Getting started in medium format photography: equipment

So, the accessories arrived a few days ago.  Here’s the Gossen Lunasix F light meter I purchased from eBay:

Gossen Lunasix F
Gossen Lunasix F

Gossen have thoughtfully archived their old manuals as pdfs on their website so I was able to get this with ease.  I’ve never used a light meter before but it seems quite straightforward in practice.

Here is my Yashica Mat itself:

Yashica Mat
Yashica Mat

and here’s everything cased up:

Your starter for 120

The manual is obviously dated but it’s concisely put together.  The slide film (or ‘E6’ for short) is Fujifilm Provia 100F which I’m using as a control group to begin with.  I’ll be trying and comparing colour negative film later on, if the money doesn’t run out.

First time out

Monday’s weather was tepid spring: the odd sunny spell but mostly overcast, warm in the sun but otherwise cool.  Nonetheless, I was determined to take the TLR out for a trial run so I headed to some local woodland with camera, tripod and meter.

I spent forty minutes walking the woods, looking for shots and analyzing the light.  Then it was time for action.  Tripod out, TLR out of case, meter out – whoops, the cases are on the ground – and so on.  I then composed the shot using the viewfinder on the Yashica Mat which pops up from the top:

Yashica Mat viewfinder
Yashica Mat viewfinder

It’s large, fairly bright and has grid lines (great for me, I’m usually 1/1.5 degrees lopsided).  The viewfinder image is laterally reversed which is weird when you start moving the camera or tripod – it’ll take a while to master.  There’s a magnifying glass you can pop down for precise focusing.  I found myself really taking time to get the composition right, metering the scene several times (I have not put the Zone System into practice yet – all in good time).

It’s not digital – I took four photographs in around two hours.  Ok, it was my first time so everything took longer than it should.  Still, when you have the cost of film and processing in the back of your mind, you do your best before you press the shutter.  There’s also an element of “Hmm, is that idea really worth setting up for?”.

When I finish the roll, I’ll have it developed straight away to verify the exposures and make sure everything is working as it should.  I’m noting shutter speed and aperture for each shot as I go.  I’ll have some results to share before too long.

Back to the old school: first steps in medium format photography

Last week I bought an old medium format film camera, a Yashica Mat TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) made sometime between 1957-1971.

Yashicamat TLR


Image quality – this camera takes 120 film, a format Kodak created around 1902.  TLRs are most associated with the Rolleiflex brand but it’s a little more complex than that (here’s a great summary). You get 12 shots a roll and the negatives measure 6cm x 6cm. The total film surface area is much larger than 35mm: 3136 versus 864 (click here for an excellent summary).  Larger negatives offer finer image quality with superior saturation, tonality and detail through capturing more information through the lens.  The lens on this particular model (Yashica made many over several decades – see here for details) is a Yashinon 80mm F3.5.

Fit for purpose – I’m interested in landscape photography in available light and I’m trying to get better.  In two weeks’ time, I start a 10-week tutored portfolio course (of which more soon) and I’ve been reading books on the history of photography, and on landscape photography in particular.  I’ll be shooting digitally (Nikon D40) for the portfolio project but during the course I’ll certainly be practising with the TLR.  I think medium format has real potential if I can get things right behind the camera.

It’s not digital – the TLR should be a useful counterpoint to my digital habits as it’s so different.  Whilst it’s hard to take technically poor photos with today’s digital cameras – their ease-of-use and economy are great – they can encourage sloppy habits.  With digital, you’re shooting at no real cost and you know you can trash all rejects later; therefore, it’s natural to (even unconsciously) take less care making the photographs themselves.

The completely manual operation of a TLR – bring a light meter, set the shutter speed and aperture, crank the film advance – and the expense of film (and processing it) perhaps makes for a more frugal and careful photographer – we’ll see.  Though I expect to use the TLR in a considered way, mostly with a tripod, TLRs can of course be used handheld and they were used by press photographers before the ascent of 35m SLRs.

Sergeant Karen M. Hermiston of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, 1944 (Library and Archives Canada)

What next?

I have 5 rolls of Fuji Provia 100F slide film (E6) for starters, and a batch of Provia 400X on the way.  So when my light meter arrives tomorrow, I’ll be ready to take the Yashica Mat outdoors.  The forecast this weekend looks decent too.

The photographic workbook of Douglas McCarthy