Thoughts on street photography with medium format

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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  1. “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.”

    Spot on! I’ve been shooting street photography only* with medium format for about two years now. And the size of my negative just keeps increasing (from 6×6 to 6×7 to 6×9 and now I’d like large format). During this evolution, my photography has changed dramatically. I have slowed down a lot. Sometimes pick a point I want my subject to be at and pre-focus and wait for the subject to be there and then shoot. Or, I just focus at infinity and let blurry people decorate the photos in different areas. I like this style of street photography. I’m not in people’s faces and my slow pace feels like meditation. It just feels right.

    • People are transient – places somewhat less so. The abstraction of individualism brought on by simultaneously making them your subject and not can yield some interesting results…

  2. “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 ” I can only assume from this remark that you are either very young, inexperienced or both. I am 73 years old and been taking photos since 1953. I remember well the days when the only thing we had to take our photos by was the “Sunny 16 Rule” . (Cameras did not come equipped with light meters, and hand held light meters were expensive and hard to come by in some places.) And very successfully too I might add. May I suggest checking the Sunny 16 Rule out, along with some of the results they produced. You may get quite a surprise.

    • Perhaps you should look at my images and credentials before insulting me. Age doesn’t equate to skill. Sunny 16? Please. Bright sunshine here in the tropics is four to five stops more than that; the dynamic range required to hold winter sun highlights and shadows in the northern hemisphere on a clear day might well exceed ten stops. But with your age and experience I’d assume you know that. I’m not talking about basic exposure rules and making up the difference in the film processing, I’m talking about conscious use of the zone system to obtain maximum quality results in a reportage situation where you do not control the subject, light or have the opportunity for a reshoot. A meter is too slow to use, the only solution is train your eyes or rely on (questionable) automation decision of the camera.

  3. photos taken at fukuoka! 🙂 i miss that wonderful place.

  4. Reblogged this on Lizza Summer and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  5. Alan Green says:

    It was great to see the marvellous quality and sharpness you have achieved. In my eighties i have used many cameras for street photography. The Fugi 645 i found useless, impossible to focus. The Olympus OM1 pretty good but that fatal lifting it to ones eye made may subjects turn their back The best ever a Rollei 2.8 fitted with a split image focusing, silent shutter and waist level finder. Its problem, image reversed. Then later as having a family made one poor a Yashicamat, better lens than my Rollei. Now await the Olympus Ep5 with its waist level finder screen or angled EV4. Keep up the good work its gets ones old desires working again.

  6. Michael Matthews says:

    The standout shot in this series is the executive shopper in the pinstripe suit.
    What did he buy? For whom did he buy it? What are his thoughts? Does his wife read your blog?

  7. To perhaps add unnecessarily to the ‘just another gearhead blog’ comment, I just got back from shooting at night in the streets of Suciaco Western Australia directly influenced by this post. I twisted the LCD of my OMD so it faced upward like the viewfinder on a Rollei and shot waist level and put my attention on the overall environment rather than largely on the people. I shoot B&W and keep the LCD/EVF on monochrome, but I handled the camera tonight more like a TLR. I noticed that Ming’s post influenced the way I saw the 14mm Lumix pancake rendering the scenes . What I did is different than what Ming is doing with MF in his post but there is no way I would have shot what I did tonight without Ming’s article. One of the pictures is up at – nothing special but I like it. I’ve never seen another blog with so many pictures that make me want to explore similar subjects plus Ming takes the time to explain what his aesthetic process is which is rare indeed. Thanks again, Ming!

  8. Tom Liles says:

    Though Japanese architecture is quite bland and banal, and — save the girls dressed up for their coming of age ceremony [“seijin-shiki”] — the clothing of choice for most here is black, white, grey and beige, almost like camouflage when you see them walking about set against the buildings… even though I know this, I’d LOVE to see these shots in color. Or these kind of shots [MT + MedF, on the streets] in color.
    [I’m sure KL is much more vibrant]

    I’m quite sure you’re looking for luminance ramps and contrasts when you’ve got the camera loaded with B&W film — and you had some good thoughts about what this does to process in the Leica MM article –> third para from end and on — so perhaps, with your eye in B&W mode, most of these pictures wouldn’t have lent themselves to color…

    But I’d still love to see them, or similar, in color 😉

    I really don’t know anything about medF, so this article and the pictures have been fascinating. But, do they do color film for these cameras? What are the limitations? Is B&W better because it gives you the option of self-developing? Or is B&W just better with these cameras. Very interested to hear.

    Favorite image was the woman with umbrella. Interesting that David thinks it’s interesting to think “where is she going?”—this thought didn’t cross my mind and doesn’t seem important to me [my version of the story]; my brain instantly went for the mystery and tension in the face, i.e., not being able to see it, but wanting to. A nice picture. Though when I saw the reflected pedestrian in the taxi door, that picture almost became my favorite.

