Friday, December 6, 2013

Contax 645 Medium Format Film Camera Review vs Canon 5D Mark II Digital

Now a days so many photographers try to imitate the look of film using digital cameras. I have to admit that it has taken me years to learn how to create that matte look of film in photoshop. So lately I've doing a ton of research into shooting with film to see first hand why so many photographers and phone apps try to achieve this look.

In my search, I've seen nothing but amazing results from photographers who still shoot in 100% film. Namely Jose Villa, and Esther and Gabe of Belle Studio. Their work is held in high regards in the photographic community. Rightfully so, if you follow the links you can see why. The reason for their success lies in the Contax 645 medium format film camera with Carl Zeiss 80mm f2.0 lens. This is a small fortune to attain since they stopped making these cameras, but I had to see for my self what the hype was all about.

The look, color, and dynamic tonal range film is absolutely gorgeous. Of course unlike digital the majority of the work is done before you even click the camera. At about $2.13 a click you better be absolutely sure your settings and subject are ready. Take into account in comparison when I shoot a 12 hr wedding I usually come home with roughly 4000 shots to filter through. If we did this with film that works out to be about $8520 in film and developing costs, not including the costs of the camera or labor.

Here's the break down. Each roll of medium format 120 Fuji or Kodak 400h portra film is about $9 + Scanning at Richard Photo Lab in L.A. is $24/roll + Shipping $3. Each roll holds 16 shots. This works out to $2.13 per click. At this rate you start to pay more attention to how many shots you actually take.

You can process locally here in Seattle at Panda labs for a bit cheaper but the result from RPL has proven to be the very best in the world. Which is the reason why they process for some of the very best photographers in the entire world. Leaving nothing to chance I also sent my 2 rolls of film there for processing.

My very 1st run with the Contax 645 film camera turned out about on par with my expectations. I probably should have practiced with it before I took it with me to Jon and Jessica's wedding in Eastern WA but it arrived a couple days before I flew out and I did not have the luxury of getting familiar with the camera.

However the interface compared to using a digital camera was not all too different from my Canon 5D MII. Your ISO is dictated by the ISO in the film itself. Shutter speed can be done manually or automatically in AV. You can even compensate exposure up or down to create the desired look. The main thing missing is the LCD screen to get that instant feedback of whether or not you nailed the shot. Which was a bit nerve racking since I used an untested camera on a live wedding. (of course I had my digital camera to capture 99% of the wedding as my main though)

My usual hit rate for digital using my Canon 5D Mark II us about 20%. However because I slowed down in my photographic process using the Contax, my hit rate was about 20 out of 25 shots. That's about 80%!

Enough with the wordiness, here are my results. Contax 645. Aperture F2, Shot in AV. + 2 stops over exposure, fuji portra 400H film, and developed at Richard Photo Lab 4 days processing.

This lens is equivalent to a 50mm f1.2 wide open and if you don't nail right on the eyes, it's easy to miss your shot.

In lower light I would have switched to a higher ISO film but I had to stick with the 400 since I didn't have any on hand. The shutter speed slowed down to about 1/10. Which resulted in lots of motion blur.

Contax 645 compared to my Canon 5D Mark II. The Digital photo is on the right.

In this image you can see where the film camera does better than Digital. Film manages tonal ranges and highlights so much better than digital. Digital tends to blow out highlights, which can be fixed if you shoot in raw and then blend multiple exposures in photoshop. Which is frankly alot of work. However in film you can nail this tonal range with a single shot.

So whats the conclusion? It's expensive to shoot on film! It's like owning a car, every day you drive it costs you $. However as I look more at the side by side comparison. The pleasing look of film vs digital wins out 9 times out of 10.

Film Pros:
  1. Beautiful Tonal Range
  2. You never have to touch white balance and it comes out with pleasing skin tones
  3. Great straight out of the camera, little editing
  4. 5 days to turn around photos to clients? Who won't love that?
Film Cons:
  1. Cost, cost, cost
  2. Tight butt syndrome every time you go to the airport and pass through the x ray machine. (If you are unfamiliar, X Rays can destroy your film)
  3. Changing out film after only 16 shots
  4. Lack of film, Kodak has stopped manufacturing film
So the questions is, do the tonal benefits out weigh the the convenience of digital? Probably not for some. Will I continue to shoot in film? Most likely for a while or until something better and cheaper comes around.

Ben Nguyen is a Seattle wedding photographer. He recently took his new Contax 645 camera to shoot a couple rolls of film at one of his weddings and did a review along with a side by side comparison to his Canon 5D Mark II. This original article was appeared on his blog here.

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  1. Very nice article but I have some observations: Kodak is developing film again and when you say you have to change the roll after 16 shots it's because you're shooting medium format. If you shoot 35mm you have 36 shots :). Anyway, I like this type of posts.

  2. Great article. I agree that film is fantastic. It is very expensive and hard to justify. I'm curious to learn if the customer noticed the difference between the film and digital shots. I would guess that they care more about the composition than anything and less about blown highlights and dynamic range. I wouldn't want to ever accept a wedding gig for another photographer. :)

  3. Sorry, but your price breakdown is highly dubious and I wish people wouldn't publish such things as it deters others into thinking film is incredibly expensive. Yes it isn't cheap, but it isn't THAT bad.

    I spend $6.89 on a roll of Kodak Portra film in 120 format here locally. I bet I could find it on-line for equal to that cost or maybe even less. Spending $24 on processing is @#$%$ INSANE!!! I'm sorry, but that is just crazy and I can't imagine the lab in LA being much better than many other much cheaper avenues. I spend about $8 on processing a roll of color and that includes scanning. Black and White I do myself and the cost comes out to about $0.25 cents a roll. Doing color at home actually isn't difficult either and the only reason I don't is because I'm lazy and because I'm not spending $24 a roll.

    Also, people who shoot film at weddings don't shoot 4,000 images. Not by a long shot. Why would they need to? Does the client want 4,000 images? When I shoot a roll of film at a wedding there might be one or two throw away images but the rest of the frames are keepers. I shoot maybe ten to twelve rolls, 90% of which are solid images. Taking thousands and thousands of images in a single day might work for digital, and there is nothing wrong with that, but the work flow and approach with film is not the same at all.

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