Yashica Mat 124G / Kodak Ektachrome
"Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn" indeed. Square images are hardcore, although in practice there's no reason why you can't crop them down to taste. You have plenty of negative to work with. Still, I find that after having composed the square image through the Mat's square viewfinder, it looks better if I leave it square.
Square format was long a hallmark of Swedish medium format giant Hasselblad, although with a very few exceptions the company's modern digital sensors have a 4x3 aspect ratio. Nowadays, for most people, square equals Instagram equals real photography.
Medium format is a mysterious world. "If you have to ask, you're in the wrong department", that kind of world. Historically there were several different medium format formats, although they all used 120 film, with different framing.
Why was it called 120? I always assumed it was because you could take twelve shots at 6x6, but in practice the number was just arbitrary; Kodak plucked numbers from thin air. Throughout the 20th Century the company also sold 110, 116, 616, 120, 126, 127, 135, 220, 620, and 828 film, and none of those numbers meant anything either. Nowadays Kodak still sells 120 and 135 - the standard 35mm format - but for how much longer, eh?
Hasselblad cameras shot 6x6cm negatives, and so did Rollei TLRs and indeed most TLRs in general. Bronica, Pentax, Contax, and Mamiya used a 6x4.5cm format, which was called 645. This was the most popular medium format of all, striking a good balance between a large negative, economical use of film, and relatively compact bodies. Furthermore the 4:3 aspect ratio was much closer to a magazine page or an 8x10" print than square format. I'm not sure why I keep saying was, because 645 survives to this day as the standard digital medium format format. Back in the 2000s Kodak made a square format sensor that went into the Kodak DCS Pro Back and the early Hasselblad CFV models, but if you walk out of your local Phase One showroom with a digital back nowadays, it will be a 645 digital back.
It's worth pointing out that Kodak's square sensor wasn't actually 6x6cm; it was 3.6x3.6cm (basically full-frame 35mm extended up and down a bit) and had a 1.5x cropping factor. As far as I know the only 6x6cm medium format digital camera was the Dicomed Big Shot, from way back in 1996, although it was a cumbersome beast designed for tethered studio shooting. As I write these words there's one on eBay for £2,500, from Hong Kong, untested. You'd no doubt need a 1996 Apple Macintosh as well.
Still, some Pentaxes and Mamiyas shot 6x7cm negatives, and there were even 6x9 cameras, which squeezed eight large shots onto a roll of 120. 6x9 had a split personality. On the one hand there were tough professional 6x9 cameras such as the Polaroid 600 and the Fuji GW690 - the "Texas Leica", so called because it resembled a Leica that had been pumped full of beef - and on the other hand, the format was common in low-end cameras such as the Agfa Clack, the idea being that the negative was so large that frugal holidaymakers could simply have contact prints made up, rather than paying for enlargements.
Moving into the realm of the esoteric, there were also 6x12 and 6x17 panoramic cameras, such as the Fuji GX617, which still fetches a fortune on eBay. In the right hands these can produce stunning images, and in the wrong hands they can produce boring dross, just like any camera. Also, look at this stupid-looking man. If the internet is to be believed - and I have no reason to doubt it - these cameras are only capable of taking photographs of (a) beaches at sunset (b) the Grand Canyon (c) leaves. Which gets boring after a while. Guys, you can stop now.
Still, have a look at this cropping guide:
That's a full 6x6cm frame, shot with a Yashica Mat 124G. The yellow box represents the largest 8x10" crop you can make from this negative, although there's no reason why you have to include the full height of the frame.
The red box is the same relative size as a 35mm negative, 36x24mm. Put another way, you can crop down that much and still have 35mm quality. Incidentally, if you could somehow stick the Yashica Mat's 80mm f/3.5 lens on a full-frame digital SLR - and assuming you left the camera in the same spot - that red box is what you would see. You'd have a slow 80mm short telephoto with, presumably, very consistent image quality across the frame, on account of the huge image circle.
With the exception of the cropping example, all the shots on this page were taken with Kodak Ektachrome, indeed they're all from the same roll. With 6x6 medium format on standard 120 you get twelve shots, which seems ridiculous in a digital age; even at 21mp my 5D MkII can store hundreds of images on a 16gb memory card. A card that costs less than a five-pack of 120 film, that has no processing costs, and can be reused over and over again.
But, knowing that each image is costing more than a pound, and shooting on a tripod, I find that my strike rate has zoomed up. If the image doesn't look good in the Mat's preview screen, I don't take the shot. And I'm not going to go the trouble of setting up the tripod and the camera just so I can unset it the heck down again, so I've had to raise my game.
In theory I don't need a Yashica Mat to raise my game. I could carry around a digital camera, and just hit myself on the face with a wet fish every time I take a bad picture. But in practice I'm not going to do that. Because I can't be trusted. I know me.
The Mat, like most TLRs, can in theory be used handheld. Some people have no trouble with this. In practice I find that the reversed viewfinder and the odd controls confound me. Furthermore, I scout out the world from a height of just under six feet - which is where my eyes are - but the Mat is designed to shoot from waist-height.* So I use a tripod, like this chap here. As the man points out, the Mat has little feet, and so if you don't have a tripod you can always rest it on a flat surface. It's not too heavy for a Gorillapod, either. The camera is large, but mostly hollow, like the work of Béla Tarr, haha. EDIT: Immediately after posting this article I started using the Yashica Mat handheld, and never used a tripod again. Still, it was worth it for the joke about Béla Tarr.
*PROTIP: Because you're shooting square, if you want to compose and focus at eye level without using the useless sports finder, just hold the camera sideways! Turn your body so that the subject is ninety degrees to your left, bring the camera up to your face so that it's ninety degrees from the horizontal - with the lenses pointing at the subject - and shoot. No, imagine that the camera is a glass of beer, and you're really thirsty, and you want to photograph someone at the same time. So, just drink the beer and stand at right angles to the subject. Press the shutter. With the beer. It doesn't work well if you want to fine-tune the composition - the viewfinder image becomes too confusing - but for quick shots it's at least handy for checking focus.
As before, I used a Fuji S3 as a portable lightmeter / preview back. Here's the S3's rendition of a shot near the top of the article, processed to look a bit like Ektachrome:
Although I shot it at the same aperture - f/4 - and the same spot, the depth of field is much wider, because I'm using a smaller format. To get that field of view I shot at 30mm, rather than 80mm, although it's complicated by the fact that I've cropped this square. The perspective is also slightly different, because I shot it from eye-level rather than waist-height. I have to assume that children or little people would use a TLR at about mid-thigh-height, and babies might as well just rest it on the ground.
There's a whole industry of Photoshop plugins that apply different film looks to digital files, which will no doubt breed a future race of photographers who speak of the Ektachrome look and so forth, when in reality they're waxing nostalgic for a simulation, a false memory. I'm reminded of this discussion here, in which a professional director of photography asks his peers how to recreate the Kodachrome look, before going on to describe something that doesn't sound like Kodachrome at all, but an idea of what it might have been, based on the evocative name. An idea of a simulation designed to evoke a mood.