    All this said, the majesty present in something like Verticality [link] doesn’t seem possible in street shots with the same format. That’s a bit apples and oranges, perhaps?

    • Pretty much – I’m looking for contrast and tonality rather than color. I did shoot color in Fukuoka – that was with the D-Lux 6.

      Of course they do color film – slide, negative in many flavors. I shoot B&W because C41 color (negative) requires many baths at specific temperatures; deviations result in poor results. Slide film is even worse. Locally, the film is difficult to get and expensive, and worse still, there are no really good labs left here. So, DIY is the only solution. Plus I have more control – similar to what I can do in ACR. I don’t understand enough about the C41 or E6 processes to do the same, plus it’s far too expensive to experiment.

      Verticality was shot with a much wider lens than these – 38mm (~21mm equivalent) on the 903 SWC. These were 80mm (45mm equivalent or thereabouts). You could use the SWC for street work – and many do – but it’s a tricky beast, and the one I got was defective and not as advertised, so it’s gone back to the seller anyway.

  9. Carlo Santin says:

    The choice of gear for shooting on the street certainly imposes limitations, or provides moments of unexpected freedom as well. Shooting a small sensor Nikon P7100 is going to lead to a very different shooting experience than shooting with a D800. I would argue there are merits to both approaches and I wouldn’t necessarily say one is “better” than the other.

    I have my scanner going as I write this. I’m scanning some 6×6 negatives from my Yashica 24 TLR. I’ve taken that camera out on the street, not a lot, but I’ve done it, and I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit every time. It’s a light camera, very easy to use though focusing is not something that is done quickly, but it is utterly silent; the shutter barely makes a click. My ISO is limited to 400, shutter speed maxes out at 1/500, no meter, and only 12 frames per roll, at which point I need to find a seat and take a few minutes to change rolls. I don’t get the dirty looks I get when I point a big DSLR at someone, or people ducking out of the way. Most people ignore me as I’m looking down into the camera, shooting from the waist. Those that do notice me are generally charmed by the camera and intrigued at such an ancient piece of technology (though this can get in the way of making nice images on the street as well). Many people see the camera and give me a smile. It is not easy shooting but I do find the discipline of it very liberating. I find the utter lack of technology to be very invigorating. Modern cameras are too complicated for me…too many shooting menus and options, too many buttons, too many choices…do I use one of the effects or filters? do I activate face detection?, I’m always chimping etc etc. It really is too much for me sometimes. When I use these simple film cameras like the Yashica or the Nikon FE, I find my mind clears, I stop thinking about the camera, and I just shoot, slowly too, which I think is a good thing more often than not. It’s meditative and I find I don’t rush my shot taking, which I often do with a digital camera just because I can.

    Of course, every time I look at those beautiful square negatives, I always wonder why I even bother shooting digitally. A 6×6 negative is truly a glorious thing when you get it right. Then the convenience and ease of digital sucks me back in.

    • Neatly summed up, Carlo. Not better, but different, and that difference leads to different results.

      I wonder how differently we’d shoot with a 4×5″ and plate film…one shot, minutes between exposures. Not that I’m going to buy a Linhof or a Speed Graphic anytime soon. 🙂

      • Inappropriate, satrical analogy between small, medium and large format.
        A DSLR or other ‘easier cameras’ are like a pub crawl. Running from one place to another. At the end of the night, when the sun rises, you’re smashed drunk, hung over and for the most part completely I oblivious to what you have shot until you look at the used condoms still stuck on your shoe. Medium format is like a fine wine tasting. Lot of subtle distinct differences. And most medium format shooters are quite snobby and elitist when they look down on smaller formats. But at the same time, they are very experimental on nature going to as many wine tastings and trying to match cheeses and flavors. Large format is like a wine collector. They set up their wine cellar and wait for patiently for that perfect bottle of wine to pop up on that auction cite. Then they buy it and let it sit in their cellar for many years. When the perfect moment finally arrives with the group of the most cherished moments, he finally cracks the cork. Shooting with large format requires a lot of patience and waiting. Unless you are shooting like a Polaroid or a lined or a wista RF or a crown graphic, it is setting up the environment and waiting for the perfect subject to walk into the frame and complete the photo.

      • Ming,

        “I wonder how differently we’d shoot with a 4×5″ and plate film…one shot, minutes between exposures.”

        To answer that question, try to find a book titled : “Jalan Jalan – images of Malaysia” – produced by Apa productions in 1981 – (you weren’t born yet at that time :)) – Photographer Hans Hoefer. He travelled all along with a Deardoff 8×10.
        I really hope you can find it !

