Big Chips: The Argument for Medium-Format

Introduction

In the midst of all of the hubbub about new cameras from Fuji, Canon and Nikon, there were two announcements that also made waves in the photo industry. There weren’t huge waves, but they gave rise to a very interesting topic that bears discussion.

In the last month or so, David Hobby, the man behind the enormously popular blog strobist.com, and renowned photographer and educator Zack Arias, both announced that they were switching to medium-format cameras.

Both announcements were met with cheers and a lot of curiosity from the folks who follow Zack and David’s work. As expected, there was a good deal of criticism as well. Just read the comment thread about this article over at Reddit to get an idea of how people are reacted to Zack’s announcement.

The general feel of the negative reaction to these two photographers moving to MF (medium-format) was summed up by a friend of mine who explained, “It’s a pro saying, ‘here’s why I moved to this system you can’t afford.’ To the general public it’s not exactly helpful.”

I disagreed with him, and I disagree with the anti-medium-format naysayers, and here’s why.

First things first

Let’s get one thing straightened out right away: gear isn’t going to make you a better photographer. Practice, education, patience, and hard work are going to do that.

Here at TWiP, you’ve heard folks repeatedly stress that your cameras and lenses are just tools, like paintbrushes and palettes in the hands of artists. As photographers, we tend to geek out over gear, and that’s fine, but ultimately, it’s your vision and your work that will define you as an artist, not your camera.

So why speak up in favor of medium-format gear? Why mention it at all, when the TWiP audience is almost entirely comprised of folks who shoot on DSLRs?

Why medium format?

The Mamiya DM-Series 28Mp DSLR Camera Kit, which retails for $9,990
The Mamiya DM-Series 28Mp DSLR Camera Kit, which retails for $9,990.

Frederick Van Johnson likes to quote Wayne Gretzky. “Skate where the puck’s going, not where it’s been,” he keeps saying.

I like that quote, and we’ve consistently seen evidence of its veracity. Folks like David Hobby, Joe McNally, and Vincent Laforet saw where the puck was going and positioned themselves perfectly to take advantage of it.

As photographers, we need to know where the puck is going, and to me, it seems like the puck is going towards medium format. The reason I think so is linked to a number of factors, with two of them standing out.

Price

The best medium-format systems cost upwards of $40,000. Some digital backs alone cost that much, without the actual camera and lens (medium format cameras are very modular, and the “back” containing the sensor is sold separately).

Scale back to the less-than-high-end, however, and you have body/back/lens kits from Mamiya that go for less than $10,000, new. If you’re prepared to buy used, you can get a pretty nice system for around $6000, with an older 20-25MP digital back. That’s about the price of the new D4, or the 1Dx, and less than what the Nikon D3x sold for when it first came out.

And these prices are coming down, just like DSLR prices came down from the stratospheric $35,000 they used to go for. Today, you can get one for about $800 that will knock the socks off those early, five-figure DSLRs.

Renting is also another option. I compared rates at some of the rental places around the San Francisco Bay Area, and as it turns out, you can rent a Hasselblad H4D40 with two lenses for about as much as a D3x with two Zeiss prime lenses for a weekend.

Weekend rental rates for a Hasselblad can be about the same for a Nikon with two lenses
Weekend rental rates for a Hasselblad can be about the same for a Nikon with two lenses.

Quality

No one I know who has shot medium format has ever been able to credibly say that the quality of the medium-format file is not better than that of their DSLRs. Not one person.

It’s not about the number of pixels. More pixels can be nice – Nikon feels this way, and has just announced the D800 with the highest megapixel count in a DSLR to date. But it’s not about the number of pixels.

It’s about the size of the sensor. I’ve got a dozen analogies to explain this, but Zack Arias’ is the best.

It’s not about how many pixels you can pack onto a sensor. It’s about the size and quality of them. The quality of the actual chip. The quality of the engine running it. It’s like this… You can put a turbo on an older Honda but it ain’t a new Porsche. Yes, it has a turbo. Yes it will go faster than it used to. But is is the same as a Porsche turbo? Nope. So Nikon and Canon can continue adding turbos to their sensors but it’s still the exact same size sensor as we had before.

