Shooting Medium Format (A Slight Return) / by Mark Roberts

Never Say Never Again

Film. I swore I'd never do it again. The chemicals. The nagging worry about the health risks and the environmental impact. The expense. When you factor in all the benefits of shooting digital, I could find no justification for shooting film. I never felt any great nostalgia for the process or the technique; quote the opposite — I was glad to be shot of it.

But... down in my storage room I have an old Mamiya RB67 medium format camera, and a could of quite nice Sekor-C lenses. I bought them years ago when I was doing more architectural photography.

I'd fallen in love with medium format while I was studying in Farnham. The larger negatives gave stunning image quality, and the cameras were just about portable enough to shoot handheld with a bit of care and a neck strap. The slow speed and the care and thought needed while shooting often put me in a Zen space. And that I missed. With digital it's all shootshootshoot-assess-shootsomemore. There's something almost panic-inducing about the instantness of digital. With medium format film, you just have to wait, and have confidence in your skills.

I knew my Nikon D800 produced full-frame (35mm equivalent) images of spectacular quality, approaching that of medium format in an FX sized body. But that word — approaching — made me curious. I wondered — could my ageing RB67 could produce better-than-digital quality?

There was only one way to find out.

Now, when I say ageing, I should add that not only is my camera old (the RB was first made in 1970; mine, a Pro S was made in 1974), and it is a little the worse for wear. The plastic material on the body has been peeling away for years, and the sticky glue residue underneath is impossible to clean away. It's not like you can get replacement parts for these things, and refurbishing costs a fortune. Still, I can manage cosmetic unpleasantness — the other problems are more serious. One is that the foam between the camera body and back that is intended to maintain light-tightness is completely degraded. The other is some sticking issue with the shutter trigger that causes it to intermittently not trigger. I know how to bypass the problem, but it's annoying, and takes me out the Zen state and into the Swear state.

There is another issue. I felt that if I was going to shoot medium format again, I wanted to be able at some point in the future, to have the option to shoot with a digital back. My RB67 is just too old for that, and getting it fixed would have cost more than upgrading. So I decided to upgrade!

Yes, I decided to upgrade my 40 year old camera to a newer, 20 year old model: the RZ67 Pro II,  first made in 1995. The differences between the two, however, are relatively mild: a less tank-like construction, electronic exposure, no foam, and a slight change in lens mount (but I could still use my RB lenses). To all other extents and purposes, the two were very similar. Most importantly, however, the RZ67 Pro II is easy to convert to digital. There is a newer, even-more-digital-ready version (the RZ67 Pro IID) but that was selling a three times the price of the one I had my eye on, mainly because it is still made by Mamiya as recently as 2014. Mine, though, is the previous model, but to make it fully digital only requires an additional cable, which I feel I can totally live with (if I ever get around to it).

So I started shopping around on eBay, and found a place in Germany selling a very nice condition body with a 220 back. I also ordered an extra 120 back from Japan. I'll probably only use the 120 back (the 220 backs are for slightly different film and theoretically shouldn't be used for 120 film, though I suspect it's probably perfectly fine).

When it arrived, and I mounted my 90mm standard lens, I found everything was working as expected. interestingly, I even found a way to use the camera without a battery in fully functional mechanical mode. The the RZ67 is electronic (requires a battery), and the shutter speed is set on the body. But the RB is totally mechanical, and the shutter speed is set on the lens. When mounted on the RZ you have to set the body shutter seed dial to RB mode. A lot of people think it's a shame that the RZ can't operate in truly mechanical mode, but I found that it can if you mount an RB lens on it, and set the shutter button dial to the orange "emergency" mode. With an RZ lens this would simply shoot at around 1/400 second. But with an RB lens, the shutter speed is set on the lens, so you have a fully mechanical solution. 

Shooting with medium format is pure joy. If you've never used a waist-level finder before, you're in for a real treat. It gives an incredibly 3D feeling that id very different from shooting through the eyepiece of a 35mm camera. Of course, everything is reversed which takes some getting used to, but it looks so great you just want to wander around focusing on random stuff. Everything is transformed into art in that finder. It's hard to explain, but I guarantee you'l fall in love with photography al over again when you try it.

A sight unseen in my fridge for many many years.

I ordered 2 films to get me started: a 400 ISO Kodak Tri-X black and white, and a 400 Kodak Porta colour. I loaded the Tri-X into the 120 back for my first test, and headed to to shoot some film for the first time in 15 years.

There's a huge woodyard near the train station which I thought would make a nice first shot.

It was great to set up the camera on my old Manfrotto tripod, and make all the slow, careful adjustments. I was surprised how naturally it came back. Muscle memory, technical knowledge, familiarity with the tools. It all just gelled. Adjust the frame, take several light readings with the handheld meter, focus, adjust for bellows length, set aperture, set shutter speed, remove dark slide, double check everything. Check it again.

View through viewfinder of RZ67 Pro II

And then, push the button...

CLICK... WHIRR... SLAM... Wind it on.

That's it. No preview. No instant recall. Just hope for the best.

Pack up the gear, fold up the tripod, back to the car. So second shots, so you better get it right. I hoped I had.

I decided to head down the road to the junkyard. I'd done a little reconnaissance hunting for good spots to shoot, and had a feeling that I'd find something interesting. There were huge piles of crushed metal, crashed cars, old hubcaps, and even a crashed helicopter. And to be honest, I had a great time. I loved being back in that mindset, slowly framing, focusing, finding the shots.

I wasn't particularly worried about creating great art – just enjoying myself, and wondering what the negatives would be like. Could I pull this off after so many years? 

