Delving into Medium Format Film Cameras

July 13th, 2010

*** What follows is a post which, as usual, is written more for me then anyone else. It has taken more than 1300 words to help wrap my mind around medium format, the Mamiya 645 Pro, and how it compares to my past knowledge of 35mm cameras. I only hope you are sitting if you choose to read this, as you will be asleep before it’s end ***

I’ve been thinking for some time about picking up a medium format film camera. It’s been nagging at me for a few years and when I was recently helping my parents dig out some old slides from their honeymoon, we ran across a few medium format slides from when my dad was a child. I was immediately blown away by the quality of the frames and it was the final push I needed to really start looking for a camera in earnest.

After digging around on the web comparing various cameras, each with unique pros and cons, I had figured out that I was interested in a camera that could accept a waist level finder as well and be able to swap film backs, mid roll.

A waist level finder is different from a ‘normal’ camera’s finder in that you don’t put your eye up to the camera. You look down on the top of the camera, which you could hold around waist level, and on a screen you would see what was coming through the lens. The image you see however, will be flipped left to right. This type of finder is attractive to me because I hope it will separate me from the scene. Normally, when you shoot with a eyepiece you are looking in the same direction as the camera, but with the waist level finder you are looking ~90 degrees in a different direction. I suspect this will allow me to break from the scene and better evaluate what the final image will look like, instead of seeing the final image and having my mind fill in the periphery.

The second item I wanted, a film back that I could swap mid-roll, is perhaps slightly more complicated to explain. Your typical SLR camera, be it film or digital, allows you to swap lenses to change your focal length, among other parameters. In contrast, some medium format cameras allow for the user to swap out many more pieces of the camera beyond just the lens. In the medium format world, as I’ve learned, it’s not uncommon for every major part of a camera to be interchangeable with several options. In a standard SLR, you load the film into the camera and shoot that roll of film until it you reach the end. With some medium format cameras however you can actually remove a roll of film from the camera and swap it for another in the middle of the roll. You do this with what are called interchangeable backs, or magazines. With the use of a plate of metal that slides into a pocket you can protect the film from being exposed to light even when it’s off the camera. This allows you to have a film back with color, and a separate back with B&W film, for instance, and quickly be able to swap between the two. In the 35mm SLR world I am accustomed to carrying two cameras with me to allow the same functionality.

All of that said, I was browsing my local Craigslist pages in the photography section and a local woman was selling a Mamiya 645 Pro kit. She was offering the camera body with a motor winder and two lenses, an 80mm lens and a 150mm lens for what I thought was a very reasonable $400. The only down side was that the camera came with a more traditional prism finder, like you would find on typical SLR camera, instead of a waist level finder. After a short email exchange I became the proud owner of the kit and excitedly took it home to start gaining some familiarity with the system.

Once I had the system home I set about buying a few more bits to add to the kit. I’ve ordered a new prism finder that has a light meter built in to make shooting on the go easier. The standard prism is just glass, no electronics, so you need to use a separate light meter of some kind to help figure out the exposure settings. I’ve also ordered two more film backs so I can carry a few types of film loaded and ready to go at all times. Then I started to get perhaps a little carried away. The prices for the gear are so cheap I couldn’t help but order two more lenses, a 35mm lens and a 210mm lens.

Sadly, I’ve been having a lot of trouble finding the waist level finder for this model camera. Mamiya has made many similar models of the 645 over the years and finding the finder that matches my camera is going to take some time. In the mean time, I’m also hoping to find a right angle eye piece to mount on the standard prism which should make taking photos low to the ground easier.

Among the differences you have to consider when moving to medium format is how lens focal length changes. Having shot with DSLRs and film SLRs for a few years I’m very comfortable with how lenses looks on a 35mm camera. I can visualize in my mind what I will see through a 50mm lens, or a 300mm lens on my 35mm cameras before I even put my eye to the camera. The relationship changes drastically though when you move to a different film size. Further complicating matters is that different medium format cameras can shoot several variations of film size. My Mamiya 645, for instance, produces a negative 6cm x 4.5cm (hence the name) but other cameras shoot 6cm x 7cm, 6cm x 9cm, ect. Each variant creates a new relationship between lens focal lengths and the angle of view that appears on the frame.

We’re getting a bit technical here so let me make a comparison that should make sense to a 35mm shooter (It does to me at least). In the 35mm world, we consider a 50mm lens to be ‘normal’. Basically that means the lens puts onto the film roughly what you see with your eyes. (Your eyes actually see a wider field of view but when you recall a scene, it’s approximately what a 50mm lens sees.) Shooting with a lens ‘longer’ then 50 mm, for instance 85mm or 300mm, is considered telephoto and shooting a lens ‘wider’ then 50mm, such as a 24mm lens or a 14mm lens, it’s considered to be wide angle. When you move into medium format, or large format, these conventions go out the window. My Mamiya 645, for instance, uses 80mm as the ‘normal’ lens and the field of view, the image on the film, is nearly identical to what I would expect a 50mm lens to show. To that end, ‘wider’ than 80mm is considered wide angle, and ‘longer’ than 80mm is tele. The relationship between focal length and the field of view for a given lens is dependent, apparently, on the size of the frame of film and can be calculated with some math. None of which I will be explaining here (your welcome).

As you can probably tell, moving to medium format has certainly complicated my understanding of cameras. My goal was to be able to capture really large negatives to make larger prints. The end result so far has been a week of research, which I admittedly enjoy doing. My plan is to use this camera while out hiking so look for an upcoming post on how that works out! I have been loading the gear into a lightweight but well padded backpack that should making carrying it easy enough. I should have full report on the usability of the camera by the end of August, once I’ve had a chance to process the film from a planned vacation.

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