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Working with Models: A Beginner’s Guide

Running a shoot from start to finish can be pretty demanding—working with creative staff, managing your camera, adjusting settings, directing, and ensuring that everything is going smoothly. It can be pretty daunting with the prospect of trying to handle all of this right?

One of the more challenging aspects when starting out can definitely be getting comfortable working with the model(s) on a shoot, and how to ensure everyone comes out happy and satisfied.

In this article I’m going to tell you:

  1. The principles and attitudes behind successfully working with models from all walks of life;
  2. How to talk to models, and how to get over that initial nervousness of being a director on a shoot;
  3. How to treat models on and off set to ensure a solid and strong professional relationship can be developed.

I have also created a video which outlines everything in this article. Feel free to watch or alternatively read on.

So let’s go!


Note: this article has been written from the perspective that the majority of models I work with are female. Everything in here applies to men and women, but it has been written from the mindset of working with female models.


Preface – Getting into fashion photography from other backgrounds

Chances are if you are reading this you may be interested to get into the world of fashion and portrait photography. You might be a fashion enthusiastic, you might want to get published in a magazine, or you may simply want to get incredible shots of people. Hopefully it would be all three of these.

“But I have only shot wildlife and landscapes before!”

Join the club! I have a background of shooting exactly those things, and suddenly came into enjoying shooting portraits when a friend of mine asked me to pick up the camera and get a basic photo of them for their Facebook profile. I had no clue as to how to direct or work with models back then but I snapped a photo, and loved it. From then I decided I’d give this whole portrait photography thing a try.

That was two years ago!

One of my old photos from 2010 – as you can see it is very different from what I usually produce nowadays, but this was where I came from!

So don’t fret if you haven’t got the background, we all need to start somewhere, and in this article I’m going to give you a thorough breakdown of how you can effectively work with models.


Part 1 – Fundamental principles of working with models

Let’s lay a solid base here. Having the right attitude and personal principles in place is essential. The following principles are what I abide by, and what I feel makes the whole experience of working with a model professional, personal, and fun!

Principle 1: Models are people too!

This is perhaps the biggest point I want to highlight. You have to remember that models are people too. These are people who have hopes, fears, anxieties, and dreams just like you or anyone else. They are not soulless objects, nor items without motivation. These are people who want to have fun, do the best they can, and be able to showcase some awesome work.

They can get nervous before shoots, worry about whether the makeup looks right, and overthink if they perhaps didn’t do a pose completely right. I’m not saying all models are like this at all, but these thoughts are probably more common than you think!

Please remember that! It is also important when we move onto Principle 2.

Everyone’s uniqueness is what makes them special. Models aren’t just items and objects you can move around; you have to remember that these are real people too.

Principle 2: The model’s comfort is your top priority, and they deserve your respect at all times.

I like to make a point of this again and again, and here I go again; on a shoot, the model’s comfort should be your top priority. By that I mean if at any point a model isn’t feeling comfortable with what is happening, the shoot should stop, and if the discomfort can’t be rectified immediately, the shoot should end. Period.

I say this for a number of reasons. The first is common human decency. Come on. If you are in an environment where you can usually easily stop what is going on, and someone isn’t happy, you should just stop. No photo is worth putting someone through something that could physically or emotionally hard them.

Nay sayers may say that this is me being over the top, but I can hand on heart say that I could turn away from any photo and be sure to capture another amazing one with the same team at another time.

Portrait and fashion photography should be fun! However, you always have to make sure that the model’s comfort is your top priority and that you make sure they are well looked after throughout the whole process.

The next reason is that if you have a model who isn’t feeling the shoot, and who isn’t comfortable, that is going to reek through the photos. If you are taking a photo of someone who doesn’t want to be there or isn’t interested in the shoot, you are going to see it in their eyes, in their posture, and in the end results.

Finally, one point to hammer home is that you should always ensure that everything that happens on a shoot abides by the rules of consent. That is ensuring that if you agree to do a fashion based shoot, you won’t be encouraging a model to remove clothing, or asking them to get into positions which are not in line with what was originally agreed with in the shoot.

This comes down to basic respect, and also (to put it bluntly) not being a sleazy creep who exploits models just so you can see a bit of skin. 200% not cool, creative, or in line with great ‘photography.’

Consent is one of the most important parts of a shoot; the photographs captured should be of a nature of which was agreed upon when the call was made for models. No model should ever be put into a situation that they did not explicitly consent to.

Principle 3: Realize that photographers have it easier than models in the majority of cases.

This may be a heated discussion point but I’m going to give you my opinion here. Photographers have it way, way easier than models do, in terms of what is expected, and behaviour.

Let me explain. As a photographer, on average you have to put your trust in the model being polite, able to listen and dressed as agreed, as well as making sure they credit your work properly post shoot.

Models on the other hand have to trust that the photographer will:

  • Conduct themselves in a professional manner before, during and after the shoot;
  • Be polite and respect agreed boundaries;
  • Take photos that are flattering and suitable for the direction they want to head in with their modeling career;
  • Edit the photos to a respectable standard and not go overkill on the editing so it looks fake (unless of course that is the agreed aim);
  • Credit the model properly on social media;

As you can see there is a lot more expectation and trust needed from the photographer when it comes to shooting and processing a photoshoot. Fair enough, this also highlights the hard work a photographer has to put in, but consider the above as a mindset of the trust models will put into you.

Models can face a lot of unseen pressure when it comes to thinking if the pose will look right, if the photographer will conduct themselves professionally, and if they will also subsequently process the photos in a flattering manner.

Principle 4: Don’t be intimidated by the model, and the perceived fame of modeling and the fashion industry.

I say this in the most respectful way to everyone involved in fashion photography; don’t be intimidated by the fame or glitz of the fashion industry. You will work with models who are incredibly beautiful people, and whom you could find intimidating. Society always pens a lot of weight onto someone’s looks and of course you will be working with people who can sometimes be exceptionally good looking.

Why am I saying this? Because I want you to remember Principle 1: models are people too. You are also a person as well, and the fashion and portraiture industry is open to anyone who has the gall and passion to work professionally and create beautiful artwork for everyone involved. Heck, I used to do wildlife photography, and had a very, very loose grip of fashion before I started working in portraiture. However, I channeled the passion I had to learn more about it, and this is where I am now. You can do it as well. Don’t ever feel like you can’t, because that is complete bull.

As an example, I recently was fortune enough to shoot with the absolutely stunning Stefania Ferrario. Those of you who know her may know that she was recently voted Sexy Australian of the Year, is Dita Von Teese’s Australian Rep, has over 450k Instagram Followers, and over 200k Facebook Fans.

Now I’m not stating these facts to attribute Stefania’s only worth down to numbers, but more as a comment on how social proof and following can lead some people to think “I could never work with her, I’m not worthy enough”.

I can tell you first hand that Stefania is an absolutely lovely person. Throughout the whole time I have known her she has been nothing but fun, approachable, and so incredibly easy to talk to. Stefania, like so many awesome models, is also a real community engager, and has shot with a whole incredible range of fantastic photographers, from novices to industry pros.

Don’t be intimidated by these numbers; behind the fandom and well deserved following these models have lies a real person who has a real passion for the industry they work in (I appreciate I sound like the most broken record in the world right now).

