26 Nov. 2012 

Film photography is seeing a resurgence today.  As a result, more and more new people are picking up film cameras.  The Twin-Lens Reflex camera, or TLR, is a great and fairly inexpensive way to get into medium format photography.   There's also a certain old-school sophistication that goes along with using one of these.  The TLR is about as far from one of those "picture-taking computers" as you can get.

So you score a nice Yashica MAT or perhaps a Minolta Autocord on the 'bay. Or, if you've got the budget, perhaps a Rolleiflex 2.8 Planar.   You receive the camera in good shape and you're all giddy.  You load the film just right, you meter your scenes carefully, and you make what ought to be a series of great shots.

When you get the film back and scan the pictures, you notice something is just a tad amiss:   the pictures are blurry near the center!  

Immediately you start to wonder: 

Could you have gotten a lemon? 
Could the taking lens have some kind of astigmatism you never noticed before? 
Did you happen to pick a photographic location that's somehow cursed?  

The real answer, in all probability, is none of the above.  Welcome to the world of "film bulge", an occasional artifact of 120 film.

Above:  You might not notice it at first, but look near the center of the picture, just off to the right of it and up a little.   Once you see what I mean, it becomes tough to look at this picture.

Solution?  Well, this picture is toast, but for next time:  check out the list of handy tips, below.  The main one in this situation would have been:  take multiple shots of the same scene.  (Incidentally, the exposure on this photo was about 1/3 stop too high for my liking.) 

And yeah, the camera had probably heated up sitting in its black camera bag while I was driving.

I'd be the first to tell you that 120 film is the greatest thing since the wheel.  The fact that it's been around for about 111 years and is still going strong in the Digital Age should tell you something.  120 film (a.k.a. medium format) yields very high-resolution images, and of course they have that incredible tonality that only film can give.   Besides, there is something almost magical about working a roll of 120 film through a camera.   35mm film is cool and I love it, but the "big pictures" are special.

There have been a lot of photos taken with anything from Rolleiflexes to Lubitels, and many (most) of them are quite sharp.  Even though film buckling is a nuisance, it can be managed.

Here are some tips I've learned from experience (which has included at least a few pictures being blurred in the center...)

TLR's are actually not the only ones to have the problem.  The basic design of a 120 camera is the same whether you're using a rangefinder, a TLR, or whatever.  There is a pressure plate, and there's empty space in front of it.   You need that empty space so light can get from the lens to the film!  The mechanics of this problem are common to every make and type of 120 camera that I can think of. 

Avoid temperature fluctuations.  As film expands and contracts, it is much more likely to "pop" suddenly out of flat (I've seen mounted 35mm slides do this, too).  As the film expands, the edges can't really go anywhere.  They're held against the rails by flanges on the pressure plate (or, with slides, by the mount itself).  Therefore, the easiest thing for the film center to do is buckle outward into the empty space in front of the pressure plate.  Loading your film in an air-conditioned building, then getting out into the hot sun to take pictures with your TLR, is a common scenario that probably causes a lot of this.  Another thing to avoid is leaving your camera bag in direct sunlight where it can get warm.

Minimize the time between each shot.   According to the Carl Zeiss company (Camera Lens News, No. 10, 2000), you'll have best results if you take each shot within five minutes of winding it to the frame.   The longer it sits, the worse it is;  in a  couple hours, the film will certainly distort.    I wouldn't doubt that if the camera heated up a lot while it was in the car, the film may buckle off the pressure plate as soon as you wind to the next picture.   (Haven't tested this yet, don't want to waste the film to find out!) 

Looking through some 120 transparencies, it looks like the shots I took shortly after winding really do look sharper. 

Choose a narrow aperture.  If you're shooting landscapes and have a steady tripod, try shooting at the narrowest aperture you have.  The Yashica MAT 124 goes up to f/32.  Sure, you get some diffraction effect there, but it's no big deal compared to the alternative.  The very narrow aperture has great depth of field, which can offset minor un-flatness of the film.  

Take more pictures.  I know, this uses more film, but it decreases the chance that your pictures will all have a nasty blurred area.  (It won't be every one, just the scenes you really liked...)   Besides, in this digital age, the best way to keep film going is to buy and use more of it.  (Once you get hooked on film, that's not hard to do!)   With that worthy aim in mind, here are some links where you can buy 120 film for your TLR (or Holga, 645, 6x7, etc).  I get my film from here, too.

120 Transparency Film (E-6 process)


Regular Velvia 100 (not "100F") (120 format) - 5 roll pro pack

Velvia 100F (120 format) - 5-roll pro pack
120 Color Negative Film (C-41 process)



The TLR camera is a fine way to shoot medium format, and with the right technique it will yield sharp, high-resolution pictures.  Film has beautiful tonality that can't be matched by digital.   If you haven't gotten into medium format yet, give it a try. 

I hope this article has helped you get the most out of what may just be the best photographic tool of all time:  the 120 film camera.

By the way, you can really help me out by using the links (above) to buy your stuff.  It helps me keep this site on-line.  Thanks, and happy photographing!

I hope you enjoy my work.  Thanks for visiting this site.

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