Why Choose Medium Format? The Case for Bigger is Better

Arts & Entertainment

  • Author Michael Elliott
  • Published September 13, 2023
  • Word count 962

A photograph of Michael Elliott with his Kiev 60 Medium Format SLR camera.

The author with (...well hidden by...) his Kiev 60 medium format TLR. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Why Choose Medium Format?

The Case For Bigger Is Better

Michael Elliott --- Fine Art Film Photographer-Flâneur and Londoner at Large

Medium format film photography is a niche hobby that has been gaining popularity in recent years, especially among enthusiasts and professionals who appreciate the unique aesthetic and quality that it offers. But what exactly is medium format, and how does it differ from the more common 35mm camera systems or digital photography?

Medium format film is a type of roll film that comes in various sizes, such as 6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7, 6x8, and 6x9 cm. These sizes are much larger than the standard 35mm film, which measures 24x36 mm. The larger size of medium format film means that it can capture more detail, dynamic range, and depth of field than 35mm film or digital sensors. This results in images that have smoother tonal transitions, richer colors, and a three-dimensional feel.

Medium format cameras are also different from 35mm film cameras or digital cameras in terms of design and functionality. There are four main types of medium format film cameras: single-lens reflex (SLR) such as the Pentacon Six system, modular SLR such as the Hasselblad systems, twin-lens reflex (TLR) like Rolleiflexes and Minolta Autocords, and rangefinders like the Mamiya 7 and Fujica GL-690. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, depending on the user's preference and style.

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Why Medium Format Film Photography is Still Better than Digital

SLR cameras are similar to modern digital SLRs, except that they use medium format film instead of digital sensors. They have a mirror and a prism that allow the user to see through the lens and compose the image in the viewfinder. SLR cameras offer the most versatility and flexibility in terms of lens choice, focusing, and exposure control. However, they are also the heaviest and bulkiest of the three types, and they can be noisy due to the mirror mechanism. Modular SLR systems have the added advantage of being able to swap out finders and backs --- as well as the lens --- so that you can change films mid roll, or switch from a waist level finder to a prism finder easily. With so few shots per roll, the ability to change backs is somewhat overvalued, though, unless you're in a professional situation where you absolutely need to switch between, for instance, black and white and colour film immediately.

TLR cameras have two lenses: one for taking the picture and one for viewing the image on a waist-level finder. The two lenses are connected by a gear system that synchronizes their focus. TLR cameras are quieter and lighter than SLR cameras, and they have a distinctive square format that can create interesting compositions. However, they have limited lens options, parallax error (the difference between what the viewfinder shows and what the lens captures), and reverse image orientation on the viewfinder.

Rangefinder cameras have a separate viewfinder that is coupled with a rangefinder mechanism that helps the user to focus accurately. Rangefinder cameras are the most compact and discreet of the three types, and they have a bright and clear viewfinder that shows more than what the lens captures. However, they also have limited lens options, parallax error, and no through-the-lens metering or preview.

Why use medium format film?

So why would one use medium format film and cameras over 35mm film cameras and digital cameras? The answer depends on the user's personal preference, budget, and creative vision. Some possible reasons are:

Medium format vs. digital:

  • To enjoy the process of shooting with film, which involves loading the film, winding it manually, developing it in a darkroom or sending it to a lab, and waiting for the results.

  • To experiment with different film stocks, which have different characteristics such as color rendition, contrast, grain, and sensitivity.

  • To achieve a distinctive look that is hard to replicate with digital photography, such as shallow depth of field, smooth bokeh, natural skin tones, and organic grain.

Medium format vs 35mm film:

  • To challenge oneself with the limitations of medium format film photography, such as fewer frames per roll (usually 10 to 16), higher cost per shot, slower operation speed, manual focus and exposure control.

  • To appreciate the craftsmanship and quality of medium format film cameras, which are often made of metal and built to last for decades.

  • To collect vintage or rare medium format film cameras, which can have historical or sentimental value.

Of course, medium format film photography is not for everyone. It can be expensive, time-consuming, inconvenient, and frustrating at times. It also (more often than not) requires more skill and knowledge than digital photography (unless you get one of those rare unicorn fully auto MF cameras... like the Fuji GA645Zi). 

However, for those who love it, it can be rewarding, satisfying, fun, and artistic.

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