medium format camera.

Why medium format?

There are a ridiculous number of options and choices when it comes to picking out a film camera outfit to start out with. The first question we ask is: Do I shoot the 35mm, medium format (6×4.5 cm, 6×6 cm, 6×7 cm, 6×9 cm), or large format (4×5 in)? 

(I’m not going to delve into the nitty gritty of it here, but Ken Rockwell has an excellent write-up comparing all the different formats)

The numbers depict the physical size of the negatives and each negative size opens a door to a very particular path that determines your choice in camera equipment and image quality. For me, the 6×4.5 cm medium format was an easy choice. It’s not that much bigger than a 35mm camera yet produces a negative approximately 3x larger containing greater detail and a shallower depth-of-field (much like moving up from a crop-sensor to a full-frame DSLR). It’s not as bulky and slow like a large format camera and it’s a nice step up from our familiar (26mm x 36mm) 35mm full-frame Canon 5D Mark II that we have grown to love. The format has a great reputation through the inner workings of a Contax 645 that has gained rapid notoriety amongst popular wedding photographers. Here’s a great interview of Jose Villa discussing his style with the beloved Contax.

Why a Mamiya and not a Contax or a Hassy or Bronica, etc?

In the recent years MF wedding photography has been gaining momentum, the Contax became a clear winner over the competition. Not only does it offer superior Carl-Zeiss optics (the standard 80mm f/2.0 lens is so dreamy), but it also offers an auto-focus capability all packaged into an elegant form factor. The only issue lies in the fact that it’s become very inflated in value. A system that used to cost $1500 a few years ago now cost upwards of $2400 on Ebay. Yikes. I went with the next best option: The manual-focusing Mamiya 645 Pro TL.

There were many different medium format camera bodies produced by Mamiya over the years but the 645 Pro TL was a winner in my book. Why?

  • Cheap – It costs a whopping $450 on Craigslist for the body in excellent condition, the film back, a 120 film insert (120 film has 15 exposures, a 220 has 30), a shutter release cable, the kit 80mm f/2.8 lens, a battery grip, and the un-metered prism viewfinder. Tip: When searching for your own, look for the metered prism. It’s about $200 on KEH.com and I could’ve saved money if we bought an outfit that included it. I later got it on eBay for $150.
  • Versatile – It has an interchangeable back with a dark slide that previous models didn’t have.
  • Quality – I bought alongside it the Mamiya-Sekor 80mm f/1.9 lens which is one of the fastest medium-format lenses you can buy. It’s optics are right up there with the CZ f/2.0 lens. Smooth bokeh!

All in all, we felt that the Mamiya was a great compromise (if you can call it that), for the money. We’re only missing the AF capability, but with its large viewfinder, I find that manual focusing is something I enjoy :). Now of course, the Hassy would’ve been a GREAT choice, but we really wanted that speedy 80mm lens and the price/maintaince issues with Hasselblad wasn’t something I wanted to deal with.

(Here’s a great first impression review of of the Contax system by photographer Lawrence Kim)

What film should I use?

The well known color films (C-41) are the Fuji Color Pro 400H and the Kodak Portra 160 & 400. The Kodak Ektar 100 is also a lovely film you can try. The Kodak films are known for their ultra clean, grain-less images (when shot at box speed) and the Fuji film is known for their dreamy grain that’s more reminiscent of “film” photography. It’s your choice to try and see for yourselves the nature of these films and many others. We’re doing the same. We’ll be shooting with both Fuji and Kodak (as long as there’s enough – RIP!). I’ll do my best to catalogue and show you the results of different medium format film, lens, and body combinations.

Help me meter! 

One optional bonus with film photography is a good light meter. Many swear by the older Gossens and Minoltas, but we couldn’t find one that was in excellent quality at a decent price. There are three routes you can take with light meters:

  1. An incident light meter – Measures the light falling onto a subject. Ideal for portraits. You have to physically place the light meter where you subject would be in order to get a reading. Your light meter will have a white dome attached to it.
  2. A reflective light meter – Measures the light being reflected off a surface. Ideal for landscapes. These meters are usually called spot meters and can give you a spot reading as narrow as 1 degree. Your light meter will have a scope attached to it.
  3. An incident and reflective light meter – Basically, a combination of the two. Usually very expensive.

We ended up going with the Sekonic L-358 light meter. Found it used on KEH.com for $200! It’s an excellent incident light meter with some convenient functions at a value price. The next step up would have been the L-758 which has a spot meter and wireless flash triggering capabilities built in but costs almost 3 times as much. We quickly said no thanks to that and went with the L-358 instead.

I find that I reach for it when I want my exposure to be absolutely perfect. My FE-401 Metered-Prism works really well in everyday situation.

How do I develop my film?

While comparing some well known medium format film labs in the area (mainly Richard Photo Lab and North Coast Photographic Services), I’ve decided to take a shot at developing and scanning negatives in parallel to our experiments with RPL and NCPS. As a nerd, the idea of being able to play with graduated cylinders, lab-spec thermometers ,and hazardous chemicals just brings out the inner nerd-joy in me. :) But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. These adventures will be detailed in separate posts as they can get pretty convoluted!

For quick turnarounds, I found a local lab that does excellent work, scanning on the same machine as RPL for about half the cost. Boom!

(Again, photographer Lawrence Kim has a great comparison between the two California-based photos labs)

Some helpful resources.

These are the websites I frequent to read up on what I am itching to know:

  • luminous-landscape.com – has some wonderful reviews on the older MF systems.
  • kenrockwell.com – this man is a genius and well known throughout the photography industry.
  • photo.net – has a great forum where you can glean a lot of good information.
  • fredmiranda.com – has a great forum as well.
  • ebay.com – flea market for all your photographic needs.
  • amazon.com – not only is it a great place to buy gear, but a great place to read up on user reviews as well.
  • craigslist.org – where would I be without Craig?

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll try my best to point you in the right direction. Until next time!

PS. If you’re not convinced about the Mamiya Medium Format outfit, check out this Flickr pool of Mamiyas using the 80mm f/1.9. It’s a beaut!

1 comment
  • Vidal C. - Hello, nice site and nice insights on medium format. just one thing to say about Ken Rockwell on MF. Even though I’ve followed his advice on digital reflexes (Nikon in this case) and always found him pertinent, it’s not at all so when it comes to MF. What he says about Mamiya TLRs is pretty bad, I mean very off-handed and not true. Mamiya made beautiful TLRs with lenses that, for the above-average photographer, compete with hasselblad (for the real pro it’s still more than just good). And this is strange coming fromKen because the review he made for MAmaiya 6 cameras is full of praise. I have both systems and still use them alternatively with just as much satisfaction.ReplyCancel

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