Why I Shoot Film: Format Love

It’s no secret that I’m a film evangelist. I’m always on the lookout for photographers I can convert to the grainy side, and I’m happy to say I’ve made some new believers over the last few years. Someday I’ll have to tell the story of my journey back to film and share all the overly-romanticized details. That someday is probably going to have to be AFTER I get all the piles and piles of my negatives organized. Not exactly what I was talking about in my last post about anticipation, haha.

I grew up shooting 35mm film before entering the world of digital in 2004. Truth be told, I wasn’t really aware of any other options besides 35mm film — no one in my family was anything more than a casual photographer, and I’d only seen someone shoot a large format camera once or twice in my life. When I got sucked into the digital realm, I couldn’t really understand why anyone would continue to shoot film on the convenience factor alone. Why make something harder than it has to be?

But that was all before I discovered medium format. In early 2009, I stumbled across the work of a few great photographers on Flickr and I could hardly believe my eyes. The depth, the richness, the emotionality of their photographs really appealed to me and I was having a lot of trouble getting what I wanted out of my beginner dSLR. I couldn’t really afford to upgrade to a professional digital camera, but when I started researching some of the gear I knew these photographers were using, I was shocked. Whole camera systems for less than the price of a new lens for my Nikon? SIGN ME UP.

elik + irgh

So, in the late part of 2009, I started my search in earnest. The object of my desire: the Mamiya C330f. All I knew was that it had interchangeable lenses and was in my price range. I’d seen people like Ansel Olson make magic with this camera, and I just had to try it out for myself. I obsessively watched eBay listings for six weeks or more, gun-shy to pull the trigger because of the sensitivity of the camera’s bellows. I wanted to check it out for myself in person.

I remember showing sample shots to my brother over the Christmas holiday, and I’m pretty sure he thought I was crazy. But even he — a videographer — couldn’t deny the depth and richness of the images. Back in Brooklyn a week later, I stumbled upon a Craigslist ad for the exact camera and lens combination I wanted from a guy that lived just up the block from me in Park Slope. I couldn’t believe my luck!

I probably should have taken heed to the seller’s warning. He told me he was unloading the Mamiya because his wife had said it was either her or the cameras. He had to get rid of gear — or else. I didn’t know it at the time, but thus began my long, slow descent into the rabbit hole of gear.

From the first roll I shot with the Mamiya, I knew medium format was a new beast. The way it handled light, the reverse image, the waist-level finder — the whole experience of using the camera was so much different. I loved it. I also loved the 6×6 square images it created. They were a whole new compositional challenge.

customer parking only

Over the last several years, I’ve kept coming back to the 6×6 format as I add cameras to my collection. Recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of new formats thanks to friends who shoot other medium format sizes or large format cameras. The multitude of options and flexibility of format sizes are both key reasons why I still shoot film. The experimentation of working with different formats (and films for each format!) appeals so much to my curiosity. How will the roll turn out? How will I adapt or change my style to suit a new format?

A few weeks ago, I decided to check out Film Biz Recycling in Gowanus for the first time. I went looking for lamps — I SWEAR. But I did run across a few Polaroid cameras which piqued my interest, and I wondered if much camera gear made its way through the shop. As I was leaving the store, I spied a leather lens case with a $80 price tag, marked half off for that weekend only. I opened it up and the lens was massive. It was a Pentax lens, so I figured it might fit my old Pentax at home. But it didn’t make sense. Its rings were too large.

Deciding to take a chance, I brought it to the counter and paid my $40 and change before heading out to run a few errands. Back at home, I realized my find had the potential to be major — it was a 35mm lens for the Pentax 645, a medium format system. I’d never heard of such a wide lens for a medium format camera, and if the lens performed as I hoped, it was worth over $1000!

So like any normal photographer who can justify almost anything for the sake of more gear, I decided I needed to buy a Pentax 645N camera body to test out my new $40 lens. And another lens to provide the control in my experiment. And a couple of film backs. And maybe a couple of lens filters. Shhhhhh.

