The No. 2 Kodak Brownie

 
Kodak Brownie No 2 medium format
 

The Kodak Brownie No.2 might be the simplest practical camera still easily found today. It takes 120 medium format film and costs less than a music CD, if you remember those. It produced 6x7cm negatives which is one of the larger medium format sizes. 

This particular model was  released in 1901 as the Victorian era drew to a close. The specialized technology of photography was now in the realm of the public. We often hear that digital cameras and iPhones have  taken work away from professional photographers, but it has happened in pulses over the entire history of photography. There is nothing new under the sun.

A box Brownie's simplicity can't be overstated - the only decisions to make are the framing of the subject, and the timing for when the shutter is fired. Changing the aperture is possible, but the manual (find it here) suggests that it only needs to be changed when using timed exposures or flash.

Here are the settings:

  • 1/60 shutter (presumably slower due to age of the camera)

  • apertures of 16, 22 and 32

  • Focused to infinity (presumably hyper-focal)

  • 90mm focal length (a ‘normal’ length for this size of negative)

Though the Brownie was designed for 100 speed film (or possibly slower), using modern 400 speed film allows some license to play with aperture settings (the equivalent of using shutter speeds of 1/125, 1/250 and 1/500 at f11). That covers outside scenes from bright sun to moderate shade. Long manual exposures are needed for indoor photography.

I have found that my copy of the camera shoots a little to the left when shooting in the landscape orientation. I'll look into how I can adjust the viewfinding elements and report back.

This camera is probably the cheapest way to get into medium format photography, and the results can be quite good if you give the camera enough light.

Freight train near Washington Avenue, Houston. Brownie No.2, Ilford HP5.

Freight train near Washington Avenue, Houston. Brownie No.2, Ilford HP5.

 

 

The 13th frame on a Hasselblad 500

 
Hasselblad 500 cm 12 back
 

Turns out that the oldest 12 magazines (6x6) for the Hasselblad 500 have a distinct advantage over the later automatic ones. You can start the roll a little earlier to fit a 13th picture on the end of the roll. Most of the time...

How to get the extra frame

  • The paper backing of HP5 120 film is numbered so that on really old cameras you can visually set the first frame starting point after loading. The trick on the Hasselblad is to start the roll on the first circle symbol rather than on the number 1 that you would usually aim for. Other films will have different symbol conventions on the paper, but should work in a similar way.
  • Another way to figure out where to start is to look at the paper of a used roll. By leaving the tape on the film side of the paper you can visually inspect where the film starts and the corresponding symbol needed on the reverse of the paper. Remember that the symbol is referenced to the center of the first 6x6 frame, not the top of it. The starting point, therefore, is 3cm further into the roll from the tape mark.
  • After taking the 12th picture, the frame counter needs to be reset to prevent the camera locking the shutter button. 

What could go wrong?

  • Firstly you must avoid starting the roll too soon. This might take some trial and error for your magazine, but if you start the roll too early the first frame might expose over the tape that attaches the film to the backing paper.
  • The camera is not designed to take the 13th frame, otherwise this would just be the normal number to expect. I often find there is a large gap between frames 12 and 13 - sometimes so large that the top of the last image is lost over the edge of the roll. I'm not sure why this happens because sometimes I get the entire 13th image without issue. 
 
Sometimes the bonus 13th square frame is cropped at the end of the roll of film. 

Sometimes the bonus 13th square frame is cropped at the end of the roll of film. 

 

Given the risk, the 13th frame should be seen as a bonus and not used for any critical shots. It is nice to get the most out of a roll of 120 film and the old magazines are the most desirable in my opinion for this reason.

Camera Kit: Medium format film, Hasselblad 500

 

There is something special about an old Hasselblad. Even though it is a cube with no ergonomic considerations, it feels right in your hands. The cla-chunk thud from the curtain/mirror/shutter movements is satisfying. Its looks are timeless. Gooey sentiments aside, there are serious benefits to film medium format.

Hasselblad500

What is it good for?

  • Negative size larger than digital can offer.  There is no digital equivalent to even the small 6x4.5cm format (all digital medium format sensors are 'crop' formats smaller than traditional medium format, but larger than 35mm - more info here). So you can spend $10,000 on a digital crop camera, or $500 on a 6x6cm classic. The negatives are huge, dwarfing the grain to make images look clean rather than gritty.
  • Square format. Though other aspect ratios are available through interchangeable camera backs or other cameras, a square format is often used. It is no better or worse than 4x6 or 4x5, but changing things up is often refreshing. I like the square format to exploit symmetry or make a subject dominant by having it in the center of the frame. The rule of thirds is in the back seat here.
  • Seeing your images sooner. Though you get only 12 or 16 images on a roll, that means you also get to the end of a roll quicker than you would with a 35mm roll. One of my pet peeves of 35mm is having taken some great images and not being able to develop them quickly because there are 20 images still to take.

