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Wednesday, May 13

35mm, 6x6 and 5x4 - Key Aspects of Photography

Do you choose your format or does your camera do it for you? That might seem like a daft question but when you think about it, if you just have to have a film Leica, then you're stuck with 35mm. If a 1960s Rolleiflex 2.8F is your dream machine then (provided it hasn't been adapted for 6x4.5 or 35mm) you're going to be shooting squares.

A comment left by David M. at this post about Adox CMS 20 got me thinking about this subject. David asked if it wouldn't be simpler, given the difficulties of achieving consistently good results using the 35mm Adox film and the efforts of some photographers to overcome its eccentricities using conventional developers rather than a special brew such as Adotech, to just switch to a larger format.

I don't think there's much doubt that it would be more straightforward to just load a Hasselblad with easy-to-develop Tmax 100 and get snapping. But there must obviously be something more to it than that or more people would be using medium format and sales of these slow, high-contrast microfilms would cease. And the reason might possibly have something to do with the camera choosing the format for the photographer.

Scotty Elmslie, as you'll see if you read his posts about developing CMS 20 in Rodinal or HC110, felt it was worth it to persevere - with a very good end result - with the Adox film. And I can see why he'd want to do that in preference to moving up a format.

A bridge too far?

Everything being equal, I'd always choose a 35mm SLR (or maybe the Leica - have to think about that one) over all other cameras and formats. Of course, it's an unfortunate truism that everything else seldom is equal - especially in photography - so we small format shooters, if we don't fancy 6x6 as much, must try to find ways of keeping the many qualities of 35mm whilst bridging across to the print quality afforded by the larger format.

Adox CMS 20 is one possible way of achieving that. It's such a fine-grained, high resolution film that, provided you're up to its technical challenges, it can beat medium format at its own game and even give 5x4 a run for its money.

Why the preference for 35mm? Although I love my old Rolleis and the Speed Graphic, for me, every time I move to a larger format I lose a bit of creativity. The photographs I take with larger formats, although superior technically, don't don't do it as much for me as 35mm does. Why that should be isn't easy to fathom.

It might be something to do with the greater portability and usability of a 35mm system. I prefer looking for different angles and viewpoints with a lightweight camera at my eye. It's not always the case - at least for me - that the first composition I see is the best one and a 35mm camera makes it much easier to explore the possibilities.

The small format cameras and lenses are normally smaller and lighter as well which makes it a more attractive proposition if you're going to be out for most of the day with a camera bag on your shoulder. They are also cheaper to buy, by and large, and cheaper to stock with film as well.


My own medium format gear doesn't get as much use as it should because of my 35mm preference. The Rollei TLRs are great to use but the SL66E, much though I love the quality of the results from its Zeiss lenses, really has to be used on a tripod. It's the same with 5x4: I love the big negs but it's such a palaver setting it up on a tripod to see if the shot is likely to be worthwhile that I'm inclined not to bother.

Yes, that's probably down to laziness more than anything else but that's just me so what can I say? Even if you want to use your 35mm camera with a tripod when shooting a slow film like CMS 20, the whole process is easier and quicker.

So the plus points of the 35mm system really chose that format for me over its rivals and that, in turn, would point me in the direction of microfilms if I wanted to nullify some of the advantages of medium format. If you're a medium format user then, presumably, you value a different set of attributes chief amongst which is probably the comparative ease with which you can make good-sized enlargements.

For large format photographers it's definitely print quality above all else with, depending on your subject matter, some camera movements thrown in.

Yes, Adox CMS 20 may be a pain in comparison with many other films and, yes, it would be easier in some respects to use medium format instead but as long as there's a chance of having your cake and eating it as well then it's surely got to be worth the effort.


DougH said...

For me the advantages of MF/LF are many. I'm slow in deciding on what and how to photograph so using a tripod gives me time to reflect.
Do allot of architectural/old building photography, and I dislike keystoning. Rear tilt & front rise are frequent movements.
Touching up/manipulating the negative is so much easier with sheet film. I frequently resort to an Adams Retouching machine to remove imperfections on the negative, which would be impossible to do with 35mm or even 70mm.