Stefania’s incredible modeling career has been spurred on her being passionate, thoughtful, and engaged about what she does, and her love for creating beautiful art.

Principle 5: You should be aiming to develop a strong, personal, and professional relationship with everyone you come into contact with.

As with so many art scenes and industries, it isn’t always what you know, but who you know. I have seen photographers who don’t have the technical skills when it comes to shooting as some of the big name photographers, but they have a huge following and people will sing their praises constantly, because they put the effort in to build strong working relationships with people.

This can be anything from offering help to another photographer, trying their best to assemble a team so that they can get a model published in a magazine, or giving a recommendation to other photographers when asked about a potential job when you may not be available. The fashion and portraiture is stronger as a community, and people who take the time to help each other do not go un-noticed.

For example I once was contacted for a professional paid shoot because a model I worked with had told her friends that I gave her free advice on how to improve her iPhone photography. This conversation I had maybe took up about 5 messages over Facebook over the course of about 2 hours.

Building a good professional working relationship with models and other creatives will help you get noticed, and help better your reputation.

Saying that, you have to be genuine. People will always value others who are honest, genuine, and passionate. Don’t expect anything in return and do it because you want the community, of which you are a part of, to grow as a whole.


Part 2 – Best practices and techniques for working with models

With the above principles in place, you should now have a good mental base for now learning how to actually set up a shoot, and most importantly, how to communicate and work with models effectively.

The process of how to set up a shoot from start to finish can seen like a daunting task. However, once you get the fundamental process down, you’ll find it is a breeze from start to finish.

I want to give you a breakdown of how I work with a model at different stages of a photoshoot.

Arranging a Shoot

I’m not going to go into a heap of detail on where to find models here, but I will tell you that one of the most common ways to arrange a TFP (Time For Print) photoshoot, is by joining your local area’s Modelling Facebook Group. Trust me, unless you live out in the wilds, there should always be a local one if you search on Facebook; and if you can’t see one for your local area, set it up!

Here is how it usually works; you will go onto the Facebook group, and post something like:

Calling all models / MUA / creatives!

I’m new to the fashion and portraiture world and am looking to set up my first shoot with some willing creatives! I’m 30, and have previously shot real estate and wildlife but am really excited to get into the fashion world!

I’d like to arrange a shoot with a natural boho theme in the local national park this weekend.

Please find below my recent work, and inspiration photos for the shoot!

My Facebook page is www.facebook.com/whoshothim if you want to check out some more or my work and a bit more about me.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

This instantly lays a good base for you to then arrange a shoot with people who will PM you in response, or reply to the request. From there you will want to see who replies, and if you feel the model is a good fit, you can get them on board for the shoot.

If you take the time to create a thoughtful and passionate post showcasing what you are all about, chances are you will get a good response and be able to start shooting with other local creatives.

So just some basic pointers for when you do talk to models for the first time:

  1. Use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I can’t stress this enough. Please. If you can’t be bothered to spell the word ‘there’ properly, how can you assure someone that you can be bothered to edit their photos properly?
  2. Don’t be demanding. Remember that people do have busy lives, and the majority of people who do TFP shoots aren’t able to supplement their entire income with modelling gigs. If a model says they want to shoot but when you send them a message they don’t get back to you, leave it. Archive the message and move onto who is interested. This isn’t being mean but maybe they have changed their mind, or something has come up. Don’t blame, persecute, or harass people. This is unprofessional, rude, and just not appropriate.
    You can find out a bit more about the model in terms of what they have done previously, but keep it based around the job at hand. By this I mean don’t start asking personal questions about their private life, when not everyone is comfortable about that. Remember this conversation is about working on a photoshoot, not about how long they have been with their partner for.
  3. If you want to, arrange to have a coffee together to introduce yourself; however this isn’t necessary or possible in some cases. When I first started out, I did this with every model, as I wanted to show off my portfolio in person, and explain what I’m all about. This was especially helpful considering I didn’t have a huge portfolio, and nobody really knew me. I highly recommend doing this for photographers new to the scene. It goes without saying that you pay for the coffee as well.
  4. If a model doesn’t want to work with you, or isn’t available for a shoot, don’t take it personally. There can be a lot of ego involved in photography, and as per Principle 5, you want to make sure you are helping build a strong community. So if it turns out that it just doesn’t work with a model, don’t take offense. There may be a whole myriad of reasons you don’t know about for why they don’t want to do the shoot, or arrange a shoot with you.

The Day of the Shoot

So now that you’ve set up the shoot, here comes the big day; shooting and directing the model. It can see pretty daunting right? Well I have a great series of points here which showcase exactly how I operate, and how you can direct a comfortable, fun, and awesome photoshoot.

One of the more challenging aspects of a photoshoot can be how to direct a model. However, once you learn a few principles and techniques, you’ll find it a lot easier.

These little points are all based on basic politeness and decency. These are some of the key things I do:

1. Chat with the model

As previous mentioned, you have to remember that at the end of the day, models are people too. When I first meet up with a model on location, I will more or less always ask “How has your day been?”. This is a simple opener to help everyone relax and get into a chilled conversation.

2. Remember to compliment the model

Models will go to a lot of effort to get ready for a photoshoot, and there is nothing more flattering than a simple “you look amazing!” from the photographer. Don’t be fake about it, but obviously they will look incredible as you got them on the shoot, and this is a perfect little confidence and ego boost!

3. Ask the model thoughtful questions about their experience with photoshoots, and anything else that isn’t too personal.

People love to talk about themselves. This has been proved by a mountain of scientific studies, and of course every day life! You love to talk about yourself when asked a question right? I’m not going to lie, I do!

So when you are working with a model and in-between shooting, ask them questions about what they enjoy about modeling, if they have done any shoots lately with any other photographers, and if they have been published before. I do genuinely find these kind of chats interesting and have learnt a lot about the local fashion photography scene as a result!

If you are on good terms with the model, then feel free to ask other questions about how they are finding work, and if they have been busy; but only do this if you are on good terms as it can sometimes wander into the realm on ‘too personal’.

4. Do not touch the model or their clothing without first asking permission, and only do so if it is necessary.

Another key philosophy I have when it comes to working with models is that you shouldn’t need to touch a model on a photoshoot. I believe it can be a little bit too personal, and opens the possibility of photographers breaking boundaries and acting inappropriately.

Directing can be tough sometimes, and it does take time to get comfortable. However one thing I will always say is that if you are having a hard time trying to direct a model into a pose, do the pose you want yourself (yes, yourself!) and then get the model to mimic you. Not only does this work well, but also will probably elicit a laugh or two which eases the pressure off even more.

In all of the 100+ photoshoots I’ve done, I only probably had to touch a model once or twice, and that is just because a leaf was caught in their hair and it was easier for me to remove it for them. In this case as well, I told them “there is a leaf caught in your hair, would you be ok if I got rid of that?”, and only when a “yes” came back, I’d do it.

If you have an idea in your head of the specific pose you want a model to emulate, there is no better way than to do the pose yourself so that the model can mimic you. There should be no reason to touch the model, unless the model has explicitly agreed to it and it is necassary.

