Recently, someone asked me if I knew the size of a 35mm negative. I hesitated. It’s not that I didn’t know the answer — it’s that I knew so many answers.
The most common response is usually “36mm x 24mm” — which results in the classic 3:2 aspect ratio, and thus explains the ubiquity of 4×6 drugstore prints stuffed into old shoe boxes all around the globe. Not coincidentally, this is also the size of a “full frame” sensor on a modern 35mm digital camera — although applying the “35mm” designation to digital cameras is an anachronistic misnomer. Since the 35mm dimension refers to the film strip’s actual height, and since digital cameras don’t actually use film, the label is historically convenient but fundamentally meaningless. But I digress…
A strip of 35mm film is, indeed, 35mm tall — but because it contains sprocket holes, the usable imaging height is actually only a little over 24mm. There are, of course, cameras that are designed to use the entire 35mm frame height, thus creating photos with visible sprocket holes. Lomography, in particular, market numerous cameras that use the full 35mm height. The presence of sprocket holes in photos provides incontrovertible proof that the camera’s owner is “hip” enough to use film (but not so “hip” that he doesn’t feel the need to brag about it). And thus, because these cameras exceed the 24mm height standard of a “traditional” 36 x 24 negative, we have our first alternate answer to the question, “how big is a 35mm negative?”
The answer breaks down even further when you consider that 35mm film was actually developed as a movie format in the late 19th century, becoming the accepted international standard for motion pictures by the early 20th century. Most movie cameras, unlike still cameras, transport the film vertically across the lens — with the sprocket holes to either side. This means the 24mm gap between the two sprocket areas no longer defines the frame’s maximum height, but its maximum width. In order to produce movies that are wider than they are tall, the frame’s height shrinks to approximately 18mm — the space occupied by 4 sprocket holes. So for motion pictures, a “standard” 35mm film frame is actually (and specifically) 24.89mm x 18.66mm — which results in a 4:3 aspect ratio, thus explaining why television sets were originally created to display this same ratio, and why so many early digital devices defaulted to 640 x 480 pixels.
Eventually, some greedy Hollywood entrepreneurs realized they could make even more money if movies involved two senses, rather than one — so a synchronized audio track was added to the film, borrowing a bit of that 24mm width to hold the audio information, and thus reducing the imaging area to only 22mm. To keep the frame’s aspect ratio roughly the same, the height was also decreased — from 18.66mm to 16mm, and thus was born the “Academy Ratio” of 1.375:1 — and with it came yet another answer to the question, “how big is a 35mm negative?”
Over the years, we humans have managed to fit all sorts of different aspect ratios onto a strip of 35mm film. We devised the “widescreen” format, which created a 1.85:1 ratio on a 21.95 x 18.6 negative. If you think those dimensions don’t jive with that aspect ratio, you’re right — this system requires cameras with special anamorphic lenses that distort the image to fit within the designated area. A projector with an equal-but-opposite anamorphic lens is then used to un-distort the image, so that it looks normal when projected on a screen.
“Expanding” on this idea, the industry next developed CinemaScope™, which used an even crazier anamorphic lens system to squeeze an even wider 2.39:1 image into that same 21.95 x 18.6 chunk of 35mm film. A whole host of thisScope™ and thatScope™ formats followed, prior to giving way to Super35 — which adheres to the “what-goes-around-comes-around” law of technology. Super35 reverted back to the original 24×18 frame used in the days of silent movies. By designating itself as a “capture” format, and not a “distribution” format, filmmakers could use inexpensive non-anamorphic lenses to record the largest frame possible, and then simply crop it to fit whatever various display sizes were needed (theater projection, broadcast television, video tape, DVD, etc).
The problem with Super35 was that, if you knew your final output was destined for only one particular type of display device — and that device happened to be “widescreen” — then you wasted a whole lot of film capturing visual information that no one would actually see. Hence the popularity of the so-called “3-perf” format, which (like its name implies) uses 3 sprocket holes (rather than 4) to define the height of a single frame. The end result is a negative that uses the film’s maximum width of 24.89mm, while needing only 13.9mm of frame height. This results in a 16:9 aspect ratio. Sound familiar?
Even if I dispense with the whole subject of 35mm motion picture film, and ignore the trendy little world of Lomography cameras, there’s still no definitive answer to the question, “how big is a 35mm negative?”
Most still photography cameras transport the film horizontally across a lens, meaning the sprocket holes are at the top and bottom of a frame, and that the 24mm gap between them becomes a frame height limitation and not a frame width limitation. With no physical constraints (other than the film’s 160cm length), 35mm cameras can create negatives of any width their designers desire — it’s only tradition that causes so many to conform to the 36mm width standard.
