Analog medium format – slowing down

In 2018 I bought a Hasselblad 501CM. A medium format camera with no electrical circuits, no auto this and that. Just a mechanical box with a viewfinder, a lens and a cartridge for film. Late in 2018 I was fortunate to get my hands on a Mamiya 645 1000s from my close family, and so the adventures wit analog medium format cameras had begun.

My analog history

When in primary school I remember I attended a photo course after school hours that put me in a darkroom. Later when doing my masters in architecture we photographed our cardboard models and got a quick one hour development at the local camera shop so we could mount the photographs on our project presentations posters. That is about the experience I have with analog photography. I started to dedicate time to photography in early 2015 and slowly building my skills and knowledge and curiosity about photography as a craft and art.

G.A.S – Gear Acquisition Syndrome

During the past three years I have been diving in to photography, I have been lucky that people share and introduce me to different photographers and genres, art work, gadgets and techniques. Very inspiring and not beneficial for what is commonly known as G.A.S.
I realized that working with a normal sized camera, what most people know as 35mm or kleinbild, gives you certain aesthetic characteristics and qualities. I also realized that medium and large format cameras have a completely different personality and aesthetic quality. I would love to own a Leica M camera. But I think operating it, would be almost the same as the cameras I already own. It’s the same format – 35mm/kleinbild. I convinced my self, that I have to get an analog medium format camera because it would handle in a completely different way, and I would have to become more aware and conscious of the skills and craft, and ultimately make me a better photographer overall… Yes… I know… The lies we tell our selves!

My precious

Hasselblad 500 series is to medium format cameras what Leica M is to 35mm/kleinbild cameras. I bought a second hand Hasselblad 501CM with a Planar 80mm F2.8 lens. If you did not now, NASA brought Hasselblad along for the moon landing (and left them on the surface). NASA subsequently also lost one on a space walk.
The Hasselblad is such a beautiful design object and just a mechanical wonder. Just google Hasselblad and you will find history, anecdotes etc. that will fill you in on this camera. Here are some shots of my precious… Isn’t she lovely?!

Analog medium format
Hasselblad 501CM

The analog world

Analog photography requires you to make a few more decisions than if you are picking up a digital camera.

  • Where can I get film?
  • Do I shoot BW or color?
  • Do I develop film myself?
  • Where can I get film developed?
  • Do they develop all kind of films?
  • Should I develop myself?
  • How do I develop film myself?
  • What do I need to develop film myself?
  • Can I get chemicals needed?
  • Do I need a dark room?
  • Will I develop only develop the negative or also the postive?
  • Where do I dispose of the chemicals?
  • Etc…

But do not let that scare you. Most bigger cities will have a place where you could hand in an exposed roll of film and get it developed. If you choose to develop yourself, which is actually not that difficult (bw film is easier than color), you need to get some stuff. Search the web and YouTube for guides.

The first roll

I had near to no experience with analog cameras. I watched several YouTube videos just in order to learn how to load and unload film. There are a few steps in order to capture exposures with a Hasselblad but suffice to say, operating the camera is slightly quirky but serves a purpose. Again… YouTube has loads of information about this.

So here I was. Film loaded, camera in hand and ready to capture the world. Manual focus, determining the right exposure (I will get back to that) and square format composition in a waist level viewfinder that gives you an inverted image of what you are trying to capture takes a lot getting used to. Bottom line: using a medium format analog camera is slow motion photography.

I really feel every exposure is precious – not only because every exposure costs you around 40-50 cents (excluding development), but because of the inertia of the process. Every frame takes time. Determining the exposure, framing your shot, focusing (hoping to nail it), developing the film and digitizing the negatives.  The first roll captured my family, nothing special just the first fumbling steps into the unknown.

Analog medium format
First roll – Kodak TriX – Xtol. Hasselblad

Getting exposure right – Sunny 16-rule

The biggest challenge is always getting the exposure right. You either get an exposure/light meter (they are quite expensive) or you get an app for your mobile cell phone (there is an exposure meter in all mobile phone cameras), or you can work with the good old Sunny 16 rule. I have practiced a little of all three methods; I borrowed a Sekonic Light meter and compared the readings with that of my mobile phone. They are fairly close – within 1-1½ stop of light.

Sunny 16 rule is a proven rule of thumb. It requires more practice, and if I combine it with the readings from my mobile phone app, I think this is the method I will use and in time I probably will trust my judgment more.

