Fill The Frame
Making The Most Of Medium Format

The 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 a price.

I 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 layout requirements.

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.