The Lure Of Medium Format – Journey Through Film

The Lure Of Medium Format – Journey Through Film

My name is Ian Howorth and I’m a documentary photographer from Brighton, England. I also work as a content producer for mpb.com.

I remember when I began shooting film three years ago, I kept hearing about medium format and its benefits. With photography, however, as with anything reliant on a visual element, it’s difficult to grasp the true meaning of words — you have to see it to understand it. 

My background and journey through visuals came from film and video so my tastes have always been based in the “cinematic” look — a term which gets bandied around a lot. In my mind, one of the traits of a cinematic look, aside from framing and colour interplay, is the balance of light. Having a background in film, it allowed me to understand light from the off and simply apply this knowledge to stills. 

Although I shot digitally on crop sensor cameras, it wasn’t until I got a Nikon D810 with its vast dynamic range that my eyes were opened to the possibilities of what i could do with single frames. Moving onto film, I started out with 35mm which retained dynamic range and colour but added grain and that certain je ne c’est quoi that film provides. 

While I explored the wonders of 35mm film, which suited my aesthetic and what I needed from my work, I began reading more into medium format and its benefits. By this point I had stopped making video my artistic priority and was focusing totally on stills. I was now looking for a way I could incorporate medium format into my workflow, besides the simple allure of “bigger” and “better.” 

I found on occasion I didn’t simply want the charm of 35mm and having to simply embrace its (apparent) imperfections or its limitations. Equally, I didn’t want to go back to digital to get a cleaner look as, for me, the experience of shooting film was far more appealing. Enter Mamiya 7 II.

I bought this camera very much on a whim. My local shop had one and I was simply there at the right time. Having never held one before I simply asked to hold it and that was enough for me to dive head first into medium format. 

On the first few outings with it, I treated it with, well, I don’t want to say disrespect but I was still very much in the 35mm mindset, where a fast lens could get me out of a pickle, and heavy grain in underexposed areas would just be something I could simply leave in as part of the beautiful aesthetic of film. Medium format — well, not so. Whatever I learnt from 35mm had to be scrapped. The Mamiya with its slower lenses turned whatever charm I could extract out of the smaller format into a mess of grain and muddied dark areas. Through this learning phase, though, I found I had to work very differently — tripod, cable release, light meter and a careful thought process as to where I was shooting and what my film stock of choice would be. Obviously, for daytime I could be a bit looser with these rules but generally, due to my preference for low speed film, a tripod has become a tool which is inevitably strapped to my backpack.

My nature being on the good side of obsessive means that I would never have been happy with continuing shooting MF and making do with mid-res scans from my lab — I already owned a very good scanner for 35mm, a Reflecta 10T, which gave me up to 4000 DPI, but sadly it wouldn’t scan any format other than 35mm. I also realised that it would end up frustrating me no end knowing that even a cheap flatbed which would scan 6 x 7 would never extract all the quality available from the negative. If I got only 25% of what the negative could yield, I would have stopped and just continued with 35mm. This is something I advise anyone who is going to embark on medium format film — the negative is only as good as the scanner that will extract your image, unless of course you’re doing contact prints straight from your neg. 

I invested in a Minolta Dimage Mutli Pro which lasted me just over a year until the Firewire chip went on it. After this, I bit the bullet and invested in a Nikon Coolscan 9000, which has been an absolute dream. It’s clinical in terms of its delivery of scans, whereas the Minolta had more personality. The issue with both of these scanners is that they are both over 15 years old, and except for a Hasselblad Flextight or a drum scan, nothing comes close in terms of scanning medium format. This of course is a worry and no one knows if any more investment will be made technologically, for good and semi-affordable film scanners. Buy one if you can afford it, but always be prepared for a hefty bill to fix it, if it can be fixed, that is. I know people who are constantly swapping their medium format cameras and all the while, they are scanning on sub-par scanners. I always say keep the camera and devote your time to scanning well and with as good a scanner as you can afford. Scanners are effectively digital cameras — some are better than others — and as much care and attention needs to go into making the right choice in buying one as the cameras exposing the negatives. I’m not just talking resolution or DPI here, I’m talking about dynamic range and rendition — optically, the quality of the lens on the scanner will have as much say in your final image as the lens on your camera. 

