The Message is the Medium: A guide to medium-format photography

I like to tell people that my hobby is collecting new hobbies but, for 2016, I’ve decided to revive an old one: film photography. Like many people, I last wielded a film camera while learning photography in high school, before getting swept up in the digital revolution that has consumed the photography world over the last two decades.

Digital photography technology keeps getting better and better every year, while film tech hasn’t changed in ages, so why “turn back the clock”? There are a few reasons, including nostalgia, but another reason is value. The value exists precisely because the technology hasn’t changed; there is film equipment out there that’s older than me (some of it much, much older) that is as useful today as it was when it was made. The same is not true of digital gear, which is out of date almost as soon as it’s made. And many film cameras and lenses can be had for peanuts, allowing photographers to experiment with different styles of shooting. Which is why I have decided to take the plunge into medium format photography.

Medium format film is just that: medium. It’s larger than garden-variety 35mm film, but smaller than large format film, which requires a single giant sheet of film for each image.

Theoretically, medium format photography is exactly the same as your typical 35mm photography, just bigger. Practically speaking, it’s slightly more complicated. While 35mm cameras pretty much all shoot the same size of image (36x24mm) on the same size of film, medium format cameras can be all over the map, shooting frames that are anywhere from 6x4.5cm to 6x7cm, all the way up to some truly wacky sizes maxing out at 6x24cm.

Those larger frames are the reason photographers love medium format. With a bigger area to capture the light coming through the lens, you get more detail so you can make really huge prints without diminishing the quality. You also get less distortion at a given focal length, so a wide angle lens on a medium format camera won’t give you the fishbowl effect that a similar lens on a 35mm camera will.

The cameras themselves get a little more eclectic too. In 35mm-land, you have the classic SLR (which is what most people think of if you ask them to imagine a camera in their minds), as well as pocket-friendly point-and-shoot cameras, and the sexy little rangefinder cameras that photojournalists and rich people fawn over. Since medium format cameras have existed outside of the mainstream since 35mm became the norm in the 60s, they take on a wider variety of shapes and sizes, some which are barely recognizable as cameras at all.

If you’ve decided you want to drink the Kool-Aid, there are only a few things you need that are truly essential: film, a camera so you can put something on the film, and then a method of turning that film into something so you can look at what you shot.

A. Film

You’re looking for 120 film. It’s not clear to me where the number comes from, but it doesn’t matter. Just buy a handful of rolls of 120 in color or black and white, whichever you think is cooler, and you’ll be good to go. Side note: These are actual rolls of film, unlike 35mm, which actually comes in a cassette, so make sure you don’t accidentally ruin it by unraveling it.

B. Cameras

It’s in the realm of cameras that most of the choices reside. Here are the basic types:

Twin Lens Reflex: For those of us with romantic ideas about taking up medium format photography, it’s often Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) cameras that populate our daydreams. These cameras look quite a bit different than your average camera, with an upright shape that features, yes, twin lenses. The lower lens takes the photo, and the upper lens gives you an idea of what the bottom one is looking at so you’re not shooting blind. Composing photos takes some getting used to, since it is done by looking at a window on the top of the camera which reverses the image. Still, carry one of these things around and people will know you mean serious business. One major downside to these cameras is that you can’t swap lenses on most of ’em. (At right: Huckberry Customer Experience associate and CEO of maximum stokage Bryson Malone shoots with a Yashica Mat 124G TLR)

Single Lens Reflex: While most people have a good idea of what a 35mm SLR camera looks like (a rectangle with a lens on the front and a pyramid thingy on the top), most medium format SLRs actually just look like cubes that you attach a lens to. Hasselblads are the most iconic example of this, but there are plenty of other options out there. Unlike the TLRs, the lenses are removable on most, so you can build an arsenal of glass to suit whatever you like to shoot. Like the TLRs, however, most of these cameras also use the top-down (AKA waist-level) viewfinder for composing images. (At left: Huckberry Senior Designer Jeff Masamori’s Hasselblad 500 C/M SLR)

Rangefinder: Say the word “rangefinder” and most photographers imagine a journalist in a war-torn country wielding a small Leica, but there are still plenty of options in the medium format realm as well. While larger than their 35mm brethren, medium format rangefinders tend to be more compact, and use more conventional proportions than medium format TLRs and SLRs, so they’re great if you intend to shoot handheld rather than on a tripod. Rangefinder shutters are also known for being quiet — a big bonus if you’re a photojournalist or wedding photographer trying to fly under the radar. (At right: Yashica MF2 rangefinder, from Wikipedia)

C. Other stuff you might need

Tripod: Since medium format cameras are generally large, you’re going to want a tripod to do the work of holding the camera, especially if you’ve got toothpick arms like I do.

Light meter: Many medium format cameras were designed for professionals who would already have a light meter, or were manufactured in an era before built-in light meters were common, so you may want to invest in a handheld meter to figure out your exposure values. Or you can just guess.

Where to buy them:

You can still buy brand new medium format cameras, but that’s an expensive road to take if you only want to dip your toe in the water. Do your research online, then start scouring Ebay, camera forums, Craigslist, yard sales, and local camera shops that buy and sell used equipment.

Or you can wait for something to fall into your lap. My fiancée’s grandfather was a nature photographer in his retirement, and my future in-laws have entrusted me to take care of his Pentax 6x7 system for awhile. It’s an exception to the “medium format SLRs look like cubes” rule, in that it looks like a 35mm camera made for Andre the Giant. It’s crazy-heavy and it feels (and sounds) like you’ve fired a cannon every time you release the shutter — awesome. You may not be so lucky to find something in the family, but it’s worth asking about.

You’ve done the research, bought the gear, shot the film — now what? You could drop your film off at the lab and get prints of every image on the roll, but that’ll get expensive and you still won’t be able to show off your awesome photos to your legions of Instagram followers. Instead, invest a little dough up front in a film scanner. Quality film scanners start at about $200, but will save you at least $10 on every roll you shoot, so the savings add up quickly. From there, you can decide whether to print or go straight to the web.

For additional homegrown fun and money savings, invest in a dark bag, a developing canister (about $30 each), and some chemicals. With these, you can start developing your own black and white film and save another couple bucks per roll.

Medium format photography requires a decent amount of investment up front, both financially and in time spent researching, but once your first roll of film comes back from the lab it all starts to make sense. Not only are the photos gorgeous, but the whole analog process is a wonderful escape from the breakneck digital pace of modern life. If that sounds like something you might be interested in, I wholeheartedly recommend taking the plunge. [H]

1. “If you’re unsure of your lasting interest, get a TLR like the Yashica Mat 124G — they’re relatively cheap and still produce pretty good results.” — Jeff Masamori

2. “Buy a scanner, it will end up paying for itself after 10 or 15 rolls.” — Bryson Malone

3. “Don’t be afraid of trial and error: It’s the only way to really learn anything well.” — Bryson

4. “Avoid old people, or run the risk of talking with them for 30 minutes about the good ol’ days.” — Jeff

Originally published at