Street Photography with Medium Format Cameras and Film


When I first began studying photography, I was taught that there were two types of photographers: collectors and voyeurs. I remember being immediately drawn to photographs that fell under the latter category. The photos of Cartier-Bresson, with their ability to capture subjects and environments interacting so harmoniously, were mesmerizing. I too wanted to know how to create "The Decisive-Moment."

Later I learned that he used an unfamiliar type of camera called a rangefinder. Just before attending school I had sold my vintage 1973 Volkswagen Squareback, to purchase what I thought a professional photographer was supposed to shoot with—a Hasselblad 500C. It felt quite awkward carrying around this toaster-like camera in the streets, looking for people and places to photograph. The second I pressed the shutter, the metallic ‘flip-flop’ sound gave me away, and all eyes would turn to me.

Some years later, I had the opportunity to borrow a rangefinder from my workplace. The students had snatched up all the Hasselblads, RZ67's and Canon 20D’s for the weekend, leaving the Mamiya 7II’s on the otherwise empty shelves. At first I was leery of using it, because it had no Polaroid or film back, and I never saw anyone else using them. With plenty of 120 film sitting idle in my fridge, and my own Hasselblad having focusing issues, I begrudgingly took the rangefinder home along with a 65mm lens.

The first thing I realized while commuting home with the kit was how light it was. Everything I needed fit into a small one-pocket bag. I was used to the large, shoulder-slung gear bags with all their compartments, like those that the RZ67’s were packed in. Yet, I was toting around a camera that could produce the same size 6x7cm negative. It took a while for the camera to catch on with students, so I almost always had reliable access to one.

I had never used a rangefinder before. Viewfinder framing and focusing were difficult to get accustomed to. Initially, negatives were out of focus and subjects were awkwardly cropped. Camera operation felt more deliberate than my through-the-lens cameras, because of the need to compose within frame lines. I also became more film conscious, since there were fewer frames per roll in the 6X7 format.

Yet, taking the picture was such a different, thrilling experience. I no longer saw the image flit in and out of view when I released the shutter. People around me did not hear the camera fire—and often—neither did I. Looking through the viewfinder, I could anticipate a shot as subjects traversed the frame lines. The resulting contact sheets were full of contrast and detail. I was amazed that I could produce such large negatives from a camera not weighing much more than my AE-1 Program. I also could photograph hand-held sharply at slow shutter speeds.

What really convinced me to continue using medium format were the 20" x 24” prints that I was able to produce. Even at ISO 800, the images retained wide tonal range with minimal grain. I accepted that using medium format meant using more rolls of film to complete assignments. (Using 220 film helped with this.) Printing large-scale made me consider more what I was filling the frame with in-camera. I slowed down my composition process, and found the confidence to engage with my subjects longer, not worrying about the roll count.

My photography evolved in an exciting direction when I began experimenting with the Mamiya 7II’s panoramic feature. Movies from the ‘50’s and ‘60s, shot using the wide 2:1 aspect ratio of Cinemascope & Panavision, were influential. I also examined the work of photographers who used the format, such as Larry Towell and Josef Koudelka. The panoramic format adapted well to street photography, because so much more happens on the horizontal axis than on the vertical. The format challenged me to compose images not just using foreground and background, but from left to right and vice versa.

Being able to use 35mm with the same medium format camera gave me more frames to work with. Yet, I still patiently observed my surroundings, and often waited for the image to compose itself.  More importantly, I discovered a unique way of photographing that I loved and felt confident to pursue further.

You can see more of Jason Geller's work at his Lightstalkers page and his website. Jason is an associate with the B&H EDU program.

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If you are a student or an instructor in an accredited US college you can save $732 on a Mamiya 7II kit, via the B&H EDU Advantage Educational Discount Program. Click here to check it out.

   $3,700 for a Mamiya 7 II pro is quite high tough...

   I'm thinking $3500 for the Mamiya is going to keep it in solid someday territory for me though...

There is an entire market of used Mamiya 7 and Mamiya 7II goods available. I eventually sold my Hasselblad 500C kit and bought a used Mamiya 7 with a 65mm lens on an on-line auction site. I later added a second Mamiya 7 body and an NPC Polaroid back. The bodies I believe cost around $450 each and were very similar in construction to the Mamiya 7II bodies. I also believe I paid around $900 for the lens.

My only suggestion from my on-line camera bidding experience is be careful who you buy from. The 65mm lens I purchased from an individual seller intermittently malfunctioned not long after I received it. At first I thought it was a battery issue but but the time I went to the repair shop and found out  the electronic shutter was dead, it was too late to return it and I hadn't purchased an extended warranty. 

Buy from a reputable dealer. Had I spent a little more purchasing from a store rather than an iffy-at-best auctioneer my purchase would have been covered. It's my opinion that having someone to go back to when your equipment fails is worth the price.

Hindsight is 20/20 right?

I love my Holgas and 50+ year old Rolleiflex for different kinds of medium format goodness. I'm thinking $3500 for the Mamiya is going to keep it in solid someday territory for me though.

I still use film with my medium format cameras as digital backs are still to high in price. I do use digital for my 35mm SLR photography.

Film shot with my old Mamiya RB67, and even older Crown Graflex, and very old RB Graflex B just have a quality that I can't get from digital. And when I don't want to schlep around one of those old dinosaurs I can thrown my Holga (and a role of black tape) in my pocket for some fun and creativity.  

Great article you wrote.

$ 3,700 for a Mamiya 7 II pro is quite high tough

Props on the article... and the AE-1 program, I've been shooting one of those for 18 years now.   Film makes me think more critically about all aspects of taking the shot... especially composition and lighting, at least in my case.  One day I hope to "upgrade" from my Holga and Brownie Hawkeye to one of these!  Thanks for sharing.

Great work Jason, I believe the process with shooting film is so different than the digital process, in the back of you mind, you take the shot more serious. Keep it up!

Great article. Mirrors my experience with this wonderful camera also. Out of all the cameras I own, which include a Hasselblad system, several Mamiyas, a Phase One body and digital back, Nikon DSLRs, and Leicas, if I had to choose one camera to keep and get rid of all the rest, I'd keep the Mamiya 7 II.  The Mamiya 7 II is like a Leica M rangefinder on steroids. Phenomenal image quality in a very light and compact camera. It's so compact and portable that I'm able to carry around a Mamiya 7II w/ 80mm lens attached, a 150mm lens, a 43mm lens w/ external finder, and about 10 rolls of 120 film into a Tamrac Velocity 7x camera bag.