Having been shooting medium format for nearly three years now, and adding a Hasselblad H1 to my kitbag, I’ve realised how very differently I have to shoot it. You can’t haphazardly approach a shoot — it requires much more time not simply because of the longer set up times with the equipment and having to be more careful with metering, but also due to how I want my shots to look. 

I still shoot 35mm — a lot of it — and strangely, it is something I thought I would stop doing after acquiring two medium format cameras but, in fact, it has made me more conscious and more careful in terms of how I approach each shooting scenario. Much is said on the web about quality and what is “best” and frankly, my advice has always been to take it all with a big pinch of salt. Like any artistic practice, you make your own truths and live by a set of rules that might apply only to you. Sure, there are the basics, but as to where these “rules” stop being rules and just become opinion is entirely up to the artist.

For me, medium format is all about putting you there and less about representing reality, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise when, as the format increases, so does its ability to depict a scene as closely as possible to what the eye sees. We don’t have to have a 3D viewing experience to give us that feeling of being there. We can get close with separation, tonality, colour depth and light. 

Although there is no doubt that many medium format systems have incredibly sharp lenses, with the Mamiya 7s often touted as top of the list, sharpness in my images is the last thing I notice. I always see the depth of colour and light tonality first before anything else. It is this that I seek for some of my work. When a location is imbued with emotion even in the absence of people, MF is always what I go for. While not strictly true EVERY time, generally speaking, if a location has a certain subtle feel and a certain texture or even a certain light quality, I see MF as the only option.

Recently, I’ve been thinking of upgrading my Hasselblad H1 kit to a Makina 67. This I hope will allow me to keep the same aspect ratio across both my medium format cameras, while allowing the magic f/2.8 aperture of the Makina to come into its own for portraits. The change will also save quite a bit of space in my camera bag, as the H1 can be a bit unwieldy to stick in my backpack together with the Mamiya 7. The greatest benefit will be to maintain consistency with format for future work. I released my first monograph this year, ARCADIA, which consisted of work which was initially outside the focus of a body of work, so it’s made up of a mishmash of formats (35mm, 645 and 6 x 7). Although this did not hinder the work, I don’t feel that keeping the same format as much as possible is edging closer to the ideal. 

I think it’s an exciting time for film. Although serious artists have always demanded it for their work, the fact that it is becoming the norm for amateurs to have film as part of their workflow means that film will hopefully remain a viable option for at least the foreseeable future. 

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Adapting to Change

Adapting to Change

Any time I upgrade to a new camera in the same system, there is a time of transition. I have to adapt to the camera’s design and features. Even the delay between depressing the shutter-release button and image capture requires a period of adjustment. When switching camera-makers, which I’ve done twice, the transition has been more challenging and required more time to understand and embrace.  

I had been using the Fujifilm X-series for over five years so I thought the transition to the GFX 100 would be relatively seamless. I had received it on loan for three weeks and looked forward to taking photographs with it. My eagerness was only magnified by the imagery and comments from other photographers who had already used it. 

The SLR-like design, the 104-megapixel sensor, and digitally optimized lenses held the promise of amazing results. On that count, the camera didn’t disappoint. What did surprise me was how the camera cast light on the way I worked, revealing some of my bad habits. 

Sloppy Assumptions 

The camera appeared large although it was surprisingly light at only 3.08 lb. For a traditional DSLR user, this might be negligible; however, since I had been using the X100F and XT3, it was still a noticeable bump up. 

Despite its increased mass, the camera felt comfortable in my hands whether oriented horizontally or vertically. The button and control layouts were similar to what I was accustomed to with other Fujifilm cameras, especially their menu system. There were some significant differences which included the top deck display and the way I controlled aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. However, I knew that in time I could adjust to such differences.  

Because of my familiarity with the Fujifilm system, I didn’t dedicate much time to reading the manual. I configured the base settings so that they were comparable to my existing cameras and immediately went out to take photographs.  

