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Quick Tip: 5 Tips for Shooting Medium Format

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With the resurgence of film photography and the flood of affordable used cameras, many photographers are itching to dive into medium format photography. In today's quick tip, you'll learn five things about medium format photography that you may not have known.

Bigger "Sensor" Means Less Depth-of-Field

People love to talk about the relationship between sensor size and depth-of-field. The DSLR compared the point-and-shoot, the regular DSLR compared full frame models: it's an endless conversation. When you get into medium format, you're talking about a huge "sensor." The traditional medium format negative is 6cm x 6cm. That's about four times the size of a full frame sensor. This creates a very shallow perceived depth-of-field. That means focus is critical, but those out-of-focus backgrounds are buttery, even when you're stopped down a bit.

Once You Scan, You Can Sharpen … a lot!

The bigger "sensor" of medium format film does mean you need to be more careful when focusing. To compensate for that, the film has massive resolution. When I scan a medium format negative, the resolution is 10,000 pixels by 10,000 pixels. This means that you can sharpen the crap out of a file in Photoshop without really hurting the image. Just keep in mind, that like the depth-of-field, this too is relative. If you're printing a 30" print, then you still need to be careful. But when printing at a typical 8x10" size, you can sharpen a medium format scan a lot more than normal digital image.

Understanding 120 and 220

There are two main types of medium format film. 120 film has two layers: the film itself and a paper backing. The paper backing blocks light coming from the back of the camera. Many simpler cameras like Holgas have a red window on the back. This window allows you to see the numbers printing on the paper that indicate how far you need to wind the film between shots. The window also lets in light, hence that paper backing. A roll of 120 film holds 12 frames of 6x6 images.

220 film does not have a paper backing, which allows more film to be wound on the spool. A roll of 220 film holds twice as many frames as a roll of 120 film. Because 220 film doesn't have the extra protective backing, it cannot be used in Holgas, other inexpensive viewfinder cameras, and most folding cameras. Some Twin Lens Reflex camera can use it, and most Single Lens Reflex cameras can use it with the correct film back.

There are Four Basic Types of Medium Format Cameras

Viewfinder or Toy

Holga and Diana cameras fall in this category. The are inexpensive, and can be very fun. They typically have one or two shutter speeds and only a few aperture settings. The also don't include lightmeters. If shooting outside during the day, exposure isn't too hard. Shooting anywhere else, you might have issues. Focusing is also usually accomplished by guessing at a distance.


Folding cameras are what people thing of when they think of old-timey cameras. Many modern films are accepted by these cameras. The required film type is usually printed in the film compartment somewhere. Some of these cameras have rangefinders to nail down focusing. Most have a wide variety of shutter speeds and apertures, but almost none have lightmeters. These cameras can usually be had for next to nothing, but you need make sure that the bellows are good working order. A flash light in a dark room helps with this task.

There are also dedicated medium format rangefinders with interchangeable lenses. They similar to folders, but are more modern, and usually pretty expensive. They lack bellows, and basically look like a giant Leica or Bessa.

Twin Lens Reflex

The twin lens reflex camera has a classic look. Don't be scared, these are still produced by a few companies. The top lens is the viewing lens, and the bottom lens the taking lens. The lenses are close to each other, so the images they project are similar. Their focus mechanisms are linked, and they should also be the same distance from the subject. So if the top one is in focus, the bottom one should be, too.

Most of these cameras don't have lightmeters, but they do have a variety of shutter speeds and apertures and you can verify focus. The only disadvantage is that the lenses are typically fixed and can not by changed.

Single Lens Reflex

These cameras are considered the pinnacle of medium format shooting. They have interchangeable lenses, which most other medium format cameras lack. They also have interchangeable film backs allowing you to shoot 120, 220 and even different formats like 6x4.5. These cameras even have interchangeable viewfinders. You can get a waistlevel or a variety of eye level prisms.

Some of these cameras have lightmeters, at least more often than the previous ones listed. These are typically the most expensive medium format cameras. Few companies still produce them, but many are available used. They actually work just like the SLRs we're familiar with. They are just shaped differently.

It's Hip to be Square

Shooting square image has a few strange benefits. While medium format cameras come in several formats (6x9, 6x4.5, etc.), the square is the most common. First, you won't ever have to flip your camera "vertically." This is nice for waistlevel finders.

The second thing is that a square gets the most out a lens. A lens projects a circle of light. The square takes up more space on the circle than a rectangle. It's as simple as that.

Share with Us

Do you have any great medium format images? Please post some links to them below in the comments. If you have any interesting information about shooting medium format or any other tips, please share them with us as well.

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