Another thing to keep in mind, is the approach to estimating exposure is the opposite of digital photography. The rule of thumb when shooting digital, is exposing for the highlights. Because blowing out highlights is easy to do and difficult to recover. When shooting analog the rule of thumb is exposing for the shadows because these are apparently crushed a lot easier and more difficult to recover.

I love the smell of coffee in the morning but not Caffenol.

One thing is doing the exposures. I decided to develop myself and my good photographer friend Peter, helped me to develop the first film, but that is not what I want to talk about. Peter has gone all in with more environmentally friendly techniques from developing films. He introduced and taught me how to develop films using instant coffee, Vitamin C and Soda. This method is called Caffenol. There are some great guides and websites that discuss this method, do’s and don’t, and if it sounds a little to hippie-happy-go-lucky don’t be fooled. It absolutely works and it’s not a second hand developing technique. Some of the best films I have developed has been with Caffenol. For what it’s worth, I found out that Caffenol and Fomapan 200 is not a good match. I also found that Rodinal gives a lot more grain than Caffenol. The frames on this post is developed with both Caffenol, Xtol and Rodinal.

Using household ingredients to develop films feels a little like the mad scientist doing magic… but be warned; Caffenol does not smell nice.. Not at all…

Going digital

Analog medium format
Digitizing medium format film

Generally you have two choices to getting the negative to the computer: Scanning or photographing (same same but different I guess). Scanning will give you plentiful of option ranging from affordable (Canon and Epson) and to absolutely out of reach (Imacon/Hasselblad, Plustek/Microtek). As far as I now, choosing the right scanning software is very important and makes a huge difference. Investing in scanner and software could set you back 300-500€.

I chose a DIY setup using what I already had – my camera. I did however buy a light box and a mounting frame to make my reproduction of the negative as good as possible. The price for this option was roughly 100€.

I shoot tethered to CaptureOne because it’s easier to adjust exposure on the fly of the scan that way. Post processing is done in that program as well, except dust and scratches if it’s really bad. This is retouched in Affinity Photo.

Food for thought

In no particular order here is a list of things I am thinking about when using my medium format cameras.

  • The square format of Hasselblad is a big challenge for me. The 3:4 ratio of Mamiya is easier to wrap me head around.
  • Shutter time is limited to 1/500 on Hasselblad and 1/1000 on Mamiya. If you want to shoot wide open aperture on a sunny day you’ll need ND filters.
  • Whenever light changes, I now wonder what would exposure values be if I was using the Sunny 16-rule.
  • I am amazed how easy and accessible modern digital cameras have made photography.
  • I am amazed that some time in the late 1800s they figured out the capture rays of light on a glass, celluloid and paper.
  • Analog photography feels like a very deliberate choice, and I hope to transfer that sensation to my digital photography.
  • Analog photography is not better, it’s just different.
  • Shooting analog requires time.
  • I mostly shoot portraits with medium format.
  • It is really difficult shooting moving objects/subjects.
  • I kind of enjoy and dread the uncertainty of not knowing if I made some good exposures before I actually spend time developing the film and see if for the first time.

So far so good

What I cherish most about analog film is, that it is physical.  I can touch it and I can smell it. The physical existence of the negative is just a special thing.

I do not think operating an analog camera is a better than digital – it certainly isn’t easier. Analog cameras requires attention from the photographer. You have to make an effort, get familiar with the basic skills of photography invest time and energy if you want some benefits from diving into analog photography.

But…. I do enjoy it and the use will be special occasions and projects only. And people I photograph also think it’s a special thing – the analog camera – and it kind of creates some nice intimate moments. People generally get the sense that more is at stake when shooting analog.

I can say one thing for sure: I am truly childishly happy when I manage to capture a good exposure on my analog cameras. Seeing a great frame makes the whole process worth while.

And no… Buying an analog medium format camera did probably not make me a better photographer….

What is your take on analog photography?

Some links to resources for film, caffenol and film development

Development charts and agitation schemes: Massive Dev Chart
Film development the “lazy” way: Stand Development
The main resource of Caffenol: Caffenol Cookbook
A caffenol blog: Caffenol Blogspot
Description of different BW films: Guide to Film Photography
Compare different BW films in same developer: Cinestill Film

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