Pentax 6×7 and why we get attached to things that made it difficult for us

Selbstportrait des Fotografen Daniel Schubert Stein in München 2021 auf Cinestill t800 in einen Spielgel hinein.

Before we start, here’s an overview and a short version of this blog entry. We’ll start with medium format photography and its charm, but after that we’ll primarily talk about problems that you can get with a used Pentax 6×7 and how best to solve them.

So this time it’s a little technical and a little specialized, but since it’s a really great camera, I still wanted to take a closer look at the topic and because I could have really used a blog entry like this for my camera model.

But it should also be about the aspect, that sometimes you struggle a lot with certain things/projects, and that it is precisely this struggle that gives certain things a depth and makes them something special for us. So here is an overview:

The first experiences with medium format photography

It’s been a good two years since I started toying with medium format film cameras. Before that, I photographed on 35mm film for a year and started to understand the difference between digital and film. Then I came across an old Rolleiflex f3.8 from the former GDR.

A good friend asked me to test whether it still worked and whether I could try it out, figure out how it works and explain it to her afterward. To my surprise, there was still a 25-year-old film in the camera, which revealed unexpected family memories. Now I knew that the camera worked, so I loaded up a Cinestill 800t, my favorite film at the time, and did a portfolio shoot.

Portrait shoot with the model Annie in the Munich subway, shot with Cinestill 800t film and a Rolleiflex f3.8. By the way, the red color above the head is a light flair and not an edit.

So far I’m still amazed by the pictures. Medium format combines the look of film without having to forego the sharpness of digital cameras. I was hooked and really wanted to get one of these cameras of my own.

Difference to “normal” film photography

Short explanation in advance; Medium format cameras are loaded with 120mm film, most vacation pictures or photos of our parents and grandparents were taken on 35mm. Medium format therefore has a significantly larger negative, meaning it can capture more detail and requires the camera to be larger.

Size comparison between a 35mm film camera on the right (Pentax Spotmatic) and a Pentax 6×7 medium format camera on the left.

These types of cameras not only offer significantly fewer shots per roll of film (around 8 to 16 images per roll, depending on the camera type), but were/are significantly more expensive and cumbersome than their smaller 35mm cousins. This meant that medium format cameras were mostly only used by professional photographers, most of the time inside a studio.

Even before digital photography was even invented, they made it possible for photographers like Erwin Olaf to produce images that are just as sharp as those with digital sensors today.

Of course, 120 mm film wasn’t just used in the studio. One of the most famous street photographer of the last century, Vivian Maier, who only really became known after her death, only took photos with a Rolleiflex medium format camera.

The Journey to the Pentax 6×7

First I also got a Rolleiflex, a real bargain from eBay, but I felt like their relative from the GDR did deliver sharper pictures. I kept looking.

Berlin in the early morning, shot on a Rolleiflex f3.8 and on Cinestill Bnxx.

Through research, I finally came across the Pentax 6×7, a medium format camera that not only looks like an oversized 35 mm camera, but also operates like one. I found the f2.8, 165 mm telephoto lens at the same time. I was in for some surprises, because with the low price of the equipment, came a couple of setbacks.

Love at second sight

When I finally had the camera in my hand, I was overwhelmed: doing discreet street photography with a Pentax 6×7 is impossible because it turns you into a street attraction. It’s way too large, too loud and too slow to set up a shot… Maybe you can use it for streets from a distance with a super telephoto lens, though this camera setup might be more reminiscent of a rocket launcher and would draw even more attention. The Pentax 67 is heavy, massive and doesn’t fit particularly well in anyone’s hand (I got myself a custom 3D printed grip from Poland though, that helped, look below).

Break from the portfolio shoot together with Anna in Dresden 2022.

I fell for the camera because of the acoustics. The film spool and shutter release have a very distinctive, loud sound that I have never experienced with any film camera. Unique, very mechanical, like clockwork where you can hear every small part working, audio porn to its finest.

How a camera feels, how it rests in the hand and how many technical aids it comes with have a massive impact on the experience, the motifs, the time you take for each individual composition and generally the quality of the images, that come out: There is a reason why slow food is a trend you know.

Fewer shots is more

Just as a pianist will play a state-of-the-art Yamaha electronic piano with headphones completely differently than a grand piano in a concert hall, the tools one uses in photography impacts the craft itself.

If I photograph something digitally, I might end up liking three out of 100 images, but on 35 mm film I often like more than five out of 36 shots, and if I take 10 shots on a medium format roll, I sometimes like half of the images.

Which, by the way, is the reason why I recommend long-term photographers to try medium format photography at least once. It’s about a more conscious use of a medium that we are completely overwhelmed with and that we can rediscover for ourselves. Even if it sometimes can be a bit frustrating:

The first roles, a disappointment

With the Pentax 6×7 I had exactly the opposite experience to my first contact with medium format. The photos didn’t blow me away… or they did, but unfortunately not because they looked so good.

They were out of focus, almost across the board, in some cases simply underexposed, and completely overexposed at the edges, which suggests a defective exposure mechanism and then also slightly damaged by the film transport: Wow! You only have 10 images per roll of film, which means that not only is the yield quite low, but each lost image also costs real money.

Film Shooting Portrait von dem Münchner Fotograf Daniel Stein Schubert.
My Pentax 6×7 suffered from a front focus that was too close, unfortunately the focus was always slightly off in the foreground, in this case on the sleeve instead of the eyes. You can also see the damages I was mentioning in the lower third.

And with that the big troubleshooting began. Because I knew what the camera was capable of, I’ve seen enough YouTube videos and sample images of this portrait photography beast to not try to fix it and make it work. When so many photographers produce brilliant images with this camera, you want to be able to do it too!