  10. Maciej Grodzicki says:

    Hi Ming,
    You have some interesting shots here. But I must say that your contrasty lighting situations captured on film look much better than the flatter ones presented here. The industrial jackhammer one looks downright thin. Do you think that you are still adjusting your post processing flow to the analog photography?

    PS>: Interesting comment on different images looking best at different sizes. While I do agree to a point, I think there is a trap there concerning people using high resolution formats getting lost in the details and ephemera of the large negatives. My rule of thumb is that if a photo doesnt look good as a thumbnail, it wont work much better with all the extra detail and nuance. Of course your mileage might vary. 🙂


    • This set is a mix of earlier and later images, and yes, I’m still adjusting both my postprocessing and developing technique.

      In general I agree with you on image sizes, but sometimes you need a certain size – large or small – for the artistic intention to come through. I find that large deviations in size from the original physical object don’t do so well unless the perspective is very unusual.

  11. Tom Liles says:

    Honestly, I didn’t get such a negative vibe from Tobias’s comment. He has an opinion; not altogether complimentary or well thought out, but there were quite a few compliments in there… he seemed to be at least attempting to lay a little peace-making ground before saying his piece. We shouldn’t be too hard on the naysayer. Especially when there’s no need. I bet you Ming is supremely confident [though never satisfied] with the photos on this site—-which, by the way, we all the agreed the judgement of was subjective the other week; so it’s a bit unfair to get on Tobias’s case [if anyone actually is] for saying he doesn’t think they really qualify as art. He’s wrong. But fair enough. As for the gearhead stuff: true, I have no idea how Tobias would land at that. Unless he’s never read another contemporary photo blog… But ill thought through or not, he did land at that impression, so fair enough. Again, he’s wrong. But I don’t see much need to debunk—as Michael has just said, the site and its contents stands on their own.

    Infinitely more annoying than comments like Tobias’s are the “commented on this at John Simpleton Photography,” plus links. It might just be bots, but if they are actual people—I shudder to think what actually goes through their heads, i.e., yes I’ll get that traffic I can’t get organically by going to MT’s blog and linking twice back to myself and announcing that I’ve commented, people who have specially gone to MT’s site to listen to MT, to look at MT’s pictures, to engage with MT below the line, to engage with the community below the line, oh yes they are SURE to want to jump away and come to my site to see what I have to say on the matter that can only be said on my blog and not on MT’s! oh yes! THIS is going to work!!

    Getting my Walt Kowalski on again 😮

    • The art part doesn’t bother me at all – I’ve always said that was subjective. But dismissively saying that it’s all about gear when I go to serious pains to make it the opposite is very, very unfair.

      You’ll notice the John Simpleton stuff gets no comments from me. It’s just an auto-wordpress thing, I think, so you can keep track of who said what.

  12. Hey Ming ! You are cheating 🙂 ! B&W is too easy ! Go with slides !
    I started street snapping with a Hassy some forty years ago, I missed plenty of course because the Ekta of the time needed very precise metering. But when you got it right….what a joy !
    When you stroll in the streets with a Hassy hanging aroung your neck, I never met with picture refusal, never, and with the 50mm, you are just facing people 2 meters away.
    The beast is too heavy for me now, so I part with it. Pity I cannot post one or two pictures here.

    It is very pleasant to see that you did it too, but many photographers did it long before with twin Rollei and even 4×5′, remember the press reporters in the 40ties. It is the best school you can get for sure.

    Here is a link of my prefered street photographer for your pleasure, he was using a twin Rollei :

    • The film is nearly impossible to get locally, and even harder to develop. I’d love to shoot slide, but it’s just impractical – not to mention hideously expensive. If I ever bring the ‘Blad to Tokyo, I’ll probably give it a try as it’s a lot easier to get both film and processing there.

  13. Michael Matthews says:

    Late to the party as usual, may I enter a comment on the comment from Tobias W?

    Some people operate from a platform of disdain. They’re similar to those who don a cloak of cynicism, displaying it as that well-known cheapest form of sophistication. Others like to lob a firecracker into a quiet church to see what happens. Not an intellectual exercise; vandalism. I sense a blend at work here.

    There’s no need to defend this site. Its content stands on its own. Keep up the good work.

    • I think one has to be careful in defending, too: I welcome objective criticism; nobody’s perfect and we all have something to learn. However, one also has to look at the commenter. I’d take it a lot more seriously if say, Sebastiao Salgado posted. In any case, points taken, Michael.

  14. I left medium format behind many years ago, but your images made me a bit nostalgic for the quality that this format produces. If only the prices would come down, I think a lot more people would go for it.