That about sums it up. But in case you’re not convinced, here’s what David Hobby had to say the first time he saw a RAW file out of a Phase One.

From that instant, resistance was pretty much futile. It’s like that moment when you first hear a favorite recording on an amazing stereo system for the first time and you think, wait, you mean ALL of my music could sound this good?

It’s about the quality, and quality matters. That big chip, which offers around 12 stops of dynamic range, is just that good. That’s why MF shooters love their rigs.

The Phase One camera system that David Hobby and Zack Arias switched to
The Phase One camera system that David Hobby and Zack Arias switched to.

And we need that quality. Today, it might not matter all that much to most shooters, but can anyone doubt that a future iteration of the iPad will have the high-res, 326ppi Retina display that’s on the current iPhone 4/4s? Can anyone doubt that a future iteration of the MacBook will eventually have a Retina display? As we go forward, can anyone really argue that we won’t see screens with wider gamuts, able to display a greater color range? I don’t think so.

It follows, then, that we will need tools capable of producing imagery that can take full advantage of these new displays. Medium-format gear is ideal for this.

Bigger is also the way video is going. Consider RED, the company that likes to upend things in that space. They started with a 24.4mm X 13.7mm sensor on the RED One, then upped it to a 27.7mm X 14.6mm sensor on the EPIC. Future iterations are headed towards a ridiculously large 168m X 56mm sensor with a 261MP resolution.

Conclusion

Owning medium-format today is out of the reach of most photographers. I get that. I don’t shoot medium-format digital yet either. The point of this column isn’t to make you run out and sell your DSLRs and buy into MF.

But medium-format is coming. We’re going to see larger sensors, more modular cameras, and post-processing work with new software, for starters. More is on the way, and it behooves us to be aware of it at the very least. If we ignore or shout down photographers who are taking the first steps into this realm and talking about it, then we lose one of our best sources of information.

Once again, I want to reiterate this: gear will not make you a better photographer. As David DuChemin says, “Gear is good. Vision is better.” Get to know what you have, push it to the limit and develop your vision before you look for the next bit of kit.

That said, I quote David DuChemin again, this time from a comment he left on Zack Arias’ blog entry announcing his medium-format switch:

I hate you. Been trying to dodge this reality for a while, and it’s coming closer and closer. I think I’m done with falling off walls for now, so might as well learn a new system. These posts are tough to do because inevitably someone gets in your grill about “the camera doesn’t matter.” And it really doesn’t. Unless you have specific needs, and then it does. And if the client even thinks they have the need for larger files, or you happen to love printing gigantic prints, then output matters and the kind of camera you have determines this output.

‘Nuff said.

  • First I would be surprised if Zack and David really dumped there 35mm size DSLRs. What they did was add to their arsenals. In the film days I shot large medium and 35mm format. They all have their place in the digital world.
    What is sort of being danced around here is resolution. Resolution is really what this is about. Resolution  is a basic term that describes the amount detail an an image holds. There four basic things that determine resolution.
    (1) The quality of the glass.
    (2) The number of the megapixel
    (3) The quality of the megapixel
    (4) The size of the format

    Megapixels are interesting. Doubling the mega pixel does not mean you will double the size of the print in fact you will most likely only be a third bigger in size.
    You also have to way the quality of the megapixel, more noise less resolution. 
    What MF format has is a format that can have good quality of megapixel. That is why you have a higher resolution.

    But keep in if you shooting in low a Camera like a D3 will have less noise than a Most of the MF cameras so the resolution could become higher depending on the conditions. Also both Nikon and Canon have superior glass to the MF companies so that also affects resolution.

    For ideal and studio conditions Medium format has a higher resolution, but out side of conditions 35mm senor format can rival the quality of MF.

  • So, Sohail, are you suggesting that Medium Format is something hobbyist and pro-sumers should consider?  If someone has a chance to shoot Medium Format, they definitely should.  Hopefully, there will be more chances for more less than top-pro’s to do so.  However, the cost of gear is higher by factor of 8 to 10 times, entire workflow and post-production is different and most people’s computer sets ups at home would not be adequate.  Also, likely they aren’t prepared for the additional time the workflow is going to take.
    Photographers who’s talent and reputation warrants $1,000 an hour or expect to get work for advertisers in major print publications, need Medium Format. The everyday photo enthusiast, would likely do better investing in more lenses, adding Primes for instances, or taking more seminars and directed training.  

