Today’s digital cameras are capable of awesome imaging performance and they offer an unparalleled combination of convenience, efficiency, and cost effectiveness that has made them the dominant mode of image capture. Nevertheless, shooting black-and-white film, especially in medium format, is a fascinating and worthwhile experience that’s rewarding, fun, and can also go a long way toward making you a more thoughtful and effective digital photographer.
Loading a roll of 120 film into, say, an old Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex may seem like a quaint and tedious procedure compared to inserting a memory card into your DSLR. Using an exposure meter, setting the aperture and shutter speed individually, and focusing manually certainly takes more time and effort than using your camera’s built-in auto-exposure and autofocus systems. And having to wait for the film to be developed before you can see the results will certainly test the patience of those accustomed to assessing their captured images immediately on the LCD. However, this “retro” experience forces you to slow down, take a deliberate approach, and it gives you that inimitable feeling that you’re creating something for the ages. Perhaps that’s why so many art photographers and creative shooters continue to shoot at least some of their work on film, and to favor the traditional black-and-white medium.
The image capture system you use does make a difference!
Yes, as the saying goes, it’s the person behind the camera who determines the quality, originality, and significance of virtually any photograph. But photography is also a technologically based art form, and that’s why the type of equipment and capture medium you use to create images also has a direct influence on the final results. If you examine the pictures on these pages, which I shot on Kodak Professional Tri-X 120 roll film with 50- to 60-year-old manual exposure twin lens reflexes (TLRs), they look qualitatively and emotionally different from what you’d typically shoot with a modern DSLR. They have a kind of quiet, contemplative grandeur that results from the slow, deliberate approach you must use with this kind of camera and the limitations it imposes on the photographer. And the limited depth of field you get when shooting medium format at large apertures throws the background and foreground pleasantly out of focus.
With the exception of the Mamiya C220, all the cameras I used lack interchangeable lenses and only focus down to about three feet (which is why I used Rolleinar close-up lenses to get closer to the subject, in some cases). The fact that the viewing image with a waist-level-viewing TLR is reversed left to right makes it challenging to follow action, but it also encourages careful framing and composition, which is a big plus for portraiture. And, of course, you’re limited to 12 exposures per roll, costing roughly 50 cents apiece (not including developing, scanning, and printing), which really motivates you to make each one count.
Finally, using an exposure meter to calculate and set the exposure encourages you to really think about the effects of apertures and shutter speeds on the final image, and to carefully consider whether you’re exposing for the highlights, shadows, and mid-tones. In short, shooting film in a classic TLR or roll film folding camera forces you to take a slow, disciplined approach that is all too often lacking in today’s fast-paced digital photography, where most users fall back on their camera’s automation and the essentially unlimited image-capture capability of a high-speed, high-capacity memory card.
What you’ll need to get started
If you already own or have access to a well-functioning, medium-format roll film camera, all you really need to acquire is: 120 roll film (I recommend Kodak Tri-X or Ilford FP4 Plus) and an accurate, working exposure meter. The current Sekonic L-208 Twin Mate meter is a good choice, or you can go for a classic used meter such as the Gossen Luna-Pro. Make sure the meter you choose is a modern battery-powered type; older selenium meters are OK, but they generally aren't sensitive enough to read in extremely low light.
If you’re not familiar with shooting roll film, it’s best to shoot at least 100 exposures to get comfortable and creative with this medium, and 10 rolls will allow you to shoot 120 images in the 2-1/4 x 2-1/4-inch format. If you take your time, this will be sufficient to give you a new mindset and perspective that are virtually guaranteed to enhance your digital shooting capability. If you don’t have a medium-format camera available, you can find a good used one at relatively modest cost in the B&H Used Department.
Choosing a medium-format camera
Medium-format cameras come in a wide variety of types, including TLRs, SLRs, solid-bodied press cameras, and scale focusing and rangefinder folding cameras in formats ranging from 6 x 4.5cm to 6 x 9cm, and even some panoramic options going up to 6 x 17cm. Since the only remaining roll film size that’s widely available is the paper-backed 120 (220 is still sold in a limited range) make sure the camera you pick takes that size film.
There is certainly nothing wrong with using a medium-format-film SLR, such as a Hasselblad 500 C/M, Mamiya RB67 or 645, Pentax 6x7 or 645, etc., but for this project I decided to concentrate on TLRs. They’re simple, durable designs with quiet, low-vibration leaf shutters and the fact that they don't have a flipping mirror allows you to shoot sharp handheld pictures at slower shutter speeds. Here are some recommendations:
Rolleiflex: These timeless classics are the standard by which other TLRs are judged and they still command premium prices. However, they do provide automatic first frame positioning (no red window or first frame positioning marks to line up) and automatic parallax compensation. If you’re on a budget, go for the Rolleiflex Automat MX of the early to mid ’50s with a fine, quality coated Zeiss Tessar 75mm f/3.5 or Schneider Xenar 75mm f/3.5 lens. Late model Rolleis like the 3.5 F and 2.8 F with Zeiss Planar or Schneider Xenotar lenses are the cream of the crop, but they generally sell for a bit more, depending on condition.
Rolleiflex 3.5E: Perhaps the most affordable, relatively late model high-end Rolleiflex, it has the superb
75mm f/3.5 Planar lens and, like all Rolleiflexes since 1937, it provides automatic first-frame positioning and
auto-parallax compensation over the entire focusing range.