  15. The Fuji 6×7 and 6×9 were my favorite cameras for quality travel medium format. I’d carry a Nikon F5 with Provia ( for sunny days )or Velvia ( for cloudy days ) and the 6×9 for either color prints or B & W. These big Leicas had great focusing, great handling, quiet leaf shutters and were very reliable. I mostly used the 6×9 with 65mm semi wide angle lens on it. They were also fairly light, about the same weight as a Hasselblad 500. The 16×20 inch prints were outstanding! Those 6×9 contact sheets were impressive…..

  16. For your next experiment, you might consider one of these cameras:
    I met a Chicago fine arts photographer who was experimenting with a Noblex panorama camera. As he explained it, these are designed for landscape photography where nothing moves. Of course, he took great pleasure in “misusing” the camera, taking it to busy public plazas to photograph people moving about. The images were very interesting, to say the least. Might be fun to do some sports photography with it. Basketball, not golf.

    Keep the good stuff coming. Thanks

    • I nearly bought one a couple of years back, but hesitated because of the developing issues. Now that I’m doing my own…it might be interesting. Either that or the Horizon…

  17. I’ve been shooting medium format on the streets for two years now. Without much to show (mostly because i don’t have a large online presence). But Ming you are forgetting the most important thing about medium format on the street. It is fun!!! And more FUN!!
    I’ve been using a hasselblad 501cm for a few months now, and before that a mamiya c220. I’ve come to these conclusions, (1) I’m more comfortable shooting medium format with a waist level viewfinder, as opposed to wrestling with a large bulky camera to my eye. I prefer it resting comfortably in my palm. And people notice you less when you’re looking down – it is more discreet. Especially in Asian countries where most people spend their days looking at shoes and avoiding eye contact. (2) the hasselblad has such a large focus throw that quite a bit of planning and anticipation is required to get these types of shots. Either pre-focus at a predetermined distance, or know where the subject is going to be in the frame and pray that they don’t notice you and get into your shot. (3) everyone knows what a hasselblad is and anyone with a male dangling-bits drool. It is hard to hide a hasselblad, even if they have a bronica. (4) the mamiya TLR is far cooler looking than the hasselblad, looks more like a serious tool. I get quite a few chats along the way because of it. Reminiscent of Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson and William Klein. It has helped me engage my subjects. (5) the focusing on the mamiya is weird that it is not very gradual, and it can be difficult to focus critically at 3-8 meters; which is one of the primary reasons I tried and am keeping the hasselblad. Although the mamiya c330 with interchangeable screens might be a significant improvement. (The other reason being the Polaroid back) (6) dang the hasselblad is loud. The first time I was on the train, and after the mirror slap, all eyes were on me. Awkward smile. (7) I’m saving the mamiya for those sketchy areas, when in trouble, it can be used as a medieval mace. (8) it is bloody hard to find a hasselblad strap.
    The hasselblad and I are getting acquainted and are beginning to mesh as a team.
    Ming, if you have a chance, try the mamiya c330. It might be what you are looking for from a specialized street camera.

    • Oh yes. It’s fun all right – that’s the main reason I do it, too.

      The prism finders are all 45 degrees anyway – and with the added weight, they do just as good job as maces. 🙂

      I’ll take a look at the C330 on your recommendation, but I gotta be honest – I’m very happy with my 501s…unlike few other cameras I shoot, I actually find them very intuitive.

      • I’m hesitant to use the hasselblad as a mace, I feel too many things might break. Bending the dark slide, misfiring the shutter, bending the mounting points on the film back, etc etc. on the other hand I never felt any type of self-conscious protectiveness with the mamiya. I tripped on a curb once. I hit the ground hard. Knees, hands, forehead all scraped up and bloody (I’m fine. No permanent damage). Jeans ruined, I was picking denim and concrete out of my scabs for hours. The mamiya was about two meters away, who knows how many times it bounced on the concrete when it fell out of my hand. Long story a little bit shorter, the mamiya c220 came out of it better than I did. The only malfunction was when I took it out in the rain, slush and snow. moisture got trapped in the focusing screen, making it difficult to focus.
        And the leaf shutter is amazingly silent. And the way it is cradled in both hands and braced against the body makes it feel very sturdy. And being a big guy, 190cm, in a country of short Asians, using a waist level finder means shooting at eye level. And and and… I think I’ve said too much. I still enjoy my hassle, but I don’t take as many risks as I did with the mamiya – if you get my meaning. I don’t know if the hasselblad can replace the mamiya yet. I will see: If I don’t use the mamiya for a year, I’ll get rid of the kit.

        • Actually, I shot with the 501C in a downpour recently – other than there being internal fogging affecting focusing, it worked just fine. I suspect they’re hardier than they look, actually. I could definitely do with a leaf shutter only, though. The sole problem with the leaf shutter RFs and TLRs is that framing isn’t anywhere near as precise as the ‘Blad…

          • For the series you have here, the mamiya is very accurate. I never had any problems framing unless I’m around 1.5 to 2 meters away. But in my defense, I am probably not a particular with framing as you are. Still it is a relatively cheap camera very much worth trying.