As I did, I expected the camera to behave in the way I was accustomed to, which didn’t always happen. Whether it was applying exposure compensation, changing a focal point or a metering mode, my lack of familiarity with the GFX 100 became a frustrating obstacle. It wasn’t that the camera was designed badly—it was rather that I expected it to behave differently from the way it was designed.  

Admittedly, my eagerness or more accurately, my impatience, resulted in numerous mistakes. The results were soft images due to camera shake, off-kilter compositions and other amateur missteps. The careful and thoughtful process that usually accompanied my picture-making was nowhere to be found in my initial forays with the camera. As excited as I was, I needed to get back to basics if I was going to leverage the power and the quality of the GFX 100.  

Getting Familiar 

Although I didn’t read the exhaustive camera manual, I familiarized myself with the key differences of controls and menu settings. This was especially important with the changing of exposure modes, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation. The new top display and the small rear display at its base required a different way of negotiating the machine. I needed to become adept at not only changing those key settings but also recognizing where to look to confirm them in a pinch.  

I also adjusted how I handled the camera while shooting. It didn’t fit in my hand as the smaller Fujifilm models did and it was a mistake to expect it to. Although the camera was still comfortable to handle, the increased size of both the body and the sensor meant that the images were at greater risk of softness due to camera shake. Even with the GFX 100’s image-camera stabilization, I could still produce soft images by making basic mistakes such as using too slow a shutter speed or not holding the camera steady. As I’d learned over many years of photography, technology was never the remedy for sloppy technique.  

Although the DSLR styling made it reasonable to hand-hold, I needed to find the slowest shutter speed I could effectively use to produce sharp results. I often found that 1/250 second, which might have been satisfactory with a smaller camera, was risky with the GFX 100, especially after handling the camera during a long day of shooting. Image-stabilization helped but poor handling quickly defeated any advantage it provided. On a tripod, the camera delivered sharp results. So, it was easy to determine that the weakest link was me.  

As I acclimated to the camera, I saw a steady and consistent improvement in the quality of the images. As I printed 30×40 prints on the studio’s Epson printers, I recognized the strengths of the camera and my own weaknesses. Had the images been relegated to only what I saw on the LCD screen or a post on Instagram, I would never have seen them. But these big prints reflected what the camera was designed for.  

A Different Sensibility 

The camera was engineered with a DSLR aesthetic in mind but demands a medium-format or large-format sensibility when using it. It requires a slow and thoughtful photographic practice to leverage its full potential. It was a realization that developed with each week I worked with the camera. Unfortunately, the obligation to return it didn’t allow me to solidify that awareness as I would have liked over several months.  

Nevertheless, it taught me the importance of having respect for each new tool I use. It also reaffirmed the importance of being diligent about my own photographic practice, even with something as simple as how I handle a camera body.  

Thankfully, the head of the photo department was impressed enough with the camera to include at least one in this year’s budget. So, if I manage to wrangle it out of the hands of my co-workers, I will have the chance to develop that all-important workflow between myself and this amazing camera.  

Ibarionex Perello is a photographer, educator, and writer. He is also the host of The Candid Frame photography podcast which for 14 seasons has featured conversations with some of the world’s best established and emerging photographers. He has written hundreds of magazine articles and authored six books on the subject of photography including the most recent, Making Photographs: Developing a Personal Visual Workflow, published by Rocky Nook Press. 

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Interview with Steven Friedman

Interview with Steven Friedman

If there was a time to interview a photographer who spends his life photographing the beauty and grace of trees, this is it. Especially during this crisis, Steven Friedman’s stunning imagery and awe-inspiring prints of forests and trees around the world provides much-needed calm and consolation. Steven describes his photographic journey and takes us deep into the fascinating visual world of life-sustaining and majestic trees. We talked with Steven about his carefully crafted compositions, his beginnings, the importance of being among trees and his relentless pursuit of quality in image capture and printing. We also touched on some business aspects of selling prints and Steven’s fascinating plans for his upcoming book.

You can find the entire interview in the March edition of the Medium Format Magazine. Below please find some excerpts from this fascinating interview.

What was your first visual interest as a photographer?

