10.05.2012

Walking back a commitment to digital imaging.


The latest Photokina and the showing of new product from the makers of medium format digital gear started some discussions around the web on just how different current medium format digital cameras are from 35mm sized digital cameras. And that led, on most of the forums that deal with the arcane world of cameras costing over $10,000 to a rather logical discussion of just what might be the differentiators between the current state of MF digital and all the more "plebeian" format such as m4:3, APS-C and 24x36.

Here's how I parse it all: Until the launch of the Nikon D800 the medium format market dominated the highest image quality tier because of the enormous resolution advantages and the true 14 or 16 bit depth per channel. Holding the line at 6um pixel sizes also yielded advantages in overall dynamic range. There was also the presumption (or prejudice) that CCD sensors looked better than CMOS sensors and all of the MF digital backs and cameras used CCD sensors.

When Nikon (Sony) showed up with the 36 megapixel chip and it turned out to be really, really good it naturally eroded a lot of the imaging quality advantages.  Now the MF crowd are starting to source CMOS sensors to answer two of the vexing issues facing MF camera users: 1. Being able to accurately focus the systems, via live view and getting meaningful previews. So now the perceived advantages of the CCD sensors will be eliminated as well (holy homogenization!).

Where that leaves most medium format digital users who are in the financial "nose bleed" section is with camera backs of about 40 megapixels with a total sensor geometry that's about 50% bigger than a competing 24 by 36mm sensor.

None of that really matters to me. The thing I want when I look to medium format is that wonderful size different that we had between 56 by 56mm film and 24 by 36mm film.  Being fractionally bigger doesn't convey the optical difference in depth of field or rate of focus fall off the way X times bigger does.  What's the difference in surface area? How about 864 versus 3136? Roughly a 4:1 difference.  The difference between a Leica S sensor and a Nikon/Canon/Sony sensor? Roughly 1:1.5.  Hmmmm.

In the old days of film we came to MF for the resolving power but we stayed for the smoother tonal transitions and the smoother, more elegant and faster transitions between in and out of focus.  
And to a large extent that's one of the critical looks that's been missing from the tool box/ammunition dump of expressive photography since the early part of the century. We throw aesthetics out when we chose mindless convenience.

( Sarcasm alert: Yes, I'm sure you can put a fast lens on the front of your small digital camera and emulate the look of an older, square format camera with a long lens exactly..... )

Some of my photographer friends have been mystified by my acquisition of two nearly brand new Hasselblad 500 series cameras this year and I am sure they will be equally mystified by my acquisition of a lightly used 180mm f4 Zeiss Sonnar but I'm here to tell you that the look is different. At least it is to me and it's my pervasive sense of reality that I have to deal with, not anyone else's.

I actually did a private portrait session recently for a client who also thinks they can see the difference. While I'm sure it's a tiny niche market I'm equally sure that portraits done on full frame, medium format film can be a profitable niche in higher end markets. The more things are automated the more it seems that people are drawn to original works with mature and archival materials.  I guess we'll see we'll see what the market will bear.

The image above was done years ago with a Hasselblad ELX and a 180mm Sonnar f4. It was a very sharp and flare free lens that used to cost an arm and a leg. It can now be had for less than the price of a small sensor camera body. I go both ways. I have a Sony Nex system and I've used so many different professional and quasi professional digital systems that I could have saved the money and shot everything on film for the last 12 years. 

Digital has it's place. It's good for most stuff. But there are areas in which the bigger film size of 6x6 has clear aesthetic advantages to me. And if we're trying to market images without compromise why wouldn't I want to be able to work with the tools that match one vision? After all, someone has to work in that last 5%. (Remember all that stuff about "raising one's game?).

22 comments:

andrewteee said...

I just wrote a long'ish comment and then Blogspot's design messed me up and I lost it... my point was, I can understand Kirk. Go for it!

Glenn Harris said...

Beautiful portrait. What camera was used doesn't do much for me but the large soft lighting and hair light really compliments this beautiful model. Thanks for sharing.

David said...

