Roberto Valenzuela's Medium Format Photography

by Roberto Valenzuela

September 25, 2013

Like most photographers, I am always searching for new inspiration. Most recently I found it in the form of a medium-format digital camera. Although I have been a full-time photographer and educator for nearly a decade, I suddenly felt completely lost in the marvels and possibilities of shooting in an entirely new format, and like a 10-year-old in the driver’s seat of a roaring Ferrari, I also felt a bit overwhelmed.


All photos © Roberto Valenzuela

Above: Palm Springs, California, is home to some of the most dramatic landscapes I have seen, with thousands of these wind turbines decorating the landscape.  In order to capture the detail of the cloudy skies along with the wind turbines, I used a 3-stop ND filter.  I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose any detail in her white dress on such a bright day so I under-exposed the image by a stop-and-a-half. Medium-format files are so robust, I am able to bring back high-quality shadow detail from a file that was underexposed by 3 or more stops,” Valenzuela explains. (Photo was taken handheld. Focal Length: 55mm; Aperture: f/4.8; Shutter speed: 1/180 of a second.)

I must admit, though, the main reason I took the plunge and purchased the, yes, very expensive Hasselblad H5D (renting is also an option!) was to feed my artistic soul. I was beginning to become frustrated with the limitations of 35mm capture and, even worse, smaller sensors. To obtain the image quality I was seeking, I had to take several shots of the same scene and mix them in post into a subtle HDR composite.

Only then would the highlights and shadow details come alive. If a person appeared in front of my lens, it was game over. It’s also pretty tough to take several photos of a person without you or your subject moving even an inch. I am not saying that 35mm format is inferior to medium format; it’s just vastly different. The 35mm is remarkable for what it was built to do. Canon, Nikon, Sony and other companies manufacture 35mm cameras to be robust, fast, flexible in low light, easy to carry and able to capture 6 to 14 frames-per-second. It is fair to say, I think, that 35mm SLR cameras and medium-format cameras are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Above: Photograph of model and stylist Laura Hine in Beverly Hills, California (makeup by Robiat Balogun). Elinchrom’s new Ranger Quadra lights were used to light up the photograph. “Medium-format’s flash sync speed is a whopping 1/800th of a second, versus1/200 in most modern digital 35mm SLR cameras. Notice the incredible range of detail captured in her white jacket, from the brightly-lit left side of the image to the shadowy right side,” Valenzuela notes. (Photograph was taken handheld. Focal Length: 100mm ; Aperture: f/4; Shutter speed: 1/750 of a second.)

For starters, medium-format cameras are much heavier than the beefiest SLR on the market. They only have one unmovable focusing point in the center instead of 20 or 30. They don’t work well past ISO 400 due to digital noise. Last but not least, they were built for slower, well thought out and deliberate photographs. You are lucky if you can take one shot every three seconds.

But just wait until you see the files taken with medium format. They blow your mind, changing forever what you assumed digital capture to be capable of.  

Of course I’m not saying that medium format will replace your SLR but rather complement it. At a wedding, I have a Canon DSLR on my right shoulder and the H5D on my left. For most applications, I use the Canon DSLR camera. However, during the many moments at a wedding where I see the potential for a really memorable image, I pull out the H5D.

Above: Photograph of model Sira Topic taken during one of my workshops in Lugano, Switzerland. “This was shot only using the natural light coming from the window inside an ancient church. Using Hasselblad’s True Focus II technology, I was able to focus and recompose without the fear of being out of focus, even though I was shooting at f/2.4. “ (Focal Length: 100mm ; Aperture: f/2.4; Shutter speed: 1/30 of a second)

During the getting-ready session, I use medium-format for key moments and portraits of the bride or groom alone with their wedding party. During the ceremony, I use it for a wide shot of the whole ceremony to capture the finest details. The time allocated for bride and groom portraits receives plenty of medium-format attention as well. And of course, during the reception, I like to use medium format for the first dance and the wide shots of the room where capturing minute details is crucial. I’m also now planning with brides to venture beyond their wedding venue on their wedding day to take further advantage of the medium-format camera and the beauty of the files it provides.  

Above: Fine-art portrait of model Miriam Bassi taken in the hills of Lugano, Switzerland.  The model was lit by Elinchrom Ranger Quadra strobes. “The camera’s ability to capture shadow detail in the woods inspired the location for this portrait,” says Valenzuela. “Notice the detail in each leaf on the floor and the different shades of brown in the trees.” (Special thanks to Marian Bader and Jolie Zocchi for their help setting up this portrait. Retouching by Jonathan Penney. (Photo was taken handheld. Focal Length: 55mm; Aperture: f/4.5; Shutter: 1/60 of a second)

As for the misconception that you need to mount the camera on a tripod when shooting medium format—not true. When I’m shooting a wedding, the tripod stays home. The main difference in focusing when shooting different formats is that a typical high-end 35mm SLR camera has around 4 stops of dynamic range, a film camera has around 7 stops of dynamic range, but a medium-format digital camera has a whopping 12 stops of dynamic range on a well-exposed photograph.

Above: The London Eye Ferris wheel, shot handheld and exposed for the sky, f/6.8 and 1/500 of a second. “The depth of the file is so robust that I was able to bring back the poles’ and wires’ details without a problem. With these cameras, it’s usually best to underexpose and then bring the shadow detail back in,” Valenzuela says.

Shooting in this format has forced me to slow down and think about the lighting and composition of the shot before I take it. I’ve shown a sampling here of what I’ve taken so far in various photographic genres (landscape, wedding, macro, portrait,etc). You decide if medium format is another option for your shooting style.  

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