Explorations in Medium Format

It’s been almost a month since I decided to explore the world of Medium Format film photography. In the past three to four weeks I’ve accomplished a decent amount. For one, I was able to find a Hasselblad 500 c/m in perfect condition thanks to the insane antique camera market in Japan. In addition to acquiring the right camera, I tracked down an amazing photography lab, Richards Photo Lab (hereinafter RPL), courtesy of Johnny Patience (his blog is the best resource for Hasselblad film photography that I’ve found) and acquired a beautiful hand made camera strap thanks to New York’s Justin Waldinger of Tap & Dye. All that took three to four weeks? Yep.

One thing I’m learning, and very much appreciating, when it comes to film photography is: patience. I’m so conditioned to plug and play, run and gun, or whatever you want to call it. My Sony A7 Mark ii has a problem? Download the latest firmware. Did I nail the focus? Hold on while I chimp the beautiful high resolution screen. The Hasselblad has none of that. It’s literally a black box (albeit a gorgeous black box) with a piece of Zeiss glass that does all the work for you. No batteries, no in-camera metering system, no automatic film advancement, not even a dial to set the film speed. It’s such a different world from digital photography, and in some ways, for the better. Sure, there are things that I absolutely love and miss about digital photography, but I’ve never felt so connected to the art and craft of photography as I do when I’m shooting with my Hasselblad. Some may chalk this up to the honeymoon phase, and while I’m not sure that’s the case, we’ll have to see over the next six to twelve months. To be clear, I don't plan on converting to a film elitists, but I do plan on exploring the art of film photography as much (and maybe even more) than digital photography.

Significantly over-exposed due to improper hand metering, but still my favorite.

I received my first few rolls of film back from RPL the other day and my basic goal for the first six to twelve rolls is to find the preferred exposure. I’ve mentioned my interest and technical vs. creative analysis of exposure in previous posts and I’m currently going for a little bit of both. Technically, finding an appropriately acceptable exposure - exposing for the shadows, avoiding any muddy underexposed darks or blacks. Creatively, finding the appropriate amount of saturation and contrast - overexposing by at least two to three stops. Given that the Hasselblad offers little to no features outside of taking the photograph, I’ve been carrying around a journal and documenting the type of film, the metering settings, as well as the f-stop, shutter speed, and focal range. Metadata ftw.

My way of tracking the Hasselblad & Film stock metadata

To sum up my first few rolls, I’ve achieved half my goal. That half being the technical view of exposure given that not a single shot was underexposed. That said, I made some nearly critical mistakes in hand metering… I’ve experimented with film before - from a Canon AE-1 to Fuji Instax, however each of those cameras has mechanisms to help with metering. Hand metering is a whole different beast that I royally screwed up. In retrospect, it’s not very difficult at all, but having to learn to hand meter, turn various analog dials to compute the appropriate f-stop and shutter speed with no feedback mechanism didn’t go over very well the first few rolls! While I was able to avoid underexposing my photographs, I often overexposed way too much. Thankfully film, especially my choice of Portra 400 and Fuji 400H, have amazing latitude and allow for such significant overexposure without ruining the photograph.

Metered for shadows, but again, miscalculation = slight over-exposure and camera shake

Creatively, I don’t believe I’m there yet. That said, it's my first fifteen shots... Also, I believe finding your creative style with regard to film exposure will be much easier with film than with digital. Digital photographers, myself included, spend a good amount of time (those who say otherwise are lying. I promise.) finding that “look”. Whether it’s hand editing every photo in Lightroom, using self-made presets, exploring VSCO Film presets, or even applying Instagram filters… None of this matters with film photography. The choice of film is most likely the hardest creative decision you need to make. This philosophy aligns with my interest in further perfecting the shot within camera, regardless of digital or film, versus capturing an acceptable photograph and then spending time in post-processing. 

When using a Hasselblad 500 c/m and Kodak Portra or Fuji 400h, the color profiles are closer to my creative vision than any digital photograph I’ve ever taken.

I’m not sure if it’s medium format, film’s latitude (read: forgiveness), the Hasselblad’s Zeiss 80mm f/2.8 glass, or a combination of the three. While the photo’s I’ve posted aren’t quite there yet, I can already see how gorgeous my future photographs will be with regard to color profile and artistic look. And with regard to digital, it’s the opposite. I’m very proud of some of the digital photographs I’ve created, however there’s always *something* that just doesn’t seem right. Exploring the differences and commonalities between the Hasselblad and Sony A7 Mark ii has been a lot of fun and I'm hopeful I'll be able to further refine my vision both in film and digital.

For now, it’s back to the Hasselblad and refining the creative aspect of exposure.

All images were taken with the Hasselblad 500 C/M and the Carl Zeiss 80mm Planar T* f/2.8 on Kodak Portra 400. All images were scanned and processed by Richard Photo Lab in California.