client chose to use a tight crop of just the people, eliminating
most of my beautiful conference table reflection. To reproduce
large enough I had to pay for a drum scan at 3000dpi.
If I had shot tighter versions, I could have scanned at
1000dpi, saving money and producing a better quality scan.
Photos © 1999, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved
Medium format cameras are
hot, and with good reason. While many predicted that 35mm advancements
would slowly signal the demise of bulky medium format cameras, the exact
opposite has happened. Advances in film technology now make it possible
to get nearly 4x5 film quality from a 2x2" or 2x3" frame.
While view cameras certainly have their place in any pro photographer's
arsenal, a careful and creative photographer can use a medium format
camera and get images that reproduce full page and are nearly indistinguishable
from those taken with view cameras a decade ago.
When scanning with a high-resolution device like a high-end drum scanner,
the size of the frame or the amount of cropping needed isn't a
big deal. With optical resolution from 2000dpi to over 10,000dpi, you
can select any portion of the frame and blow it up like crazy. Ten years
ago I would shoot and leave some room on the frame so the client could
crop, advice proffered by most pros. Today I usually have my images
scanned by a professional scanner operator and save the scans on disk.
In a few cases I deliver the files directly to the client untouched,
but usually I am hired to extensively rework the files in Photoshop,
usually even creating the CMYK color separations. While a high-end scan
can give me a giant file from a sliver of a medium format frame, I have
become painfully aware of film grain, shadow detail, and especially
dirt. No matter how carefully a transparency is prepared, there will
be noticeable dirt and dust on the image. Those big blowups make retouching
the dirt and dust out a very painstaking process. While some scanners
offer software and hardware solutions to reduce the dirt, they usually
slightly soften the image, which can become a problem. The service bureau
is always happy to provide post-scan image cleaning, but it comes at
shot this picture very tight and very loose. The client
chose this tight in-camera crop, so I didn't waste
any film area at all.
While drum scans are at the
extreme end of the scanning spectrum, there are many reasonably priced
scanning solutions available today that are popping up on many a designer's
desk. Since I have to scan a lot of film for a number of different uses,
I combine a mix of drum scans, flat-bed scans, and scans from a dedicated
film scanner. I out-source the drum scans from a service bureau, and pay
anywhere from $50 to $130 for a 2500dpi scan. For years I used a 600x1200dpi
flat-bed scanner with a transparency adapter to scan medium format and
large format film. While the results were a far cry from a decent drum
scan, with a little work I could get a decent image. I never like to deliver
a job to a client that requires an explanation, so I would always be forced
to sharpen the heck out of the image to make it ready to deliver. Although
I was always able to deliver a file good enough for moderate reproduction
sizes, anything larger than a 5x7" reproduction from a 6x7cm original
started looking a little soft. To remedy this I looked into buying a drum
scanner of my own. With low-end drums starting at $20,000 and high-end
units well over $100,000, a drum scanner didn't seem like that wise
of an investment for my business. After a little shopping in the desktop
film scanner market, I bought a Minolta Dimâge Scan Multi medium
format film scanner from Ken-Mar Camera.
While a reasonably priced device, this little Minolta scanner does a very
nice job with transparencies. The difference between this scanner and
my old flat-bed is just night and day, but I am limited to a maximum optical
resolution of just 1128dpi for medium format film. While that is actually
decent resolution for many uses, if I have to crop the image even a little
bit I am limited to a pretty small file size. To make sure that this scanner
can produce a file ready to print at reasonable sizes, I try and cram
as much of the scene into the frame as possible. Since a 6x7cm full frame
will produce a decent sized 2880x2496 pixel file, I can provide this to
a client and easily fill almost an entire 81/2x11" page.
Now that I am scanning a fair number of my own images, I have become my
own worst critic when it comes to filling the frame. A perfect example
is a shot I recently did for a corporate client. This photograph of a
few executives in a conference room made for a really nice layout, especially
with the long reflection in the glass conference table. The client loved
the Polaroid, I thought it was great, so we shot two rolls of film from
that vantage point. Weeks later the client gives me the film with detailed
cropping instructions. By the time this shot is cropped for publication,
I'm down to about a 1500x1500 pixel image on my Minolta scanner.