I shot away, and before I knew it the 10 exposures on my reel were all used up. I could have shot the colour roll too, but stupidly I forgot what the ISO of the film was and therefore couldn't risk it.

You can't just change ISO with film. It's slow, slow, slow, all the way. 

Were my exposures correct? Did I get anything at all on film?

You'll just have to wait and see...

 

Stand and Deliver

The major difference between the lat time I processed film 15 years ago, and today, is the availability of information on the internet. In ye olden times, I got my instructions for processing from the back of the chemical bottle, and a few extra hints from Michael Langford's Darkroom book.

Obviously I still knew what I needed to do (developer, agitation, stop bath, fixer, dry etc.) but the nitty gritty details were long forgotten. For example I don't ever remember measuring the temperature of the chemicals. I'm sure I must have, but the memory of doing so evades me. 

My big problem with film has always been the chemicals. Some of them are pretty nasty, and don't do much good for your health or the environment once you flush them down the drain. The other thing is a lot has changed in our lives since I last processed. I don't have so much time now to hang around carefully agitating film at precise temperatures, for precise timings.

Fortunately, in my research to jog my memory as to what I needed to do, I discovered a much better, much easier solution to developing: stand development.

(I should add that I only develop B&W film. While I used to do colour in the lab, there are more chemicals involved, and I can't be bothered; so I send colour film off, and process B&W myself, bacasue it's cheaper and dead easy.)

Unlike normal B&W processing, which uses high concentrations of chemicals for short periods (say, 4 minutes, depending on temperature and film speed/type), stand development uses a tiny amount of developer (about 5ml for a 120 film), takes about 1 hour (in which little or no agitation is necessary), can process any type or speed of film with no change in timing, and has a much less need for precision when it comes to temperatures. Plus, because the solution is so dilute, you don't need a stop bath, only fixer.

This is brilliant! Perfect! I quickly ordered a small 100ml bottle of Rodinal developer, and some Ilford Fixer. Price, about €25.  bargain compared to sending 1 film off to be processed elsewhere.

Loading the 120 film onto the processing spool has to be done in complete darkness. As I was fumbling with it in the bathroom I noticed a bit of light seeping into the room, and quickly covered the reel in a towel, hoping for the best. Loading 120 roll film is a bit of a pain compared to 35mm, but I managed with some swearing. Then it was into the kitchen to pre-soak the film (something I never did before, but what the heck) and add the dev.

It's great to be able to get the film developing, then go off for an hour to do something else. It really suits our contemporary attention deficit lifestyle.

There's always that uncertainty when you process... the worry of whether or not you exposed correctly, got the chemicals right, or blew the film in the darkroom. All I could do was hope, and wait for the results. After rinsing, fixing and washing, I took a peek. There was something there!! I was overjoyed!

After the full wash, I unrolled the film from the spool to dry.

Everything was perfect! Perfectly exposed images (well done, Mark!!) and beautifully developed negatives. Crisp and clear, nice definition, and not a streak in sight. To be honest I was really surprised that so little developer could produce such a nice negative, but it clearly can. I'd even go so far as to say these were some of the best negs I'd ever processed.

 

All that was left now was to let them dry, then scan them in.

 

A SCANNER DARKLY

I had no intention of wet printing the negs. I don't have the darkroom any more, and it just doesn't interest me. The hassle of wet printing vastly outweighs the ease and simplicity of scanning and digital printing, and frankly, the results are much better.

Unfortunately, my old Epson Perfecton 1640 scanner is far from top of the line. I've had my eye on a newer Epson V850, but I wanted to see what the old scanner could do first before dropping quite a lot of cash on a newer scanner. I'd love a decent film scanner, but they are €2000 plus, and there is no justification for that at the moment.

So I dusted off the old Epson, updated the software, and set it to work.

First, I scanned in greyscale (1000s of greys), but I didn't like the results, so I tried scanning in colour (millions of colours). Of course there is no colour in a B&W negative, but theoretically more shades of grey would be recorded, and the orangey colour of the scan could be easily adjusted in Photoshop.

When the image finally appeared I was a bit disappointed, There wasn't much detail, it was a bit blurry, and it looked a bit blotchy. I checked the negs, and there was definitely loads more detail there, and the dynamic range was pretty good. 

With a Nikon D800, you have to be very subtle with sharpening. I generally don't apply much at all, and leave it mostly to contrast adjustments and clarity. But with negative scans, especially from flatbed scanners, you need a TON of sharpening, and the most common method is multiple rounds of Unsharp Mask.

So I played around with that for a bit, and boom, what a difference! Suddenly the details were clear, and the micro contrast was amazing. I couldn't believe my eyes! These were truly images of comparable, if not greater detail than I got with a D800.

The clarity of the format and the lenses shone through. I kept a bit of sepia toning in as I like it and it suited the images. And I'm very happy with the results.

This was more than enough to convince me to shoot some more film. I did wish I'd known what the ISO of the colour film was, as some of the shots would have benefited from being in colour (the crashed helicopter was a bright yellow amidst a sea of great, the road signs bright blue against silver), but i can always go again and re-shoot.

The shot of the woodyard was the hardest to process, oddly. The light wasn't perfect, and the contrast between the dark wood and the snow was quite hard to get right.I took it into Silver Efex Pro to try and bring out a bit more balance, and give it an arty frame, bacasue that's what you do with black and white ;). So this is what I finally came up with. I think it's quite nice, but again, it might work better in colour.

So that was my first foray into film for a long, long time. I'm planning to order some more B&W, maybe 100 ISO Arcos, so watch this space for more experiments with film.

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