Bruce Robbins said...

An Adams retouching machine? Sounds very interesting, Doug. Never heard of that gadget.

DougH said...

Veronica Cass, in her "Retouching from start to finish" book, gives instructions on how to use the Adams Retouching Machine. There's even an article in the UK paper the Daily Mail called "Photoshop of the 1940s".

Fixing the negative is allot easier than fixing imperfections in each print; but its difficult to use for anything smaller than 4X5.

DavidM said...

First – The Adams Retouching Machine! Wow! I do hope it's not a euphemism.
Second. I think you've put your finger on the nub of the problem with your sub-head "Tripod Bound".
A tripod is a huge addition to any camera outfit of any format. It may easily double the weight. You can actually carry and hand-hold a view camera without too much difficulty. It's what pressmen in black-and-white films used. A folded view camera can fit in a small bag and be quite unobtrusive.
There are comparatively light and agile 120 cameras available, particularly if you like the historic folding ones. Many of them are lighter than a current Leica. In general, like all older cameras, the viewfinders seem to be more of an aiming device than a framing one.
The only disadvantage, as far as I can see, is the much larger number frames that a 35mm camera holds. But that's one of the more persuasive arguments for using a digital camera, isn't it?

Martin Fennell said...

I am an amateur (mainly family) photographer whose day job is an engineer. I recently bought a 6x6 medium format camera (Bronica SQ) after many years of OM usage. I am using both.

Which camera I pick up depends

partly on the subject -
fast movement, always the OM
portraits, always the Bronica

partly what I am doing -
alone - usually the bronica
with family walk about usually the OM

partly on what other considerations -
If I bring a tripod - usually the Bronica
What film I have available or loaded
"zone" photos are easier handled with interchangable backs (not that I do that)

I chose to buy into MF mainly for the waist level finder giving a different experience taking the picture and the square format giving a different experience viewing the photo.

One thing I don't see discussed often (and here is my engineer head!) is the difference in DoF.

For a similar DoF in a same sized print, one needs about 2 stops slower on the MF vs the 35mm, so to use the same shutter speed you need 4x speed up on the ISO (100 ISO becomes 400 ISO).

So MF lends itself to slower moving subjects, more thoughtful photography, 35mm to faster and (because of the lenses I have) subjects that need longer focal length.

The OM system has more integrated flash, BUT I do use the OM T flashes with the Bronica, pretty much interchangeably.

So for me the choice of camera is a complicated subject, I tend to not think about it and just pick the camera I feel like at the time (usually the Bronica).

DavidM said...

Depth of field is related to focal length rather than film format.You can see that this is true if you imagine adding a bit more film around the edge of a 35mm image. (the lens won't cover the extra film but this is imaginary). Adding a bit of extra film can't alter the way the lens behaves.
So, a 50mm lens on a 120 camera will have the same DoF as a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera, at the same aperture. The 120 lens will show more of the scene and consequently will be a wide angle lens.There are text books which show illustrations of this.
If you want to enjoy discussions of DoF, look at large format forums. There, they fight a constant battle between DoF, diffraction and crippling obsession, sometimes with more maths than I knew existed.
This blog (this excellent blog, Bruce) seems more concerned with "indefinable glows" when lenses are mentioned. You can learn a lot.

Joe Iannandrea said...

I think every photographer has a sweet spot for the equipment that most suits them and as great work can be done with anything from 16mm to ULF why fight it? I do wonder the attempt to make up for our chosen format's weaknesses compared to the alternatives can ever be entirely successful though. Myself, I think I'd feel less tripod bound with my Bronica and a standard emulsion than I would with a 35mm camera shooting at an e.i. of 10.

art said...

"So, a 50mm lens on a 120 camera will have the same DoF as a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera, at the same aperture."

If you're the same distance from the subject. But since 50mm is wider angle on 120, you'll have to get closer to fill the frame, thus the field will get shallower. If you want to fix the angle of view, the 120 camera needs a longer lens and about a stop slower to get the same depth.