A medium format status update: Still not getting into it.

A few months ago I mentioned how I picked up my first medium format camera, a Dacora Digna. After playing with 35mm in 2020, it seemed like bigger-sized negatives would be the next step. However, the issue is cameras that take medium format film are not as ubiquitous as their 35mm brethren: You can find 35mm cameras in your parent’s attic/junk drawer or at your local thrift, but medium format as a family camera was the generation of your grandparents or older. And that’s for the not-as-good ones, the “good” ones command high prices. Still, I thought that dipping my toes into 120 film with a very basic 1950s era camera would be a good start.

And it was, for a few rolls. Then the Digna developed a fatal issue: Pictures came out blurry and overexposed. I’m guessing that the shutter is getting hung up and staying open longer than it should. Actually I’m surprised that the primitive shutter on the Digna lasted as long as it did. So I decided to find a better 120 camera.

I ended up finding a Agfa Isolette, a folding viewfinder camera also from the 1950s. Unlike the primitive shutter and aperture found on the Digna, the Isolette was definitely more deluxe: three shutter speeds to choose from (1/25, 1/75, 1/200 plus bulb) and a range of apertures from f/4.5 to f/32. The shutter needs to be “cocked” by a separate lever. Everything just feels nicer. And despite being worried about cameras with bellows, the seller assured me that they were in good condition.

I took it with me on a couple bike rides to test out, one roll of color (Kodak Ektar 100) and black and white (Kodak Tri-X 400). Shooting was more methodical than anything else I’ve shot with: First, I needed to undo the toestrap around the body (the latch to hold the camera in “folded up” position had broke). Next: a consultation of my light meter app to figure out speed and aperture. Then, cock the shutter. Finally, hit the shutter, and remember to wind to the next shot immediately after so I don’t end up either double-exposing or wasting frames.

I got back the results of the first roll. The shots that I did at either 1/75 or 1/200 and at a distance turned out well. Anything at 1/25, or when I tried to focus closer (it’s zone/guess focus) didn’t turn out as good. These shots came out a bit blurry. At first I thought it was due to the nature of the shutter release, a lever right next to the lens. So I used a cable for the second roll. The shots at 1/25 still came out blurry. Perhaps I need to use a tripod as well?

I should put another roll through the Isolette to test it out more. But honestly, I haven’t been that inspired to do so. Even the better shots had that “softening around the edges” that much of these medium format cameras of the era seem to have, softness that I haven’t gotten with my 35mm cameras. And I know that “bigger negatives have more detail”, but at the sizes I see the final result, it doesn’t matter. Maybe if I was blowing them up it would matter, but the prints I’ve gotten are 6″x 6″. If I got them scanned, they’d be at about the same resolution as my 35mm images.

I’ve come to realize that 35mm cameras suit my photography style so much better. I can have one on a strap around my shoulder, another in a pouch on the bike, and pull either out and shoot quickly. Not so with my medium-format cameras. Mind you, the Agfa Isolette does fold down to a pretty small size. But the metering means I won’t get quick shots. This type of camera would be good for doing landscapes with a tripod, not my “what I saw on my bike ride” approach I typically have.

Plus, the lenses on my 35mm cameras, even my small “point and shoots”, seem to blow away the results I’ve gotten from the two 120 cameras I own. I realize that there are better medium-format cameras out there, but they are all much more expensive. And I still don’t know what kind of “better medium format” camera I’d want to get. I dig the look of TLRs but I’ve heard operating them can be love it or hate it thing. A rangefinder or SLR version would be cool, but they are big, heavy, and spendy. And no matter which angle I choose, I’ll get less frames on a roll of 120 film than I do with 35mm, which makes shooting with medium format more expensive.

I guess I should just embrace the more lo-fi vibe that my Agfa Isolette gives off. The good pictures aren’t bad, actually. I should give it another chance. I just need to figure out when. As for the Dacora Digna, I might end up making a pinhole camera out of it. That seems like a good way to give it another life.

In the end I feel a little bummed that I didn’t take to medium format as easily as I hoped, especially after hearing all the good things said about it. Perhaps it’ll just take some more time. Or maybe I just don’t care for medium format? And is that okay?

Like many hobbies and communities, there can be a degree of gatekeeperism in film photography, a “received wisdom” of how things should be done and how one should get into it if they want to be perceived as serious. I try not to let this bother me too much, but enough blog posts telling me things like I should only shoot with manual cameras, light meters are for beginners, or that real film photographers develop their own rolls. There’s a level of perfection that I’m supposed to reach for. And when I don’t cross those thresholds, I feel like I’m not good enough. This is not what I want to feel. I like shooting film because it’s fun for me, and I don’t want to feel like I need to do certain things to feel like I belong in the club.

In the end, I shouldn’t let it bother me too much. I shouldn’t feel bad about not taking to medium format or having a lab develop my film. In the end, I have learned a lot over the last year and have had heaps of fun doing so. That’s all that matters. Gatekeeperism be damned!

And I will eventually pull out the Agfa Isolette again and mess around with it. For now, I like shooting my Olympus Pen EES-2. When everyone said I should go for bigger negatives I reversed course and went smaller!

For photos from the Dacora Digna, see the dynamic flickr album below. Or click here.

My Dacora Digna camera.

For photos from the Agfa Isolette, see the dynamic flickr album below. Or click here.

Agfa Isolette
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6 thoughts on “A medium format status update: Still not getting into it.

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  1. I never got to race in the Tour de France nor do I wear cleated bicycling shoes. My bicycles lack any carbon parts and my clothes super indicate me as something other than a bicyclist. Yet I put on 10 to 20 miles daily and really enjoy my cycling as I do it. I know that trying to process your own photos is part of the fun for some photographers but not all. I know you will figure out your photographic boundaries. If those boundaries change so be it. If not so be it. I enjoy your photographic rampages through the greater Pacific Northwest so keep up the good work.

  2. I think you are overthinking this. In my experience, shooting Medium format in itself is not any more complicated than 35mm. It’s the camera itself that will govern the complexity. I had an Isolette a while ago and I remember it is a pretty basic camera so you have to work in those limitations (and yes 1/25 sec is probably too slow for handheld so you will likely get blurring).
    I guess Medium Format has been the media for the more professional end and so there may be an expectation on a certain level of knowledge; most probably don’t have a light meter as a pro would typically prefer to use a separate meter. But you can still use the same shortcuts that you might on a simple 35mm like the Sunny 16 rule to be able to take quick shots.

    1. I mean, possibly? I overthink a lot of things. 😉

      I’m sure I could take more shortcuts. It’s the whole “having fun with medium format” that eludes me. I should give it another shot. But in the interim I’ve been having loads more fun with 35mm, so trying to find the appropriate time and place to give the Isolette another go eludes me. For me right now the fun factor with film is big. I’m not trying to be a “pro” or anything. So if something isn’t giving me fun, I don’t feel the urge to do it.

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