5. Tell everyone on set that you will need five minutes to scout out the next shot before setting up

This was probably one of the biggest game changers for me when I learnt how to do fashion photography. With so much rushing around and perceived pressure, it is so incredibly easy to rush around and try to get a hundred shots in ten minutes.

Simply stop and tell everyone that you’ll need five minutes to get an idea for the next shot, and they can relax. People will be more than happy to find another few minutes to relax.

6. When it comes to directing, if you try something and it doesn’t work, don’t stress

Directing was a big challenge for me when it came to my first experiences with moving a model into place, and setting a scene up. After doing over 100 shoots I can honestly tell you do not get stressed or worried if something doesn’t work out.

So what do you do if you pose someone and it doesn’t look great? I have the solution. Simply tell the model to ‘relax’. This will put them at ease, and stopping the pose, hitting the reset button and allowing you then to take a few minutes to reassess what you want to do next (as per point 4 above).

Please trust me when I say that I have had a whole ton of posing directions which didn’t work before getting that one pose which did work. Don’t let it get to you, and above all just take your time.

Directing models can be tough, and you will find that sometimes that a pose you think looks good in your head, won’t play out so well in real life. That is part of the creative process, and I can tell you that it is completely normal and happens more times than not! However, this is the learning process, so don’t give up and keep trying! The above pose we got after trying three other poses, and it was great to finally capture this moment.

7. If the model is going to be changing half way through the shoot, respect their privacy and give them time and space to change

Yet again I feel like I’m wandering into OTT territory here but if a model is going to be changing outfits through a photoshoot, you need to give them privacy. I use a pop-up changing tent which I got from eBay for about $100 and it works like a charm; alternatively if you are shooting in an urban area see if there are any restrooms nearby.

If none of these are options and the model needs to get changed out in the open (for example in a forest or in a car), then tell them you are going to give them privacy and leave the immediate area until they say it is all good to come back.

Bottom line: be respectful.

8. Welcome partners, friends, and family on the shoot

This was mentioned in my post about the importance of crib sheets for a shoot, but in my opinion don’t be afraid of offering the opportunity for family members, friends, and partners to come along on a shoot.

There are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, models may want to bring along family, friends, and partners for support. As I’ve touched on, it can be a pretty nerve wracking experience sometimes, and that moral support may mean a lot to the model. Not only that but it is a legal requirement for any shoots with under 18 year olds, that a parent signs off the model release form; this means it is more or less granted that parent will want to be on the shoot as well.

Secondly, and this is incredible important for more boudoir based shoots, they may want people there for safety. I once heard of a photographer who set up an erotic shoot with a model, and when told that she wasn’t allowed to bring her boyfriend to the shoot, the photographer stated that it was because ‘his male energy may interfere with the shoot’. Complete and utter rubbish. I’ve never had male energy be responsible for damaging my camera, nor for producing sub par shots. The entire premise comes across as creepy and inappropriate.

Now, one point I will make is that just because people come along doesn’t mean that you should also allow the shoot to be derailed by these familiar faces. I always say that the model can bring people along, so long as they respect that it is a creative shoot, and that the directing should be left up to the photographer.

I’ve experienced times where friends have said “maybe you should pose X this way?” in regards to setting a scene up. This may happen, and if it does a friendly “thank you, but for the moment I just want to make sure we get some awesome shots for X so we may try that later” will do. This isn’t being rude, it is just asserting that you are the one who has the experience in portrait photography and know best for the model!

Saying that, there may be some good suggestions as well but at the end of the day don’t let people interfere too much.

Friends, family and partners can all provide great moral support for any models who are on the photoshoot, and should always be welcomed; as long as everyone respects you taking the creative lead.

9. Remember to do your model release forms

A vital necessity for all TFP shoots is that a model release form is completed. Model release forms are vital for a legal point of view, ensuring that the model agrees that all images taken are your copyright, and this also acts as evidence that you did a TFP shoot. If you want to get published, Magazines will require this as well.

I use the Snapwire app for iPhone, which is unbelievably free. It is fantastic, and has a model specific agreement that can be altered if you wish.

For Android I used to use ‘Easy Release,’ although it does come with a bit of a price tag.

It is easy to get carried away with the shoot and call it a day at the end, but you need to make sure that you get this done.

10. Do not drink before or whilst on a shoot

I’m saying this because I have heard more than a couple of incidences where this has happened. Do not drink before a shoot to give you ‘dutch courage’ to get over your nerves. I have this as part of my crib sheet for models as well, and it is extremely rare that people do it but regardless, you should never be encouraging or taking the consumption of alcohol at any part of a shoot.

The only exception to this would be at weddings and events of course, but when it is a professional one on one session with an individual or couple, I don’t recommend this.

I have heard of these incidences once from a model who said she smelt the whiskey on a photographer, and second from a photographer who admitted he did this to get over nerves. We all get nerves in some form of another. I still do sometimes; but you cannot drink to try and solve this. It is not only potentially dangerous, but also sets a bad professional standard for the shoot.

If you want to get over your nerves, I’d suggest meditation before a shoot, or just run with the feeling and you’ll eventually get over them the more shoots you do. I know that isn’t the best advice when starting out but trust me, the energy and creative stress from nerves is actually a good thing!

Whilst it may be tempting to get over your nerves with a bit of help from a drink, it can potentially cause a lot of problems, as well as being unsafe and unprofessional. The confidence to work on a photoshoot comes from your own confidence and experience with learning from the ups and downs of doing a photoshoot.

11. Have fun

At the end of the day, you want to make sure everyone who is on the shoot has at least some fun! We don’t do photography because it is a chore (well I don’t!), but because we love to create beautiful images and experiences for people! My photography is my creative outlet in my life and I adore doing shoots because of how much fun they are, and the end result that is created from everyone working together.

Fashion and portrait photography is a social hobby / business, and so you should enjoy yourself, and find fun in the small directing mistakes you make, the comedy in a pose you joke around with trying, and the pleasure in getting that photo that makes you shout “yes!” as soon as you see it pop up on your screen.

We all do photoshoots because they are awesome fun! It’s an experience unlike any other, bringing together a team of creatives to create something beautiful to showcase our unique ideas.

Final Comments

Working with models can be challenging. Directing can be challenging. However, life is just a series of challenges to overcome, and you know deep down that once you get over a challenge, you can revel in the satisfaction of perfecting your craft, and the next big challenge that lies over the hill.

In summary, you should now have an idea that:

  1. Models are people too, and may be equally, if not more nervous for a shoot;
  2. The model’s comfort is your top priority, on and off set;
  3. Chat and engage with the model and other creatives – people love to talk about themselves, and having a relaxed atmosphere can help everyone on set feel much more comfortable which will always lead to better photos;
  4. Directing can be tough but there are ways to deal with it – remember the take a break rule which eases off the pressure from yourself so you can revaluate what you want to do next in the shoot;
  5. Encouraging and being part of a strong community is the best way to build professional working relationships with creatives.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you agree in the comments below, and tell me about your experiences getting into fashion photography!