Yes Fully agree the look is actually very different. I tried the 500C an really hated it. I know that sounds odd. But I really love the Pentacon 6. The camera is SLR like and I like that. I have the Kiev viewfinder which is crazy bright and easy to focus and the Zeiss lenses are great. But my favorite and on the camera all the time is the Arsat 55mm shift lens. The field of view is roughly 30mm in Full frame. I brought my recently aquired Kodak SLR/n, Olympus E3 and the Pentacon on my last beach holiday. I shot about 10 rolls of Portra ISO 160 mixed with ISO 400 and far too many great images. At 13 shots per roll thats roughly 130 images, which you can see over the week was the most used camera of the 3.

Yoram Nevo said...

Why is it not possible to put together 4 Sony FF sensors (of 24 or 36 MegaPixels) and get a (relatively) cheap MF digital sensor of 48x72 cm ?

Hugh said...

Completely agree with you... large medium format used with a wide aperture has a look all its own. Pentax 67 user here.

Mark M. Fredrickson said...

I'd love a little system that attached my m4/3 gear to the back of a MF camera. I wonder if a motivated manufacturer could combine the large focusing plane of MF with a small capture sensor. For example, the camera focuses the image on ground glass and then a small lens in front of FF/APS-C/m43 sensor is used to make the capture. Kind of like a reverse enlarger (and the lens infront of the sensor would have the same qualities as an enlarger lens -- flat, flat, flat and sharp, sharp, sharp). I've seen view cameras with DSLR/similar backs, but these are often used to take multiple, stitched captures.

Michael Ferron said...

Big film does have look. Sometimes subtle, sometimes noticeable but it's there. I just shot an event for my company. Took 400 and edited them down to 50 keepers. No way in hell I'm going to do that on film but my old Rolleiflex is still a favorite for achieving that "look".

Martin Ranger said...

I couldn't agree more. I have a Fuji GX680, and absolutely love the look I can get from the Fuji 180mm 3.2 lens.

MartinP said...

Mr.Tuck, thank you for saying stuff that people have frequently forgotten! Whether the camphone look is now 'expected', rather than tolerated, is another thing. Maybe you could run a workshop on this? (only joking, see Mr.Tucks last post).

To Mr.Fredrickson, I'd suggest the magic is in the relationship between the lens and size of the image format, rather than any property of an MF body, but you can easily find adapters for almost-any-MF-lensmount to m4/3, or APS-C, to check this out. I use large Zeiss glass on a digital K-5 half-frame (always wanted to type that again) camera for example, but it doesn't give similar final results to using the same lenses on 120 HP5+ or Portra (which is 7.26 times larger, although one might crop a bit).

Libby said...

You have to learn to turn the volume down on all the gumflapping on the forums. Half of the ones doing the yelling and stamping of feet and bitching about why MF does not come down to under $5000 have never used MF either digital or film, and so it's a futile discussion. And even of by some miracle such a low price model did appear, they would certainly then yell about the FPS.

I love the look on all my old Mamiya stuff - 65mm, 90mm, 127mm - each has it's own characteristics. The 65mm is one of my favorite landscape lenses. I have a Hassy in the closet - I don't know if I'll resurrect it or not. What I would really like is a Mamiya 7. Now that's a camera.

Kirk Tuck said...

I was thinking that Mr. F was alluding to a trick from the movie film days where people used basically projection through the lens onto a screen and then the screen was photographed. It did help with small video to create a "film look" because the attributes of the lens and the bigger format were captured. Think of shooting with a Hblad to a ground glass back which isn't a ground glass but an aerial glass and then record the image off the 2.25 by 2.25 inch glass. Maybe not elegant but perhaps a clever work around...

Nick said...

"[I]t's my pervasive sense of reality that I have to deal with, not anyone else's."

And there we have, in one sentence, a perfect rebuttal of everything that's wrong with the arguments over this and that format/lens/manufacturer/medium. "X captures more detail than Y" is probably a scientific statement, in that it is likely testable and falsifiable. "X looks better than Y" is not a statement that is nearly so amenable to rational examination, since there is no "looks better" meter yet build, and definitions of "better" are likely to vary considerably.