Consider my Widelux F7. Its 24mm tall negative is roughly 59mm wide — 2/3 wider than a “standard” 35mm negative — which results in a 2.5:1 aspect ratio.
On the other end of the scale is my Olympus PEN FT. Its 24mm tall negative is only 17.5mm wide — approximately half the size of a “standard” 35mm negative — which results in a portrait oriented photo closer to the 4:3 aspect ratio of movies than to the 3:2 ratio normally associated with 35mm photography.
My Lomography Spinner 360 creates negatives of quasi-random width — their dimension determined by the responsiveness of the rubber-band that drives the camera. With a good spin, I’ll get negatives that are 170mm wide. Plus, since the camera fills the vertical frame from edge-to-edge (thus including sprocket holes), the actual frame height is nearly 35mm — which results in a 5:1 aspect ratio.
My “dream” camera is a Hasselblad Xpan — a 35mm panoramic camera that essentially uses a wide-angle medium format lens (rather than a rotating lens) to create a 65 x 24 negative — a 2.7:1 aspect ratio.
And then there’s the camera I’ve been shooting on-and-off for the past few weeks — the Minolta Freedom Vista. Like the Olympus Pen FT, it too is a half-frame camera, but with a completely different orientation. Instead of using the full 24mm height of a standard frame and cutting its width in half, the Freedom Vista uses the full 36mm width of a standard frame and cuts its height in half. This results in a negative that’s 36mm x 12mm — a 3:1 aspect ratio. It also provides yet another answer to the question “how big is a 35mm negative?”
And so, after the longest preamble in ULTRAsomething history, I’m now able to segue into the real topic of this article: discussing the Minolta Freedom Vista.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve long wanted a Hasselblad Xpan. And human nature dictates that the longer you want something you can’t have, the more obsessed you become with it. Fortunately, since I’ve been lusting after the Xpan for only about 14 years, I still possess enough salient faculties to rationalize not owning one. Helping to curb my acquisition desire is the fact that the lens I want for it — the 30mm f/5.6 — costs over twice as much as the Xpan body and its 45mm f/4 lens combined — and neither body nor 45mm lens are, themselves, particularly affordable. Then, for good measure, there’s the whole problem of scanning negatives that are too wide to fit within the framing constraints of my scanner’s film carrier. But still… there’s that itch… and that urge to scratch…
… which is why the arrival of the Minolta Freedom Vista was so welcome.
For one thing — and in direct contrast to acquiring a Hasselblad Xpan — the Minolta Freedom Vista was free. OK, I actually did purchase this camera back in the early 1990’s as a gift for my mother. But last month, after rescuing it from a decade spent in bottom-of-the-drawer purgatory, my mother offered to give it back to me. Since I never met a film camera I didn’t like, particularly a free film camera, I accepted. Besides, conceptually, the camera is identical to the Hasselblad Xpan — a panoramic, flat back, 35mm camera.
Of course, it’s no Xpan. But then it doesn’t pretend to be. The Freedom Vista is one of many cameras that surfed the panorama wave that traversed the earth in the 1990’s. Once old Snapshot Joe caught site of those big, juicy 4×10 panoramic prints in the local drugstore, how could he possibly be satisfied with his boring old 4×6 prints? And thus the fad began…
But “real” panoramic cameras were expensive. All that extra imaging width demanded extra resolution, which meant demanding photographers demanded medium format. Linhof, Horsemen and, of course, the ever-popular (and unwieldy) Fuji 617 were the professional panoramic cameras of choice. Any photographer not lucky enough to own a stable stocked with pack mules would usually opt for a 35mm equivalent. These specialized cameras create non-standard negatives with the width of medium format film, but with the height limitations of 35mm. To achieve such extreme widths on 35mm film, some cameras used “normal” 35mm format lenses that swung across the film, exposing it sequentially (like the Widelux). Other cameras used lenses with medium format specifications on 35mm bodies (like the Xpan) — thus insuring good edge-to-edge fidelity on the extra wide negatives.
But what about Snapshot Joe? It’s unlikely he’d tolerate the hassle and expense that “real” panoramic photography required. So, in order to satisfy the panoramic cravings of the consumer photography market, camera makers stocked the shelves with “fake” panoramic cameras — gluing inexpensive wide-angle lenses onto standard 35mm bodies, and masking off the top and bottom of the frame. This is exactly the approach taken by the Minolta Freedom Vista, which uses a 24mm lens to fill the width of a “standard” 36mm wide frame — masking the top and bottom of the frame to reduce the image height to only 12mm. As you might imagine, there were a lot of rather poor “fake” panoramic cameras. I remember that I didn’t want my Mom to get stuck with a “lemon,” and I recall researching each model extensively — and after much agony, I chose the Minolta Freedom Vista. Little did I know the camera would end up back in my hands some 20 years later.
