Part II: Medium Format Cameras (Rollei v Hasselblad)

Part I: The Joy of Medium Format Film

So you are interested in medium format film photography. There are a litany of follow-on questions including: where do I get film, how do I develop film, and what kind of camera do I use?

There's a bit of good and bad news when it comes to medium format film cameras: there are not a lot of choices. And while there were more choices back in the 1970s, there are only a handful of cameras and brands that have survived the test of time well enough to seriously be considered for a photographer today.

There are two general categories for most of the medium format film cameras - Rollei style or Hasselblad style. Camera makers like Bronica, Mamiya and Yeshica are similar in design to the Rolleiflex and Hasselblad counterparts and the difference is largely related to price.

Since Rolleiflex and Hasselblad are both kings of their respective categories, and they are the cameras I own, I will use them to compare and contrast medium format cameras and you are welcome to extrapolate for another brand as appropriate. 

Let's take a look at each camera individually before comparing them side-by-side.

Rolleiflex

There are several models of the Rolleiflex - they were built for several decades- but the general design of a Rolleiflex (or Rollei for short) is straightforward. It is a twin lens camera - the top lens is used for focusing and composition while the bottom lens has a shutter in it that actually takes the photograph. The benefit of this design is that you are focusing through a bright lens and that can make using the camera in sunlight easier. The Rollei is completely manual; no batteries or circuits. Every time you fire the shutter, you rotate a side crank that advances the film and rechecks the shutter simultaneously.

There are several designs used in Rollei cameras to set the aperture and shutter. One version (seen on the model T) has a plastic ribbon that moves shutter speeds and apertures simultaneous; adjusting just one requires pulling out on a metal tab. Other Rollei cameras use a set of spinning wheels on either side of the lenses to adjust the settings. Some Rollei cameras also include a solenoid meter gauge, but at this age, they are hardly reliable. 

Rolleiflex are fairly compact and much of that is because the lens is fixed - you cannot swap to a different focal length. There are two common focal lengths offered in a Rollei that convert roughly to a 50mm equivalent on 35mm film (remember that a 80mm lens on medium format = 50mm on 35mm film). There are also a selection of different apertures available (ranging from f2.8 to f3.5, or a difference of a half stop). Finally, there are different types of lenses offered for Rolleiflex cameras. Each of these differences has an incredible affect on the pricing; a beginner looking to start can save considerable money by getting a Rollei with a "less desirable" lens or aperture. I've had both sides of the spectrum and think they are both great cameras.

Focusing a Rollei is done by flipping up the top hood and looking down through the top of the camera. The image that is seen is reversed and this causes some initial confusion as panning the camera right moves the image to the left and vice versa. But with practice, you'll get used to a reversed image. From there, you rotate a big knob on the side to move the entire face of the Rollei forward or back, bringing the image into focus.  

Hasselblad

Almost everyone has heard of (or at least seen) a Hasselblad in their lifetime. Why? Because it's the camera taken by the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Of course their version was modified to accommodate their gloves and space stuff, but that camera is remarkably similar to the ones produced through the 1990s. When looking at a Hasselblad for medium format film photography, most people are looking at something coming from the era of 1950-1990, starting with the model 500CM.

There are lots of online resources for learning about all the differences between Hasselblad models (and this isn't one of them), so we'll just look at the big picture. Hasselblad cameras are designed to be tough, to withstand work and use by a professional, and to be very modular. Virtually everything is modular, which is one of the best parts of the system.

Unlike the Rolleiflex, this is a single lens camera, so the photograph is composed and shot via the single lens on the front. As a result of this design, the camera has a mirror that flips out of the way of the image, much like modern dSLR cameras do. To protect the film from accidental exposure to light, there are two shutters-one in the lens and another in the back of the camera (although its the timed lens shutter that captures the image, the back shutter is controlled by pressing and holding the shutter). Lenses are interchangeable and you can opt for a wide angle 50mm for one shot and then a 150mm portrait lens for the next. 

