MAY 20, 2021
My dad on Kodak Portra 160
This is a story about rediscovering a camera that is twice my age. This is a story about two of the best portraits I have ever taken. This is a story of waiting, of intuition, of shutter failures, of prohibitively high cost, of learning to love a focal length. I have ventured into medium format.
Medium format. The phrase alone is enticing. When I grew up, my dad instilled this idea in my brain that shooting medium format is the pinnacle of photography. I heard stories over the years, as every photographer does, about the incredible depth and plasticity, about a magic look. Before I tried film photography this spring, I didn't have the slightest chance of trying it out. Digital medium format cameras tend to be ridiculously expensive and impractical for my kind of shooting (Fuji has been doing some great work though). Shooting film, however, medium format becomes surprisingly affordable - and being the lucky bastard that I am, my dad had one of the most iconic of these cameras just lying around: the Mamiya 645.
The Mamiya 645 was one of the standard choices for professional photographers in the late 70s and early 80s. It's this weird box of a camera, and it has the most basic functions, the best of which being a light meter (meaning I don't have to carry a second device to tell me my settings so I don't fuck up). This is the first time in my life that I've actually used every single function a camera has; and I find that very charming. The camera is equipped with a 50mm equivalent standard lens, and I hated that prospect at first. I usually never shoot at 50mm - but I framed it as a photographic challenge, bought some rolls of film and started shooting.
Flicking rocks on Fujifilm Pro 400H
Me with the Mamiya
Shooting medium format film is a different world. The viewfinder is big, the focus ring turns smoothly for an eternity (manual focus only, of course), and the shutter sound causes a little shiver of pleasure every time. The experience while shooting is unmatched. The obvious downside, however, are the running costs. One roll of film equates to 15 images, and with buying the film, developing and scanning that makes 30 euros per roll. 2 euros per image. That's absurd. The effect of it is simple: you really think about every single image you take. This has a hugely positive impact; with digital I tend to fire away instead of composing myself before I compose an image. Nevertheless, I still took too many photos where I should have known they wouldn't come out well. Going forward, I'll have to learn to restrain myself even more - otherwise it just becomes prohibitively expensive.
The river Inn on Fujifilm Pro 400H
Then of course, there's the waiting for the scans. It only takes a week or so, but it's excruciating when so much money is at stake and you have no idea how that camera behaves. I sent every roll to the lab individually before shooting the next to create a learning curve, and it paid off. Over the course of four rolls so far, my rate of passable images has steadily increased.
On a technical level, it was surprisingly okay. I learned to adapt and almost love the focal length for what it can do. Exposing in difficult light, my last 16 years of shooting came in handy. When I shoot digitally, I normally do a test shot and then correct the exposure. Consequently, I've learned over the years where and when cameras under- or overexpose and by how much - thereby I was able to correct it blindly shooting film. I'm pretty proud of that intuition to be honest - all the images came out well exposed. The only technical nuisance are shutter failures, occuring from time to time. They are super annoying and I'm still figuring out a definitive fix. However, I try to remember that this camera is quite old and allowed to show some signs of age.
Coffee on Fujifilm Pro 400 H
Signs of a good time on Kodak Ektar 100
However, the real question is: what are the images like? In short, if you hit it, it's fucking gorgeous. If not, you've wasted two euros on a shot you could've taken with your phone. It's very much a fine line.
I've tried to shoot as diverse subjects as possible. Portraits were the logical first choice, but I also tried everyday objects and landscapes. Again, if you catch the light just right, this camera can do everything - and in stunning form at that. I can't believe this kind of quality was available almost 50 years ago. I mean, just check out how crisp the river looks, or the detail on my dad's beanie.
However, there is one application that just sticks, and that is portraits. The shallow depth of field, the plasticity, the soft contrast of the film - it's a combination made in heaven. The everyday and landscape shots I took, they're fine. I'll look at them a few times, post them, all good. The portraits on the other hand will stay with me a lifetime. Two stand out in particular: the one of my dad at the beginning of this post, and the one of my grandma at the end. Both encapsulate the person to the bone.
These two images make me deeply happy, and rarely has a digital photo reached that level of meaning. That doesn't mean I will ditch digital altogether, it's way too versatile, cheap, fast, and reliable. Instead, I'll have the luxury of options going forward. If I'm shooting landscapes, I'll stay with my trusty digital, and the same goes for my everyday carry. The Mamiya I'll keep in range - for portraits I'll remember forever.
My grandma in her garden on Fujifilm Pro 400H