It’s A Square World After All

Posted by Greg Hammond on

WI’ve been spending time with my medium format “roots,” in this case a Rollei 6008i and a Rollei SL66. Both are 6x6 square format film cameras. My first foray into medium format was a Mamiya 645. With a 4:3 aspect ratio, it was similar to, but still different from the 135 format’s 3:2 ratio. “645” is a reference to the image size of 6cm x 4.5cm. I really liked the Mamiya, and its smooth lines. Those lines have been largely lost in the Phase One XF, but the 645 format has survived and prospered in the digital world. Compared to most other sensors, 645 is huge. The Phase IQ4 back generates 150mpx files that can print enormous images. 

But in the film world, 645 was on the smallish side of medium format. Most medium format cameras—the Hasselblad 500 series are among the better known examples—were either 6x6 or 6x7, and even 6x9. So, the 645 was “entry level” medium format. It did have one advantage: a roll of 120 or 220 film went further when subdivided by the 645 layout. Still, it was a huge step up in image real estate and quality from my Canon EOS1. And once bitten, the bug burrowed deep and set up shop. Like a chigger (for the Southerners among our readers).i shot everything I could with the Mamiya, I loved it, even if I wasn’t very good with it  

One day, I was discussing the merits of the Mamiya with a Hasselblad guy who, truth be told, probably saw the Mamiya as a bit beneath him. He was trying to educate me to the advantages of the square format. In addition to arguing the advantage of a larger image size overall, he pointed out that if one wanted to compose the image horizontally or vertically, one had only to crop the print accordingly. I responded: “Yes, but what’s the point of cropping it into a vertical or horizontal orientation? I might as well just use the 645 and flip the camera into whichever orientation the composition calls for.” He just looked at me like I had said the dumbest thing he had ever heard. And I suppose I had. There’s a reason that wedding and portrait photogs shot square: actually, there’s a bunch, but one of them is speed. Forget turning the camera vertically or horizontally. Get the image and refine the composition later. And start seeing the world without the visual shackles of landscape=horizontal or portrait=vertical. It was a bit of a leap for me, because I had heard and read many photographers saying that was how to compose images.  I didn’t realize at the time the importance of the lesson this guy was trying to teach me: see what’s in front of you, see it for what is before you try to make it what you think it is. I never fully grokked this lesson, but I eventually succumbed just the same. And it was good old fashioned German built-like-a-tank-to-destroy-tanks engineering that seduced me. 

Many people swoon over Hasselblads. Meh. [I own a Hasselblad; I can say that, and the one I own is an exception to the “meh”]. They’re Swedish. And they don’t feel mechanically solid to me. [I loved my Saabs until they stopped being Swedish, so I’ve got nothing against the Swedes.] But Rolleis are made by Germans in Germany. To a standard that simply did not exist anywhere else in the world at the time. And the 600x series were the first fully electronic medium format  cameras. There was nothing else like them on the planet. And the first time I held a 6008—and nearly dropped it because the weight surprised me—I so wanted it. It was like holding 5 pounds of Swiss watch. Only better, more seductive, more alluring. A watch, once it’s done telling time, is pretty much done. Looks pretty, but it’s done working. A camera, though, in the hands of a photographer, makes new beauty with every shoot. Holding that Rollei, with such a machine, I knew without doubt I would be a superb photographer. Except, well, no. It doesn’t work that way. But that’s a different topic.

I couldn't afford the 6008, so I settled for a 6003, essentially a stripped down version. I traveled everywhere with it. I loved shooting with it. But I really wasn’t any good with it. I simply could not make the square format work. I still hadn’t learned the lesson. And the lesson is pretty simple as it turns out. Although it feels as though we see the world in “landscape mode,” we actually see the world more as a 360 degree sphere. And in the two-dimensional world of imaging, the closest approximation of that sphere is a square (not, as we might think, a circle). A lens projects an image circle on to the film plane or digital sensor. But for a lot of reasons of convenience and engineering, we record the circle in rectangular fashion. And if we don’t, it feels as though something is missing (even though the reverse is true). 

The lesson—to see everything in front of you before you squeeze it into a preconceived format—is a powerful one, with which I still struggle. And it does t help that all my digital sensors are either 4:3 or 3:2 rectangles. So, I have gone back to the 6x6 format to try to learn some old lessons. 

What do I shoot? Velvia. As if there might be another choice for a landscape photographer. 😉 But as much as I love it, it cannot hold a candle to the tonality and dynamic range in either the Phase or Hasselblad or the Nikon. The Rollei and Zeiss lenses are very good, but their designs are decades old. And while their manufacturing standards were very high, today’s lens-makers enjoy a combination of precision and computer assistance that facilitates accuracy and color fidelity. That doesn’t mean classic lenses don’t render very appealing imagery. Some are gorgeous. The 80mm Rollei for the 66 is beautiful, though I prefer to shoot with the 50mm. And on the 6008, the Zeiss 40mm is amazing. But . . . 

So why bother? For the same reason I shoot a technical camera: to learn to take the time to see before deciding. 

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