Early on, I was interested in Galen Rowell’s work. The way he captured his images when he was adventure travelling or climbing piqued my interest in getting into remote areas to experience and photograph them. I really enjoyed his book “Mountain Light,” a gift from an aunt of mine. Galen had a great ability to emphasize the story behind his images and describe what made the image possible. As well, I was interested in some of the earlier work of Christopher Burkett. His work is more about the intimate landscape of the forest.

Why trees? When did you decide to focus almost entirely on photographing trees around the world?

If you spend enough time in the forest amongst trees, you really start to appreciate their beauty and their delicate balance of strength and gracefulness. They are just beautiful. I feel better when I’m in the forest. It recharges me and feeds my soul like nothing else. It’s where I want to be. 

I used to photograph the sunrise/sunset type photographs and the typical viewpoints, which are easily recognizable. I never found it very satisfying. To stand where other people have stood is not something that excites me. I want to create one-of-a-kind images. A lot of the photography these days all looks the same.

How does seeing and arranging trees within the frame differ from crafting images of any other subject?

It’s much more difficult to find a resonating composition in the forest than in many other subjects. The forest is random and chaotic. You must find a pattern and rhythm that works for you. I use a framing card cut out for a 1 to 3 panoramic format and the 645 format, so that I can find a spot in the forest where subject, composition and light come together to make an image that resonates with people. 

What’s your favourite tree? And your favourite tree to photograph?

My favourite trees are aspens. In North America I have photographed them from the Yukon to New Mexico. They glow white and have an amazing colour in autumn. I have put 15 autumn seasons into photographing aspen trees. I just love being immersed in an autumn forest. It’s a sensory overload of colour, light and smells. I still have not photographed the trees in winter. I keep a list of ideas of imagery and places that I want to shoot. 

What did photographing trees for so many years teach you about trees—something you didn’t know when you started?

The forest and the ecosystem are much more delicate than I originally thought. Many forests are being affected by disease and decline. It’s really noticeable all over the world. There are numerous images I have taken that do not exist anymore. The trees have died. 

What is the most common misconception people have about trees?

That trees are easy to photograph. This is not the case. I might spend days walking around a forest trying to find one image. I have gone back to a location year after year waiting for the right light and colour to get an image. It’s a lot of work and it takes dedication and vision finding an elegant image from a stand of trees. Elegance is the key to making intimate landscape photographs of trees. 

Where is your favourite location in North America to photograph trees?

The mountains at peak fall colour in both the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains are my favourite places to be. The Appalachians are a younger forest since it has been cut down so many times. I am just starting to feel I am getting quality imagery from this area after seven autumn/spring shoots. The clutter and chaos are over the top. It is fun trying to find that one spot when I get excited, knowing I have something special. 

What’s your advice to those who would like to follow in your footsteps and focus on one subject? 

Follow your heart and your passion. If you do, it will show up in your work. When people stand in front of my prints, they feel a sense of awe. One needs to excite and connect with people so they want to purchase your work and hang it in their homes or offices. The viewer also has a sense that they cannot create the print that I produce. Just trying to find a composition in a forest is a difficult thing; add to that the scale of my work. It blows people away when they stand in front of the prints. 

SELLING PRINTS

You sold an edition of a print for over $200,000. That is a price point almost unheard of in today’s world of photography. Would you mind sharing a snippet about how you got to this point and how you did it?

That was one sale at a time to sell out an edition of 50. It all adds up over time. Numerous prints of this edition were sold corporately at the higher price points. Prints of this image are all over the world. “Zebra Aspens” is the image that has sold at this price level. The rare dramatic striping or markings add drama to the image, and unfortunately represent only a moment in time. The image was taken over 10 years ago. The markings on these trees that were estimated to be around 80 years old at the time are from a disease or canker that attacks trees that are stressed by heat, drought, winter injury, and other diseases and insects. Unfortunately, these trees are now dead. This stand is now a sad compilation of dead, fallen and leaning soldiers. 

I have numerous other images in my collection that approach this price level. 

Why do you think so many photographers struggle with selling prints?

