I started out with photography when analog film was already dead. But recently it has come back among camera nerds. What got me interested was to see photos taken with Cinestill, a brand new film that gives a very cinematic look, something I just couldn’t reproduce in post processing. So I decided to give it a try. I wrote this to document all the stuff I went though from beginning to end, and with a conclusion to hopefully help people that is thinking about doing the same.
Mamiya 645 medium format camera
It all started out when I won an auction for a suitcase full of Mamiya 645 stuff. To people that don’t know, that is an old medium format camara system with film in the size of 6×4.5cm (large size!), something that professionals used back in the 70s to 90s. The suitcase contained a Mamiya M645 camera, a few lenses, a flash, teleconverters, macro rings, filters and more.
Suitcase full of Mamiya 645 stuff including a few rolls of film that expired in the 80s. Full size
What attracted me most to that camera was the Hasselblad look and modular system, and I heard that this was a cheaper but still very good alternative to the expensive Hasselblad cameras and Zeiss lenses.
Initially it was a bit of a challenge to use. The waist level viewfinder (you look into the camera from the top) that I had looked forward to trying was hard to use: what you see through it is reversed, meaning you have to make the opposite movements when framing, very hard to learn. Also the waist level viewfinder don’t have a light meter, so you have to figure out exposure otherwise. Nailing focus is also hard but it has a magnifying glass you can fold out that helps, but still not as good as a good prism viewfinder. Expect to have problems with these waist level viewfinders, they are cool and I love to use them, but they are also a pain in the ass.
The Mamiya 645 lenses are great. I have tried a lot of vintage lenses (35mm, medium format), and so far I only really got impressed by two vintage lens companies: old Zeiss lenses and Mamiya 645 lenses. I love the rendition and colors. Also ended up adopting the lenses on my digital Fuji X cameras with an adapter, and uses the lenses with a Rhinocam adapter (will write more about that soon on the blog).
These are the lenses I ended up getting, all nice lenses.
- Mamiya Sekor C 45mm f2.8 N – a wide angle lens.
- Mamiya Sekor C 80mm f2.8 – The standart length, 50mm equivalent. Great lens, small, light and very cheap. Amazing value for money. Check out this 134 megapixel photo I took with this lens, my Fuji X-T20 and a Rhinocam adapter.
- Mamiya Sekor C 80mm f1.9 – Great lens for street photography (film don’t have high iso so you need faster lenses to shoot in the dark) but also more big, heavy and expensive.
- Mamiya Sekor Macro C 80mm f4 – Macro lens that people also claim is the sharpest lens.
- Mamiya Sekor C 110mm f2.8
- Mamiya Sekor C 210mm f4
- Mamiya Sekor C 300mm f5.6
My girlfriend in Amager Strandpark, Denmark. Taken with the Mamiya M645 and the 110mm lens with Kodak Portra 160. Full Size
- Awesome lenses. Even if I never use the Mamiya film camera again, I will always use these lenses on my digital cameras.
- Everything is high quality stuff.
- Camera looks cool!
- Too old school: The Mamiya M645 and other 70s/80s cameras are very mechanical cameras, not much electronics. Can be good since you can repair stuff. But you will end up missing all the electronic options. A good lightmeter, auto rewind, auto focus even, better viewfinder. Continue reading to hear about more modern options.
Cinestill 800 film
This new film was original why I got into shooting film. I saw Big Head Taco using it and loved the cinematic look it gave, perfect for evening street photograhy. The look has these blue-green tones, with red rings around light sauces. The film is very depended on your light source, newer light like led won’t look good, older bulb lights look super cool.
I had high expectations but after getting the first film developed and scanned I was disapointed. Iso 800 on film is not like iso 800 in digital, it’s has very high noise. More noise than I can accept. If you post it online as a small thumbnail like Instagram (where I had original seen Cinestill photos) it looks fine, but for viewing it on a big screen in full resolution it looks terrible.
Nørreport station in Copenhagen taken with Mamiya M645 + 80mm f1.9 with Cinestill 800 film. Full size
- A unique look, good for urban-neon-hipster-night-photography.
- Most lights today are led-lights, that limits your options to get that cool Cinestill look when shooting. But limitations can also be a fun thing 🙂
- Too much noise, low quality photos.
If you go for older film cameras you will probably have to meter your light manually. Even if the camera has a build in lightmeter, it can give unstable results or be broken (they often are, ask before you buy).
- External lightmeter – good ones are a bit expensive, but this is a your best option.
- Light meter apps for your smartphone – I tried a lof of them free and paid onces. I like the idea, since you always have your phone on you. But they don’t work so don’t waste your time.