About the author: James Harber is a fashion and portrait photographer from Canberra Australia. Originally starting his journey into the world of photography in with Kodak Film at a young age, James has since expanded to shooting primarily fashion photography. He’s a big advocate of education and positive attitudes in the photographic community, and enjoys helping others, especially when it comes to understanding how to process photos. To see more of his work, visit his website or give him a follow on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.

The Mysterious Case of the Returning Leica

In November 2016, I was in a transitional part of my life (I still am) and was considering selling my Leica M2 and switching to a digital Ricoh GR. I listed the camera on several Facebook camera trading groups and the Australian/UK Craigslist alternative, Gumtree. Long story short, I was scammed while trying to sell it.

The signs were obvious now, looking back, but I was desperate and really needed to believe what I was being told was true. I first received a text message suggesting that I keep in contact with a buyer via email. I then received an email that night saying that the buyer was an oceanographer and that they were in contact with me via a satellite Internet connection from a research ship.

A story like this surely would have tipped off anyone… if not for the fact that an uncle of mine has in fact worked on a marine research ship.

I was sent fake PayPal statements via email, and so I stupidly sent the camera to China, of all places. Days went by and the money never came. I only realized it was a scam when I received an email supposedly from PayPal, saying that there was an error in their system and I was overpaid by a thousand dollars and that I should wire another thousand to the buyer before receiving any of the money.

After grieving over the fact that I had lost the camera, I found myself in a pretty dire financial position and unable to pursue an internship position in Jakarta and potentially move to Melbourne sooner. But I eventually made it out over to Melbourne, and since arriving I sold my Ricoh and then here I was, a photographer in Melbourne with no camera.

Then suddenly out of the blue in March 2017 (4 months since I thought I had lost the Leica) it reappeared at my old address in Perth. From there, I got it sent over here to Melbourne by my aunt.

I once said that the M2 and I didn’t really bond, perhaps trying to mask the hurt of the fact that I had lost it. But clearly I wasn’t thinking straight as it’s a much more beautiful camera than I remember. After receiving it again this week, I shot a roll of Agfa Vista 400 (essentially Fuji Superia 400) and have had some low-res scans made of the images. Even these are wonderful.

I have many thoughts about abandoning film in favor of digital. While I still feel that the Ricoh GR is an incredibly amazing little camera, the issues of sensor dust kept plaguing the one I had. The GR belonging to my friend Justin also died out of the blue (a camera he bought due to my suggestion). All of these issues suggest to me that it is just not a robust system, especially if you are shooting everyday.

My particular M2 is over 50 years old and I guess here’s hoping for another 50. I’ll take it a sign from the universe that I’m basically supposed to be shooting film. Below are some other color photos I took before losing it last year.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s that you should be patient when trading and selling your gear online. There could be a whole array of reasons why the camera came back (most likely that the thousand dollar transfer was the real scam and the address in China was fake), yet another thing I took back is that I guess sometimes miracles do happen and that film really does never die.


About the author: Emil Prakertia Raji is a photographer and musician based in Melbourne, Australia. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.

10 Things I’ve Learned from 10 Years Shooting with a Hasselblad

This year marks the point at which I have been using Hasselblad cameras for over a decade. My first was a 201F in 2007, before moving to a 203FE in 2011 and adding a 202FA in 2015.

They’re the classic 6×6 V series models, although have some additions on the more familiar 500 series that I will get into later. Over the years I’ve put several hundred rolls of film through the various cameras, not a great deal but enough to appreciate the idiosyncrasies inherent in shooting with medium format.

The odd thing about medium format is that some photographers think, and others will tell you, that its purpose is only for studio shooting, product photography, high end fashion, and commercial work. Nonsense. In the previous decade I have used mine for shooting action, travel and road trips, as a walk around camera, for long term project work, and even above 2,000m in peak ski season. I’m certainly not the only one to do this.

Not once have I used these cameras in a formal studio setting… Yet the Hasselblad often gets left at home because, well, I don’t know why. The models of the camera I have feature built in metering, high shutter speeds, instant mirror return, fast lenses. They’re no less of a walk around camera than most DSLRs. So why do they get left at home?

The 203FE and prints from an eight-years-and-counting work in progress

I think the reason the camera gets left at home is because most of the work I shoot with it is long term projects, which tend to be sporadic in nature for those subjects I am documenting. When I take the Hasselblad to work on those projects it has a secondary function as a general camera for travel shots, and so on.

For a long time I did shoot skateboarding on a regular basis with it, but even then when I wasn’t shooting skateboarding I wasn’t really shooting anything else.

There’s no doubt that the camera improved my photography. When I traded in my Bronica and external lights I was left with one camera and two fixed lenses, one of them a fisheye, and I would use nothing else for almost eight years. It is only recently that I added a secondary body as a backup (with a different lens) and an Xpan.

I am still trying to maintain the discipline of one camera and one lens for one project, although have relented somewhat of late on that constraint.

In an effort to use the camera more outside of project work I have set myself a goal this year of shooting at least one frame a week with the Hasselblad, and ideally a formal portrait. The camera sits permanently on a tripod in my study to remind me to use it. The portraits included here are randoms shot over the past few years.

I thought it might be interesting to go over some of the things the camera has taught me. Medium format is about to become much more known, if not popular, with the release of the Hasselblad and Fuji mirrorless medium format bodies this year. While they do differ in form and function to the classic 6×6 SLR bodies, there is still much that can be learned from them.

So here are ten things I’ve learned from ten years shooting with a Hasselblad.

1. You need to change some habits

For example, thinking you can get away with shooting at approximately 1/the focal length. If you have a lot more resolution you will find some of those rules of thumb don’t hold up so well, like when you have a big mirror or larger focal plane shutter that adds more movement.

I’ll give you analogy—1/250 was seen as the best x-sync while skate photographers were shooting with 35mm. When everyone started shooting medium format then suddenly 1/500 was seen as the best. If you weren’t using external lights 1/1000 was the minimum shutter speed required to freeze action, when photographers started using higher resolution full frame 35mm digital bodies then that advice was changed to 1/2000 as the minimum.

Get used to shooting more at mid range apertures, f/4 to f/8. Although medium format lenses can be as fast as f/2, you usually don’t want to use them that open because a) they won’t be sharp, b) even if they are sharp you probably won’t nail the focus, and c) even if you do nail the focus they have so little depth at close focus that almost nothing will be in focus.

This has an impact on shooting in low light, but you can work around that in other ways. The photo above was shot with the 110mm f/2 at f/4 and on the full resolution scan you can see that I actually missed the focus point.

You are going to (near) miss shots, lots of shots. One of the worst habits I still have is to only shoot one frame of a scene, unless I have reason to think I messed up, I get the photo and move on. Consequently I have a number of photos that are misses because someone blinked, or I missed the focus, or the composition was a little bit off, or someone or something entered the frame and I didn’t notice.

The instant mirror return on the 200 series Hasselblad cameras does alleviate the last potential mistake.

But you don’t want to shoot many frames of a scene because medium format files are big. A reasonable quality scan from a single 6×6 negative weighs in at 150MB, get them scanned professionally and you can have anything up to 1GB per file. If you over shoot you’re going to add a bottleneck in your workflow because of the amount of data you will need to move around and backup.