Today, I see many photographers who experience great success selling. Twenty years ago, you didn’t see even a small fraction of that success.

Something that I think is missing with some photographers is a commitment to producing high quality prints. I believe it is integral to completing the photographic process and being able to stand behind your work. 

As well, I believe many photographers shoot the same places and the same subjects so the imagery today all looks the same. You need to be unique and capture images that are from something you find. It comes from inside you not from copying someone’s image you see on Instagram. Take the time to develop your own eye and style of shooting. Your viewer will recognize this uniqueness.

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Photographic ideas while staying at home

Photographic ideas while staying at home

In the last few weeks many of us around the world have been staying at home. Although it may seem that enjoying photography from home is hard, there are many ways we can still work on our beloved craft. We asked some of our contributors about their photographic ideas when stuck at home. We also included some from our FB MediumFormat Group. Enjoy and stay safe! 

Steven Friedman

I would suggest you go back through your catalogue of images and try to organize the imagery in projects or themes. Many of us photograph different locations around the world. I have found there are themes in what I like to photograph. They may include abstracts, reflections, single trees, or large forests, etc. Once you have the images together, you could print the images on 11” x 17” paper and have a local book binder bind the images for you. I did this when I was first starting out. It made me think about what interests me and where I could improve and not get into the routine of framing and choosing similar subjects when out on a shoot. 

My other idea is simply to go on the net, find photographers that you admire and study their images to try and learn why the image works and what you like about them. Study the light, composition and subject. 

https://www.friedmanphoto.com


Take Kayo 

Out of necessity I’ve been doing most of my product photography at home in my garage. I use the floor of my garage as my backdrop because the texture of the cracking paint makes for an interesting background. Since my garage is south facing, I wait for the right time of day to photograph my gear and use a mirror to bounce light back towards my subject. Whatever gear you enjoy (cameras, watches, shoes, pens, etc.) find the best light in your home and have fun trying to photograph it.

http://www.bigheadtaco.com


Vincent Lions

If you are at home with your children, set up a mini home studio and take a beautiful portrait of your kids. It can be a fun thing to do together and it will keep them entertained. Then send the portrait to all your loved ones. Grandparents, aunts and uncles will be absolutely delighted to receive big loving smiles from the youngest ones. More than ever we need to connect to the people we love.

www.vincentlions.com


Holger Nitschke 

The situation forces us to SLOW DOWN and maybe it’s the perfect time to gain some experiences in analogue photography! 

I just purchased another film camera (Rolleiflex 3.5) and now I’m getting experience with the wonderful camera and development of films. My preferred subject is portrait/people/fashion but it’s really fun to gather objects together or take nature shots with the camera.

https://lichtreize.myportfolio.com/


Ewan Dunsmuir

Sort your catalogued files out… Or create a $10 studio with a white sheet, window light, and shoot away! #Happyhometime

https://www.ewandunsmuirimages.com


FROM THE GROUP

Derick Miller

I have started doing at-home assignments in my photography group, since we can’t hold meetings right now. Here is the first one. Select a subject. Find five compelling angles to photograph that one subject (experiment with up, down, left, right, front, back, close, far). Subtle shifts can often make a big difference in how well it comes out. Post your best five.


Rivki Locker

I’m documenting the impact of the virus on our home lives. Here are some photos I took yesterday of my kids making toilet paper! (No, we are not out of toilet paper or close to it, but this was their way of acknowledging the crazy times and filling an hour or two with a fun project. 


Don Parsisson

1. Pretend you’re a detective investigating a crime that took place in your house or apartment. Then take pictures that could be used as evidence by either the prosecution or the defence. 
2. Pick words at random from a dictionary, book or newspaper. Then make photos in your house or apartment that fit the words. 
3. If you live with someone, take turns photographing each other doing the same thing. If you have a way to print them, make a small book with the images on facing pages. For extra credit you could mail or email a copy to someone.


If you are shooting medium format, film or digital, please join our Medium Format Magazine FB Group. This is a fantastic group of passionate professionals and amateurs who exchange imagery and ideas about medium format photography.  

