This is not an evangelical preachy post, it’s just a ‘this is what I have done and this is why I have done it’ entry to the blog today. After much debate and internal struggle with myself, I have finally decided to go with just one system this year. I promise I will not use the ‘Why not simplify your equipment to improve your photography?’ mantra ANYWHERE here today, no way. Not me. Use what you like, use what works. Use what gets you the results you want, how you want and when you want. Holga, pinhole, Leica, disposable…use whatever you friggin’ like.
Here’s how I personally got to this point: I love film (in case this were not already obvious). I love keeping busy, I love shooting and I genuinely enjoy developing my own films. I seriously love the negs I get on medium format more than anything else, including 35mm. What I don’t love is spending too long scanning and the kinds of scanners that we have available on the market today. I also don’t have the time to be fully analogue all the way through to the finished prints; this means nearly all hybrid work for me, with only the occasional sortie into a wet darkroom in the time-honoured fashion.
I wish there were a commercially available, automatic, decent scanner for 135mm film whereby I could just set and forget, a la “Le Pakon 135’ on the market. Something that at least handles the bulk of the work. Not interested in ancient kit with dubious support, don’t want to have to run virtual box facilitated copies of Windows XP from thirteen years ago, don’t want to jury rig my main work tool and hope that the wheels don’t fall off it every time I fire it up. I know you can load up a lot of 35mm negs into some of the aftermarket carriers for various flatbeds but that’s not really my bag. The automated process is only one side of the wants list however, I’m also not that happy with the quality of 35mm scans from most of the current offerings until at least, say Epson V7XX levels or higher and that is a lot of outlay compared to the still fairly cheap prices of scanning available here in Bangkok on old Fuji Frontier era kind of kit. Alas, that means relying on random operators apathetically dabbling around scanning your negs on old kit with hit and miss results. Okay, maybe more hit than miss but still hassle plus delays only to eventually yield less than satisfactory results. It’s perhaps just the whole relying on other people thing that turns me off it too.
Then we come to the larger world of 120. The lack of number of shots per roll is something that some people struggle with. I used to be one of them. For me, I’ve reached a point where I am fine with that. I would rather try and focus on quality over quantity when shooting and I find that cameras like Rolleiflexes and Hasselblads tend to really make you double (and triple) check everything so much that the keeper ratio can be surprisingly high once you get into the swing of things. Besides, I think any serious shooter needs a double camera set-up (ideally comprising of two identical cameras) and thus my double Rolleiflexes give me 24 shots before a reload between them as well as offering differentiation between high or low speed, colour or black and white etc. The results are so nice to behold, I get much more of a feeling of anticipation and satisfaction from slowly pulling out a roll of freshly devved 120 off the reel than I do with 35mm. I can’t say exactly why but those who regularly shoot and dev both formats will know what I mean. There’s such an integrated work of art already encapsulated into my Rolleiflex negs held up to the light, before I have ever printed or scanned them.
Speaking of scanning, medium format is a breeze. This is another part of the impetus towards my decision. It’s amazing to me how much easier it is for a keen hobbyist to obtain really nice results in scanning MF compared to 35mm. It’s just all so much easier when you are dealing with that increase in real estate. I’m sure LF shooters might say the same when comparing their negs to my 120 but I find medium format to be a sweet spot for my own practical purposes. Also, once you have your workflow down, it can be really quite quick to scan twelve frames to a nice standard and be done with it. This is a real bonus for me. I don’t have a scanner at home that I’m happy with in terms of 35mm results and so this means outsourcing. When I shoot MF, I can shoot, dev, scan well with regular kit, post process (and even publish) on the same day, all in-house. And, I like what I see. Granted, I don’t often follow such a feverish pace but the fact that I can do it all on my own terms and time is a great advantage to how I want to work. It’s hard to argue with the ‘self-sufficiency’ economy of this workflow (Thai based readers will know what I mean!). It seems as though not only are the results from MF better for me, but the convenience factor of the workflow is also much higher. It occurs to me that there is much irony to be found in this situation. 135mm was so successful for so long precisely because of how practical and convenient a format it was, the sweet spot with 24-36 frames on a smaller sized roll that still yielded high image quality was hard to deny. Now, when I hold up a freshly devved, long, uncut strip of 36 frames…it seems like a bit of an awkward burden, it’s not far enough down the road of practicality for me. To cross the finishing line from there either means upgrading my equipment and spending a lot longer time in front of the computer or dropping off and picking up at the local lab with fingers crossed. In comparison, the shorter, wider roll of 120 glory appears much more ‘user-friendly’ to me. The shots are already eagerly jumping up at me like a dog whose owner has just returned home and I know that once it’s dry, I will soon fly through the last stage after dinner and file it away into my ring binder, job done. It’s just a much more practical, useable and enjoyable option for where I am at right now.
There are things I will miss. The larger number of frames on a roll of thirty-five are much more appropriate for street photography which is, let’s be honest, a genre based around a very low keeper rate to begin with. I also like the perspective and depth of field of 35mm, the way all those classic street shot frames of the last century appeared on the medium have almost come to define how we expect such a style to be. I shoot a variety of things in public however, more candid than street perhaps, I shan’t go any further down the sticky path of precise sub genre definition. I also find 35mm film a little easier to handle on and off the rolls in my tank, perhaps even a tad quicker, but this is hardly a big issue. There’s a greater variety of films available too of course although all my favourite films are very well represented in medium format so again not so much of a deal breaker here for me either.
I also like the simpler approach of only having…..oh-oh, nearly went there. Must. Resist. I find that my two Rolleis JUST squeeze into the same tiny bag that my two Nikons used to. Note the inclusion of: ‘used to’. This is the correct term for the situation as although I have regularly shot with Nikons and Leica M’s in 35mm, I have now passed them on to their respective new owners. Only the big, twin guns of MF Navarone remain to keep watch over any potential shots that may appear on the horizon of my creative seas.
I’ll need to practice with them more too, there’s a lot more that can be done with Rolleiflexes than the casual observer might think. Sportsfindering, chest or waist level finders sneakily turned ninety degrees to steal away candids of calibre, zone-focusing, Rolleinars…all ways to increase the versatility of these fine machines. A lovely, whole system in a nice well-machined little box. There’s a definite incognito, unthreatening vibe to an old TLR when deployed in public, basically it seems that people either don’t know or if they do know, they don’t care for some reason. I’m not saying that a Rolleiflex or Yashicamat can pull off some hitherto unknown change in the laws of physics but regular adherents to this kind of rig in public will know what I mean. You’re either met with indifference, a harmless smile or nod. Somehow that ‘old thing that you have to wind the big lever’ on isn’t anything that could threaten, discredit or shame anyone and it’s output certainly couldn’t appear on social media, could it? If only they knew. It’s a true weapon for candid work, it really is.
So, with nothing but 120 in the freezer and twin TLR’s for this geezer, I walk forward into the epoch of the Goldilocks format. Not too big, not too small but just right. Let’s see how this goes!