Saturday, 9 February 2013

645: No Distant Shore

L: A Mamiya RB67 6x7 medium format SLR
R: A Mamiya 645 1000S 6x4.5 medium format SLR

Let's have a look at 645, shall we? Yes, let's. 645 was the last great hurrah for medium format film, although it was a very loud hurrah that still echoes today. The format was launched in the mid-70s by Mamiya and Bronica, with Pentax following soon after, as a concerted attempt to combine the image quality of medium format with some of the convenience and a little bit of the economy of 35mm. 645 divided 120 film into fifteen (sometimes sixteen) rectangular 6x4.5cm negatives instead of the traditional twelve 6x6cm shots, or the ten 6x7cm images used by the Mamiya RB67 and Pentax 67.

Some professionals pooh-poohed the smaller negative area, although it was still three times the size of 35mm. The rectangular format was a natural fit for rectangular prints and magazine pages, and unless the final image was supposed to be square it was a much more efficient use of film than 6x6. Or, in the words of Popular Mechanics, September 1976, "[the format] is the practical answer to the coming shortage of silver used in film", which has a kernel of truth, because silver prices did indeed shoot up during the 1970s - more than doubling between 1970 and 1974, and then doubling again in 1979 and again in 1980, although the peak was artificial, and short-lived.

Mamiya 645 1000S / 80mm f/1.9 / Kodak Portra 160VC / London

I mention this because the price of silver is a perennial worry for fans of film. It shot up a couple of years ago, and doomsayers predicted that it would finally kill off the film market. Hollywood would switch from expensive film to cheap digital, and Kodak would give up the ghost, and to be honest this might well come to pass, although silver prices have since slumped again. They remain volatile. Still, I digress. As long as film is sold I will buy it.

If God had intended for mankind to capture hundreds of images really quickly, and develop them instantly, and then transmit them across the world digitally, he would have - I dunno - given us some way of capturing photons with a grid of, erm, some sort of light sensors, and there would be a way of converting this information into numbers, which could then be stored and transmitted using a global communications network, and then reassembled at the other end by a computer. But could such a thing come to pass? Not in my lifetime, I'll wager.

Mamiya 645 1000S / 80mm f/1.9 / Kodak Portra 160VC
(developed accidentally as black and white!)

For a start, we'd be too busy looking at other people's photographs to take photographs of our own. We'd get sick of looking at photographs. We'd find something else to do with our time. Writing books, for example, or collaborating on arts projects. Cooking. Learning about the human soul. Putting an end to hate. 645 was very successful, although it still remained the other for most photographers; it never became a mainstream consumer format, although it did have the effect of securing medium format's future. The cameras were larger than most 35mm SLRs, and the image quality was overkill unless the photographer habitually made large prints. The cost was steep, too, although basic 645 kits were in the same ballpark as a posh Nikon, they were tantalisingly withing reach. Hasselblad notably remained committed to square format, arguing that it had a superior combination of practicality and negative size - and, to be fair, square avoids the bother of holding the camera sideways to shoot verticals. Nonetheless in 2002 the company launched the 645-format autofocus Hasselblad H1, and since then Hasselblad has concentrated on 645-format digital equipment, although it still sells a 6x6 film back for the 503CW, the most expensive hipster camera ever made(tm). By the early 2000s Kyocera was selling the Contax 645, and for a brief moment there were five competing 645 systems - Mamiya, Bronica, Pentax, Contax, and Hasselblad. When I think of 645 I think of the 1980s, the 1990s, the late 1990s, the immediate pre-digital era.

Contax was the first to fall. Kyocera grew tired of the brand and chopped the entire Contax range in 2002. Used Contax 645 bodies are still sought-after for their excellent Zeiss lenses. Bronica was bought by Tamron, and killed off in 2005; no-one greatly missed it. But the other three brands survived, and so did 645. It was the dominant medium format during the rise of the digital age, and it became the template for digital medium format backs and camera systems. With a very few exceptions all modern medium format digital cameras have 645 sensors, or a cropped version of 645, and some of the older film-era 645 cameras can be converted to digital simply by swapping out the film back for a digital model.

