Big Chips: The Argument for Medium-Format

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

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.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn