Film      Medium & Large Format


A reader emailed me with the subject line "Go Big Or Go Home", referring to his decision to get into "big film".    Already a 35mm shooter, he was contemplating which medium- or large-format camera would be a good place to start.

Many people face the same dilemma:  which type of camera?  Medium and large format each have their pros and cons. 

Let's see what's what.

A Quick Note

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Medium Format

Medium format all uses 120 film.  It's just a question of how much film the camera uses at once. 

The smallest of medium format is 645, which is sort of like a jumbo 35mm frame.  Actually, six centimeters wide is substantially larger than 35mm, and the resolution is noticeably better.  645 cameras are often available with SLR-style viewfinders, which makes the transition very natural for a long-time 35mm shooter.  I don't have a 645 camera at the moment, but the format is pretty nice.

Actually, I think 645 is good enough (vs 35mm) that it would be worth getting one of the better cameras, such as a Contax 645.

The Rust Of Autumn, 6x4.5

Fujichrome Velvia 100 (120 film)
Flatbed scan
(would have been sharper if scanned the right way)

Next up is 6x6, or square format.  This is where you'll see the Rolleiflexes, Minolta Autocords, Yashica MATs, and a host of other cameras.  These are TLR's, or twin-lens reflex cameras.  There are quite a few non-TLR's that also shoot 6x6.  The great Hasselblad 500 c/m is one of them;  you can also get 645 backs for it.

Most of what I shoot in medium format is in fact 6x6.  You can always crop a 6x6 image to 645 size, after you scan it.   I usually try to compose square, though. 

6x6 is still probably my favorite.  With that said, many people who are starting out in medium format choose to go directly for 6x7, the next "size" up in the medium format series. 

The rectangular aspect ratio of 6x7 cm isn't that rectangular, but it seems more familiar to viewers who are used to looking at 8x10's and that sort of thing.  6x7 cm is almost like "large format on a budget".   The resolution is great enough that you may not notice any difference between it and 4x5, at least not at first glance.

There are larger "medium formats", such as 6x9 and 6x12.   The 6x12 is a panoramic-view aspect ratio.  It will also eat up a roll of 120 faster, but I've been wanting one of these for a while now (even though it's sort of a "toy" camera).   

6x9 is a great format.  There are a number of folder-type cameras, and some rangefinders, that shoot 6x9.  The Fujifilm GW690 is the first one that I think of in this format. There are others, but the ones I can think of offhand are more folder-like and less rangefinder-like.

Despite the comparatively huge frame size, a 6x9 rangefinder provides the closest thing to a regular 35mm rangefinder / SLR, in terms of layout.    Actually there are 6x7 rangefinders, but 6x9 gives a 2:3 aspect ratio: the same as 35mm film. (One of these days I'll do an article on the Fujifilm GW690.)

Large Format

As mentioned in "Getting Started In 4x5", a Graflex Crown Graphic or Speed Graphic is a great way to start, at least if you're on a budget.   Even if you think you might move on later to something else, it is very, very rare that anyone regrets shooting film on a Graflex.  Just make sure you get one where everything works.

Speaking from experience here, I've found that it's quite possible to shoot these press cameras without ever wanting to move into a full-featured view camera.  Most landscape situations can be accommodated by the limited selection of front movements available on a press camera.  In fact, 90% of your photography will be with no movements at all.  The rest will be mostly front-raise, which is very easy to do on a press camera.

Nowadays, the cost of a press camera is about the same as a medium-format camera, or sometimes less.  The film expense is obviously greater with 4x5, but there is something incredibly satisfying about shooting big sheets of film.  I cannot adequately describe it, except to say that if you're a photographer, don't even wait to put this on your bucket list.  Shoot big film now.  It's awesome. 

Shooting big film on a camera made somewhere between the Thirties and the Sixties... that's even better. There is something about cameras made of metal and wood: none of this modern-day plastic stuff.

Medium format is great, too, but it's not 4x5.  Something about the whole procedure... seating a film holder in the back of a camera... focusing on the ground-glass, perhaps with a coat over your head... making sure everything is right before you open the darkslide... nothing else is quite like that.   You know you have one shot, and you'd better make it count.  This is the height of photographic skill and patience, I think.  (8x10 film is even more awesome, but I can't afford it.)

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If you want to jump right into one of the best, get one of these cameras.  It's a little more sophisticated than a press camera but has a similar form factor and appearance.   If you get that camera, they take this kind of lens board.   Be sure to get one that's made for your intended shutter type (e.g., Copal 0, Copal 1, etc.).   If possible, just get one with a lens and shutter already mounted.  (Then you don't have to worry about what shutter size.) 135mm or 150mm would be a good choice for starting out.

Field & Monorail Cameras

Some people will prefer the flexibility (both figuratively and literally) of a view camera that has all the movements.   Realize that this has the greatest demand for a steady tripod, because view cameras are heavy and bulky.   Typically they are mounted on a heavy, metal monorail. 

You can often pick up a used one of these for not much more than a press camera.   (This link should take you directly to some choices in a view camera.) 

By the time I upload this article, someone might have already bought this camera, but if not, I'd grab it.  Great, low-cost view camera. 

Often, though, you'll need to buy a lens separately;  often you can get one mounted on a lens board.  Many lenses already have a Copal shutter, also.  You'll have to pick a lens board that fits the view camera you're getting.  There are several different lens board sizes, but the good news is that it's easy to move a lens from one board to another.

If you're going to get this sort of view camera, I would highly recommend picking up a good book like this one or this one (perhaps both).   There are a lot of view-camera-specialized tricks of the trade, mostly revolving around the use of movements.   Perspective control is a huge part of the view camera.   So, too, is learning to choose your scenes.  Even if you have the funds to buy tons of 4x5 film, it's always an "ouch" to see a sheet of 4x5 go to waste.


As a reminder, not everything you'll see listed as a "view camera" is going to have all the movements.  Press cameras are a sub-type of view camera;  the common ones (Crown Graphic, Speed Graphic, etc) have limited movements.  If you want something with all the movements, look for a "field camera" or "monorail camera";  however, a few types of press camera have all or nearly all the movements. 

If a camera has a monorail or the mount for one, it's probably the kind with all the movements.

4x5 Lenses

In the Getting Started article, I mentioned some lens choices.  I just want to underscore the fact that you don't need super high-grade lenses to have fun with 4x5, and even make serious art.   Get the super high-grade lenses eventually, but just know that an Ektar or Optar lens could be all you need for years.  The biggest consideration is to make sure you're getting one that doesn't have fungus or deep scratches. 

Film & Accessories

Velvia 100
Kodak Ektar 100

4x5 film holders.  Even though you can shoot only one at a time, you'll want to have at least four or five holders.   Four holders is about the minimum that makes it worth while to get in the car and drive somewhere, or hike some distance, with the singular objective of shooting large format.

A sufficiently sturdy tripod.    If you're accustomed to department-store tripods, you'll need something better.  If you already have one of the newer, strong tripods with a ballhead, you may already have what you need.  Check the weight rating.   4x5 press cameras are heavy, but they're not as heavy as full-fledged view cameras with rails and all that. If your tripod can handle a six-pound camera, it can handle a Graflex. 


Medium or large format... which one? 

If you're really bitten by the film photography bug, you'll eventually want to get into both.  If you're wondering which to get into first, consider these questions:

Are you looking for something that lets you take follow-up pictures in a reasonable time-frame?  This, and cost-per-photo, are really the primary advantages of medium format over large. 

If you want the "best of both worlds", get one of these cameras.  It's big, it's heavy, and it's rather slow;  but it does allow follow-up shots quite a bit faster than a 4x5 or 8x10. And messed-up photos are not as costly on rollfilm as they are on sheet.

Are you looking for something really far removed from ordinary 35mm shooting?  Consider large format.  The slowness and the greater amount of pre-shoot preparation are not for everyone, but for some shooters it will become a welcome part of the experience.

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