The Pentacon Six System
by TRA

Why should I change up from 35mm to Medium Format?

Q: As I am interested in getting into med format photography using Pentacon mount lenses, I have eagerly been reading your lens test results. I appreciate that this was a large effort on your part and thank you for the work. 

> My question is related to the relative sharpness of the med format system compared with that of 35mm. If I took these same pictures with a good quality 35mm outfit using similar focal length lenses. Would the difference in sharpness of the med format be easy to see on the 8X8 ish sized prints without a loupe?  How would you characterize this difference?

A: Hello 
Good 35mm lenses can provide remarkably sharp prints.  I decided to go for medium format years ago when I was disappointed with the quality of 16" x 20" prints of about 2/3 of the 35mm negative area, shot on a Minolta with one of their top lenses.

The area of a 6×6 frame is in excess of 3½ times the area of a 35mm frame.  Even on massive enlargements you will see the absence of grain.  These days, film grain is not normally a problem with 35mm prints up to about 7½" × 5", but once you go beyond that you soon come to the limits of the film. 

The difference in medium format images is nearly always visible but sometimes hard to define.  There is finer detail and greater smoothness to the texture or gradation of colours and surfaces (for instance, on a person’s face).  And of course, when you need to, you can enlarge comfortably from even a small portion of the frame.  This in fact gives you the equivalent of using a zoom lens on a 35mm camera, except that most of the time you get better quality.  (The exception would be if you enlarged a section 24mm × 36mm from a 6×6 frame.)

As you can see from this website, even in medium format it is possible to buy equipment that gives poor quality results (like the Panagor 2× converter that I have).  But all the East and West German lenses (Carl Zeiss Jena / Pentacon and Joseph Schneider Kreuznach) are excellent, as are most of the “Russian” (Ukrainian) lenses, within the occasional limits described in the lens test section.

My standard print size is 8" × 8".  Processing is more expensive than 35mm, but I think it’s worth it.  I also can’t walk into a 1-hour lab for processing, but I gave up on that even for 35mm years ago, because the quality is often so poor.

If you do go for medium format, you will notice the improvement in quality.  It is also likely to have a positive effect on your composition of images – a slightly less high-speed approach to composition and shooting.

You would also be opting to carry larger and much heavier equipment.  Snapshotters may think that you are crazy, but they will love the quality of your images.

I hope this helps.

Q: > Also -  I would be interested in the 300mm Carl Zeiss Zena Sonnar f/4.
> Excuse my ignorance - but is f/4 good for 300mm?? (I guess it should be, being Zeiss - but I think I remember that my 80-220mm (or thereabouts) lens for my standard 35mm Minolta 7000 - was much better when it comes to light sensitivity.....
A: Remember that with a much bigger film size, 300mm on 6×6 equals the magnifying power of about 160mm on 35mm.  Of course, with 6×6, you can safely enlarge a small section of the negative, if necessary, without hitting grain problems.

The 300mm Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar lens is outstanding.  It is of course also big.  f/4 is a big aperture for lenses other than the standard lens in medium format, with any manufacturer.  If they made a 300mm f/2.8 lens that covered 6×6, it would be so big that you wouldn’t enjoy carrying it for long.  It would also cost A LOT more to make.  And filters would be MUCH more expensive.  This lens takes 86mm filters, which is big.

So apertures aren’t as big in Medium Format as with 35mm film, but you can easily use faster film to compensate, without noticing the grain.

Q: > Is Medium Format not as suitable as 35mm when it comes to shooting in difficult light conditions - eg dusk?

A: As regards shooting in dusk, the Pentacon Six has a very gentle mirror movement and shutter, which helps you to use very slow shutter speeds without problems from vibration.   A mirror pre-release facility is also available as an upgrade from Dresden.

Also note what I said above about being able to use faster film without having problems with grain.

For the Pentacon Six, I recommend the East German fresnel focussing screen or the newer Rollei focussing screen.  This increases the viewfinder brightness by the equivalent of two stops (four times the light), compared to the standard screen.

The Pentacon Six prisms are also a bit dark, though I find them fine with one of these focussing screens.  If you must have a brighter viewfinder image, you can use the Kiev 60 TTL prism instead of the Pentacon Six metering prism, via a Baierfoto adaptor (more information here) – tho’ this does add to the cost.  Personally, I don’t find it necessary, and I do have one of these adaptors and a Kiev 60.

PS  It is on some occasions justified, I think, to carry a smaller camera.  I do still use 35mm for occasional family events and short trips where I am looking more for a record than ultimate quality.

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© TRA February 2006, February 2010