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I kept an eye out until I spotted a great deal on KEH.com a couple of weeks ago. And after a week of shooting photos with both the control lens and the 35mm I found, I can say with confidence that it was indeed a great deal. The solid lens is sharp as a tack, and a total pleasure to use. It’s so wide I might need dramamine to operate it. Case in point: these shots from the hilariously-suburban Capital One Bank drive-thru in Williamsburg.

Though I’m so happy that the purchase I made on a whim paid off, that’s not what makes me the most excited. I am so psyched to try my hand at a new format since the medium format 645 is so much different than the squares of my Mamiya. It already feels much different, and the more modern features of the camera definitely make the operating experience a total pleasure even if it’s a bit heavier. I won’t lie: it’s kind of weird to use a camera from this century!

Learning more about the 645 and experimenting with its settings are definitely shaping up to be one of the highlights of my summer. I have a few weddings coming up and the Pentax has definitely earned a spot in my camera bag. The control lens I bought – a super-sharp 150mm – is a perfect portrait lens and has lovely bokeh. Even the guys at Adorama this week concurred it’s a great camera.

And while I’m so satisfied to play with this new camera, I can’t help myself. I’m already dreaming about a 6×7 camera. And a 4×5 large format. And maybe learning how to make some pinhole cameras with a kit I have at home. Must. collect. them. all!

What formats are you feeling these days??

10 thoughts on “Why I Shoot Film: Format Love”

  1. You know what I am trying because you are my gateway into this. Thanks so much again for the loan of the Yashica 635, I will treat it well. It’s presence in my apt prompted my father-in-law to note that his working camera, while he still worked – was a Yashicamat 124G. It’s heavily dinged up but maybe another to try…
    P.S. Do not look att his picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/martin_jaeger/7661056658/

    1. Ed — yes. You are one of my active conversions, and don’t think for a single minute I’m not strategic in this. Hahahaha. That’s awesome about your father-in-law. In fact, I’ve always said that one of the greatest things about shooting old cameras out in the streets is the amount of attention it gets from older folks. People have such nostalgic memories of shooting old medium format cameras and they never hesitate to come chat. It’s wonderful.

      Also, thanks a bunch for that picture. I’m trying to figure out how to build a storage system for my collection, but now I’m wondering if I should just get a series of trunks! Very cool.

  2. Keep falling down that hole, it only gets worse. I just hit the 8×10 circle this year. Prints from ~35mm equiv digital always never looked good to me, now they just seem outright terrible. Looking at some of my 6×6 stuff that I used to thing was the best thing ever is starting to look not so impressive as well. :D

    1. Hahah, oh great! Does that mean once you start shooting large format you never go back? I guess I should be careful about how big my negatives get… at least my TLRs and 645 are REASONABLY easy to travel with! :)

      1. I expect to go back once my body gets too old and feeble lug all the gear around. Unless I get so famous as an artists by then that able-bodies 20 year olds will beg for the chance to carry it all for me just to put a line on their resume.

        We’ll see what happens. ;)

  3. Love it! Jill – Fantastic blog post! Looks like we both had the same idea this weekend! It’s always great finding new passionate shooters out there. I’m happy you’re on the MF path .. it’s a great path to be on. But I can’t help but agree with Praslowicz .. it does get worse :) a lot worse .. haha.

    1. Hi, Justin! Yes, great minds think alike, haha. :)

      Yeah — It’s funny because I picked up the Mamiya almost three years ago, but I feel like the velocity of the camera-collecting bug is ever-increasing. So much of this gear is so inexpensive that it’s SOOOO easy to justify picking up a new system here or there. Really dangerous stuff, but it’s a blast to experiment with new things. Even since finishing this post last night have I started looking at 6×9 cameras. Sheesh.

  4. I think the 645 will be a cool format, Jill. As much as I love 6×6, sometimes I wish my shots were a bit less square. I guess that’s where the 4×5 comes in. ;)

    That 35mm lens is insane, btw!

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