Best-of-the-best 35mm / Pan F vs 6x7cm / HP5
I don't want to get into a film vs digital debate, I am specifically looking for opinions from experienced 35mm film shooters (preferably über-quality such as Leica M) that shoot monochrome film and print in the darkroom.
I extensively use two photographic systems, Olympus OM and Mamya RB67. Both systems are kitted with top-quality glass, with my most widely-used being the 24mm F2, 90mm F2 Macro, 250mm F2 for the Olympus, and the 140mm f/4.5 Macro for the Mamiya.
Based on nothing more than gut feel, I always harboured an "understanding" that my two systems (the mamiya with its ~f/4 lenses, the OM with its ~f/2 lenses) are rather "equal" when I shoot B&W film two stops different in them, i.e. FP4 (ISO125) in the OM, and HP5 (ISO400) in the Mamiya.
This was until I printed the following image (which is simply a direct film scan, since my scanner is too small to scan the print) to 16x20in, the first time I had ever printed such a large image (I am slowly working my way up):
The image was taken hand-held (an RB67 hanging off the neck, with its weight, is one of the stablest hand-held cameras) with the 140mm f/4.5 C-series Macro lens set to f/8, on Ilford HP5+, self-developed in a D67-equivalent developer (diluted 1+1, 20ºC, 11min).
The print was made through an EL-Nikkor 135mm f/5.6 enlarging lens (the best I've ever used, and bloody near to the ceiling at this magnification!) on Ilford MG IV multigrade paper, not even fibre-based or anything.
I have, in full, experienced the epiphany which surely everybody must feel when making their first quite large print from a medium-format negative.
My most carefuly-made 35mm image shot on Pan F (enlarged through a Rodenstock Rodagon 50mm f/2.8), taken with the undisputed best lens in the OM lens lineup (250mm f/2.0 shot at f/5.6), printed to a smaller size (9x12in) does not even come close. Prints of my own previous work on a Canon 1Ds MkII / L-lenses, or downloaded full-size images from a Leica M9, does not even come nearly close. But, as I said, I do not want to discuss film vs digital, I wish to remain in the analogue domain.
I "knew" 6x7cm was better, but I was well and truly shocked to see for myself, the first time, just how much better it is - after accumulating almost two years' experience in the wet darkroom. This experience with HP5 (which has produced a completely grain-less print to my eyes) has totaly changed the way I look at this film (which produces rather grainy prints from 35mm).
I have shot Ilford Delta 100 / 400 before, but I much prefer the characteristics of the "traditional" (FP4/HP5/PanF) films. I really can't wait to set the darkroom up to more easily make such big prints (get bigger trays, and a wider 6x7cm enlaring lens) - the quality and satisfaction is just unbelievable.
So - my final words are a question to anybody who has experience in using both mediums: Considering the same mildy large print size (say, 12x16in) - is there anything that could be done in 35mm which would yield a print with similar smoothness, detail and clarity, as an ISO 400 6x7cm image shot with a great lens such as the Mamiya Sekor-C 140mm Macro?
Pan F, and the highest-resolution / contrast 35mm lens I have access to clearly does not cut it. Sure, it does other things no Medium-format camera can... But the quality difference is so much more dramatic than what I had imagined, and this is only at "modestly large" print sizes.