            • I’d imagine facing the same edge accuracy problems as with the Leicas – it’s possible to compensate for it, but takes a bit of practice. The learning curve is of course also much slower given that you’re shooting film…

  18. Iskabibble says:

    For the easiest medium format street shoot, give the Fujifilm GA645 a try. Auto focus, auto film winding, w/ metering. It’s a veritable medium format point and shoot! Tiny and light by MF standards.

    Great to see ACROS film in your articles!

    • One of my friends has one of those. You need plenty of light to make it work, but at least the leaf shutter is virtually silent and recoil-free.

      Loving the Acros. Too bad they stopped making Neopan 400/1600…

      • Iskabibble says:

        Yeah, but the film advance isnt silent at all. With Delta 3200 film from Ilford, you can street shoot at night.

        Pretty decent for an f/4 lens I think. These were shoot at ISO1600 if I recall right.

        • You can always rewind while walking or under the cover of some other noise. Those look decent but I think I’d still go digital in the dark.

  19. Now i’m trying Street-Photography with Xpan… and it’s very funny…

  20. David Babsky says:

    I don’t understand the last picture here: the man in the street holding an envelope, walking between some small motor bikes, with a vertical fence, some discarded cigarette packets, and a big, sharp sign on the fence.

    I’m looking hard: is it the textures, the rumpled clothes, or what? Why is this photo here? Is it the swirly ellipses on both the envelope and on the MRT sign? If so, it’s some kind of pun? What am I missing here? It doesn’t seem to be an essay in light and shade, texture, fabric ..what is it?

    Help, please..

    • Does it have to be anything more than my liking the composition? Photography is hugely subjective after all…I think to have only one out of that set you didn’t like isn’t too bad at all.

      • David Babsky says:

        Mmm. But what IS it that you like about the composition? ..I’m just asking for a little help here.

        The woman with the umbrella crossing the street: I can see some things in that; almost everything else is vertical and horizontal, but she’s got a couple of diagonal legs; she’s stepping down, left, and out of this picture – out of the world of this photograph where’s she going? ..that’s intriguing; the patterns on her clothes and umbrella form a nice counterpoint to the pretty-much featureless aspects of the rigid, cylindrical bollards and pillars, etc.

        So what IS it that you see in the man with envelope walking along the street? What IS in that composition? (The sharp vertical slats of the fence, and the MRT notice are too much “in focus” for me: I can’t discern what I’m supposed to be looking at.

        I’d hang her on the wall, as a composition of textures-and-patterns-in-counterpoint; or the man with the paper shopping-bag as an exercise in size, scale and attitude; I wouldn’t, though, hang the man with the envelope, as I can’t “see” whatever it was that you saw in this snapshot. What is it, please, that you like about this composition, Ming?

        • It’s the interplay of textures. I think a lot of it is lost at that size though, what I see on my monitor is nowhere close to the little web version. Sometimes things work better in different sizes…or not at all below a certain size.

          • David Babsky says:

            Well thanks for the reply, Ming, but you don’t seem too sure yourself – or willing to really explain – what it is that you think is good, or great, or interesting about this picture.

            That’s a pity, from one who sells expert critiques of other people’s photos.

            • It’s not that. I agree it’s perhaps not my strongest work, but I just like it – I don’t love it – I’m not sure why it has to be any more complex than that. It’s very, very difficult to critique your own work because of objectivity issues: one is too close to the work to judge intention without bias. I can say that I think the bottom right is a bit empty, and perhaps more overhead light and underexposure would have helped divide the image up into planes more. But I don’t think that’s the answer you were looking for, either. Hey, one inexplicable dud out of the three thousand or so images I have on this site isn’t so bad… 🙂

  21. Paul Stokes says:

    More sublime b&w work Ming.

  22. Are you seriously developing a film copying rig? I’m all ears! I’d be really interested to know what you come up with, I’m using a sigma Merrill and stitching which is working ok, but I’d love to have a convenient scanning rig. I’m using a Bronica RF for MF. Everything is in portrait, but probably my favorite handling camera, though the film winding mechanism will break.

    • Yes I am. It’ll work with 50/60mm macro lenses on FX or DX for 35mm, or 90/100mm macro lenses on FX for 35mm, or 50/60mm macro lenses on FX for 6×6/6×7. I don’t know if your Merrill will work because none of them have sufficient magnification without closeup filters.