It takes me about an hour to scan a roll of 120 film (12 frames) and about another hour or two to process the scans, most of which is removing dust and colour correcting. I can understand why some photographers left behind many rolls of undeveloped film, it’s easy to find yourself with a backlog if you shoot a lot.

2. Find at waist level, but don’t focus at waist level

One of the allures of a medium format SLR is a waist level finder. You will see lots of photos on Instagram, videos on YouTube, etc, that are shot through the waist level finder of a medium format camera;—photos of photos in progress, it’s all very meta. You will also see people shooting photos with the waist level finder at waist level.

This seems intuitive, because it’s a waist level finder, right? The problem is that the waist level finder is designed for finding a scene, and once you have found the scene you should bring the camera up to your eye for two very good reasons.

The first is that it’s almost impossible to focus accurately when shooting at waist level, and this is compounded by the focusing screens on Hasselblads not being fantastic. The newer brighter screens still don’t have focus “pop” and even when you are shooting a couple of stops down from wide open you can miss focus—if you’re at the closest focus distance with the 80mm lens you only have +/- 5cm depth even at f/8.

The second is to tighten your composition. If you bring the camera up to your eye you are not distracted by things outside of the frame and you can make sure to move slightly forwards or backwards to tweak the frame and straighten those verticals.

Related to tightening the composition is not pointing the camera up at close distance. If you are shooting a photo of someone, specifically a half body type portrait, and using the camera at waist level you will be pointing the camera up. This leads to an outcome that looks like you or your subject are falling over. Maybe this can be used for creative effect, but most of the time it looks bad. Bring the camera up to your eye and you prevent this.

3. Focus discipline

As I said above, bring the camera up to your eye and use the magnifier in the viewfinder. Make sure you don’t have a correctional diopter in the magnifier if you don’t need it.

BTW, when did you last get your eyes tested? What happens if you have very shallow depth and you move forwards or backwards slightly between focusing and firing the shutter? What happens if you focus and recompose? A lot of these issues are going to be moot with the autofocus systems in newer digital models, but they’re worth keeping in mind.

I struggle with medium format focusing screens as, again stated above, the Hasselblad screens don’t really snap into focus. Even the newer models seem to suffer from this. The nature of medium format having shallower depth of field can fool you into thinking the subject is in focus when they’re not critically in focus.

One of the best investments I made for the Hasselblad is to get a focusing screen with a split prism in it, however the problem with a split prism is that often you have to focus and recompose.

4. The lenses aren’t always that sharp

This shouldn’t surprise you, but there is a myth that medium and larger format lenses are of course sharper than 35mm lenses. In reality it can be either way: there are good 35mm lenses and bad medium format lenses. There are medium format lenses that are made for specific purposes, and there are lenses that offer something that no other lens has—like the f/2 aperture on my 110mm lens, a lens which is not sharp wide open, but is good enough when I get the focus correct.

The photo linked above illustrates an important point. It was shot on Delta 3200; had I shot this on a slow speed film and there had been enough light to get the same exposure then it would not look as sharp. The grain increases the apparent sharpness. What else? The contrast, resolution, calibration of the camera, quality of any tripod you use, the developer, the enlarger (scanner), the post processing.

Barry Thornton wrote a book on achieving optimal sharpness, “Edge of Darkness”, and in it he only devotes a single page to the quality of the lens attached to your camera.

There’s something else I have to address here: that sharp edges don’t exist so much in real life. Take a look around your immediate environment, find something that has a defined edge. A book maybe, your phone, a credit card, a cup, a piece of fruit? Whatever. Imagine how that object would look if rendered in a photograph. It would probably have a sharp edge, even though in reality it doesn’t.

This is the problem in recording something that has atomic definition on a medium that doesn’t, and one of the ways in which photography has changed our expectations of how that definition should be represented.

5. The backs are the worst part of the system

The modular nature of older medium format systems was a selling point: shoot different backs for different sizes and types of film. But the backs were the weakest part of the system, prone to light leaks, frame spacing issues, or jams. They would ruin a shoot without warning and carrying at least one spare was absolutely essential. You could pick one up for less than the cost of having them serviced, but ran the risk that a second/third/fourth/fifth hand back would just develop its own faults.

Light leaks were the most common issue due to the foam seals that are placed at the dark slide slot, and these could be replaced with little effort. You needed to do this at least once every other year depending on how you stored the camera/backs, but they could still suddenly ruin a frame or two without notice in bright light. I developed a habit of storing my backs with the dark slides out as much as possible in an attempt to preserve the foam seals for longer.

This is no longer an issue with new mirrorless medium format cameras, but does make me wonder what the weak part of the systems is going to be? Cameras always have something that causes frustration, so what is it this time?

6. You need a budget (regular service is a must)

I touched on this in covering the problems with the backs above. A medium format camera is not a single time purchase, you’ll need a budget for regular service and maintenance.

Medium format cameras have this myth (another one) surrounding them that they just go on working for decades without ever having a problem. I think part of that myth is perpetuated by people who own them for only a year or two and then sell them on, or who own them and only dust them off for a shoot once every six months.

This is not my experience.

All three of my Hasselblads have required repair, along with sending the 203FE for a general service. The 202FA developed a second shutter curtain issue, which thankfully was a trivial repair. The 203FE is currently very temperamental and needs “warming up” after not having been used for a few days—the second shutter curtain will not close unless I dry fire the camera a few times. My 201F completely jammed up and required an expensive fix, at which point I sold it to cover the cost of the repair and moved up to the 203FE.

Admittedly, this is the nature of the 200 series models which are very complex, over 400 parts in the body alone according to the service manuals, and only Hasselblad will service them. The 500 series are simpler but these still need regular service if you use them over the long term. If you travel with them this should be obvious, parts will loosen up or go out of alignment.

Also, consider if you pick up a ten/twenty year old “mint” condition second hand camera it probably hasn’t been used and therefore hasn’t been serviced.

7. A backup camera is a necessity for any important work

Given what I wrote above, this should be clear. I purchased the 202FA primarily as a backup camera when I started to travel further afield for the long term projects I am working on. Up until now it hasn’t needed to be used as a backup, so has been used instead as a secondary camera with a different lens on it. There has been moments when the 203FE wasn’t functioning, but I managed to get it working again by dry firing the camera enough times.

This is not cheap considering the investment in a single medium format body, but then consider traveling to the other side of the world only to have your camera fail. Not cheap either. Perhaps rent a backup body if you are going on a trip, or even pick up a cheap beat-up second hand body. This is trivial with the older film cameras, you can pick one up for a couple of hundred Euros. The digital versions? Not going to be so easy.

8. The square

Substitute “square” for whatever the aspect ratio your camera shoots in here. 24x36mm, 33x44mm (6×4.5cm), 6×6, 6×7, 4×5” (8×10). 24x65mm (XPan). These are all differently proportioned boxes, so they give you different ways to compose a scene. Sure you can crop, but you will see the scene differently when composing and that will probably start to influence the way you compose.

The square has become prolific over the past few years (thanks to Instagram). I’ve always been fond of it because I don’t feel as constrained to arbitrary compositional devices, or rules that are followed only because everyone says they must be followed. I can shoot a full body portrait and happily put the subject smack bang in the middle of the frame without hearing complaints about the rule of thirds. Having shot with the square for a long time I feel it has influenced the way I compose with other frames.

