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A Lens with a (Smaller) View / No. 1

This article is intended as an "introduction and a light look" at medium format cameras.
Article by Robert A F van de Voort

For a change, I will look at and through the medium format camera, a camera that is likely, but unfortunately, more in use than the view camera - my ideal image maker. The medium format covers quite a range; compared to the 35mm camera it is a few times bigger in the negative area! The 35mm camera covers a negative area of 36 x 24 millimeters, the medium format ranges from 60 millimeters to 90 millimeters.

35mm and medium format cameras

Although the surface of the colour or b/w negative (or transparency = slide) is larger, the camera itself is not that much bigger than the larger 35mm cameras and very big compared to those point and shoot machines. This is quite an advantage, you do not carry that much more (imho) with you and the intrinsic quality of your photography is a lot higher (although that too depends who is behind the camera J!). The film is different, no cassettes anymore, you cannot shoot 36 shots, and you have to satisfy yourself with 16 shots or thereabouts, depend on the camera and the film 120 or 220...

You use a roll film, commonly called a 120 film, that is a long strip of light sensitive material six centimetres wide or high, backed at the beginning and at the end of the film with some backing paper to feed the film onto the take up spool and seal it from light when finished to get it processed. Some film is also available in double the size; it gives you twice the amount of exposures and is called 220 films. Not every manufacturer makes film this size and not all medium cameras have the facility to put those films in their film back. Who can tell me where the name 120 comes from? Does it relate to size? You can email me!

The camera itself comes in many shapes, one of the early models was the box brownie...another popular model was the twin lens reflex camera, made by various manufacturers. A Seagull is of a similar shape of another famous brand but so cheap, everybody could own one, see photo 1 for a comparison with a standard 35mm camera in size. This camera is an improvement on the box Brownie, you can hold it higher than bellybutton level, just about under your chin - when you look down through a magnifying glass in the little folding hood down onto a piece of glass that shows you the image as seen by the lens on the top. The lens underneath the top lens is actually the one that takes the picture, thus that will be on nipple height (depending on how you are built and not chin height)!
The image you see on the glass is reversed left to right, something you get used too very quickly but when you photograph people and you ask them to move right because they are on the edge of your image, you find they disappear, you should have told them to move to the left...the beauty is again that you observe an image on the glass, not looking through some optical tunnel with mirrors at reality which is the feature of so many 35mm cameras.

Another highlight is the shutter! The negative is so big that to construct a shutter that covers such a big surface is near impossible. Solution? Build it behind the lens. And if it is build in such a way that it can close in a circular way and not like a curtain that runs past the lens it makes a very fast flash synchronisation speed possible. Whoopee, fill-in flash at 1/500 of a second, what bliss...Think of the opportunities...

You can now use a flash outdoors at F8 at 1/500 in the full open sun (the sunny F16 rule states 100 ISO under open blue sunny sky gives 1/00 (becomes 1/125!) for a shutter speed at aperture F 16, the equivalent exposures are 1/250 at F11, or 1/500 at F8 all these combinations let the same amount of light through remember?)
This lower aperture allows more distance to be covered by the light of the flash, bringing it into a very useful position to photograph a group of people with fill in flash. Or think of the interior shots now possible, you can match the level of flashlight inside the room with the light outside the room with more ease. I know, some 35mm cameras allow a 1/250 to be used as the fasted sync. speed, but every medium format can do this trick, not just a few lucky expensive ones!

And now I just read that Leica released a camera with a flash sync speed of 1/1000 (but special conditions apply!!!), thus that kind of advantage is being eroded. They will never take away the size of the negative, that must be my main argument to use a medium format camera.

Another advantage is the possibility of using various film formats on the same camera, interchanging the kind of film used is also possible.

This can not be done with twin lens reflexes like in our photo shown, but with the medium format SLR cameras like Hassleblad (normal format is a square 6x6cms) and Mamiya (normal format is 6x7cms) or Fuji GX 680III (normal format is 6x8cms) to name a few.
Can you imagine the joys of halfway through a shoot to change from transparency into b/w if needed without having to invest in two camera bodies and two lenses? A film back is a lot cheaper.

film backs

Some of these filmbacks allow the insertion of a mask that changes the size of the image projected on the film - of course a similar mask will be inserted in your viewfinder to match the new filmformat. If a mask is not possible, you may have to buy another filmback. Even instant film adaptors exist for medium format cameras although I feel you may as well use your digicam if you want an instant result depending if the focal length of the lenses are similar...

These would be my main featured differences in relation to taking photographs, but there are other considerations like:

  • Weight and size of camera
  • Price of outfit
  • The impression you create - you seem to look more professional!
  • Cameras do not change - like the 35mm every year another model...
  • Some technical benefits, interchangeable backs etc.
  • Digital backs are available

Anyway, these medium format cameras are able to record far more detail than those little 35mm face masks (no offence intended) and can do it with more effect. I may try some features out in the next issues. Any ideas you may have as to what you want to know about, drop me an email, perhaps I can include it in my "ramblings".

Viewing you!
Robert van de Voort 2002

Robert van de VoortRobert van de Voort is a professional photographer and writer, with his headquarters located on the North Island of New Zealand. Robert's professional photographic career spans the course of over 20 years, with work in stock, advertising, studio, digital photography and much more! You can learn more about Robert and see examples of his stunning work by visiting his website at


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