Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Medium and Large Format Photography -- review

Medium and Large Format Photography, Moving Beyond 35mm For Better Pictures, by Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz. Amphoto Books, 2001. ISBN 0-8174-4557-9.

This large paperback book has excellent quality photos, and I've read a few different copies from the library. This is the 160page version, I have heard that there may be an updated version with 20 or so more pages.

The book starts out with "Why Move Up?" which all MF books tend to emphasize -- the larger negative size, more detail, better tonality, etc. All very sound reasons for MF and LF. The first chapter covers the details of film sizes and nomenclatures, camera types -- how many MF cameras are now auto everything and sometimes 35mm SLR-like. Also covered are differences between MF and LF films, formats, and sizes, simple and complex cameras, color and b&w films, formats and enlargements, tripod or hand held concerns - including an excellent example photo by Frances shooting a 4" x 5" at 1/8 second, and a very sharp photo.

An interesting section in the first chapter is called "Slowing down - and saving money" which discusses with how moving up from 35mm, you may work more slowly, and therefore shoot fewer pictures, taking more care with each photo, and therefore saving money by shooting less film with MF/LF than with 35mm film. This part intererested me because I've heard the same argument with digital and film.

The authors who also shoot 35mm film state that they typically use between 10% and 25% of the photos they shoot with 35mm film, but with MF, their "hit rate" rises to 25% to 50%, and with LF between 75% and 90%. I wish I were good enough where I used 10% of my 35mm film shots.

However, on the next page, they mention that on a typical shooting day, with 120 film, they still shoot roughly the same # of rolls per day as 35mm - 10-on for Roger, and 8-on for Frances, but this is about a quarter the # of pictures with their 120 rolls vs their 35mm rolls, so assuming the film costs and printing costs are the same per shot, the math doesn't really work out to be less expensive, especially if they were to achieve the higher keeper rate of 35mm shots mentioned earlier (25%). However, they summarize that on days they shoot MF, they get a similar number of usable pictures as on a day when they shoot 35mm film, and 4x the number of photos. They go on and mention that with LF, they rarely shoot more than ten pictures a day, but as stated earlier 75%-90% of these are usable.

Next they cover equipment costs, which can be very low, probably much lower now than when they wrote the book in 2001.

They devote one page to the commercial advantage of MF and LF in architecture, car photography, fine art, and trends and niches where MF/LF have advantages over 35mm, and acknowledge that for certain kinds of stock photography, 35mm has an unexpected advantage over larger formats, presumably because it is easier to create quantity with 35mm.

Another interesting comment made is that LF is in decline among professionals, because MF lenses and films are now so incredibly good. They state that 35mm is limited by film quality, while LF is limited by film flatness and the requirement for very small apertures. In the '50s the 5x7" format was where the lens and films matched up, and by the late '70s it was the 4x5" formats, and today they feel it is the 6x7cm MF size, for where the sweet spot is for optimal film and lens qualities, and that these optimums will probably never be met with the 35mm format, thus we have reached "the end of history." Interesting opinions.

Chapter 2 covers films, formats, camera gear, and most things MF. Chapter 3 covers Large Format, movements, focusing, film holders and camera backs, cut film formats, roll-film backs, monorails, and field cameras.

Chapter 4 covers Lenses and equivalent focal lengths with some useful tables to know what equivalent focal lengths from about 14mm to 500mm in 35mm format is equivalent to in the MF sizes 6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7, and 6x9 cm formats, as well as LF formats 4x5", 5x7", 8x10", and 11x14". Tripods, meters, and filters are also covered for the essential field kits with MF and LF gear.

Chapter 5 covers darkroom techniques, and MF/LF specific developing gear, chemicals, enlargers, and contact print making with a couple of pages each covering personal styles of each of the authors.

The appendicies cover learing LF with Polaroids, a review of three custom cameras, and hints, tips, and checklists.

Interspersed within the book are dozens of high quality photos of landscape, architecture, people, fine art, and of gear itself.

I think this book is essential to any photographer considering MF/LF photography. The book demystifies a lot of the complexity around these larger film sizes, and also indirectly points out the benefits and conveniences, speed, and compactness, and in many ways, the lower costs of 35mm film, and digital options.

Although the closest to MF I think I will ever get is an automated SLR type of 6x7 or TLR, it's good to know that a book that covers all of these various formats exists. It's always interesting to ponder what one could do with enlargements made from huge negatives, or even files from 25+ Megapixel digital backs through MF lenses, and there are a lot of tips in this 2001 book that would be very relevant for any kind of photographer shooting beyond the 35mm film size.

The authors have a unique style. They're definitely artists first, yet still wonderful writers, able to get their opinions across, along with compelling data points that make one want to get involved with MF/LF photogrpahy. This book is available at Amazon, where you can preview a few pages, and most of the libraries I"ve visited recently.

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