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Medium Format Magazine – February 2020

Medium Format Magazine – February 2020

On behalf of my team, I am excited to introduce the February edition of the Medium Format Magazine. This month we have great pieces for you authored by Paul Sanders, Vieri Bottazzini, Holger Nitschke, Marie Calmes by Sally Jennings, Janet Dwyer, Alex Burke and Ian Howorth, with an introduction by yours truly. In this month’s interview we go deep into the fascinating world of seeing of Ned Pratt.  

© Paul Sanders

We start off on a very positive note with “Ode to Joy” by Paul Sanders. Paul has written a series about contemplative photography and this article is an extension of this important subject. We all struggle with our photography and photographic self from time to time so Paul’s article should help us to put those struggles in perspective. The piece is accompanied by poetic visuals which set the tone for the much-needed break we all need. 

In this month’s interview we talk to Canadian photographer Ned Pratt. His book “One Wave” has made a huge wave in the photographic industry. The accompanying imagery is being sought after for private and public collections all over the world. What I find remarkable about Ned is his uncanny ability to talk about the process of seeing and crafting unique and personal imagery. Did I mention that Ned is one of the nicest and most genuine people I have ever encountered in this industry!? Sally Jennings and I couldn’t be more thrilled to present our readers with this fascinating interview. 

Courtesy of the Nicholas Metivier Gallery and the Christina Parker Gallery

This month, Vieri Bottazzini shares with us a highly personal account of “The First Sunrise.” It is so easy in this busy and demanding industry to forget about our personal experience. Vieri tells the story of one morning and its sunrise and takes us along on an unforgettable journey. His piece is accompanied by visually rich and colourful sunrise vistas.

The first time I saw Holger Nitschke’s portrait of Lilly I thought, “You have to tell us more about it.” There is no shortage of portraits online but the simplicity of the image, the striking beauty of the model and the rendering of the lens/camera combination makes this portrait a true gem. Holger Nitschke agreed to give us more details about the photoshoot in this month’s HOW IT WAS SHOT. 

© Holger Nitschke

Marie Calmes has a special way of observing and capturing the world with her Hasselblad film camera. Sally Jennings, our language editor and wordsmith, wrote a short piece about Marie and her work based on some answers Marie sent us. This piece about Marie and her journey wouldn’t be complete without her photographs, which provide an immersive experience into the life and seeing of Marie Calmes. 

In the next article Janet Dwyer introduces us to the craft of photo-scanography. She writes: “This unorthodox method continues to present interesting possibilities for large format imaging and printing.” With plants, flowers, nets, feathers, etc. as her key visual elements, Janet crafts remarkable and unusual imagery with her scanner as camera. I am glad to report that Janet has agreed to write a series of articles about her work. 

© Janes Dwyer

This month, Alex Burke is challenging us with a very important question: “What makes a compelling landscape photograph?“ Alex breaks down this question into smaller visual considerations and puts together a compelling picture of the genre which has been cherished and practiced by so many photographers around the world. As always, Alex shares with us his latest work from the field captured with a large format camera. So much to think about and enjoy! 

In his article, “The Move to Digital – Part 2,” Ian Howorth continues his outing into the world of medium format. Having been a film shooter most of his life, Ian is exploring different medium format digital systems and comparing the outcome to his film work. This time the Phase One back P65 has caught Ian’s attention with its CCD sensor which “creates an experience closer to what I’m used to, and a thought process behind creating images that I prefer.” As always, great imagery and writing!

Our issue concludes with the Readers’ Exhibition section where you will find the super imagery submitted by our readers and patrons. I am sure you will find inspiration and zest for seeing by slowing down and looking at each other’s imagery. I‘m planning to grab a glass of wine and look at these images at a pace they deserve.   

© Pascal Gauch

I trust you will enjoy all the content our writers and contributors prepared for you. We have recently signed some new amazing photographers and writers and you should see their new columns and articles starting in March 2020. I am looking forward to our next issues and much, much more. Thank you for your readership and support.

And if you are not subscribed to the Medium Format Magazine yet, join medium formatters from around the world and gain an immediate access to the November issue, all previous editions and MF Exclusives . It would be wonderful to have you with us.

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