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 camera 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.
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. Also check out my big medium format lens test here.
- 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
- 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 a bit disapointed. Iso 800 on film is not like iso 800 in digital, it’s has very high noise. More noise than I like. 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.
- A unique look, good for urban-neon-hipster-night-photography.
- A lot of grain / noise.
- Not much light is tungsten today, so either you have to colors in adjust in post (probably with loss in quality) or add a color filter.
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 at least on my cheap android phone they didn’t work at all.
- 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).
- My favorite: Get a more modern film camera, one from the 90’s or early 00’s with a working light meter.
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.
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.
- Testing the lenses I found Mamiyas lenses better than Pentax’s, sharper and less chromatic aberration. Check out my big medium format lens test.
- It’s a big and heavy + you need a tripod: The Mamiya with it’s shorter and faster lenses I can shoot at low light, but the Pentax need a tripod unless it’s daylight.
- Shoot film for closer up people photos I find 6×4,5 enough. For landscape/cityscape you need bigger size but I don’t find 6×7 enough, probably large format 4×5 or 8×10 is better suited. So for me I don’t see a need for 6×7.
35mm film cameras
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 I didn’t use it much because I find 35mm is too grainy! The higher resolution of medium format is really needed when taking film and digitizing it. Maybe it’s just me that don’t know how to get good scans into my computer, but for me 35mm is too low resolution, only usable for close up person photos.
– 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.
– Low quality, not usable for cityscape/landscapes, only usable for people photos.
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 bright viewfinder, auto rewinds 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 mechanical 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. Lenses are not very good, wide open they are unusable. Get something a bit more modern.
- 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. Didn’t like it, the images has this vintage look, very faded look.
- 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.
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 Dkk for developing film).
- 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 because 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 likely have to spend extra money and time on the cameras you buy, because something is broken. It happened again and again to me. Expect it before buying.
- Scanning film to digitalize it is painful and very unsatisfying. It takes a lot of time and you will most likely be disappointed. I had a hard time getting good results, tried different scanners and methods, always got same bad results.
Take the things you hear about film with a grain of salt. You often hear about the super high resolution over digital, which I don’t think is true at all. Don’t expect film to be better than digital, only shoot film if you feel you are missing something with digital. Film has something special about it, it makes the processes way more fun to do, and adds that magic look to your good photos. For someone just starting out in photography I don’t recommend film, but for someone that has tried most things in the digital world film is a fun experience to try.
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!