  23. This is certainly an interesting blog post with some valid points.

    However, if you look at the best and most relevant street photography work of the last 80 years, all of that has been shot on manual focus, analog cameras – many of those not having a meter. These master works are the ones showing in museums such as MOMA in NYC and other locations of that order. None of the contemporary, digital street photography work has reached that relevance in art as of yet. With all the analog tools and processes still available (and dirt cheap at that too!) in addition, why is it crazy to shoot street photography with a manual focus, analog and unmetered camera?

    Artistic relevance is not created through more advanced technology. I appreciate this blog for what it is and it shows good photography, but at the same time and in the end, this site is just another gearhead site with too much focus on technology, lens sharpness, bokeh and all these other technical aspects that add no relevance to a picture photographically.

    By the way, the previously unknown and self taught Vivian Maier shot a large part of her street photography on an unmetered medium format TLR and she did not have to restrict herself to staged street portrays that mainly serve to show off shallow depth of field MF lens magic.

    • True: it’s only crazy because there are now easier options that let the photographer either push the envelope more in terms of shooting conditions, or be even more hyper-aware and observant and able to get moments which might otherwise have been passed by. The images that were previously captured were remarkable in some ways because of the limitations of the equipment. I agree that artistic relevance isn’t created through technology, but at the same time it would be narrow-minded to ignore it: just because photography creates an image without canvas and and brush doesn’t mean it should be seen as not art. Film chemistry is also technology, in case you hadn’t noticed.

      What I do resent is you accusing me of being “just another gearhead site with too much focus on technology etc” – you obviously haven’t read any of the archives or discussions on the philosophy, the whys, the understanding of viewer psychology, science of composition and balance, use and impact color etc. but you’re willing to conclude immediately that I’m nothing more than a gearhead on your first comment. That’s both judgemental and downright rude. I challenge you to find another site that does that AND manages to create a consistent set of quality images at the same time. Understanding and mastering your tools is essential to be able to create art, and thinking otherwise demonstrates a striking narrow mindedness: saying that two identical images with identical DOF but one which has distracting out of focus elements vs one that doesn’t do not appear artistically different is missing the point you were trying to make in the first place. The level of emphasis on subject vs background is different, which in turn creates a different story. But if you didn’t know that you had a choice between one and the other, you might well land up with a poor compromise or a weaker image. I’ve discussed that and similar topics in over six hundred articles and 1.3 million words, too. Technology matters, yes. It isn’t the be-all and end-all, and I’ve said that often enough on here to go blue in the face.

      As for Vivian Maier – you might be surprised to find this on a ‘gearhead site’, but I actually commented extensively on her books and images some time ago. You’ll also find that I don’t use shallow depth of field that much, it’s about the right amount of depth of field for the intended artistic outcome.

      • The sad thing is that I thing Ming’s gear articles do significantly more hits and comments than the philosophical, psychological articles. A lot of Ming’s articles truly deserve a second or third read to get the most out of them; even then active practice to get out an shoot. It is rare for a photographer of this caliber to freely share their thoughts with us; and actively engage us.

        • Thank you, I’m flattered. I do hope somebody is coming back for the second and third reads and not just seeing the gear…in fact, I think most of the articles on this site are about photography rather than gear. I only review stuff that interests me – life’s just too short otherwise.

          • It often motivates me to get out. Shoot more. Try stuff. Think why I’m trying this and to see the results. Then i read the articles again and go out… Rinse and repeat. It is slow, but I enjoy it. I wanted to share that too

    • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

      The great photographers shot their stuff with what was available at the time. Mr. Solomon shot with groundglass focused Ermanox, mr. Eisenstadt, mr. Cartier (you know the guy with Cartier watch) used Leicas and mr.Salgado used digital Hassie and a lot of great photographers use top end digital speed monsters with 1,4 wides. So what? Some great photographers still stick to film because they are comfortable with it ( f.ex. William Klein ), others use now small didicams ( f.ex. Daido Moriyama ) and still they can be exibited side by side.
      Your remark about gearhead is bloody insensitive. Mings site is exactly perfect blending of artistic shop talk, like comparing different violins from different periods that produced and influenced distinctive sound making. He shares his impressions how different cameras influence the physics and philosophy of picture taking process. Of course everything is relative, no one forbids you to photograph Yosemite with iphone or to do streets in New York with 8×10.
      As to your MOMA, I wouldn`t be supprised to find in one room Holgas and bleached out polaroids and on another room Gurski 99 cents dipticon stile sumos.
      To me, it would be precisely counterproductive, leading to now where, turning the site into photo contest jury playing photo club after hours ” is it art or is it not” waste of time talk.
      As to your contibution, it would be more constructive and more to the point if you limited you post to the last three lines about miss Meyer. Definitely her takes weren`t staged but she ain`t Bruce Gilden either, mister.

      • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

        Of course, my post is ment for mr. Tobias.