Ultimately this is a compelling reason to choose one format over another. It’s not about film versus digital: it’s about squares versus rectangles, big cameras versus small cameras, fast cameras versus slow cameras.

This has been a reason I have held off so long on getting a digital camera to replace the Hasselblad, I am too attached to the square.

9. Reactions to the camera

The curious thing about medium format cameras, especially those that you might wander around finding scenes at waist level with, is that people tend to react to them differently. My experience is that there is often a short moment in which the subject seems oblivious to the camera and then when they realize what is going on they become curious.

This reaction is different to the apprehensive or defensive reaction that can happen when you point a large DSLR at them.

I think part of this is because you can’t really hide behind a medium format camera in the way that you would a DSLR. The nature of the shooting process means it’s difficult to get candid shots and extreme telephoto lenses don’t really exist for the format. This means you have to get close if you want to fill the frame, you have to make your intentions clear, you have to relax, and many times it’s just best to ask.

This isn’t going to be the case with the new mirrorless models so I expect reactions to those are not going to differ much to their smaller counterparts.

The curiosity is often a good icebreaker, letting people look through the waist level finder and demonstrating the way the camera is used seems to put people at ease. This is not a fast camera, I’m not trying to catch you out. And, of course, if the subject has any interest in photography, which is often a given these days, this can lead to lengthy conversations.

10. Medium format is more than just “bigger”

It’s not about resolution, microcontrast, colour rendering, dynamic range, sharpness, or any other of those boring technicalities. At least not for me. My reasons for picking up a medium format camera, some thirteen years ago, was to facilitate a different approach to photography. When I ditched the last of my lights in 2008 my approach changed again.

Sure the technicalities matter, but you have to understand that shooting with a medium format camera is different to shooting with a 35mm camera. Just as shooting with an iPhone is different to a 35mm camera, or shooting with large format, or wet plates, or a rangefinder, or whatever. And I’m not talking about slowing down, because slowing down slows you down, I’m talking more about how you see the world through your camera and how the camera allows you to see the world.

“The best camera is the one you have with you” is an oft-repeated platitude that is now a meaningless phrase given we all have cameras with us at all times in one form or another. The choice of the camera informs your approach, and thus the image, and thus the direction you take.

This is important over the long term, and has been a key factor in the projects I have been working on.

So what next?

Part of my reasons for writing this post relate to the photographic cross roads I find myself at. The 203FE is the best camera I have ever used despite all of its quirks, failings, expense, and temperament. However, I find myself tiring of shooting film, not because of the process but rather the frustrating baggage that often associates with it, and I am approaching the end of the long-term project work I have been shooting exclusively with this camera.

I could get myself a digital back for the 203FE, which will involve some conversion work. Yet the cost of that back eclipses the cost of a new mirrorless medium format setup significantly, and I would be left with a camera that still has the quirks and failings. A camera that still needs to be serviced every two or there years, which is in no way guaranteed to be possible.

This is an unfortunate situation that Fuji/Hasselblad have now created. The market for new and used digital medium format backs for V series cameras, those of higher resolution and quality, is now essentially dead. Unless Hasselblad can release one at a much lower cost than the mirrorless cameras, which is unlikely to happen as that will impact the mirrorless sales. The V series in digital form is now over from a development point of view.

Medium format is at a turning point, the release this year of mirrorless Hasselblad and Fuji models stands to introduce a large number of photographers to it. I could sell my current equipment to just about cover the cost of one of those setups, and I have to admit I’m tempted.

The Hasselblad 203FE is the best camera I have ever used, but all good things must end. Maybe I’ll wait for version two or three of the new cameras though.


About the author: Lee Johnson is a Switzerland-based photographer and software developer. You can find more of his work and words by visiting his blog, or following him on Twitter and Instagram. This article was also published here.

10 Things I’ve Learned from 10 Years Shooting with a Hasselblad

This year marks the point at which I have been using Hasselblad cameras for over a decade. My first was a 201F in 2007, before moving to a 203FE in 2011 and adding a 202FA in 2015.

They’re the classic 6×6 V series models, although have some additions on the more familiar 500 series that I will get into later. Over the years I’ve put several hundred rolls of film through the various cameras, not a great deal but enough to appreciate the idiosyncrasies inherent in shooting with medium format.

The odd thing about medium format is that some photographers think, and others will tell you, that its purpose is only for studio shooting, product photography, high end fashion, and commercial work. Nonsense. In the previous decade I have used mine for shooting action, travel and road trips, as a walk around camera, for long term project work, and even above 2,000m in peak ski season. I’m certainly not the only one to do this.

Not once have I used these cameras in a formal studio setting… Yet the Hasselblad often gets left at home because, well, I don’t know why. The models of the camera I have feature built in metering, high shutter speeds, instant mirror return, fast lenses. They’re no less of a walk around camera than most DSLRs. So why do they get left at home?

The 203FE and prints from an eight-years-and-counting work in progress

I think the reason the camera gets left at home is because most of the work I shoot with it is long term projects, which tend to be sporadic in nature for those subjects I am documenting. When I take the Hasselblad to work on those projects it has a secondary function as a general camera for travel shots, and so on.

For a long time I did shoot skateboarding on a regular basis with it, but even then when I wasn’t shooting skateboarding I wasn’t really shooting anything else.

There’s no doubt that the camera improved my photography. When I traded in my Bronica and external lights I was left with one camera and two fixed lenses, one of them a fisheye, and I would use nothing else for almost eight years. It is only recently that I added a secondary body as a backup (with a different lens) and an Xpan.

I am still trying to maintain the discipline of one camera and one lens for one project, although have relented somewhat of late on that constraint.

In an effort to use the camera more outside of project work I have set myself a goal this year of shooting at least one frame a week with the Hasselblad, and ideally a formal portrait. The camera sits permanently on a tripod in my study to remind me to use it. The portraits included here are randoms shot over the past few years.

I thought it might be interesting to go over some of the things the camera has taught me. Medium format is about to become much more known, if not popular, with the release of the Hasselblad and Fuji mirrorless medium format bodies this year. While they do differ in form and function to the classic 6×6 SLR bodies, there is still much that can be learned from them.

So here are ten things I’ve learned from ten years shooting with a Hasselblad.

1. You need to change some habits

For example, thinking you can get away with shooting at approximately 1/the focal length. If you have a lot more resolution you will find some of those rules of thumb don’t hold up so well, like when you have a big mirror or larger focal plane shutter that adds more movement.

I’ll give you analogy—1/250 was seen as the best x-sync while skate photographers were shooting with 35mm. When everyone started shooting medium format then suddenly 1/500 was seen as the best. If you weren’t using external lights 1/1000 was the minimum shutter speed required to freeze action, when photographers started using higher resolution full frame 35mm digital bodies then that advice was changed to 1/2000 as the minimum.

Get used to shooting more at mid range apertures, f/4 to f/8. Although medium format lenses can be as fast as f/2, you usually don’t want to use them that open because a) they won’t be sharp, b) even if they are sharp you probably won’t nail the focus, and c) even if you do nail the focus they have so little depth at close focus that almost nothing will be in focus.

