How Modern Day Documentary Photographers Use Medium Format Cameras

Digital medium format photography has experienced quite a change in the past few years.

How many of you photographers out there have studied the work of some of the greats and were in awe of the medium format look? If you’re reading this article, I’m positive that a number of you have. When it comes to documentary photography though, smaller formats have always dominated the scene. Why? Well, it’s easier to capture more critical moments with smaller formats due to how the laws of physics and depth of field work. But that doesn’t mean medium format fails to work. Lots of fantastic projects were done on medium format, and I’m positive that in the hands of the right photographers, digital medium format can do the same.

All images used by the photographers with permission. Lead image by Dan Westergren.

Strides have been made in digital medium format in the past few years; the cameras have become smaller, the autofocus has improved, and the overall packages have become lighter. So we decided to talk to a number of successful photographers using the format and doing serious work with it.

Jonathan Higbee: Using the Hasselblad X1D

“A subject that inspires deep, almost insatiable curiosity is a requirement for me in story telling,” says photographer Jonathan Higbee. Jonathan reviewed the X1D for us a while back. Since then he’s been using it for some of his more serious work alongside other gear. Of course, he indeed has that curiosity as he used the camera to document and tell the story of a Llama competition in the Mid West. Yes, a Llama competition. It’s weird. It’s quirky. But it’s the type of stuff that if you mention it to an editor, they’ll become curious simply because of all the awesome buzz words you can create about it. Combine this with the way the modern internet works where people simply click on things because they’re curious, and you’ve got yourself a winning story.

“If the curiosity is salient enough, the story doesn’t even need to provide answers — it just needs to ask the right questions, and I think it’ll be interesting and successful.”

Jonathan tells us about the project:

These shots are from the 2017 Nebraska State Llama and Alpaca Show; a high-stakes, thoroughly competitive annual milestone event for this community. Over two days, humans and their animals compete in various events ranging from haltering to obstacle courses to costume competitions. Each category is designed to test the docility of the animals, the connection between the animal and their handlers, and the athleticism of the animal itself. For example, one of the obstacles required the handler to lead the llama through a small, low tented tunnel — something very unnatural for llamas! Judges carefully observed every single move, often writing notes on their clipboards, and the spectators in bleachers surrounding the field oscillated between cheers and silent concentration. There were certainly tense moments, and I quickly came to respect the patience and dedication the handlers must have put hundreds of hours into while training their show llamas to get to this high level competition.

For Jonathan, he works at a slower pace with medium format. Typically, he’s known for his semi-fast paced street photography work with his Leicas. As Jonathan explains to us in an interview though, this type of work is totally different from his street photography due the presence of alpacas and llamas. “At this event though, there were almost more animals than people, so I had to remain vigilant with my immediate surroundings so as not to disturb or spook these beautiful (but big!) creatures with my camera, flash, etc,” recalls Jonathan.

“Photographing this dynamic, often chaotic event was in some ways similar to doing street photography in New York; having to anticipate scenes and react instantly are two particular skills I’m glad I had honed prior to the llama competition! The main difference between technique in this instance and my typical street photography process is all about maintaining narrative threads throughout each photograph I made. Though I do often consider overarching themes in my specific street series, in the moment of shooting on the streets, I’m primarily concerned with telling an entire story in one single shot. While working the llama show, I consciously focused on how each scene and (sometimes even each shot) pushed this story forward. That, at least to me, was an entirely distinct approach.

But Jonathan is so good that the cameras just seem to fade away to him. “I had successfully used the Hasselblad for street prior to the competition, but there’s no getting around that it’s just a different (not better nor worse) creative mindset,” explains Higbee. “The X1D was still new to me at the start of this project, and because of the pace, I had to be more deliberate with each shot. I selected the X1D to photograph this event because I wanted to force myself to slow down and consider the overarching story (since I’m so accustomed to mainly being concerned with getting a single shot in my street work).”

In this case, Jonathan felt medium format was an asset and not something that hindered him from being able to create better work. Of course, all the tech is there when it comes to mixed lighting and the sensor output. But he wasn’t really able to be as “run and gun” with medium format as he can be with his Leicas. In fact, there were several photos that Jonathan missed due to the battery life. With the Llama competition being a two day long event, batteries are bound to die.

