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I forget when I first found out about sensor sizes and the effect they have on an image. I think it was when I was reading up on my new Nikon D70s and figuring out how it would compare to my old Canon PowerShot G2. One of the things I remember being most excited about was my newfound ability to take portraits, or other images, with shallow depths of field. I was also really excited by the improved image quality, which I had read was partially a function of pixel size, and thus (sort of) sensor size.

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Mamiya RZ 67

As I began reading more about my new camera I started to find sites like DPReview and Ken Rockwell. Eventually I came across something mind-blowing, especially as a 16 year old: digital medium format cameras, with price tags in the tens of thousands of dollars.

This was incredible to me. I wondered why these things cost so much, and how much more they must offer to priced so high. The question lingered for a while, but my attention drifted to beautiful lenses that actually seemed attainable on some level (even if only in the distant future).

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One of the few images I still have from the old Canon PowerShot G2. I loved that camera and the shots I got out of it, but even with nice soft light from a cloudy day in the Aberdares in Kenya, this image shot at ISO 400 is noisy.

I ended up doing my undergrad in Computation Arts at Concordia University, in Montréal, and decided to take a photography class while I was at it. It was actually a film photography class, which was something I hadn’t done in a long time, but was interested in. While I took that class, I got access to a couple medium format film cameras that the school had available for students to sign out. For some reason, I never ended up doing so, but I saw what other students had done with them, and I fell in love with the images that they had taken. I knew that it was primarily because of the skill of the students, but there was a quality to some of the images that I had trouble imagining coming out of the 35mm cameras I was using.

After I finished the course, I wanted to try shooting one of these cameras, but it was too late to borrow one from school: I no longer was allowed to borrow equipment from the photography department. I assumed that these cameras were as wildly expensive as the digital medium format cameras. It turns out, though, that they weren’t. They still weren’t cheap (is photography ever?), but they weren’t going for twenty grand or more. Instead they seemed to range between 500 and a couple thousand bucks.

I started reading up about TLRs like the Rolleiflex Automat series and hoped that I might be able to find one at an affordable price and in decent shape. In the end I wasn’t able to find one, but I spent plenty of time looking at samples of images taken with a variety of cheap-ish medium format cameras. In the end, I gave up. But earlier this year I started shooting film again, as I describe in this article.

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That’s me, with the Nikon F90 I acquired earlier this year, when I decided to start shooting film again.

I started by shooting 35mm, but while looking for the best places to buy film in Vancouver, I came across Beau Photo. I noticed that they sold used medium format equipment, and got really excited: I figured I might finally be able to find a camera I could afford, and the store was just a few minutes walk from where I live. Dangerous, I know.

I walked over to check out the selection and unfortunately couldn’t find anything I could afford. Fortunately, though, I ended up getting a few decent contracts and went back to grab a Mamiya RZ67 that was finally just barely within my budget.

The first few shots were really exciting. I threw some Ilford FP4 in there and took shots of Vancouver. Unfortunately, I found out there was a light leak in the back. Eventually I fixed it (I think) and I am delighted with the results.

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One of the earlier images I shot with the Mamiya, where you can see the light leak on the right hand side of the image, going up from the bottom pointing towards the right edge of the back “Wylie St” sign.

To be honest, while the quality of the images is something I find really exciting, one of the most fun things about the camera is the fact that each roll is limited to 10 shots, and that it’s such a large, slow beast to work with.

Apparently the Mamiya RB67 and RZ67 are referred to as the “boat anchors” of photography, because they are large and heavy. The loud clunk of the mirror and shutter is so satisfying with this thing. I feel like I look completely ridiculous with this giant box around my neck, but it’s totally worth it because the experience of shooting with it is satisfying in and of itself. I even enjoy the fact that it doesn’t have a built-in light-meter, because I love that it forces me to slow down, pull out my handheld light meter, and really think about what I’m doing before I shoot.

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The camera is quite large.

In the end, though, the images are pretty awesome as well. And part of it goes back to something I mentioned at the beginning of this story: shallow depth of field for portraits. Recently, my girlfriend and I went up to Squamish, an hour or so north of Vancouver. I dragged the RZ67 with me and took a few shots of both her and the landscape.

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I love that I can get the same shallow depth of field of 140mm at f4.5 on an aps-c or 35mm camera, but with a far wider field of view.

One of the things that really struck me about shooting this series with the Mamiya is how sharp everything was, undoubtedly because of the sheer size of each frame. That is to say, since I am getting a lab to scan my film, and I’m getting approximately the same resolution scans for my 120 film as my 35mm (about 2k x 2.5k pixels), I can’t even see the film grain in the medium format scans, let alone any softness in the lens. Eventually maybe I’ll get my favourite shots scanned at a higher resolution so I can really pull out the fine details.

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I love the way this shot came out, which I think is both a function of the camera, as well as the amazing Fuji Velvia I used which is probably my favourite film to shoot at the moment.

All that to say that I’m very pleased with the Mamiya and I’m so glad to be back shooting film, and finally shooting medium format.

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