Since the client wanted to run it at about 10x10" at 133 lines,
I was forced to get a high-resolution drum scan. Since I have to pay for
each scan and I had already quoted the client for the entire job, these
tight crops actually cost me money.
Another job I recently shot shows how anyone can learn from their mistakes.
I was hired to shoot a mechanic working on a new Mercedes for an advertising
project. My normal inclination would have been to shoot wide enough to
show the entire car, giving the client some cropping room. Since I had
the feeling that the client would wind up using a much tighter shot of
the mechanic and less of the car, and not wanting to use only a 35mm frame
area on a 6x6cm frame, I shot one wide shot and increasingly closer shots.
The client of course chose the tightest image that showed only a portion
of the car and the mechanic from the waist up as I had hoped. I scanned
the entire frame, interpolated up just a tiny bit in Photoshop, and delivered
a very sharp and crisp 3000x3000 pixel 27MB file.
Even if you want nothing to do with scanning and digital imaging, filling
the frame becomes extremely important when shooting medium format film.
Let's face it, moving up from 35mm to 21/4 involves accepting quite
a few compromises. Medium format cameras are heavy, bulky, slow, and expensive.
Even the sleekest, modern, 4.5x6cm SLR camera still works slower than
a 35mm camera, has a much narrower choice of lenses, and costs a bunch
more than a good 35mm camera. Why move up to roll film? The image size,
of course. One of the mistakes that almost all novice medium format shooters
make is to shoot too wide an image. While a fast handling 35mm SLR with
a zoom lens makes it a snap to shoot bold frame filling images, a large
medium format camera with a stock 80mm lens can be a bit intimidating.
Even a modest crop that removes 30 percent of the image, sized to fit
on an 8x10 sheet of paper, reduces you to practically 35mm frame size.
Given the cost of the gear, film, and processing, why bother?
Since I tend to shoot medium format for personal work as well, I am constantly
aware of the final reproduction size when I compose in the viewfinder.
Very small differences in enlargement factors won't make or break
a print, but when you're trying to squeeze every ounce of performance
out of an image you've got to be aware of how much of the frame
you are using.
Almost all medium format shooters use prime lenses, so zooming in is not
an option. Given my penchant for using my feet rather than the zoom, I'm
all for getting in physically close to fill the frame. When on assignment
for a client, I shoot a wide shot, a medium shot, and then a handful of
closer shots. If the client needs more in the image, I'll usually
be aware of their requirements ahead of time. In the studio shooting products,
I try and leave just enough "wiggle room" to accommodate page
Perhaps the most noticeable advantage that medium format cameras have
is when shooting portraits and the like on color negative film. Even a
fine-grained and medium contrast film like Kodak VPS benefits from the
lower magnification requirements of medium format film. I can always spot
an 11x14 portrait made from a medium format negative as opposed to one
made from a 35mm negative. Besides the obvious lack of recognizable grain,
there is a smoother quality to the skin tones and a more natural look
to the colors. Make the mistake of centering your subject's head
in the middle of the frame and you're forced to take a small section
of the frame and blow it up. Another factor of the too-far-away portrait
is the quality of the on-camera flash. Whether you're using a flash
for fill or for main light, the closer the flash tube is to the subject,
the softer it will look. Shoot a headshot from 12' away and your
flash will look awfully hard and contrasty. A typical head-shot from 6'
away can look quite nice even with on-camera flash.
If you're an experienced medium format user, then you must already
know the distinct advantages that the larger piece of film can offer.
While a medium format system can deliver more than just a larger film
frame, like leaf shutters for high speed flash synch, interchangeable
backs and viewfinders, and the ability to hook up to high-resolution digital
scanning backs, it is the big rollfilm image that excites us. Try and
think about using as much of the frame as you can on your next shoot.
If you're a square frame guy, use the elegance of the square format
and exploit it, or figure out how to best utilize the eventual crop down
to 8x10 print size. If you're shooting 645, 6x7, or 6x9, then it
pays to try and work your subjects right to the edges of the frame on
a few shots. While this kind of in-camera cropping used to make me nervous,
I now try and shoot tighter than I normally would on at least one frame
per roll. Life in the digital age has made this a necessity, but I'm
finding that my conventional film-based work is also looking sharper.
Sometimes in photography a kick in the behind is just what you need to
get your creative juices flowing. It sure worked for me.