Rolleicord: These little brothers of the Rolleiflex are simpler in design but do also provide auto parallax compensation and accept Rolleinar close-up lenses. Make sure to get one with a Schneider Xenar 75mm f/3.5 lens and Synchro-Compur shutter. The most desirable ones are the late model Va and Vb, the latter with interchangeable viewing screens. However, older models such as the III and IV are still very competent picture takers.
Mamiya and Mamiyaflex: These rugged, high-quality machines are the only truly successful interchangeable-lens TLRs and they hold up very well. Lens sets from 55mm to 250mm are available, but both the standard Mamiya-Sekor 80mm f/2.8 and 105mm f/3.5 lenses are of excellent quality. Older models, such as the Mamiyaflex C2, Mamiya C22, and C3 are less costly, and later models such as the C220 and C330 are more expensive. They’re larger and heavier than Rolleis, and they focus much closer without requiring close-up lenses, but they have no parallax compensation other than lines on the focusing screen to guide your framing.
Mamiya C220: Larger and heavier than the Rolleiflex, this robust interchangeable-lens TLR can focus much closer
without accessories, but you have to manually correct for parallax at close shooting distances.
The standard 80mm f/2.8 Mamiya-Sekor lens is outstanding, and lenses from 50-250mm are available.
Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex: They’re great cameras, in terms of optics and focusing-screen brightness, but not as sophisticated as the Rolleiflex and more prone to mechanical troubles, especially the film winding and focusing mechanisms. If you can get one in nice shape at a good price, it might be worthwhile, and they sure look very cool. Prices vary widely but make sure it has a Tessar 75mm f/3.5 lens and Compur-Rapid or Synchro-Compur shutter.
Zeiss Ikoflex Favorit: A well-made classic TLR with sharp 75mm f/3.5 Zeiss Opton Tessar lens, bright
viewfinder, and built-in selenium meter, but the film-wind
mechanism is not as reliable as the ones in comparable Rolleiflex cameras.
Other great TLRs worthy of consideration: The Yashica-Mat with an 80mm f/3.5 Yashinon or Lumaxar taking lens, not other models with Yashikor or Yashimar lens; the Minolta Autocord with a Rokkor 75mm f/3.5 lens, which is often hailed as the second-best TLR ever after the Rolleiflex; and the Ricoh Diacord G, a sleeper with a fine-performing Rikenon 80mm f/3.5 taking lens and bright viewing system.
Yashica-Mat: A great value, this TLR is robust and reliable, with sharp four-element Yashinon or—in early models—
Lumaxar lenses. The outer bayonet accepts Rolleinar close-up lenses. Late-model 124Gs with
built-in CdS Hexanon meters are more expensive and they have plastic control dials.
Getting closer, and steadier
If you want to shoot portraits similar to the ones shown here, you’ll want to be able to focus somewhat closer than the three-foot or so minimum focusing distance of a typical non-interchangeable-lens TLR. The best answer is the Rolleinar close-up lens sets made by Rollei that click into the outer bayonet mounts of your TLR’s viewing and taking lenses. There’s a parallax-compensating prism built into the unit that mounts over the viewing lens and it provides surprisingly accurate framing at close distances. Most TLRs including older Rolleiflexes, all Rolleicords, and most other TLRs with f/3.5 lenses use the Rolleinar 1 mount, and the most useful one is the R1, which gets you down to about two feet. If you want to get even closer, there’s an R2 and R3 set.
Since TLRs don’t feature super-speed lenses and if you want to get crisp images, it helps to use a tripod when shooting at shutter speeds of 1/60-second and slower. Since the best tripod is the one you take with you, I always carry my trusty Davis & Sanford Traverse TR-553-228, which folds to 12 inches, extends to 53 inches, weighs only 2.6 pounds, and will support cameras up to 10 pounds.
Developing and printing your medium-format film
Unless you’re a diehard traditionalist, you probably don't want to set up a complete wet darkroom and make prints the old-fashioned way. Fortunately, these days you don't have to; the only part of the process that still requires darkroom chemicals is developing the film. You can bring your 120 film to a local pro lab; however, those are becoming relatively scarce outside of the larger cities. An alternative is to mail your film to labs for processing, using pre-paid mailers, or to contact labs directly. When working with labs, you often have a choice of traditional developers to use, such as HC-110 or D-76, as well as the option to have contact sheets, scans, and prints of your negatives made at the same time.
You can also, of course, scan your own medium-format negatives at high resolution by opting for a format-compatible scanner, such as the Epson Perfection V800 Photo Scanner or the Epson Perfection V850 PRO, which has enhanced software options and additional film holders, and then print them out yourself on any high-quality inkjet photo paper of your choice. If you’re in the market for a printer that turns out excellent black-and-white, I strongly recommend that you get one that uses pigmented inks and an ink set that provides at least three gray/black inks to achieve optimal tonal gradation. Here are some suggestions: Epson Stylus Photo P600 Inkjet Printer, which has a maximum print size of 13 x 19 inches and uses a nine-ink set; Epson SureColor P800 Inkjet printer, which increases the maximum print size to 17 x 22 inches and also uses a nine-ink set; or the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000, which also has a 17 x 22 inch maximum output size and uses a 11-color ink set than includes four monochrome inks.
For more detailed information about film scanners, take a look at this B&H roundup.