10 Reasons To Try Medium & Large Format Analog Photography

Posted by on Jun 10, 2016 in Classes & Workshops | 5 Comments
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Image from 8×10 negative, Tsuyoshi Ito

As cameras shrink in size, two particular mediums are often left in the dust: medium and large format photography. But while manufacturers are shrinking down digital cameras, some photographers are rediscovering everything that’s possible with a medium or large format film.

“Medium and large format cameras create high resolution negatives that are easy to scan for large, detailed pictures,” says photographer and Project Basho instructor Michelle Cade.

Still not convinced? Here are ten reasons every photographer should try out medium or large format photography with film.

1. Resolution

Just like larger digital sensors produce higher resolution files, images from a large or even medium format camera have a higher resolution than a typical DSLR. Larger format images can actually be digitized with any flatbed scanner, creating a high resolution photo not possible with a digital camera–or at least not possible at the same price.

2. Affordability

Medium format digital cameras probably cost more than your car with Hasselblads often well into the $30,000. While that could change in the future (the Pentax 645Z is closer to $7,000), for large and medium format, film is still more affordable. Even with paying for film, medium and large format photography is affordable in analog. You can pick up a good medium format film camera for a few hundred dollars, not a few thousand. Cade said she picked up her large format camera for just a few hundred dollars as well–and with it she’s able to achieve a higher resolution and image quality than with a $30,000 medium format DSLR.

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Images from 4×5 negatives. Left: Michelle Cade, Right: Paul King

3. Post processing control

Yes, developing film takes time and extra equipment, but it also gives you a greater range of control. Film tends to be more forgiving than digital, allowing a photo overexposed by even a few stops to still be rescued, something that’s not possible with digital cameras. Combine traditional film processing with the capabilities of a digital editing program after scanning, and the possibilities expand even more.

4. Higher tonal range

High dynamic range was talked about well before the digital era–but what takes multiple digital photos can often be accomplished on a single exposure with medium or large format film. While the results depend on the type of film you choose, film images, in general, look closer to the original scene and contain more tonal ranges in the same exposure.

5. Gear lifespan

Sure, eventually the shutter wears out on film cameras, but not nearly as quickly as digital cameras become outdated by the latest model. Shoot with a digital camera that’s five years old, and there’s a big difference in image quality from a new DSLR. But, pick up a film camera that’s already got a decade of experience and you’ll still get excellent images. With the high cost of medium format digital cameras, replacing them every few years is tough to do.

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Tsuyoshi Ito

6. High level of detail

When paired with a large digital scanner, large format film can render details not detectable by the typical digital sensor. A scan of a 4×5 image can easily be a gigabyte in size, allowing photographers to create huge prints that aren’t possible with smaller formats. While you won’t be dealing with as many photos at that large size, each image has a higher potential for containing more of the minute details.

7. More thoughtful compositions

Something amazing happens when you pay for every single image that you take: you slow down. Using film, photographers tend to put more thought into their composition. When the only limit to digital photography is filling up the card, there’s less thought put into the process and more images taken haphazardly. Using film is a great way to slow down.

8. Work battery-free

Analog cameras are often purely mechanical, back the basics of opening and closing a simple shutter. Without batteries, you can photograph in the cold without worrying about your gear freezing up. Imagine never having to worry about battery life again and traveling internationally or remotely without worrying about your camera dying mid-trip.

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Cyanotypes made from 8×10 negatives, Michelle Cade

9. Work in single sheets of film, not rolls.

Unlike smaller film cameras, large format photography involves working with sheets of film, not rolls. Using sheets, it’s possible to snap one exposure in black in white, one using a low ISO and another using a higher ISO. With rolls, you’re stuck with that film type until the last shot is exposed. Single sheets also means you can process just one image at a time, instead of waiting to fill up the roll.

10. Achieve a more natural perspective.

Shooting with 35mm film or a regular DSLR distorts images using a wide angle lens. But with the larger surface area of large format photography, that distortion disappears. Even using a wide angle lens, the objects in a large format image appear closer to how the human eye sees them than using a smaller film size or digital sensor.

Smaller gear isn’t always better. While medium and large format photography requires patience and a different set of skills, the results are often well worth the effort. Using film instead of a medium format digital camera gives photographers the benefits of a larger format, without the cost.

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Image from 4×5 negative, Tsuyoshi Ito

Learn medium and large format photography, hands-on.

While medium and large format photography offers a number of benefits, it’s tougher to learn than digital. Using trial and error wastes a lot of expensive film. That’s why Project Basho is hosting Introduction to Medium and Large Format Photography in July. Led by instructor Michelle Cade, the class covers everything from proper exposure to processing film to scanning large negatives for digital use and printing. The class’ goal is to empower photographers by allowing them to feel comfortable using the large and medium format medium on their own.

The class requires a medium format camera (with rentals available), but includes the cost of a day in the studio with a large format camera, making it a perfect opportunity for some hands-on experience before deciding whether or not to purchase a large format camera.

“Using a large format camera can be intimidating on one’s own if you don’t know what you are doing,” Cade said. “We will have a studio day where we all shoot together with a large format camera. This is a great chance for those that are considering buying a large format camera to use one and test the process out before making the commitment.”

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5 Comments

  1. Carleton Palmer
    June 29, 2016

    As a retired photographer whose career was deeply into large format film, I am pleased to have received this information. Digital, which I studied but never used professionally, and film photography are very different imaging techniques. Thank you for acquainting me with Project Basho.

    Reply
  2. Humberto Gatica Leyton
    June 29, 2016

    Thank you for the information and the blog, because not only are useful but at the same time very encouraging. I am a user of a 6 X 7 medium format camera and a 4 X 5, large format. It is a good to know that there are people out there practicing the craft. Thank you. Regards. Humberto

    Reply
  3. w. keith griffith
    July 16, 2016

    Still carry my Ftn Nikon, have formats through 5×7, just bought a d7200. Turns out i take pictures with the digital things, phones, d7200. I do Photography as a hobby with film. Thats about as simple as ive been able to describe the difference. Way different mind set for me depending on what im doing.

    Reply
  4. Richard Webber
    August 24, 2016

    I’ve been a large format photographer for a couple of decades, with some medium format thrown in there too. I agree with most of your comments, especially #7. However, #10 is, unfortunately, just not true. It makes no difference what size format you are using – a wide lens with the same angle of view won’t look any different. It’s not only been my experience, it’s backed up by the laws of Physics!

    Reply
  5. Ross Attix
    October 25, 2016

    Most of your comparison was great, until I got to #10. Richard Webber is right that it is simply incorrect as stated.

    Also-I think it would have been helpful to mention the inherent difference in depth-of-field when going from small format to large format. Yes, if the same focal length lens is used, and the same lens to subject distance, DOF will be the same.

    But, keep in mind that a 50mm lens is considered normal on a 35mm or full-frame DSLR. On a 4×5, you would be using a 150mm to get that same image size from that distance, and there is where your DOF changes.

    That difference can either be welcome or not depending on the look desired, but has to be a consideration.

    Reply

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