Medium format fun

I recently borrowed a couple of medium format cameras, a Seagull 4A and a Lubitel 166b, the latter an old russian model my Dad had had in a cupboard for decades. I’d never used a medium format film camera before, so I wanted to try them out, just to see what sort of images they produce. They are both very simple cameras, but the mechanisms are amazing and they operate without a battery. They are Twin Lens Reflex cameras, with the viewfinder on the top in the style of the iconic Rolleiflex.

With a maximum aperture of f3.5 one has to consider lighting very carefully. Fortunately the Seagull has a hot shoe so can be used to trigger an off-camera flash. The viewfinders show images back-to-front which is tricky to get used to. Holding the camera at waist height introduces a very different view of a scene too. Adjusting the ISO, which is a simple button push on a digital SLR, is impossible once a film is selected and loaded. Getting a good focus is very hard, even using the little magnifying glass that pops up over the viewfinder.

I bought three rolls of film, each offering just 12 square exposures. In itself, the limited number of exposures is a challenge. I wanted to try something different with each and made sure I kept notes of the settings I’d used. I used my DSLR to find the correct exposure though trial and error, before transferring the settings to the TLR cameras.

I’m glad I wasn’t photographing weddings when medium format was the expected standard. It would have been so much harder to capture as many moments: The process of metering, checking settings, reaching around the camera to adjust levers and the very fine accuracy of the focus all mean that it’s just not possible to be as responsive as with a modern DSLR. I can fit hundreds of images on a single Compact Flash card, so it’s much easier to respond to events unfolding around me. Using a film camera with a very limited number of frames really makes one think about every exposure and make it count. Very different and a real challenge!

So what of the results? Well, I was happy just to get correctly exposed images back. The lenses don’t seem to be brilliant and unfortunately the Lubitel also seemed to have a light leak. I don’t have a medium format negative scanner, so I can’t present the images as they look in the prints, but there is a lovely classic feeling to the images, evoking memories of the square black and white prints of relatives I inherited in photo albums of a child. Somehow the events captured in the frame already seem to have taken place a long time ago.

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    2 Responses to Medium format fun

    1. Janne says:

      I use MF cameras quite a lot. Remember, BW film (and negative color film) has a _lot_ of exposure latitude; you generally only need to measure a scene and set the exposure once, then just shoot with that unless the light changes dramatically. 2-3 stops over- or underexposure doesn’t really matter all that much for the final results. And if you notice it’s getting dim, you can just guesstimate it and add, oh, 2 stops or so without having to whip out a meter.

    2. Tony says:

      Thanks for the tip Janne!

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