The modular system of a Hasselblad also means that you can change film mid roll. That's right folks, you can switch between black and white and color film mid roll and not have to 'sacrifice' exposures. This was one of the most important features for me - I often want to switch between film types between shots - be it for color or a different ISO speed, etc. You can also use the removable film back to create multiple exposures easily.

If that wasn't enough modular-ness, you can also switch out viewfinders, prisms, grips, electric winders, etc. The list of Hasselblad modular components is nearly endless! 

With a 80mm lens (50mm equivalent on 35mm film), the Hasselblad is only a little bigger than the Rolleiflex, although it is certainly heavier, which is the result of the sturdy construction. Like the Rolleiflex, it is a completely manual camera (later versions used batteries to control metal shutters or for the electronic winder) and focusing is again achieved by looking down on the viewfinder from the top. Settings like aperture and shutter speed are set on the lens itself, removing any controls beside shutter from the body of the camera. Film advance and shutter cocking are done simultaneously from a knob / twist arm on the side of the body.

In my experience, a Rollei is a little more forgiving for a beginner than the Hasselblad, but that's not to say the Hasselblad is a hard camera to use. For instance - Rollei is more "point and shoot" while the Hasselblad requires you to remember to remove the dark slide, make sure you load correctly (its more involved than the Rollei), etc. I would strongly suggest a buyer of either camera visit YouTube for a variety of video tutorials on both types of cameras. Film's too good to be wasted learning (and I've wasted my share......)!

Comparisons

Rollei Pros

  • Small size
  • Less expensive
  • Easy to use
  • Great image quality
  • Quiet shutter
  • Easy to hand hold down to 1/30 and 1/15th second

Rollei Cons

  • No interchangeable lenses
  • No removable film back - can't change film mid-roll
  • Used cameras can have mold, fungus, etc as problems
  • Not very modular. Accessories are limited to filters and a terrible Rolleikin (35mm film adaptor that doesn't work well)

Hasselblad Pros

  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Carl Zeiss optics (considered the best medium format lenses)
  • Modular film backs allow for hot swap of film mid-roll
  • Possible to buy newer cameras from the 1990s
  • Solid construction and design

Hasselblad Cons

  • Bigger and heavier
  • Pricey; some models can cost more than a digital SLR camera
  • Not as easy to use, more steps and things to remember (not hard though!)
  • Noisy shutter (clop-clop sound)
  • Hard to hand hold because of flip up mirror at slow shutter speeds

Looking at this list, you may have a strong inclination one way or another, but I encourage you to really think about the features rather than which camera has more pros or cons. For instance, I place tremendous value in the removable film back, so I'm willing to sacrifice price, shutter sound, and size to get that feature. I also recommend you search for high quality used versions of these cameras and maybe pay a little more for one from a photography shop that specializes in the cameras. eBay can be wonderful, but a camera shop is more likely to catch that fungus in the lens or a shutter that doesn't 'feel' right. Here's some recommendations of places to look:

There are other places to buy these cameras, but I have experience with these, hence my recommendation of them as resources for buying. And I don't get any kick backs or perks for recommending them!

Part I: The Joy of Medium Format Film

This year I discovered the joy of shooting medium format film, and it has completely rejuvenated my interest in film photography. To start my series on medium format film photography, I'll share with you what makes this photographic medium so attractive.

Background

I started shooting large format film, which is about as backward as it can be! I enjoy it, but large format requires big cameras, a big tripod, and isn't exactly an easy system to shoot in a busy environment. So although I loved shooting film, I didn't do it but every so often - for "special occasions."

Interest

I really didn't know much about medium format film (since I had been shooting large format) until early 2015. I often spend a few hours before bed surfing the internet and searching for the work of other photographers to help inspire me. One evening I discovered the work of Vivian Maier, a photographer whose work only became well known after her death. Her work intrigued me - there was a rawness and curiosity to her work that made me explore more. Upon researching her work, I found she shot with a Rolleiflex camera, a brand that was relatively unknown to me. 