This has an impact on shooting in low light, but you can work around that in other ways. The photo above was shot with the 110mm f/2 at f/4 and on the full resolution scan you can see that I actually missed the focus point.

You are going to (near) miss shots, lots of shots. One of the worst habits I still have is to only shoot one frame of a scene, unless I have reason to think I messed up, I get the photo and move on. Consequently I have a number of photos that are misses because someone blinked, or I missed the focus, or the composition was a little bit off, or someone or something entered the frame and I didn’t notice.

The instant mirror return on the 200 series Hasselblad cameras does alleviate the last potential mistake.

But you don’t want to shoot many frames of a scene because medium format files are big. A reasonable quality scan from a single 6×6 negative weighs in at 150MB, get them scanned professionally and you can have anything up to 1GB per file. If you over shoot you’re going to add a bottleneck in your workflow because of the amount of data you will need to move around and backup.

It takes me about an hour to scan a roll of 120 film (12 frames) and about another hour or two to process the scans, most of which is removing dust and colour correcting. I can understand why some photographers left behind many rolls of undeveloped film, it’s easy to find yourself with a backlog if you shoot a lot.

2. Find at waist level, but don’t focus at waist level

One of the allures of a medium format SLR is a waist level finder. You will see lots of photos on Instagram, videos on YouTube, etc, that are shot through the waist level finder of a medium format camera;—photos of photos in progress, it’s all very meta. You will also see people shooting photos with the waist level finder at waist level.

This seems intuitive, because it’s a waist level finder, right? The problem is that the waist level finder is designed for finding a scene, and once you have found the scene you should bring the camera up to your eye for two very good reasons.

The first is that it’s almost impossible to focus accurately when shooting at waist level, and this is compounded by the focusing screens on Hasselblads not being fantastic. The newer brighter screens still don’t have focus “pop” and even when you are shooting a couple of stops down from wide open you can miss focus—if you’re at the closest focus distance with the 80mm lens you only have +/- 5cm depth even at f/8.

The second is to tighten your composition. If you bring the camera up to your eye you are not distracted by things outside of the frame and you can make sure to move slightly forwards or backwards to tweak the frame and straighten those verticals.

Related to tightening the composition is not pointing the camera up at close distance. If you are shooting a photo of someone, specifically a half body type portrait, and using the camera at waist level you will be pointing the camera up. This leads to an outcome that looks like you or your subject are falling over. Maybe this can be used for creative effect, but most of the time it looks bad. Bring the camera up to your eye and you prevent this.

3. Focus discipline

As I said above, bring the camera up to your eye and use the magnifier in the viewfinder. Make sure you don’t have a correctional diopter in the magnifier if you don’t need it.

BTW, when did you last get your eyes tested? What happens if you have very shallow depth and you move forwards or backwards slightly between focusing and firing the shutter? What happens if you focus and recompose? A lot of these issues are going to be moot with the autofocus systems in newer digital models, but they’re worth keeping in mind.

I struggle with medium format focusing screens as, again stated above, the Hasselblad screens don’t really snap into focus. Even the newer models seem to suffer from this. The nature of medium format having shallower depth of field can fool you into thinking the subject is in focus when they’re not critically in focus.

One of the best investments I made for the Hasselblad is to get a focusing screen with a split prism in it, however the problem with a split prism is that often you have to focus and recompose.

4. The lenses aren’t always that sharp

This shouldn’t surprise you, but there is a myth that medium and larger format lenses are of course sharper than 35mm lenses. In reality it can be either way: there are good 35mm lenses and bad medium format lenses. There are medium format lenses that are made for specific purposes, and there are lenses that offer something that no other lens has—like the f/2 aperture on my 110mm lens, a lens which is not sharp wide open, but is good enough when I get the focus correct.

The photo linked above illustrates an important point. It was shot on Delta 3200; had I shot this on a slow speed film and there had been enough light to get the same exposure then it would not look as sharp. The grain increases the apparent sharpness. What else? The contrast, resolution, calibration of the camera, quality of any tripod you use, the developer, the enlarger (scanner), the post processing.

Barry Thornton wrote a book on achieving optimal sharpness, “Edge of Darkness”, and in it he only devotes a single page to the quality of the lens attached to your camera.

There’s something else I have to address here: that sharp edges don’t exist so much in real life. Take a look around your immediate environment, find something that has a defined edge. A book maybe, your phone, a credit card, a cup, a piece of fruit? Whatever. Imagine how that object would look if rendered in a photograph. It would probably have a sharp edge, even though in reality it doesn’t.

This is the problem in recording something that has atomic definition on a medium that doesn’t, and one of the ways in which photography has changed our expectations of how that definition should be represented.

5. The backs are the worst part of the system

The modular nature of older medium format systems was a selling point: shoot different backs for different sizes and types of film. But the backs were the weakest part of the system, prone to light leaks, frame spacing issues, or jams. They would ruin a shoot without warning and carrying at least one spare was absolutely essential. You could pick one up for less than the cost of having them serviced, but ran the risk that a second/third/fourth/fifth hand back would just develop its own faults.

Light leaks were the most common issue due to the foam seals that are placed at the dark slide slot, and these could be replaced with little effort. You needed to do this at least once every other year depending on how you stored the camera/backs, but they could still suddenly ruin a frame or two without notice in bright light. I developed a habit of storing my backs with the dark slides out as much as possible in an attempt to preserve the foam seals for longer.

This is no longer an issue with new mirrorless medium format cameras, but does make me wonder what the weak part of the systems is going to be? Cameras always have something that causes frustration, so what is it this time?

6. You need a budget (regular service is a must)

I touched on this in covering the problems with the backs above. A medium format camera is not a single time purchase, you’ll need a budget for regular service and maintenance.

Medium format cameras have this myth (another one) surrounding them that they just go on working for decades without ever having a problem. I think part of that myth is perpetuated by people who own them for only a year or two and then sell them on, or who own them and only dust them off for a shoot once every six months.

This is not my experience.

All three of my Hasselblads have required repair, along with sending the 203FE for a general service. The 202FA developed a second shutter curtain issue, which thankfully was a trivial repair. The 203FE is currently very temperamental and needs “warming up” after not having been used for a few days—the second shutter curtain will not close unless I dry fire the camera a few times. My 201F completely jammed up and required an expensive fix, at which point I sold it to cover the cost of the repair and moved up to the 203FE.

Admittedly, this is the nature of the 200 series models which are very complex, over 400 parts in the body alone according to the service manuals, and only Hasselblad will service them. The 500 series are simpler but these still need regular service if you use them over the long term. If you travel with them this should be obvious, parts will loosen up or go out of alignment.

Also, consider if you pick up a ten/twenty year old “mint” condition second hand camera it probably hasn’t been used and therefore hasn’t been serviced.

7. A backup camera is a necessity for any important work

Given what I wrote above, this should be clear. I purchased the 202FA primarily as a backup camera when I started to travel further afield for the long term projects I am working on. Up until now it hasn’t needed to be used as a backup, so has been used instead as a secondary camera with a different lens on it. There has been moments when the 203FE wasn’t functioning, but I managed to get it working again by dry firing the camera enough times.

