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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