        • I have read most of the articles on the site more than once. I have learned more about photography and Art then gear. I am so excited about this set of photos because they demonstrate so many of the artistic principles taught by Ming on the site. It is one of my goals to shoot a picture that covers many skills in one photo. These photos demonstrate the extent with which that is possible.

          • I hope this isn’t the first time I’ve managed to roll several artistic principles into one image…it shouldn’t be! 😛

            • For sure not the first time. 🙂 I think the MF just show some of the things off better… And of course I learn more each time so I can see more things. 🙂

  24. Ming,

    I am blown away by these images. I think you have an exhibit here in just this set. Stunning. It is almost like having an 85 mm with a normal view. Very impressive.

    Best Wishes – Eric

  25. Nice post, and photographs! I experimented briefly with some street portraits (not candid) on an RZ67 over 10 years ago. I found it worked great. The huge camera was a great talking point, and working on 6×7 had the added bonus that I could give my models a Polaroid on the spot as a keepsake. Plus, as you and the other commenters here have alluded to, there’s nothing quite like that normal-lens-on-medium-format look!

  26. Darrell Craig says:

    The sixth photo (chap on the bike pointed away from you with the reflective tape on his jacket) really shows off what you gained at medium format. I don’t think my RX1 or D800 would compete at a technical level with the same shot. It is also just a beautiful shot, really jumps out and engages me relative to the other photos. Thanks for sharing!

  27. I recently up a Fuji GL690, specifically for street photography. The ranger finder focussing is reasonably fast and the leaf shutter helps with vibration. The 6×9 frames have a very distinctive look that nothing else matches, that I have seen. But, 6×9 means the camera itself is massive, very heavy and highly noticeable, expect to get stopped more frequently to answer questions about your gear. I have been up and down between ISO 50 Pan F and Delta 100, so definitely reserved for bright sunny days. Sunny 16 has worked fairly well for exposure.

    I’ll stick to the X-Pro1 for the majority of my street work, but will definitely reach for the GL anytime I feel like a challenge.

  28. I recently up a Fuji GL690, specifically for street photography. The ranger finder focussing is reasonably fast and the leaf shutter helps with vibration. The 6×9 frames have a very distinctive look that nothing else matches, that I have seen. But, 6×9 means the camera itself is massive, very heavy and highly noticeable, expect to get stopped more frequently to answer questions about your gear. I have been up and down between ISO 50 Pan F and Delta 100, so definitely reserved for bright sunny days. Sunny 16 has worked fairly well for exposure.

    I’ll stick to the X-Pro1 for the majority of my street work, but will definitely reach for the GL anytime I feel like a challenge.

    • I was wondering about those Mamiya 6 and 7s actually – the leaf shutter should help with camera shake, and the rangefinder with focusing speed. The ‘Blad kicks like a mule (curiously, not so bad on film, a disaster with the digital back) and is difficult to hold steady because there’s nothing to brace it against unless you use the prism finder, significantly increasing weight and bulk.

      I did get stopped more than normal, but usually by the older generation remembering their parents’ cameras or marvelling that anybody of my age would be using one – loaded with film, no less – in this day and age.

      • Looks like my post arrive twice, anyway.

        I specifically skipped the blad because of the kick 🙂 might be interesting for other types of photography though. I looked at the 7s and the blad. 6×6 and 6×7 aren’t in my prefered aspect ratio but the 6×9 is. I went with the Fuji GL because of the ratio and the fact that it is the only 6×9 rangefinder that I could find that has interchangeable lenses. Jip, older folks do most of the stopping, but some of the younger generation as well. Everyone is suprised about it being a film camera and most people will tell you how film became obsolete years and years ago while holding their little point and clicks, all you can do is laugh and move on.

        • As masochistic as this sounds, I kinda like it. Or maybe I just like the mechanical feeling and sound of it. It’s not that bad, anyway – the GMS cameras are a bit smoother than the non-GMS ones since the mirror moves in an arc rather than flapping up and down. I actually enjoy the square very much – 3:2 I’ve always felt to be a compromise; not narrow enough or not tall enough.

          When they tell me about obsolescence and their point and shoots…sometimes I turn it around to show them the LCD on the back 😉

      • The Mamiya 6 (and 7) are really great for medium format street photography, and the ideal medium format system for travel, in my opinion. The 6’s lens mount collapses and the entire system (50, 75, 150) can fit into a camera bag that can barely hold a single APS-C Canon semi-pro body with lens.

