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?).