80mm f/1.9 again, at f/1.9

But not my Mamiya 1000s. It has a fixed film back and it will never grow up to be a digital camera. It is stuck forever in the film era. Drifting slowly out to sea on a wooden raft, and the night is falling. The clouds gather. The waves rise. One day it will drift out of sight, and you can fool yourself that it might have found a ship, or a desert island, if it helps you sleep better. But you know that it's gone. You will take that journey one day, like everybody. Drifting out to sea on a raft, and the cold grey black sky lowers and the waves rise. Never coming back, and there is no distant shore.

The idea of dividing the film into 6x4.5cm negatives (in reality 5.5x4.2cm, rounded up for convenience) was nothing new. In Japan in the 1930s they called the format Semi, and it was marketed as a half-frame equivalent of the popular 6x9cm Box Brownies and the like; the very first Olympus camera was a 645 model, the Semi Olympus II. In the late 1960s Konica attempted to revive the format with the SF, which resembled the 645 SLRs of a few years later, although sadly for Konica it was only produced in prototype form. Mamiya launched their 645 system in 1975, and thus became the first company to combine the format with a professional body, although Bronica's ETR system was in development at the same time and was launched only a year later, so it's not really fair to laud Mamiya as the sole originator of the format. Jarring tonal shifts.

Mamiya didn't just launch a camera in 1975, the company launched a whole system. Whereas the RB67 had a solid but unspectacular range of lenses the 645 models had a much wider choice. There was the 80mm f/1.9, an unusually fast lens for medium format, and the 35mm f/3.5, which was unusually wide. Contax had its own super-speed lens, the apparently wonderful 80mm f/2, Pentax also had a 35mm f/3.5, several systems had zoom lenses - which was very novel for medium format - and nowadays there are plenty of 645 lenses on the used market. 645 wasn't popular enough to attract third party lens manufacturers, although Vivitar made 645 extension rings, and Russian 6x6 Pentacon lenses (amongst others) can be adapted for 645.

Technology-wise, 645 bodies tended to lag behind innovations in the 35mm world, although only by a few years. My 1000S has a battery-powered, electronically-controlled shutter, at a time when the only electronics in Hasselblads powered the motor drive. Mamiya also sold a metering prism with aperture-priority automatic exposure from day one of the Mamiya 645 system, and by the 1990s most 645 systems had adopted autofocus as well. Nowadays medium format digital is in the same technological ballpark as its 35mm-derived competition, although at a much higher price point. The question of whether medium format makes economic sense at a time of 20-30mp digital SLRs - given that so many images are only ever seen on a tablet screen, and mobile phones are used to shoot fashion - will eventually be resolved by the banks, and the bankruptcy courts. Which company will fall next?

645 has a 4:3 aspect ratio, the same as modern Micro Four Thirds cameras. It's the same aspect ratio used by classic Hollywood films. The movie biz called it 1.33:1, or Academy Ratio. The image is slightly fatter than 35mm still film, which is 3:2. Here's an illustration:

On the left is a 6x6 image, which is 1:1. Next to it, and at the same scale, a 645 image, which is the same width but shorter. And to the right is an image taken with a digital SLR in the standard 35mm aspect ratio of 3:2, scaled up to match the width of the medium format images. At the bottom is the same picture scaled down to the size of a 35mm film negative. Strictly speaking, the Canon 10D I used has a sub-35mm sensor, but (waves hands). Why was motion picture film 4:3, and still photography 3:2? I have no idea. On a personal level I've never been a huge fan of 3:2. I accepted it, because there was nothing else, but after using medium format for a while I have fallen out of love with it. It's simultaneously too wide for normal things and not wide enough to be panoramic. I love square, it's distinctive and feels right. I love square. I love... text editor. I love words. I love keyboard. I love fingers.