- Use your digital camera as light meter. It works but it’s a bit of a pain in the ass to always hold two cameras.
- Learn to guess your exposure settings. I never learned to guess all light settings, but going out shooting street in the evening you can easily learn to guess those settings (light will problably only vary 2-3 stops max and easy to guess).
It’s a big minus that you have to deal with this. On modern cameras we have got so used to the comfort of build in light meters. A big minus for shooting film.
Pentax 6×7 medium format camera
The bigger the film, the finer film grain and the more details. So I wanted to try something bigger and got the Pentax 6×7 system. Compared to the Mamiya 645’s 6×4,5cm film, the Pentax 6×7 has 6x7cm film.
My friend holding the giant Pentax 6×7 + 105mm f2.4 lens. Full size
The camera looks like a monster, it’s big and ugly and when you bring it somewhere public you will get attention, people will laugh of you and when you take photo the shutter sound will make people wonder “what is that sound?”.
Because of it’s bigger film size, and longer and slower lenses, I used this more as a landscape/cityscape camera, but to me that is not where film has it’s strength compared to digital. Everytime I did use it I ended up liking the same photo shoot with my digital Fuji camera way more. Therefore I can’t recommend this camera even though this camera is legendary.
Here are the lenses I ended up with:
- SMC Pentax 6X7 55mm f4 – A wide angle lens, known for sharpness and good for landscape photography.
- SMC Takumar 6X7 105mm f2.4 – Standart lens. The fastest lens for the camera. If you get this camera, you probably want this lens.
- Big 6×7 size film and finer grain.
- Looks cool in an ugly way, will get you lots of hipster friends.
- Bigger film (or sensor) comes with a prices, the camera/lenses becomes bigger, lenses become slower (lower aperture), longer lenses means you have to either use tripod or shoot at higher shutter speeds (to avoid lens blur), and less things are in focus on bigger film/sensor. Taking those things into account, the 6×7 film size is too big.
- It’s big and heavy + you need at tripod (because of the things mentioned above) so you rarely bring it along.
- The lenses have a lot more chromatic aberration compared to other medium format lenses like the Mamiya’s. But I only noticed it when adopting them on my digital cameras, not on film. Also I just don’t like the colors and image rendition as much the Mamiya’s.
Christianshavn in Copenhagen, taken with the Pentax 6×7 + 55mm f4 with Fujifilm Velvia 50 slidefilm. Velvia 50 has low dynamic range, so I cheated and used to exposures and mixed them in photoshop to get sky and foreground. full size version here. You can compare it to this photo I took the same morning with same lens but with my Fuji X-T20 and a Rhinocam adapter, in full resolution (134 megapixels) or resized version.
35mm film camers
I also decided to try out 35mm cameras (what most people had back in the day). Advantages are smaller cameras and lenses, faster lenses, and more shoots on one film roll.
I had a lot of them laying around from when buying vintage lenses for my Fuji X system. I ended up using my Minolta x-300 the most with a Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58 mm f1.4, a very cheap option and still good quality.
But let’s just stop here: 35mm is too grainy! The higher resolution of medium format is really needed when taking film and digitizing it. Sure back in the days some great photographer used 35mm and got great results. But doing it today and comparing it with digital cameras are so disappointing. 35mm is only usable if you only use your photos to low res image services like Instagram.
Taken with Minolta x-300 + 58mm f1.4 lens + Cinestill 800 film. See full size version here and notice the low quality of 35mm high iso film.
– Cheap, you can go to your local 2nd hand store and find lots of cheap options.
– Faster lenses and small size, good for street photography.
– Too low photo quality, don’t even bother.
Pentax 645 medium format camera
In the end I bought this Pentax 645N a bit by chance and hadn’t many expectations, I found a cheap lens for it in a 2nd hand store and wanted a matching camera. This is a modern medium format film camera, it has auto focus, fully working light meter with the modern options, very big and bight viewfinder, auto rewind the film and much more.
I was blown away by this camera! The film camera I enjoyed the most using, and it makes it hard for you to use the more old school cameras afterwards. Only minus is that it lack the charm and cool look of the older cameras and it’s rather large. So I can recommend it, but maybe the fun of trying film is to try the old mecanical cameras?
- Viewfinder is amazing.
- Everything just works.
- I just like to use it, feels good and makes me happy 🙂
- You can adopt Pentax 6×7 lenses with an adopter, nice if you own both cameras.
- Big and heavy.
- Lack some retro coolnes, not good if you wanna have high status among your hipster friends.