So did I choose wisely? It’s hard to say. Even today, many people speak quite fondly of these old Minoltas — and they’re often the recommended model for anyone wishing to mess around with an inexpensive panoramic film camera. So current scuttlebutt seems to confirm that I made an appropriate choice. But I’m approaching this camera from a completely different perspective than most people who use one — a perspective tinted by Xpan lust, and obscured by a pile of rather “well-appointed” film cameras that I’ve accumulated and shot throughout the ages.
The Freedom Vista is, in most every way, the opposite of “well-appointed.” It is, in fact, what’s commonly called a “point & shoot” camera. As every discerning (i.e. “snobbish”) photographer knows, “point & shoot” is a euphemism for “crappy camera carried by crappy photographer.” At least that’s what I believed back in the early 1990’s, when I was a crappy photographer masquerading as a good one. In my modern, wiser guise as a more humble “inclusive” photographer, I accept and appreciate all cameras, and can definitely say I’ve liked every single film camera I’ve ever used (and I’ve used a lot of them).
So I borrowed a CR123 battery from my Sekonic light meter, snatched a roll of my cheapest film from the bottom of the refrigerator, dropped the cartridge into the camera, and closed its film door. Zzzzzzzzzzzpft. Just like that, the camera was ready to shoot. Sweet! In contrast, it takes me about 10 minutes to trim a film leader and fiddle with threading it through my “well-appointed” Leica III. Score one for the “point & shoot.”
I had a tremendous amount of fun shooting with this camera, and could easily see myself adapting comfortably to the “point & shoot” lifestyle. Exposure? Who cares! Focus? Don’t bother! Winding? Hey, my thumb has better things to do than flick the film advance lever all day long. Heck, with the Minolta Freedom Vista, all I had to think about was how to compose my photo — the camera took care of everything else. I totally get the meaning behind the word “Freedom” in Minolta’s “Freedom Vista” designation.
Less satisfying is Minolta’s realization of the word “Vista.” With its horizontal half-frame format employing only half the usual number of silver halide crystals, the camera needs a high-quality optic in order to help counter the crystal paucity. Instead, Olympus chose a lens that positively bathes in mediocrity, and which renders edges so soft they could be used metaphorically in a toilet tissue commercial. To be fair, these cameras were designed for people shooting tourist landscapes from scenic overlooks on bright, beautiful, sunny summer days — days in which the lens automatically stops down and the edge performance improves significantly. But inclement weather shooting? Indoor shooting? Shooting on the shadowy side of the street? Nope. Not if you want to actually see those edges.
Lately, I’ve been shooting extensively with an Olympus Pen FT — a half-frame camera of a completely different persuasion — and the experience is teaching me to look for photographic opportunities that revel in the format’s limitations, rather than fight them. So after developing my first roll of “typically” panoramic Freedom Vista shots, I adjusted my technique to more closely match that which I employed for the PEN — that is, I looked for simple, elegant shots that didn’t suffer from the resolution-robbing combination of a half-frame camera and a lackluster lens. And that’s when the Freedom Vista and I became good buddies.
I’m not sure if the Minolta Freedom Vista has temporarily sated my Xpan hunger or intensified it. I do know that I’m enjoying the wide aspect ratio, and the creative challenge of filling a frame with interesting bits of negative space. Of course, this is exactly what I’d be doing with an Xpan — only with much higher fidelity. But I must admit that I’m also enjoying the decidedly lo-fi negatives produced by this camera (made even more lo-fi by my decision to use budget Kentmere 100 film, and then emphasize its gnarly grain structure through Rodinal development). I’m doing things with the Freedom Vista that I probably wouldn’t choose to do with a premium camera like the Xpan, and this is yielding some surprisingly enjoyable results.
Fortunately, owning a Freedom Vista doesn’t actually preclude me from one day owning an Xpan. And frankly, when it comes to film cameras, I seem to be adopting a “more the merrier” attitude — with each camera fulfilling a specific purpose, or opening another creative neural network. Nope, you can never have too many film cameras — just like you can never have too many answers to the question, “how big is a 35mm negative?”
©2013 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: All photos were taken with a Minolta Freedom Vista camera, using Kentmere 100 film, exposed at ISO 100 and developed 1:25 in Rodinal. Banal shots such as “Vertigo,” “Order” and “Full Moon” encouraged increasing levels of experimentation, leading to increasingly austere shots, which culminated with images such as “Icarus,” “10:50,” “Schism,” “Keating” and “Bokeh Bath.” It’s quite likely, had I shot another roll of film, my austerity experiments would have eventually yielded photos composed of nothing but grain panoramas.
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