Another Day Another Medium Format Portrait. From The Early 2000's...

   Amy in the studio.

I can't imagine how we did it just a few short years ago.  I was looking through boxes with thousands and thousands of black and white, medium format images and wondering, "how did we pay for all that medium format film?  All the developing and contact sheets?"  And it wasn't all for jobs.  That would make sense.  No, at least half the stuff in the boxes was personal work.  People I couldn't bear not to photograph because I liked the way they looked so much.  Looking back at a typical bill from my lab from 2002 (we were still shooting a mix of film and digital....) I note that I shot 160 rolls of MF tri-X in the month of June.  In that same month I shot 300 rolls of color transparency film.  While that's only 5,500 exposures it's critical to remember that every click of the shutter cost real money.  I'd estimate the out of pocket expenses for the 460 rolls of film, with develop and contact at a modest $10 per roll (I used to get volume discounts...) and that means we spent $4,600 that month.  Close to a dollar a frame.  And that's before scanning or printing.

Now, for all intents and purposes, when we shoot with digital cameras it seems like photography is free.  But I think we've made some compromises that I wish we didn't have to make.  I like shooting in medium format but who can afford to buy and use $28,000 cameras and $4,000 lenses for clients whose budgets are falling faster than the Dow Jones average?  But the things I miss most people will dismiss as intangibles:  The brilliant finders.  The way the image goes out of focus because of the longer focal lengths on bigger formats.  The way black and white and color negative films could hold on to highlight detail and make it amazingly nuanced.  Being able to put your hands on a piece of film and seeing it.  Knowing that negatives might dissolve but knowing that they will do it gracefully instead of catastrophically.  The incredible tonal range of well shot and processed film.  The unmatched pleasure of the square frame...

The wonderful thing about life is that not everything has to be binary.  I change my mind a lot but it doesn't mean I have to burn all the other options and walk a narrow path for the rest of my days.  I've been seduced by the promiscuous nature of digital's ample largess and I've been swayed by film's Calvinistic rigor and I like both feelings.  The hot tub and the stern, early morning run up the long hills.

So I think I'll spend a while going back and forth, like a man with two lovers.  I'll shoot portraits for myself on silvery slivers of film and I'll shoot work for my clients on the visual accordions of digital.  And I'll hunger for the day when a wonderful client, with Warren Buffett-sized budgets, stumbles across some of the work I'm doing with film and exclaims,  with a breathy excitement: "Oh dear God!!! These are wonderful!!!!  Please.  Can you shoot our next project with real film???"

And I'll tilt my little black beret to one side of my head, toss aside my hand rolled cigarette,  empty my martini glass and, grudgingly say,  "Well...if that's what you want..."  And we'll be back into a new game of mixing old and new.

Note:  atmtx visited my studio on Sunday and captured me with the new camera.  His photo is here


Anonymous said...


I love your train of thought. Going back and forth. You are blessed with great insight into human nature.

atmtx said...

I really love your square, black and white portraits. It's too bad most people just get to see them on the web. They look even more incredible as a photographic print.

Maybe you can do a gallery showing someday of your favorite portraits.

Thank you for the link to my portrait of you. It is nothing like your black and white portraits but I'm pretty happy with it as a snapshot from my Olympus E-PL1.

Silvertooth said...


Thanks for the nostalgia of film and square negatives. I am now looking for a used medium format camera. I just set the darkroom up again. I pulled out the Penatx ME Super. Wow!! You can actually see stuff in the viewfinder! What a concept! Of course, I am a luxury photographer: I have the luxury of photographing for the love of taking pictures, not supporting myself. Although, it might be nice to have it as a job, too. Keep up the great blogs!

mshafik said...

That's it? That tiny thing is a medium format camera?

Being a recent amateur photographer, I have never seen a medium format film camera in person, why then do the new digital Hasselblads seem huge in comparison?

Needless to say, that's a lovely photo you've got.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

What a brilliant photo of Amy - and a very good one of you from atmtx, with his little Pen.

Interesting how thoughts run - often these are very comparable, and thought at around (almost) the same time even. I've just discovered and read another pro photographer's take on this, and it's very similar to yours: use film for art, and for private stuff, and digital for the jobs where you have to (you can read those thoughts and conclusions of Laurence Kim at "My thoughts after 6 months of shooting film his blog. After falling in love again with a Contax 645 (he also has a G2), he settled and changed to a Phase One (Mamiya 645), because with that you can use both: film and digital backs. Not so keen on 35mm film btw, he is.