This is not cheap considering the investment in a single medium format body, but then consider traveling to the other side of the world only to have your camera fail. Not cheap either. Perhaps rent a backup body if you are going on a trip, or even pick up a cheap beat-up second hand body. This is trivial with the older film cameras, you can pick one up for a couple of hundred Euros. The digital versions? Not going to be so easy.

8. The square

Substitute “square” for whatever the aspect ratio your camera shoots in here. 24x36mm, 33x44mm (6×4.5cm), 6×6, 6×7, 4×5” (8×10). 24x65mm (XPan). These are all differently proportioned boxes, so they give you different ways to compose a scene. Sure you can crop, but you will see the scene differently when composing and that will probably start to influence the way you compose.

The square has become prolific over the past few years (thanks to Instagram). I’ve always been fond of it because I don’t feel as constrained to arbitrary compositional devices, or rules that are followed only because everyone says they must be followed. I can shoot a full body portrait and happily put the subject smack bang in the middle of the frame without hearing complaints about the rule of thirds. Having shot with the square for a long time I feel it has influenced the way I compose with other frames.

Ultimately this is a compelling reason to choose one format over another. It’s not about film versus digital: it’s about squares versus rectangles, big cameras versus small cameras, fast cameras versus slow cameras.

This has been a reason I have held off so long on getting a digital camera to replace the Hasselblad, I am too attached to the square.

9. Reactions to the camera

The curious thing about medium format cameras, especially those that you might wander around finding scenes at waist level with, is that people tend to react to them differently. My experience is that there is often a short moment in which the subject seems oblivious to the camera and then when they realize what is going on they become curious.

This reaction is different to the apprehensive or defensive reaction that can happen when you point a large DSLR at them.

I think part of this is because you can’t really hide behind a medium format camera in the way that you would a DSLR. The nature of the shooting process means it’s difficult to get candid shots and extreme telephoto lenses don’t really exist for the format. This means you have to get close if you want to fill the frame, you have to make your intentions clear, you have to relax, and many times it’s just best to ask.

This isn’t going to be the case with the new mirrorless models so I expect reactions to those are not going to differ much to their smaller counterparts.

The curiosity is often a good icebreaker, letting people look through the waist level finder and demonstrating the way the camera is used seems to put people at ease. This is not a fast camera, I’m not trying to catch you out. And, of course, if the subject has any interest in photography, which is often a given these days, this can lead to lengthy conversations.

10. Medium format is more than just “bigger”

It’s not about resolution, microcontrast, colour rendering, dynamic range, sharpness, or any other of those boring technicalities. At least not for me. My reasons for picking up a medium format camera, some thirteen years ago, was to facilitate a different approach to photography. When I ditched the last of my lights in 2008 my approach changed again.

Sure the technicalities matter, but you have to understand that shooting with a medium format camera is different to shooting with a 35mm camera. Just as shooting with an iPhone is different to a 35mm camera, or shooting with large format, or wet plates, or a rangefinder, or whatever. And I’m not talking about slowing down, because slowing down slows you down, I’m talking more about how you see the world through your camera and how the camera allows you to see the world.

“The best camera is the one you have with you” is an oft-repeated platitude that is now a meaningless phrase given we all have cameras with us at all times in one form or another. The choice of the camera informs your approach, and thus the image, and thus the direction you take.

This is important over the long term, and has been a key factor in the projects I have been working on.

So what next?

Part of my reasons for writing this post relate to the photographic cross roads I find myself at. The 203FE is the best camera I have ever used despite all of its quirks, failings, expense, and temperament. However, I find myself tiring of shooting film, not because of the process but rather the frustrating baggage that often associates with it, and I am approaching the end of the long-term project work I have been shooting exclusively with this camera.

I could get myself a digital back for the 203FE, which will involve some conversion work. Yet the cost of that back eclipses the cost of a new mirrorless medium format setup significantly, and I would be left with a camera that still has the quirks and failings. A camera that still needs to be serviced every two or there years, which is in no way guaranteed to be possible.

This is an unfortunate situation that Fuji/Hasselblad have now created. The market for new and used digital medium format backs for V series cameras, those of higher resolution and quality, is now essentially dead. Unless Hasselblad can release one at a much lower cost than the mirrorless cameras, which is unlikely to happen as that will impact the mirrorless sales. The V series in digital form is now over from a development point of view.

Medium format is at a turning point, the release this year of mirrorless Hasselblad and Fuji models stands to introduce a large number of photographers to it. I could sell my current equipment to just about cover the cost of one of those setups, and I have to admit I’m tempted.

The Hasselblad 203FE is the best camera I have ever used, but all good things must end. Maybe I’ll wait for version two or three of the new cameras though.


About the author: Lee Johnson is a Switzerland-based photographer and software developer. You can find more of his work and words by visiting his blog, or following him on Twitter and Instagram. This article was also published here.

Don’t Mourn Popular Photography

After nearly 80 years, Popular Photography announced that the magazine would publish its final issue on March 10, 2017 while simultaneously ceasing updates to both PopPhoto.com and AmericanPhotoMag.com.

The end of an era will always be tinged with sadness, and of course, we can’t make light of people potentially losing their jobs. But like many print publications, Pop Photo suffered from being a generalist—an aggregator of content that could be widely found (often in more detail) through a casual Internet search.

Sites like DPReview offer more comprehensive buying information, Roger Cicala nerds it out with a level of detail that would flummox most photographers, and YouTube channels like Negative Feedback specialize in niche and DIY topics that Pop Photo simply couldn’t replicate.

And of course none of these channels can compete with the stream of vernacular images and video that one can find through Instagram and Snapchat. Taking better photos has always been a niche concern—and it has become even more so as photos have become a kind of slang communication.

Decades ago, I remember poring over the 42nd Street Camera ads in the back of Popular Photography—dreaming of owning a Nikon F3HP and some exotic lens—but the march of technological progress has been blindingly fast.

Dedicated camera sales have plunged amidst the increasing capabilities of the camera phone. Post-production techniques have become arguably as important as image capture. And even a resurgence in analog processes has fueled the creation of online video training directly from people practicing the techniques—not being reported on by a journalist with only a passing interest.

Mourning the loss of publications like Pop Photo reminds me of recent columns on the NYT’s Lens blog. Long time editor/photographer Donald R. Winslow opined on the state of photography and how difficult the landscape had become for photojournalists, while 20-something Leslye Davis offered a retort unencumbered by historical baggage.

It was an exchange that has mirrored many conversations I’ve had with younger photographers. The young photographer doesn’t know how good or bad it was “back in the day,” she only knows how it is now. This isn’t willful ignorance of history, but rather the reality of making photos today. Perhaps the economics of Davis’ full-time position at the NYT isn’t representative of the struggle of most freelancers, but that doesn’t invalidate her experience as a 21st century documentarian.

I will always remember Pop Photo for infecting me with Gear Acquisition Syndrome from an early age. I will fondly recall being inspired by some of the photos and techniques I saw by flipping through its pages. But there are so many more incredible resources and outlets for photography than ever before. So thanks for helping lead the way Popular Photography. The road to the future is bright and wide open.


About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.