Part I: The Joy of Medium Format Film
This year I discovered the joy of shooting medium format film, and it has completely rejuvenated my interest in film photography. To start my series on medium format film photography, I'll share with you what makes this photographic medium so attractive.
I started shooting large format film, which is about as backward as it can be! I enjoy it, but large format requires big cameras, a big tripod, and isn't exactly an easy system to shoot in a busy environment. So although I loved shooting film, I didn't do it but every so often - for "special occasions."
I really didn't know anything about medium format film until early 2015. I often spend a few hours before bed surfing the internet and searching for the work of other photographers to help inspire me. One evening I discovered the work of Vivian Maier, a photographer whose work only became well known after her death. Her work intrigued me - there was a rawness and curiosity to her work that made me explore more. Upon researching her work, I found she shot with a Rolleiflex camera, something that was relatively unknown to me.
Off to Google I went. I quickly learned what a Rolleiflex camera is and about the type of film it shoots. The Rolleiflex (called a Rollei for short) is a twin lens camera that uses one lens for framing and focusing and the other to capture the image. Compared to the large format view camera, the Rollei is very compact and portable - perfect for travel.
Part of learning about the Rollei involved learning about medium format film. These days, the term medium format film most often refers to film that is 120mm in size. Each resulting negative is about the size of a post-it note. It offers the big negatives with full resolution that I loved about large format, without being so massive that it's hard to travel with. 120mm film is shot on a roll, each roll is 12 images.
A Square Affair
At first I wasn't interested. Unlike the other film sizes (large format and 35mm), 120mm film is normally shot as a square. There are other rectangular shapes, but they aren't as common - it's almost entirely a square format affair. This did not appeal to me. It seemed faddish- probably because Instagram has made square photos popular on the internet. And everything I shot was cropped to 16:9 (widescreen) format. How could I go to square after being in love with big rectangles?
Although I didn't like the square format of 120mm film, I figured I would go look at a used Rolleiflex and see how it felt and worked in person. It is hard to really get a sense for using and holding a camera by just watching internet photos or YouTube videos - I needed to experience it to decide. Thankfully it's not hard or expensive to find used medium format film cameras; as attics get emptied the market has filled with affordable choices. Of course there's some risk involved in buying a 40 year old camera - parts can be hard to find and issues like fungus and mold become concerns.
I headed to one of the local camera shops that specializes in film cameras called West Yorkshire Cameras in Leeds, England. They advertised having a mint condition Rolleiflex model T Whiteface Edition in stock for a reasonable price, so off I went. First impression was that the camera was surprisingly small. It was lightweight and straight forward. Instructions for use were easy: load film, wind crank, focus, set aperture and shutter, push shutter release, rinse and repeat. The camera is completely manual - no batteries, no light meter, no circuits to break. This version, the T Whiteface, was in impeccable condition and looked like it'd never been used. Although I was still very skeptical about the square format, I liked the camera, so I figured why not. I bought it and a roll of Ilford HP4+ and went home to play with my new camera.
Hesitation and elation
There's something very unnerving about loading a roll of 120mm film, taking some photos, unloading the roll, and developing it at home and hoping you got it all right. One slip up - one little bitty bit of light leak, and it's all gone. You can imagine my relief when I opened the film drum after developing to see a dozen perfect negatives..... phew!
My hesitation with the square format quickly turned into an obsession. I love square format. Its geometrically a very interesting and complex shape to shoot and offers so many different compositions from my normal rectangle. I could start to see the world in square, and boy it made sense.
Today I'm all in. I have three medium format film cameras (a Hasselblad 503cx, a Rolleiflex T whiteface and a Rolleiflex 2.8F). With these I have shot hundreds of frames of black and white film - I took the cameras to Africa and around much of Europe. Opening a new roll of 120mm film is like my camera crack - I can't get enough. I savor each of those shots and plan meticulously to get the perfect shot. I have discovered a new creative world in the form of double exposures and taking images that are otherwise impossible with digital. And unlike with the digital camera, there's a certain creative freedom. I don't get to peek at a viewfinder to know if I got it right. I've ruined rolls of film. But those are liberating feelings. I don't have to worry about hitting 100 buttons on the camera, instead I focus on the 12 photographs in front of me and try to make each one count.