Ostensibly, this is already perhaps not the most practical of ideas; if one is extremely masochistic, things can be compounded further into the really bad idea class by using film. And a manual focus camera. Without a meter. I think it takes a certain amount of insanity – or at least a healthy dose of optimism – to even attempt it. Street photography (the genre itself being discussed in this previous article) is the kind of thing that’s handled best with a responsive, unobtrusive camera that also has a goodly amount of depth of field for a given aperture, plus what I like to think of as being very forgiving of slightly loose shot discipline. This generally means good high-ISO ability, perhaps a stabilization system, a low-vibration shutter and decently large pixels to make the effects of camera shake less obvious.
Focusing requirements are a bit less clear cut: either you have blazing-fast AF, D4/ 1Dx/ OM-D-style, or you have no AF at all, but a very well sorted manual focus system – i.e. a rangefinder with reasonably wide lenses that can also be zone/ scale focused. Either way, lag is your number one enemy when it comes to being ready to capture often very fleeting moments. I actually think an intermediate sensor size is the best way to go – perhaps 1” to APS-C – being the best compromise between high-ISO performance and depth of field vs. aperture tradeoffs. Anything significantly larger and focus precision becomes critical; any errors are made glaringly obvious both due to the shallower depth of field for a given angle of view and aperture combination, somewhat exacerbated by the lenses for medium format generally being rather brutal in terms of resolving power.
Yet the one thing that compelled me to try this exercise not once, but several times, is simply the look that the larger format provides. It cannot be replicated by smaller-sensor cameras – once again simply due to the nature of the optics required for a given angle of view. The most DSLR-like of the medium format cameras is the Leica S series; I attempted some street photography with it back in 2012. The handling of the camera is very much like a DSLR on steroids; it has a command dial interface, autofocus, a large, bright viewfinder, and some semblance of continuous shooting ability. There are even now zooms and ultrawides available for it. High-ISO performance leaves something to be desired; I haven’t had a chance to shoot with the new S, but the S2’s pixel-level architecture was shared with the M8 and M9 – and we know the performance of both of those dropped off sharply at anything above about ISO 640 or thereabouts. Finally, although the sensor is big – 30x45mm, a bit less than double 35mm – but not that big; 645 is nearly double the area again, with all of the attendant laws of optics and consequences to the rendering style of the final image. And let’s not even talk about 6×6, 6×7 or 6×9 – not that there are commercially available digital sensors that cover these areas anyway.
To be honest, I found two aspects of the shooting experience required me to change the way I approached things: firstly, you could only really work in bright daylight because of the shutter speeds and apertures required to make the most of all of those pixels; secondly, focusing was accurate, but nowhere near fast enough to take on even moderately slowly moving objects (e.g. people walking) with any degree of consistent reliability*. Nevertheless, this made me look at street photography in a slightly different light: previously, I’d focus on the people and being as fast or stealthy as possible; the big change was that I now found myself focusing on the environments instead, and using people in a more abstract fashion to give a scene a sense of scale, or some idea of the relative amount of activity – perhaps liveliness is a better term. It doesn’t matter if they’re out of focus or in motion/ blurred – the human figures decompose into an idea and lose all sense of individuality. In that sense, they could be anybody, and nobody.
*You could of course downsize the images afterwards, but to my mind that would defeat one of the major reasons for shooting something with a larger sensor in the first place – image quality. If anything, the shot discipline required to maximize the potential of a medium format system is even higher than the current crop of DSLRs, including the D800E.
I found the mechanics of operating the camera less of a limitation the second time around – that was during my trial run of the Hasselblad H4D-40; given the price of the thing, I would have had to sell off a large portion of my existing gear to fund the lenses I’d need. What didn’t work was the sheer size and bulk of the thing – not only was it fatiguing to carry around for long periods of time, but it was just too obtrusive and attention-grabbing. And for some odd reason – chalk it down to design – unlike the S2, it looked expensive to the untrained eye, which would likely make me a target in some of the less nice neighborhoods in which I photograph. Unfortunately, the most interesting scenes also tend to be in these kinds of places.
Time to chuck that idea out – or at least I’d abandoned it until the Hasselblad 501C came into my possession. It’s everything I described in the first paragraph: fully manual, including exposure; even worse high-ISO image quality than any digital; single-frame only advance with a 12-shot ‘buffer’; lacking in any focusing aids (mine came with a plain matte screen) and both slow to operate and very unforgiving of poor technique. Then there’s the mirror slap, which when compared to a FF DSLR is akin to the difference between say a .38 round and a .50 Desert Eagle; let’s just say it kicks like a mule and is making every attempt to ruin any handheld image. Fortunately, the leaf shutter is almost totally vibration-free, but you’ll only notice that if you lock up the mirror – and then you can’t frame or focus accurately. Though the camera is capable of taking a digital back (the CFV series, amongst other options), there are no solutions that cover the full 6×6 frame (which is actually closer to 54x54mm due to the rebate edge).