What's the compromise?

  • Equipment cost. A Hasselblad 500 used to be out of reach of the masses in its heyday. Today, they are relatively cheap, but still more expensive than building a 35mm film kit. KEH and UsedPhotoPro are good places to start looking.
  • Film cost. A roll of 120 film is almost the same price as a roll of 35mm, but you are only getting 12 or 16 pictures on the roll. This triples the cost of film per image.
  • Size. These are not discrete cameras. They are easily strap-mounted for hand-held use, but are heavy and I often use a backpack if i need more than one lens with me. They take up a lot of room and add weight to luggage making them a commitment if you want to travel with them. My Hasselblad with 3 lenses outweighs my large format camera kit with 3 lenses.

What's in my camera bag?

  • Cameras: Hasselblad 500cm with rapid winding crank, waist level view finder, focusing screens (x3)
  • Film magazines: 12 magazine (2), 16 magazine.
  • Lenses: Distagon 50mm f4 CT, Planar 80mm CT f2.8, Sonnar 150mm  f4 CT, Sonnar 250mm f5.6C.
  • Accessories: Extension tubes (10mm, 21mm, 55mm), Hasselblad to Canon EF mount converter, lens focus handles, UV filters, red filter, circular polarizer, cable release

Is digital medium format 'full frame'?

Digital medium format is where digital 35mm was a decade ago. Crop sensors have been introduced to make the digital transition cheaper, but the only 'full frame' medium format sensors are the most recent flagship models in the smallest traditional size. 

Hasselblad 500 Medium Format Film

Medium format sizes

Medium format is pretty much any film or sensor size larger than 35mm (3.6x2.4cm) and smaller than the 4x5 inches of large format. 

Common digital sensor sizes compared to traditional film sizes. Looks like digital doesn't have all the bases covered (yet).

Common digital sensor sizes compared to traditional film sizes. Looks like digital doesn't have all the bases covered (yet).

In the film days, 'medium format' generally meant one of a handful of common sizes  - 6x4.5cm, 6x6, 6x7 and 6x9. It turns out, to date, only the smallest of these sizes have ever been approached in a production digital camera. As of time of writing, the largest digital sensor is 5.3x4cm with 100 megapixels, exceeding the previous generation's 50 megapixel 4.4x3.3. This is almost at the 6x4.5cm size (5.6x4.2cm in reality). And it is still a long way from 6x6. Notice in the figure on the right the size of digital medium format (green) compared to traditional film sizes (gold).

35mm's migration to digital

35mm sensors were not very affordable at the dawn of popular digital photography. To drive sales, smaller sensors were made similar in size to APSc film, which ironically faced an early demise due to the growing popularity of digital and the fact it was inferior to a regular 35mm roll in many ways. Camera marketing began using the term 'full frame' for their top-end 35mm-equivalent cameras, and 'crop sensors' for the APSc-sized sensor cameras. Small sizes are nothing new - cameras like the Olympus Pen used a 'half frame' size that allowed twice as many images on a roll of 35mm film. Economy and portability at the expense of image quality. Everything in photography is a compromise.

Medium format's migration to digital

Medium format has no single aspect standard - rather than comparing all sensor sizes to the largest common type, 6x7, like we do with 35mm relative to APSc and micro 4/3, it might only be reasonable to hold the smallest 6x4.5 as the standard for 'full-frame medium format' given this has been recently matched by commercial digital sensors. The larger standard negative sizes still have no competition. 

Sensor size is not the full story though. The larger-than-35mm sensors still have an advantage when it comes to colour depth, dynamic range and tonality. A big difference is camera-to-subject distance which affects depth of field. 

It is interesting that 'crop vs full frame' comparison is used in the 35mm world but not the medium format one. This might say a lot about the target markets - 35mm buyers care about specs, whereas the professionals using medium format have better things to worry about, like light, creative vision and getting paid.

Full-frame medium format

I'm sure full frame medium format will arrive in my lifetime, perhaps even a 6x6. It might be affordable to the amateur by the time my children have retired. So in the mean-time the only realistic way to shoot full-frame medium format is with a film camera. 

Luckily, film is not dead and old medium format cameras can be bought for a fraction of their original cost. From Hasselblads to the Rollei twin lens reflex, Mamiyas and Bronicas. Plenty of film still being made by Ilford, Kodak, Fuji and many others. Film might be too costly and risky for modern professional use, but these are not the concerns of the amateur. If you want to explore truely larger-than-35mm formats, film is definitely the place to start.