“Most of the photographs I couldn’t capture were because I couldn’t run across the active field during great moments of the competition,” explains Jonathan. “I was lucky enough to be one of two photographers allowed on the field during the live events — and had already tested the boundaries of the judges’ generosity on a few occasions — so when a few beautiful moments on the obstacle course were occluded from where I was standing I just had to sit there and take it.”

Ruben Terlou: Documenting Disappearing Cultures with the Phase One IQ3 100MP Back

Through the Heart of China

Ruben Terlou got into Documentary photography because he found that it gives him a different way of telling important stories. It helps him to slow down and continually be surprised by the world. Ruben, who uses Phase One DSLRs, has been very passionate about a number of projects including the people of China. This started in 2004 and resulted in him staying for two years to study Mandarin and photographing their disappearing traditions in ethnic minority communities. “China is one of the largest world powers and will greatly shape our world during the 21st century,” states Ruben. “…Therefore, I am convinced we all need to know and understand it. ” Indeed, Ruben did it for a while until he ran out of money and had to return to Amsterdam. This series was done for Dutch national television and Ruben used photography to connect with and engage the people.

China’s history and culture is so vast that Ruben believes he will never be able to learn and understand all of it. “I believe in the western world, China is viewed with too much misunderstanding and suspicion,” he explains in an interview. “There are several reasons for this. Mainly, cultural and linguistic barriers have long been difficult to overcome and this has led us to hold many misconceptions.” Ruben continued to state that history is yet another reason.

Here’s what Ruben says about his project:

In my first documentary series, Along the Banks of the Yangtze, I take the viewer in six-episodes from highly developed Shanghai, at the eastern coast of China, to the traditional lands of Shangri-La, to discover real life in China along the longest river of Asia, 40 years after Mao Zedongs death.
In the second series, Through the Heart of China, we travel in seven episodes from the far north of the country to the south: from the steppes of Inner-Mongolia to the tropical coast of Macau – through the heart of China.

Ruben used Phase One because he simply wanted the best of everything with the Phase One XF camera. “Shooting this project would bring me to very special and difficult to get to places and situations, like coal mines on the Inner-Mongolian steppes, the gay scene in Beijing, cancer hospitals or rural funerals,” relates Ruben. For that reason, Ruben wanted “the best” sharpness, resolution, colors and contrast. In fact, Ruben found that the autofocus worked quickly too and with the IQ3 100MP digital back, he had more than enough versatility to do the job.

When photographing these scenes, Ruben needed to do a lot of careful planning, waiting, framing, and more waiting. He almost always did this with a tripod. “Indeed, medium format forces me to think ahead, to make specific choices on what and how I want to photograph things, what story/theme I want to express,” explains Ruben. Of course, this means that the job is more time consumer and the overall gear load is heavier.

Through the Heart of China

“But it does pay off; the result is technically so much superior to mirrorless or DSLRs (Canon/Nikon etc) and for exhibitions that really makes a huge difference.”

Ruben reinforces the fact that documentary photography needs to have a goal and a drive. This needs to be done before even going on the journey. So Ruben and his team do research into historical, socio-anthropological and political backgrounds of the places they visit. “In my experience, these are essential points, as people really appreciate when you are genuinely interested, and only then are willing to share their dreams or fears,” Ruben tells us. When they finally know what they want to shoot, they go on and don’t stop. He’s never let anyone tell him that something is impossible to obtain. According to Ruben, they’ve succeeded in “getting rare scenes, like a so-called ghost wedding, or a Taoist hermit living in a very remote mountain cave.”

Dan Westergren: The National Geographic Photographer Using the Fujifilm GFX 50S

Young shepherd holds one of his charges at Long Island Farm, Falkland Islands.

Photographer Dan Westergren has a long history in photography. He’s the former National Geographic Traveler Director of Photography, and started back in the days of 35mm film, learning the ways under his Jr. High School science teacher. “While working at a newspaper, we had an in-house studio with a Bronica 645,” recalls Dan. “Since we developed all the film ourselves I quickly noticed that something extra about the medium format film.” Dan wanted a Hasselblad, but how are you supposed to get one on a news photographer’s salary?! Instead, he settled for a Rolleiflex 2.8 D with no light meter.

