A new thread recently started on the Leica Forum, for pictures taken 30 or more years ago. I got out my binders of contact sheets of my older negatives to look for something I might post. And, as always happens when I do that, I was so taken with my medium format images from the 60’s that few of my 35mm images from the same era really appealed to me.
Flipping through my contact sheets, which are in chronological order, it is plain to see that I have switched back and forth between 35mm and MF for fifty plus years. And the reason has always been the same. For as long as I can remember I have liked just about everything about 35mm photography – except the pictures – and I have disliked just about everything about MF photography – except the pictures.
For me, the thread-mount “Barnack” Leicas represent the absolute pinnacle of film camera design. They look right, they feel right, they sound right and I enjoy the ritual involved in loading and shooting with them. In contrast I find my Rolleiflex 3.5 MX and Hasselblad 500 C/M big, heavy, slow, awkward and annoying. The Rollei is so quiet that I am often not sure if the shutter has fired or not. People around me jump if I fire the Hasselblad when they aren’t expecting it.
Hewes film reels are the best I have found for both 35mm and MF. I can’t remember the last time I had any problem loading the 35mm reel. My success rate with the MF reel is pretty good but I still occasionally kink the film in the changing bag.
My single reel Kindermann developing tank uses only 250 ML of chemicals and is comfortable to handle with my arthritic hands. The bigger Kindermann tank I use for 120 film uses 500 ML of chemicals, which offends my frugal nature, and I have dropped it in the sink more than once.
I scan my 35mm negatives in a single pass using a digital camera. I set the camera to create both a jpg and a raw file of each frame. It takes me less than five minutes to scan a 12-exposure roll of 35mm film. The smaller jpg files are used for making the contact sheet. The larger raw files are only used for the pictures I decide to print.
I scan my MF negatives in two stages. First I put the strips of negatives in a PrintFile page and scan the whole thing with a flatbed scanner to make a contact sheet. Then for each image I want to print I use my 35mm scanning setup to take six shots that I stitch together with software. The contact sheet goes faster than with 35mm but the multiple scans and stitching take 15 minutes for a single picture.
So why do I keep going back to medium format? It’s all about the pictures. The narrower depth of focus for a given angle of view gives the pictures a three dimensional effect. The treatment of middle tones for a given film speed is much better. And somehow I seem to choose more interesting subjects when I am using a medium format camera.
The issues I have with my MF equipment, materials and process are fundamental, they are not going to change. The issues I have with my 35mm photographs may turn out to be just as intractable, but I think it might be worth taking some time to see if I can capture some of the 35mm magic on 35mm film. (That’s a 35mm taken about a year ago at the top of this post.)