Hunting down the defects

The difficult thing with old cameras, or film photography in general, is finding out why an image didn’t turn out the way you wanted, and in my experience it’s rarely the camera, but rather the handling. Unfortunately, film cameras aren’t as good feedback givers as their digital descendants… In fact, they’re pretty limited when it comes to feedback.

Not only will you not find any data on the film that indicates the settings with which the image was taken, but you will not see the image until a week later after you shot it. Even more so, unfortunately, the handling, aka me, was not the issue.

It’s blurry, but I still love the picture.

It confused me, I had no idea why the first four films delivered such poor results. Did I set the focus wrong? Is the overexposure because I didn’t roll the film correctly?

Is the dirty line because the film has already expired? After four films and a lot of “I’m just going to sell this stupid camera“-reactions over pictures that didn’t come out right, I decided to have the camera repaired.

The mirror plate

The focus was repaired because the glass plate between the viewfinder and the mirror mechanism was actually misaligned, probably from transport or when the camera fell over the years. Which meant that when you focused, the focus was always a little further in the foreground, than what you could see clearly through the viewfinder.

It’s relatively easy to detect a misfocus like this if you know how. You have to set the focus on the lens to infinity, i.e. to the furthest point, and check, preferably with a magnifying glass, whether the objects in the distance are maximally sharp. For me, they weren’t sharpest when the lens was turned to infinity, but rather when it was turned a little before infinity.

Out and about with Leona in Cuxhaven, the pictures were taken right after the mirror was repaired and I kept my fingers crossed that the focus was right this time: It actually was!

So missing the focus was finally not an issue anymore, a problem solved, many still ahead of me because the images still came out blurry even though the focus was right.

Upholstery for the mirror

I love the loud sound of the camera and the feedback of that massive mirror popping open, for a millisecond, and light burning an imprint of a moment onto the roll of film through a chemical process. It’s an unmistakable moment that, unfortunately, caused the camera to literally shake due to the size of the mirror and the heaviness of the mechanics.

Shaking when you trigger a camera is not good because it blurs the image. I found the solution to this problem in one of Munich’s oldest camera shops on Landwehrstraße, run by a gentleman that is older than the cameras that are examined in this shop. The solution was as simple as taping a few strips of leather to the inside of the camera where the mirror hit it. Cost of this repair, “just give me five euros“, I gave 15, and still felt like I should have given him more.

Lightleaks on the borders of the frame

The focus and sharpness finally worked. After getting the camera for under 400 euros, I have now invested almost 200 euros in repairs. Another lens for 350 Euros, a different viewfinder for 120 Euros and some macro rings for another 80 Euros: Slowly but surely, I needed some rewards from this investment. However, I still had an overexposed edge in some of the images.

You can still clearly see the overexposure at the bottom edge, but at least the image is now sharp… most of the time. In frame: Anna.

Although I invested in a repair again (another 90 Euros yay), this time of the curtain that opens when the camera takes a picture, the problem has not been solved. After all, for some reason the pollution disappeared in most of the shots – Why? I don’t know it.

Now I simply accept the overexposed edge as a gimmick of the camera and actually think it’s pretty cool: for me film photography isn’t something that has to be perfect anyway, just authentic. I began to see the camera less as a frustration and more as an exciting tool.

The appreciation and introduction of the Pentax 6×7 in my photography

At that point, I never had a camera that caused me so much trouble and that I had invested so much time/effort into. I was determined and wanted to permanently shoot Pentax 6×7 portraits that I was happy with. I knew she was capable of delivering the images I wanted to produce. And finally, after almost a year of struggle, I have arrived.

Kodak Gold 200 with the model Silvy, my favorite portrait of 2022. Of course because it is a great portrait, but also because the path to this picture, with this camera, was such an intensive process.

Why I love things that make things difficult for me

All the things that just happened to fall into my lap in my life rarely left a mark on me. It was the things that demanded a price, that required effort and that pushed me to my limits, that left something behind and that I still valued in the long term.

Of course, this camera hasn’t changed me into a different person or completely revolutionized my photography, but it has once again confirmed an important lesson for me. The process is often significantly more important than the result.

Spontaneous, quick 10 minutes shoot with to gaze upon us.

A complex journey not only creates appreciation for what you achieve in the end, but also leaves behind experiences that stay with you, ones that you can draw on in other situations in life.

That’s why the Pentax will always remain a special instrument in my collection, in which I have invested so much time/effort, that it is used when I really feel like creating something very special for myself. The camera would never have had this meaning and value for me if I hadn’t gone through so much with it and stuck with it no matter what.

Bittersweet is better than just sweet

Which brings me to the final point of this entry. I think no matter what it is, the things we had to fight for are the things that stay with us for a long time, that we value and that we keep in our lives.

As long as we decide to stick with it and learn a lesson from it… Just like a medium format camera that gave me so much frustration and also such a strong feeling of accomplishment.

One of my favorite bands wrote in a song, “you’ll miss what surrounds you every day“, meaning that we only appreciate inconspicuous things when they are gone. A rather unpleasant realization if it ever hits you.

However, this will never happen to me with things that I have spent a lot of time on, because I already appreciate them and that’s worth some frustration… maybe even a lot of money and time (I mean like hopefully, because this was expensive financially and energy-wise), 35 mm cameras can be a cheaper to shoot but some of them, like rangefinders from leica are even more expensiv than the pentax 6×7, but they have their own advantages.

On a different topic, my style in photography is heavily inspired by movies and what I think we all could learn from them, to improve our photos, you can read about it here.

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Selbstbewusstes Portrait einer Schauspielerin in München geschoßen von dem Fotografen Daniel Stein

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