645 was also a year. It was the year that the Empress Kogyoku of Japan abdicated in favour of her brother, who became the Emperor Kotoku. In doing so she established a precedent that was followed by the majority of Japanese rulers over the following four centuries, but as fate would have it Kotoku himself didn't get a chance to abdicate - instead, he died in office, and was succeeded by his sister again, who took the name Empress Saimei this time. She also died in office, in 661. During her second reign she saw off a coup and was about to personally lead her forces into battle against China's Tang dynasty. This would almost certainly have ended in disaster, and it was fortunate for her legacy that she died suddenly before battle could be joined. Meanwhile in England the land was divided up amongst a bunch of warring Kings, the most successful of which was Penda, pagan king of the Midlands. After a lifetime of winning battles he was defeated and killed in 655 by King Oswiu of Northumbria. With his death paganism fell into decline across England, and was eventually supplanted by Christianity, which had become the dominant religion by the time of the Norman conquest. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm sure that paganism replaced something else, and that the thing paganism replaced had itself replaced something else again, and so on - the point being that paganism has no unique claim to be the one true way - but on the other hand any religion that involves naked women jumping over fires (willingly, with gusto) can't be all bad.

Yes, I know this is a gross distortion of paganism. The stereotype of pagans being fun-loving people who hung out with naked women was probably spread by the early Christians, in order to put people off paganism. After all, who wants to hang out with girls? They just talk about shopping all the time and they can't run as fast and they provoke sinful thoughts. Perhaps, in real life, the pagans were no more or less naked than any other religion. It has to be said that nudity and the English climate are not generally compatible, and whatever things the pagans got up to in their charming rustic huts was not written down, no doubt because they were too busy doing it. Whilst listening to The Incredible String Band.

Much of our knowledge of paganism was filtered through the minds of the Victorians, who were simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the idea of primitive religions, by the whole noble savage thing. They thought they were masters of the world, the Victorians, and as the 1800s came to a close the legacy of Charles Darwin and Robert Stephenson, and Charles Parsons and Hiram Maxim, had convinced them that, if there was a God, he was either dead or mad or no longer relevant. In a world of X-rays and steam turbines, man was God, and God was a fiction for the little people. Better to worship spirits of the forest; at least they had a romantic quality. Did Pan take pride from being nailed to a cross? No, he was too busy drinking wine and merry-making to care about mankind's sins. And for the Victorian poets the trees and rivers were far more evocative manifestiations of the spirit than a floating old man in the sky with a beard.

England is cold / 80mm f/1.9 / Portra 160VC

Does 645 make sense today? As a film format, no. Stop down to f/11 and you have rectangular pictures that look just like digital images, so what's the point? Perhaps the resolution is wonderful if you have a drum scanner, but you don't, you can't afford one. Professionals ditched 645 film years ago after making the tough decision as to whether they should spend a fortune on a 645 digital back, or another fortune on a high-resolution digital SLR instead. Over the last year I've shot a lot of film, but it's not the film that appeals to me, it's the format. The combination of sharp subject and narrow depth of field that comes from having a larger sensor. But medium format digital backs now have 645-sized full-frame sensors, so film only has economy in its favour; but it doesn't even have that, because on a professional level the cost of film and scanning quickly mounts up, and clients don't care. On the other hand, for not much money I can emulate the professional photographers of my youth. And 645 bodies look wicked, like proper grown-up cameras. But if you want to pose, a TLR looks even more wicked, which leaves 645 film as a curiosity, really. But I am a curious man.

In this post I've had a look at 645, the format. In the next post I'll have a look at the Mamiya 1000S, a first-generation Mamiya 645 camera, and the Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 fast standard lens, the only 645 lens I have. I will also give out some tips on how to cook maraconi and cheese - it has to be from a packet, not a can - and how to survive for more than a few days in the popular zombie game DayZ. PROTIP: The hatchet is your friend. Matches doubly so, if you can find them. Do not despise the Lee Enfield. There is always a sniper taking a bead on you; he'll get you if he really wants to, and it's your job to persuade him that it's not worth the cost in time and ammo. Fields, open fields, you will learn to fear them.