    Buying an old film Medium Format and practice getting some of Ansel Adams shots would be a nice growth experience, but selling all your 35mm Digital equipment or mortgaging the house to buy medium format for the less than pro’s is more likely a fools errand.

  • Hi Scott,

    I totally agree that buying a film camera is a great way to get an introduction to medium-format. Notice that in the op-ed, I mention that I don’t shoot “medium-format digital.” That’s because I shoot B&W film with my Mamiya C33 TLR and a Hasselblad 500C borrowed from a friend. 

    Do I think hobbyists need to consider medium-format? Depends on how serious their hobby is, I suppose. I know a few hobbyists who shoot large-format Sinars with digital backs, but refuse to go pro with their work. Prosumers, though, should definitely consider learning about medium format – or at least keep an eye on the technology as it gets cheaper, more available and more accessible. 

    I shot film for a long time, and throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I was told that serious amateurs shouldn’t bother learning about digital. $35,000 cameras were out of reach for most folks, the workflow was different, only pros need it, etc. 🙂 

    My point is simply this: technology progresses. Moore’s Law isn’t a constant, but is a good axiom to factor in. I think medium-format is where technology is progressing to. At some point soon I think it’ll be within reach of many more shooters than it is now (especially as a major online rental house is considering adding medium-format to its inventory). The more we know about medium-format, the better prepared we will be and the less time we’ll spend playing catchup. 

  • Hi Ralph,

    Zack and David aren’t ditching their 35mm rigs, and I do think that those rigs have their place, just as medium-format does. I suppose “switch” is the wrong verb to use; perhaps “adopt” would be better. 

    And yes, MF cameras don’t do well in low light. So I won’t be doing any street-shooting or wedding receptions with them. 

    But I also like to shoot with strobes, and am progressing to a point where that will be my primary type/style of photography. So, in a year or two, medium-format might just appeal to me. I’m keeping an eye on it now so that, (a) when the time comes to adopt it, I’ll have a shallowed learning curve and (b) I write about photography, and it behooves me to be aware of upcoming trends and technologies.

  • I should say your article is very good. Like I said it is about Resolution. 😉
    The reason for going to MF is the resolution, all I did was put a little bit of jaded perspective.

  • Learning is ALWAYS a good thing, so I 100% agree and support that notion.  Learning how to shoot medium-format, iPhone, 35mm with macro lens to 500mm prime lens, all would benefit a holistic photographer (mostly in understanding LIGHT, and how to bend it, caress it and massage it with the glass and sensor you have in hand).  

    I was lucky to get an afternoon with Hasselblad H4D-50, and loved the experience.  Similar to the time I got to drive up the coast in someone eles Ferrari.  While I loved the driving experience, it would make no sense for me to buy a Ferrari given my income and most of my driving would never get out of 3rd gear.  At least as of today, I think the analogy holds for digital photographers.

    I do question if the technology progression is in this direction.  90% of all photos taken last year were with a cell-phone camera, and IDC projects that number to rise to 95% within a few years (affirming the adage that the best camera is the one in your hand).  The niches of high-end 35mm DSRL’s and much much smaller niche of medium format will see advances, but at slowing rates given both proliferation, saturation and obliquity of digital cameras.  

    I’d advocate learning Off-Camera Flash, low light shooting, and time lapse for shooters as higher priorities, but yeah if a buddy has a Hasselblad, grab that baby and go play, go learn (just dont sell you stuff for the privilege).  

    cheers!

  • Most medium format cameras are still SLR. There are also range finder and TLR. Technical the system mentioned are DSLR.

  • To me this is all discussion about the 4th dimension.  Medium Format has always had the advantage over the SLR/DLSR, it is all about what you are going to shoot and the correct gear for the job.  I would not use my framers hammer to hang a picture any more then I would use a MF system to cover a basketball game.   

  • Why no mention of the Pentax 645D?  40MP, weather sealed body, use of high quality legacy 645/6×7 lenses, for under $10K

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