        The electronic leaf shutter really does makes a huge difference, I can hand-hold the Mamiya 6 down to 1/8th a second, and still get a tack sharp image out of it. My 645’s mirror clunk is both obnoxiously loud and limits how slow of a shutter one can comfortably use without a tripod; I imagine it is pretty similar to your ‘Blad…

        The three lenses for the 6 are really fantastic, the 75mm wide open has a really beautiful 3D rendering at 3.5. Some of my favorite shots have been taken with it wide open with 400 ISO film in the evening or night. (You can see some in the linked Flickr Set…) I picked up a second Mamiya 6 body last year from Map Camera, for around $400, and the body is in like new condition. I’d definitely recommend trying one out.

        • Sounds like a pretty good deal – what do lenses run?

          • These days I think they are running for around $400-$800 for the lenses individually. The 50mm tends to be the most expensive, the 150mm the cheapest. I picked up a complete system in 2010 for $1500; since then the prices peaked and last year they have dropped a fair amount. Probably the best thing is to look for either the whole system, or the body and a lens together.

    • I recently bought a Fuji 6×8 rangefinder (GWO III??). It was made in the ’90s. Fantastic camera. Great viewfinder, lovely lens. Not particularly heavy. I don’t do street photography but can imagine that it would be very good for it.

      • Very nice camera! Great choice if you don’t need the interchangeable lenses, much easier to find a good condition camera from the 90’s than one from the 70’s.

  29. Ah ha! Focusing on the scene as opposed to the people. I’ve found myself doing that half consciously because people seem to ignore me when I shoot with the OM D where they would react to the Canon. If they are willing to see themselves as incidental I am happy to put my attention fully on the scene and let my old Leica IIIg instincts find any decisive moments. In my experience people often know instantly when you are paying attention to them. I’ve been threatened, literally, with gross bodily harm for taking pictures in the vicinity, not, of street bullies, probably in part because I visibly an old man. Thanks also for demonstrating the specific rendition of medium format in street work which makes it clear what is missing with m43. I really find the way you push the edges of the medium aesthetically and technically because it helps me see new things.

    • No choice, actually – I just can’t turn the focusing ring fast enough to follow focus; the travel is very long – nearly 300 degrees – and quite stiff. When I do photograph people with the Hasselblad, it’s a lot slower, more deliberate, and there’s this feeling of old-fashioned goodwill going on – no malice. I suppose it’s the age of the camera that lowers defences.

  30. Interesting article. To me, street photography has little to do with stealth or speed. I’ve even been using a Fuji GX680 a few times, and the results are interesting. I consider seriously to buy a Hasselblad or a Rollei though, to get something more portable. The Fuji can’t really be used hand held.

    • It can be done either way – upfront and direct, or stealthy. Or somewhere in-between, I suppose. I can’t imagine hand holding the Fuji…that thing is enormous! No way you can be stealthy either; not that you need to with these cameras…the good thing is that they’re seen as vintage curiosities not intrusions in the same way large DSLRs are.

  31. I would love to know how you are scanning your images. I think you mentioned something about “scanning” them with a D800 and custom rig that you were going to commercialize? Is that still in the works? Love the images and the bravery of shooting street work with MF!

    • The rig is still in the pipeline; I have the prototype sitting on my desk now. First round of design changes have gone back to the manufacturer, and we’re working on it…

      • Christopher Ellison says:

        Is this something you plan to sell? I have quite a few 6×6 negatives that my V700 scanner can’t seem to scan too well. I also have a D800 and the lenses needed to get the job done. (Nikon AF-S 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor Micro, Zeiss 100 MP, Zeiss 50MP). I guess I need the lightbox/film holder contraption it sounds like you are working on.

        The lack of affordable scanning options is what has stopped me from getting back into MF film… this “custom rig” you’re working on could change that 🙂


      • When is this rig expected to be available for purchase and what is the ball park price? Does it work only with D800 or any Nikon DSLR? What lens does it need?

        • 1. When it’s ready. We are making it right, not fast.
          2. Depends on final manufacturing cost, which in turn depends on final choice of material and tolerances. Anywhere between $100 and $200 including shipping anywhere in the world.
          3. It will work with 50/60mm and 90/100mm equivalent macro lenses for 120/135 and 135 formats respectively.

  32. Wow, I love the first two photos! The light and shadow interplay is beautiful, but there is a feeling of depth that I can only guess is related to the way an MF lens renders compared to smaller formats.


  1. […] Nah, memang rasanya janggal bila ada fotografer jalanan yang menggunakan kamera digital medium format, yang notabene memiliki ukuran sensor lebih besar dari kamera full-frame. Sebuah artikel yang ditulis oleh Ming Thein yang memiliki pengalaman menarik saat berburu foto jalanan dengan kamera digital medium format dapat dilihat di artikel ini. […]

  2. […] “Ostensibly, [street photography with a Medium Format camera] 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.” – Ming Thein in this blog post. […]

  3. […] 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 foc…  […]

  4. […] 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.  […]

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