Did 35mm Film Revolutionize News Photography?

In this screenshot from the movie We Were Soldiers, a photographer makes pictures of a U.S. flag after the battle. 35mm news photography matured in the 1960s due in part to the demands of photographing the Vietnam War.
In this screenshot from the movie We Were Soldiers, a photographer makes pictures of a U.S. flag after the battle. 35mm news photography matured in the 1960s due in part to the demands of photographing the Vietnam War.

For my entire career photographing news and sports, I have thought again and again about doing more of my work on medium format film as a supplement to the day-to-day 35mm film product.

Medium format is a class of film sizes between 35mm and large format sheet film.

I tried it for a while in the 1990s with my Fujifilm GW670iii, and way back in the day at the Shawnee News-Star, with a Rolleiflex T and Mamiya C330.

I bought the Fujifilm in the early 1990s as kind of a “fine art” camera, but I also shot some news with it.

The Fuji was bulky, only had one focal length, made just 10 frames on a roll of 120 film, and created some fairly significant obstacles when shooting by not having a light meter in it, and by its skinny aperture and shutter dials mounted on the lens. In addition, it had a lot of plastic; I once had to send it away to fix the wind knob.

Rolleiflex T and Mamiya C330 were even more awkward to use with the waist-level viewfinder, which required a special skill set to shoot looking down into the viewfinder hood, where everything is reversed left-to-right.

Most 120 and other medium-format cameras have very cumbersome systems for loading film compared to the ease of 35mm.

But the good thing about these cameras is that the negatives I got from then were beautiful, with gorgeous detail and tonal qualities that 35mm never quite mastered.

One thing all these medium-format cameras have in common: by the time we got rid of them, they were garage-sale junk, but today are commanding very premium prices because they continue to get scarcer, and have found a niche with millenials, who seem willing to pay anything to be sometimes pretentiously edgy and/or nerdy.

I thought of this lately as I have been rewatching the amazing 10-part documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which features a lot of news photography.

The parts are chronological, and if you put the images in context with other cameras and photographers in the scene, there is a very obvious change in the number, and quality, in these images. As news photography matured, it moved inexorably toward 35mm.

The fact that there were more images available was due to the fact that 35mm rolls can be 36 exposures in length, where medium format’s longest rolls were, depending on the camera, 15 frames.

And better quality? Wait, Richard, don’t you get better pictures with large film? Yes, you do, but the process slows you down too much for covering news (which is also a reason digital took the market away from film.) In many ways, quality in news photography is the quality of being there and getting an image.

When I left the Shawnee News-Star I should have bought or borrowed those TLR’s from the News-Star. My hope is that some collector has those cameras, and my fear is that they, like thousands or millions of old, perfectly good, cameras are gather dust in the bottom of a closet somewhere, or rusting at the bottom of the dump.

This is my Nikon F3 with my rare and excellent 25-50mm f/4 on it. I sold it about 15 years ago, and kinda miss it ever since.
This is my Nikon F3 with my rare and excellent 25-50mm f/4 on it. I sold it about 15 years ago, and kinda miss it ever since.