I also had thoughts about my early days several times in the past weeks, when I used a Canon A1 with the - at that time - "holy trinity" of 28, 50, and 135mm focal lengths. During that time I also wanted something else (like a manual Nikon FM2, or a Mamiya 6x7), but I've never got into MF land. Today I would love to try, but around here (in Germany) I'm still in the process of looking for labs which still handle 120 and 220 Rollfilm, and reading about destructive and non-destructive scanning methods.

Some of these options, like the mentioned Contax 645 with its wonderful set of Carl Zeiss lenses went up in price lately - you could say that they sky-rocketed, which means you would also get brand new 5D Mk2s with a set of nice lenses for the same amount of money, which is too much for an amateur like me if you add the costs for film and processing and such. OTOH, I just handled for a few seconds the analog 35mm Minolta of a colleague lately, and was hooked immediately because of that bright, split-image focusing viewfinder, and the feel of something more substantial in my hands after all these years.

Difficult thing, this, and a difficult decision. Maybe I should just get an old Olympus OM-x body for the OM Zuiko I have already, and be done with it. But then again, now that you actually do find some compelling offers on those bays or at KEH, there's still that siren's call of medium format...

Please keep us informed about this newly rediscovered analog love of yours. The analogy with the two women fits very well IMHO.

Thanks, and cheers,

P.S.: You were also right about your friend atmtx ans his HDR stuff. I'm also noo big friend of that, but his are really really nice. Greetings to another blogger whose RSS feed is subscribed to here.

Anonymous said...

Why oh why did we have to lose the brilliant finders?
With digital products it's hard to SEE.

Craig Yuill said...

Those who dis film shooters as luddites who won't let go of obsolete technologies are IMO missing out on what is still a very-viable medium. I like nothing better than looking at well-shot transparencies or negatives on a light table. A digitally-captured image viewed on a typical monitor just doesn't look as good, IMO. With a transparency or negative you are looking at the actual image. There is no intermediate imaging process that can lead to less-than-desirable results.

When discussing film, people mention details captured, tonal qualities, dynamic range, feel, etc. For some reason no one ever mentions the smell of film. A newly-opened film container or foil package emits a smell that is as pleasant to me as freshly-baked bread. I can't believe I'm the only one who likes the smell of film.

You are right about each frame costing a dollar. In my neck of the woods (Vancouver) a 36-exposure roll of Fuji Provia 400X or Velvia 100 plus processing, mounting, and taxes will cost around $36. I think that knowing there is a cost to each shot on film can be a good thing, forcing one to adopt a more-disciplined approach to shooting. But sometimes this can be a bad thing.

Yesterday I missed taking a couple of shots of my daughter playing hopscotch. I liked the way sun slightly backlit her, and the way she was juxtaposed over hopscotch lines. I should have gotten a couple of fine shots of her. But I was reluctant to fire because I wasn't absolutely sure I had focused and set exposure properly on my FM2. I missed a couple of opportunities to get some really nice shots of my daughter at play. Had my camera been a digital one I probably would have fired away and (maybe) gotten a decent image or two. Instead I got nothing. Nada. Zip. Grrr!

Neal said...

Firstly, absolutely fantastic photo of Amy. Love the depth.

secondly, do you really get clients who would ask for you to use a particular piece of equipment?

Just shoot film and blow their socks off anyway.

gary said...

For me (Corporate Photography) I still shoot a lot of film along with digital depending on the final use of the image and agree that $1 / shot is a good estimate. However, digital is not "free". You have to measure the total costs. I believe if you really sat down and calculated the true total cost, you would find that film can actually be cheaper - assuming you've got a good photographer - lab relationship. Of course, as I said up-front, it depends on what you're doing. A high-m qualify product shot done with large format film can be the most cost effective in many cases

Mel said...

Make sure you say that in French accented English for the full effect....

neopavlik said...

Neat picture of you with your new medium format camera.

Lol at beret, cigarette, martini glass.

I'm sure you'll be working in a few snaps of the medium format into any shoot you can for comparison sake.

steve said...

Two years ago when I was looking for a wedding photographer to shoot my wedding, my number one requirement was a photographer who whould shoot it on Meduim Format film.

I found a guy who not only shoot the ceremony and reception with 120 but took some photos with a Larger Format 4x5 camera. The photos we have from our special day are exceptional and every one comments on how lovely our photos turned out. I'm very glad I spent the extra dollars for film.

I have since bought a 4x5 view camera of my own and take it on holidays. If you have never seen slides in 4x5 format you have never lived.

ajcarr said...


You don't have to spend $28000 on a MF digital body: there's the Pentax 645D.