In my reality, digital generally looks better than film. Your reality may vary considerably, and that is no skin off my neck in the slightest.

Heck, I like the portrait on the top of this post quite a lot, and not just because the subject of it is exceptionally pretty. If our host said it was made with a cameraphone and a zippy filter of some sort, I'd be curious to know what phone and what filter, but I'd still like the picture. If our host said it was a large-format daugerrotype that was hand-colored by a whole abbey full of obsessive-compulsive monks, I'd be very curious about why that technique was chosen, but I'd still like the picture.

atmtx said...

There is a beautiful dreaminess to this portrait.

ChazL said...

Lovely portrait. Wonderful lighting, and the look of the background highlights playing against the subject's hair is very nice. As Nick said above, a damned fine photograph irrespective of the equipment used.

Zaki Jaihutan said...

Hi Kirk,

Thanks for sharing such thoughtful writing (as you always in your blog). I'm a baby in this whole imaging thing, my love for picture taking started around 4 years ago. Apologies if you have addressed this question in your previous writing, but maybe you can share your though about the relationship between more pixel and bigger sensor? I.e does more pixel really give you the result that you can get from a bigger sensor? I remember Canon started the 20 mpix trend with with their 1ds Mk III camera, in the hope of providing "medium format"like quality. Definitely the thinking is more megapix, more detail, thus better quality. Is this the case? I always though that the size (and of course quality) of the sensor is what really matter. You can have a 24mpix APSC camera, and it still won't give a similar quality with a 12mpix Full Frame. Details aside, you also have depth, better color rendition etc. Or am I wrong here? Does amount of megapixel really help better then the size of the sensor itself? Or...as is the case with this whole digital imaging world...the answer is not that simple? Many thanks Kirk.

MartinP said...

Indeed Mr.F's reply could read like that, my apologies for the misinterpretation Mr.F! That would be an interesting idea, and one could (I do) also digitally re-shoot a print from film, or scan the print - but that would take much longer to get a result and have different limitations (regarding film types etc).

To web-digitise pseudo-panoramic photographs made with my Arsat 30mm lens on a P6, then cropped vertically, I have been re-photographing 12" prints so the aerial-image idea would make that process much more direct. I'd still want the film negative, but it gives some new ideas - I wonder if a macro lens can focus on an aerial image . . . something to play with this weekend.

Pad Green said...

Hi Kirk

Very interested in these old film portraits that you post. Is the effect we see totally achieved in camera with studio lighting or has the image been photoshopped in any way.

Cheers

Dave Jenkins said...

My favorite picture of Lou so for.

Mark M. Fredrickson said...

Mr. Tuck's interpretation is what i was trying to convey. I did a little digging after my post and found this group on flickr:

http://www.flickr.com/groups/throughtheviewfinder/

The results don't make me want to grab a TLR and start shooting digital captures, but I can appreciate the character of the images.

jason gold said...

The "look" of B/W and also color done with a Hasselblad, using Zeiss lenses, is way different from 35mm film results. It is creamier, there are more tones, shades, variances of colors. A different dynamic range. It's better. Maybe the best.Used by a top pro, it's superb. TY Kirk.
The flaw now for me, 1.Analog printing unless done self. 2. Choice of film falling per day. The cost factor rising too fast..
Yet as much as I admire Kirk's 120 images, it's not for me! I love my small "point and shoot compacts". I like unlimited depth of field. I actually hate the 0.95 look. I don't like aspherical lens images..may be sharper but out of focus look like shards of broken glass.I am no longer a full time pro so i am able, even for the few pro jobs, to use my cameras..
Not having to please clients, shooting without restrictions(never possible with film) i discovered my Canon Powershot s-590, has done over 70,000 images in 3+years.

Etherium said...

Guys, I've been really heavily considering medium-format, but what it comes down to for me as a portrait photographer is "Will the 16 bit depth give me better transitions, especially in the shadow areas of a, say 3:1 lighting ratio? Will the color be "truer" and more "varied"? If the answer is no, I'm leaning towards a D800. Is it worth it????

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