My collection - Rolleiflex T whiteface, Hasselblad 503CX and a Rolleiflex 2.8F

Rolleiflex

Off to Google I went. I quickly learned what a Rolleiflex camera is and about the type of film it shoots. The Rolleiflex (called a Rollei for short) is a twin lens camera that uses one lens for framing and focusing and the other to capture the image. Compared to the large format view camera, the Rollei is very compact and portable - perfect for travel.

120mm Film

Part of learning about the Rollei involved learning about medium format film. These days, the term medium format film most often refers to film that is 120mm in size. Each resulting negative is about the size of a post-it note. It offers the big negatives with full resolution that I loved about large format, without being so massive that it's hard to travel with. 120mm film is shot on a roll, each roll is 12 images. 

A Square Affair

At first I wasn't interested. Unlike the other film sizes (large format and 35mm), 120mm film is normally shot as a square. There are other rectangular shapes, but they aren't as common - it's almost entirely a square format affair. This did not appeal to me. It seemed faddish- probably because Instagram has made square photos popular on the internet. And everything I shot was cropped to 16:9 (widescreen) format. How could I go to square after being in love with big rectangles?

Discovery

Although I didn't like the square format of 120mm film, I figured I would go look at a used Rolleiflex and see how it felt and worked in person. It is hard to really get a sense for using and holding a camera by just watching internet photos or YouTube videos - I needed to experience it to decide. Thankfully it's not hard or expensive to find used medium format film cameras; as attics get emptied the market has filled with affordable choices. Of course there's some risk involved in buying a 40 year old camera - parts can be hard to find and issues like fungus and mold become concerns. 

I headed to one of the local camera shops that specializes in film cameras called West Yorkshire Cameras in Leeds, England. They advertised having a mint condition Rolleiflex model T Whiteface Edition in stock for a reasonable price, so off I went. First impression was that the camera was surprisingly small. It was lightweight and straight forward. Instructions for use were easy: load film, wind crank, focus, set aperture and shutter, push shutter release, rinse and repeat. The camera is completely manual - no batteries, no light meter, no circuits to break. This version, the T Whiteface, was in impeccable condition and looked like it'd never been used. Although I was still very skeptical about the square format, I liked the camera, so I figured why not. I bought it and a roll of Ilford HP4+ and went home to play with my new camera.

My Rollei T Whiteface - the camera that started my obsession with medium format film photography

Hesitation and elation

There's something very unnerving about loading a roll of 120mm film, taking some photos, unloading the roll, and developing it at home and hoping you got it all right. One slip up - one little bitty bit of light leak, and it's all gone. You can imagine my relief when I opened the film drum after developing to see a dozen perfect negatives..... phew!

My hesitation with the square format quickly turned into an obsession. I love square format. Its geometrically a very interesting and complex shape to shoot and offers so many different compositions from my normal rectangle. I could start to see the world in square, and boy it made sense. 

Big negatives are the name of the game. Here you can see a roll of 120mm film once exposed, the developing spool, and some finished negatives.

Fast forward

Today I'm all in. I have three medium format film cameras (a Hasselblad 503cx, a Rolleiflex T whiteface and a Rolleiflex 2.8F). With these I have shot hundreds of frames of black and white film - I took the cameras to Africa and around much of Europe. Opening a new roll of 120mm film is like my camera crack - I can't get enough. I savor each of those shots and plan meticulously to get the perfect shot. I have discovered a new creative world in the form of double exposures and taking images that are otherwise impossible with digital. And unlike with the digital camera, there's a certain creative freedom. I don't get to peek at a viewfinder to know if I got it right. I've ruined rolls of film. But those are liberating feelings. I don't have to worry about hitting 100 buttons on the camera, instead I focus on the 12 photographs in front of me and try to make each one count. 