Working with only one lens turned out to be an advantage for Dan after some time. “Through all my years editing other photographers work I developed a pet peeve about them using what I considered too wide a lens,” Dan tells us in an interview. “I could watch them, as I was editing, zoom out and see that although more was included in the frame, usually the composition suffered.” To this day, Dan still tries to operate with just a single focal length when he can. He adores the 40mm perspective (in full frame 35mm terms). That has lead to him working with the Fujifilm GFX 50S with a tad more care.

Sea ice breaking up, early spring on the edges of the Lemaire Channel, Antarctic Peninsula.

For the images in this series, Dan went to Antarctica and South Georgia with the 32-64mm f4 lens and the 110mm f2 in the bag for portraits. Last week he went out with just the 63mm f2.8. The GFX accompanied his X-T2s. For situations where he needs smoother transitions from dark to light in the image, Dan will use the GFX as he finds it superior due to the larger sensor. Other projects require strobes, but he in fact rarely uses them.

“With the GFX I work a little more consciously, it is not slow, but a little less responsive than smaller formats, so you have to anticipate what might happen,” explains Dan. “Detail in the file is really key though for overall type of pictures. More scene, less secondary subject, but that subject will still be clearly visible.” For Dan, a big part of slowing down is deciding what subject to photograph. With medium format, he’s much more selective with what he wants to photograph. Part of this comes from him working in large format.

Charlotte Bay, Antarctica, relaxing on fast ice.

“With the 8X10 camera I realized that if you studied, really watched what people do, they often telegraph their actions or repeat themselves. If you’re patient, you can catch a moment.”

To specifically illustrate this, Dan explained the following to us:

“(The) best example of this is the shot of the National Geographic ship, jutting into the side of the frame. In the distance is a row of people photographing an Emperor Penguin, which is really tiny in the frame. Emperor penguins are relatively rare in the parts of Antarctica that most people have the occasion to visit. So, yes, we saw that penguin, then crashed the boat into the ice, hoping it would stick around while we got off the ship onto the ice. As it walked closer to us many people got close to the animal for their “portrait.” I stopped myself further back in the scene, knowing that even if the bird was tiny in the frame, it would still read with the MF camera. That in a nutshell is why I like larger formats. Someone mentioned to me recently that it looks like I’ve boosted the shadow tones on that shot, lighting up the side of the ship. But, no, that’s the light bouncing off the snow, lighting up the ship. I love looking for scenes with interesting light, then hoping something will happen in that light. Picture tones on that one are straight out of camera. Fujifilm Classic Chrome setting.”

Adult king penguin surrounded by “Oakum Boys” peguin chicks at Gold Harbour, South Georgia Island. Gold Harbor is home to 25,000 nesting pairs.

Dan, despite using the Fujifilm GFX 50S and shooting for Nat Geo, doesn’t like perfection. In fact, he likes it when things happen accidentally in the frame. He doesn’t like calling them snapshots, but instead some sort of happenstance occurring when his shot is lined up and there is an intrusion. This doesn’t bother him. “Or sometimes, I’ll put an object in the foreground, but focus on the background,” states Dan. Crazy, right? Who would do such a thing?! In fact Dan tells us that photos from 100 years ago are full of this and that he adores the old-fashioned aesthetic. He takes this into consideration as he believes that documentary work isn’t studio work. To that end, if the subject is slightly out of focus, then it’s not as critical.

Gold Harbor on South Georgia Island is backdropped by Bertram Glacier. The amphitheater is one of South Georgia’s most beautiful sites. This time of year the beach is also covered with elephant seals of all ages.

Another example is crooked horizons. “If I’m shooting a symmetrical landscape then yes, I’ll have a straight horizon. But if it’s not just about the landscape the horizon could be way off,” Dan explains to us. “This comes from trying to fill the whole frame and sometimes a straight horizon will lead to part of the frame being empty. Of course using a TLR makes this more accidental because you’re seeing a reversed image and it can be hard to make everything just so quickly.”

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.