Other cameras and films tried
- Pentacon Six TL – this camera is older and cheaper. I got it with a Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm 2.8 and a MIR 26B 45mm f3.5. I never used the camera much, so not much to say about it.
- Yashica Mat-124G 80mm f3.5 – found it cheap in a 2nd store and was inspired to get a TLR camera because of Vivian Maier. But didn’t like it, the images has this not vintage look, faded (not in a good way).
- Fujifilm Velvia 50 – this film is good for landscapes but it’s super hard to use because of the low dynamic range. You have to use graduated nd filter for anything you do with it, and for me that takes a bit of the fun away.
- Kodak Provia 160 – Like it, good for photos with people.
My girlfriend and her bike in Kødbyen, Copenhagen. Taken with the Yashica Mat 124g 80mm f3.5 with Kodak Portra 160 film. Notice that the photo is square because the negative is 6×6, why many Instagram photgraphers love these kind of cameras. Full size
Getting your film developed are normally pretty easy. Most big cities have good professional film labs. Here in Copenhagen there is the lab “Laboratoriet i Nannasgade” that have good quality service but they close early. I recommend you to go to Photografica (Skindergade 41, Copenhagen), they will give your film to the same lab, that adds an extra delay but you end up paying a bit less (65 danish kroner for developing film).
People always say that bigger sensors gather more ligth, therefore bigger sensors are better. The Angry Photographer always reject this and makes fun of people that claims it. When you use a medium format film camera you realize quick that it’snot true, they don’t gather more light. The same film in a 35mm camera gather the same light in a medium format camera. The difference for film is that bigger film gives you finer grain and details. For digitial it’s the same, bigger sensor gives producers option to make higher resoltion sensors, but with technology changing smaller sensors now also support higher resoltions. Bigger sensors are often better to handle noise, I think this is a decision the companies make by choice, not by pysical limitations.
- Medium format film cameras have great lenses and you can even use them digitally in many ways. A lot of them are very undervalued right now, might change as digital medium format cameras like the Fujifilm GFX-50 gets more popular.
- It fun to shoot film if you are not used to it, especially the first couple of rolls are a thrill. You need to think more because you don’t have unlimited shoots, that’s a good experience to try.
- Film gear keeps it’s value, buy it, try it, resell it again with small or no loss. So even if you end up disliking film you can always resell.
- Film is expensive because you will get G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). There’s something satisfying about buying what used to be the most expensive gear only professionals could afford. You will end up spending a lot of money on ebay, but like mentioned above, you can easily resell it again.
- Old film cameras looks cool and are fun to try but they are a pain in the ass. You will often miss a lot of great shots right in front of your eyes becase you had this old school gear and not a modern camera. And for me that is the purpose of photography, capturing the moment.
- High iso film is not the same as high iso digital sensors, your photos will be so grainy that it’s unusable (unless you are an Instagram only photographer).
- You will very likeley have to spend extra money and time on the cameras you buy, because something is broken. It happend again and again to me. Expect it before buying.
- Scanning film to digitalize it is painfull and very unsatisfying. It takes a lot of time and you will most likely be disapointed. I had a hard time getting good results, tried different scanners and methods, always got same bad results.
Mid summer event (Sankt Hans) in Denmark. Taken with Pentax 6×7 + 105mm f2.4 with Cinestill 800 film. Full size
Was it worth to try it? No! Don’t do it, unless you care more about cameras than you do about getting good photos. In the end I had 3 developed films I didn’t even scan, I was so disappointed in the results I got. And I know people are gonna say I did this and that thing wrong (try processional scanning, try another lens, etc.), still doesn’t change all the problems involved with film makes it all not worth it.
Maybe as a portrait photographer film can make sense. It gives you a unique look, and getting unique portrait photos is hard on digital (portrait photos often look too clean and generic).
I do understand the charm of film, a lot of digital photos just lack something. But that is also something you can change. Personally I think Fuji’s cameras give a more film-ish look, maybe try one. And also, don’t give your digital photos that HDR look where you pull highlights and shadows, it makes your photo look lifeless and boring.
Finally: it’s fine that some people love film, we all have different preferences. The thing that pisses me off is that a lot of film shooters will cover up the problems with film or lie. I.e. I often hear people claiming that film has very high resolution, come on guys, it’s not true. Film looks great on Instagram (the small size and high image compression makes the low quality hard to see) but otherwise quality is just too low. Don’t be dishonest.
If you get into film, check out these:
Ben Horne (youtube channel) – american nature photographer that uses old large format cameras.
The Film Photography Project (podcast) – the ultimate group of film nerds, very enjoyable to listen to.
Nick Carver (youtube) – american dessert photographer, love his videos, wish he would produce some more!