This has quickly become one of my favorite streets to photograph with film. It's located in Cambridge and the row of chimneys is so very British! Shot on Ilford Delta 100 with Hasselblad 503CX.

Coming Soon: Part II - Rollei vs Hasselblad

1970s.....? No, 2015 Lion!

Looking at this photograph quickly and you might think it was taken in 1970. It's got that distinctive color and feel of a photograph from 1970..... the feel of a photograph taken with old film.

That's because it is! The photograph is from 2015 and Tanzania, but was shot on a 1970's era Rolleiflex 120mm camera on Kodak color film. 

For the past few weeks I've slowly been developing all the rolls of film I shot in Tanzania and am excited to start sharing those shots, starting with this one of a very friendly lion. Although the composition is a little.... wacky.... I think you can appreciate that I was a bit nervous to shove my arm outside the car to frame a better shot!

Quick Shot: Dungeness

I spend most of the week researching the places I'll spend time exploring on the weekend. When I found my way to some photographs of Dungeness, I knew I'd have to take a day trip to see it in person.

Dungeness is home to one of England's still operational nuclear power stations and sits along the southern coast, just a few miles from France. In fact, it's so close to France that my cell phone starts to provide me with text messages welcoming me to an international destination! Along the beach leading to the power station is a bunch of, well, junk. But it's very photogenic junk!

With the Leica and Rolleiflex T in hand, I took about two dozen images of the junk around the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. I haven't finished the roll from the Leica, so all of these are from the Rollei. I think it's one of the more interesting piles of junk I've had the chance to photograph in England!

PS - keep your eyes out for power lines in these photos that lead from the power station!

Quick Shot: Misty Lake

I just returned from a long weekend trip to the beautiful Lake District of England, but this trip was a little different from most of my other ones. It's been over a decade since I didn't use a digital camera of some type on a trip, but I "cut the cord" and only brought film for this journey. 

Since returning, I've been busy developing and scanning lots of color and black and white film from the trip and I'm excited to finally share some of the images. This first one was taken at the end of a a boat pier on Lake Windermere. It was a foggy and drizzly morning, which gave the lake a mystic feeling. I really wanted to try and capture that mist, so I pulled out the Rolleiflex, which was loaded with Kodak Ektar 100 film and took this shot. I think it's a great way to tease some of the other Lake District prints coming soon....... what do you think? Ready to see more?

Quick Shot: A Stroll Through Cambridge

I have teased about my most recent purchase in previous posts, but if you missed it, I recently added a 1974 Rolleiflex T Whiteface 120mm medium format film camera to my collection. This camera is absolutely fantastic and it's quickly become one of my favorite cameras to shoot with.

My first roll of film was "wasted" on pictures of my dog around our house, but my first real roll of film was spent on a long day walking through Cambridge, England. I wanted to focus on learning the camera - focusing, shooting, metering, composing, etc. I packed a roll of Ilford FP-4+ and headed into the heart of Cambridge to see what came between me and the camera.

Each roll contains 12 images so I took.... 12 images. The roll was then brought home and developed by me using the methods I had practiced on my first throw away roll. I was very pleased that, upon seeing the developed negatives, I had 12 perfectly exposed images! phew!

Upon closer inspection I did notice a problem with a few images. If you look closely you can see some vertical streaks on the film. Turns out that Rolleiflex changed how the camera was loaded for the T variants - previous versions had you thread the film under a roller bar, but the T doesn't go through the roller. I had just read some generic "how to load film" instructions and did not catch this little difference. The vertical streaks resulted from the film being run under this roller bar, creating very small scratches on the film. That's okay- this was the time to trouble shoot those things and it really only shows on a few images.

I scanned each of these images using an Epson V700 scanner - there is no adjustment or color correction done. What you see is what I got! What do you think?