The funny thing is, despite all of these paper shortcomings – I’ve found that street/ travel reportage photography is most easily accomplished with the 501C out of the three. (It’s also quite possible one of the RFs like the Mamiya 6 or Fuji GA645 might be even better suited due to their leaf shutters, but they’re nearly impossible to find in Malaysia.) Aside from the fact that it’s also the smallest and lightest even after taking lenses into consideration, my theory is that these limitations actually force you to really concentrate and shoot in a very specific way. By limiting your ability to operate in low light due to film speed/ image quality tradeoffs, your awareness and use of ‘pools’ of light is heightened; by metering for the highlights you can claw back a couple of stops or more, and simultaneously endow your black and white negatives with a rich quarter tonality. In very bright light, the speed limit of the leaf shutter is just 1/500s, which means either using grads (hugely inconvenient if you’re constantly moving between sunny and shaded sides of the street) or working stopped down – which forces you to pay attention to backgrounds and subject isolation. Single shot release – albeit with a very tactile and progressive shutter button – means anticipation is paramount to getting any moving subject where you want it to be. Though there’s no autofocus, zone/ scale focusing is perfectly workable. If I’ve got enough shutter speed to freeze motion, I figure out where I need a subject or figure in the frame, focus at the point where they would pass through, and release when the right person walks through the frame; if not, then I focus on whatever is static and let the humans abstract themselves out.
Of course, all of these statements apply equally to the autofocus digital medium format cameras, too; the trouble is precisely because they have autofocus, we tend to be lazy or unsure of ourselves and prefer to use that method – with the attendant lag it introduces. I suspect if I had the opportunity to shoot with either the H4D or S2 again, I’d do it differently. Instead of running AF and aperture priority, matrix-metering like I do with my Nikons, I’d shoot it like the 501C with the exception of AF – manual focus on an SLR of any sort is just too hit and miss without an exceptionally good focusing screen, especially when dealing with the typical moderate-speed, medium-length lenses.
What I take away from the whole experience – other than the fact that I find the look of the output sufficiently different and appealing to bother despite the considerably higher amount of work – is that there is a subtle, but important difference between shooting street with smaller formats and medium (or larger) format. Smaller formats encourage you to concentrate on the individual as the subject; I tend to find the pace of work dictated by the pace of the people, which leads to some extremely frenetic and sometimes frustrating sessions as one tries to capture everything he sees. On the other hand, larger formats make you focus on the scene as a whole, using people as elements rather than subjects. Since the majority of the elements in the scene remain static, you can work at your own pace – whatever that might be, probably dictated by the limitations of your camera. I have no doubt that it would probably also be possible to use large formats this way, too.
There’s no need to buy a medium format camera (though if you want to have the same rendering quality, then you don’t really have a lot of choice) – but from a compositional point of view, it’s possible to achieve the same effect: focus on the scene. I find myself doing this quite a lot now, too. Whether this way of seeing and composing works for you as an individual photographer is not a question I can answer; however, the only way to find out is to investigate it for yourself. MT
You’ve probably guessed it by now, but the lion’s share of the images were shot with the Hasselblad 501C, mostly on Fuji Neopan Acros 100.
Coda: Since writing this article (I plan the site a couple of months in advance to ensure editorial cohesion and a good overall flow to things, plus to allow myself a buffer for commercial work and such) I’ve acquired a CFV-39 digital back for the V-series ‘Blads. It shoots a 49x37mm sensor, roughly 1.1x on a 645, or 1.5x against 6×6. I’m still evaluating its suitability for street work – so far, it seems to have less sensitivity than the ISO number suggests (probably due to lack of microlenses), and is even more sensitive to camera shake than the D800E; not surprising because of the higher number of pixels per degree angle of view. I’m also having a little trouble finding equivalence: my 80mm obviously doesn’t shoot like an 80mm anymore, and is now too long. The 50mm works fine in 1.5x square crop mode, but loses the rendering properties of the 80mm that make it work so well with 6×6 film. There’s also the issue of the rectangular sensor: you have to hold it very strangely indeed to shoot portrait orientation. However…when the results come together under controlled circumstances, the output is magical. Whether that’s translatable to the streets or not is quite another thing…
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