Wim van Velzen photography - articles

The happy medium

medium format, part 3: applications

Germany, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Seeste; Bronica EC-TL, 150 3.5 Zenzanon, Provia 100F


From part 1 and 2 you may already have concluded that medium format cameras cannot be used for every job. As a photographer you have to decide what is more likely: better quality because of a larger film area or a reduction in quality because of a more difficult handling, need of tripod and the like. The balance could tip to 35mm.

If you are after maximum enlargeability or if you are into architecture and table-top & product shots, a view camera could be your thing.

In-between there is a large area where medium format can be used very effectively. Often it is the golden middle way!

But: no single medium format system can be used for every purpose. There are different camera types and systems for a reason!
The table below offers an indication of what type camera can be used for what kind of photography. Take care: this is just an indication - some photographers can get gorgeous and very interesting results with less obvious combinations.

By close-up I mean a camera to subject distance between about 0.5 and 1 meter; macro starts (in my book) where the subject is (less than) 3 times its size on film, like 17x17cm on a 6x6 camera.
Table-top includes still-life, products shots and the like. Often perspective correction and altering the plane of focus is necessary; that is why the view camera is eminently suitable for this type of work. Two-dimensional subjects are in the same category as lose-up or macro, as there is no need to change perspective or focus.

++ :very much suited
+ :suited
o :possible
- :possible - some restrictions
-- :not possible
subject / situation SLR TLR rangefinder view camera no focussing aid
landscape ++ + + ++ +
animals + o o -- --
close-up ++ o -- + -
macro ++ -- -- + --
table-top + o o ++ -
architecture + o o ++ +
travel + ++ ++ - -
reportage ++ + ++ -- -
candid + ++ ++ -- --
available light o + + -- --
outdoor portrait ++ + + - -
studio portrait ++ + + o -


what next?

Medium format negatives and slides can be handled the same way as in 35mm. Generally the costs of printing are higher, exactly as you got used to by purchasing a medium format camera! The entire chain is more expensive that its 35mm counterpart.
The output of digital backs can be processed like with all other digital cameras (that is to say: with the same little standardisation of software and user interface as all other digital cameras).

Negatives can be printed in a dark room - probably the best thing to do for black&white. And the nice thing is that (second-hand) medium format enlargers are no more expensive than 35mm ones (quite cheap actually, because of the rush to digital). Of course, the negative carrier should be suitable for the medium format size you want to use, as should the lens.
A lot of enlargers cannot handle film larger than 6x6!

With the exception of some minilabs every lab can develop medium format film and very often get you prints as well. A problem can be, that the sales people don't know that themselves!
Quality of the prints varies as much as with 35mm. To me, investing a lot of money in a camera also means: willing to pay something extra for a good print! Nevertheless, for cheap proof prints it can be worthwhile to shop around (please, don't do this with photographs made for an assignment!).
Take care when working with 6x6: you probably have to pay the same for a 13x13cm as for a 13x18cm (that is 5x5" and 5x7" for the metrically challenged). A bit more expensive per square inch of print!
On top of that, many labs charge something extra for medium format, because of the low volume it has.

Transparencies can be printed as well. Most professional labs do this (as with negatives, nowadays) by means of a scan. In my experience, this delivers the best quality.
Traditional analogue prints are still available. At the high end, there is Ilfochrome (used to be called Cibachrome). Loved by many, but quite expensive.
Prints from transparencies are often more expensive than from negatives - but transparencies can be viewed without proof prints.

Another possibility with transparencies is to project them. There are projectors for 6x4.5 and 6x6 (in 7x7cm mounts) and for 6x7 (in 8.5x8.5 mounts). There are just a few projectors in the 8.5 category, all very professional and very expensive.
For 6x6 and 6x4.5 there are more options, and not that expensive if you don't mind second hand. And again very professional!

Mounts should be glass types: the slide is so large, that in glassless mounts they will expand with the warmth, causing unsharpness.
Glass mounts don't come in cheap (in the Netherlands I pay about € 12 for 20 of them; 6x7 mounts are more than twice that price.
This high price has the advantage that selection becomes very important, helping you to become a better photographer. Not just because of the price, but also because of the amount of time, involved in getting the slides without dust in those glass mounts...

Maybe, I don't sound enthusiastic about medium format projection, but actually I have been doing this myself for years now. Nothing else does more justice to travel, landscape and nature photos as when projected on a large screen in a dark room. Brilliant, sharp and colourful. 35mm projection will always be less of an experience, let alone a digital beamer presentation...
[ I know this is my opinion - exactly what I meant it to be! ]

When you want to make some changes to a negative or slide before printing, or when you want to show it on the internet, then you have to scan it. There are a variety ways to do this:

So, know what you expect from a scan, before getting a scanner!

what is good

Here they are, all pros of the medium format:

and what is not

I have to admit that medium format has its cons as well:

finally, a word of incitement

This is the end of the medium format articles. I hope it will be a beginning as well! A beginning of your own medium format adventures.
So, stop jumping from 35mm to 35mm system for that tiny extra bit of sharpness and colour. Enter the world called medium format!

If you want to get your toes wet, you should start with a TLR. Those oldies might need some cleaning and lubrication, but in the end they are indestructible.
If you want to know if a medium format camera is something for you, try this: handle your 35mm camera as if it is a medium format. Use a tripod, no zoom lenses and put some 100 ISO film in it. Can you cope with this? Does it help you to think better and work harder?
I cannot imagine it doesn't...

This article is written by Wim van Velzen, © 2003.
Comments on the article and photographs are welcome!

The landscape photographs shown here and lots more are put in several portfolios! More wedding photos can be found in the wedding galleries.
It is also possible to order landscape prints or to use them editorially or commercially.