The race for bigger cameras. Been there, done that, redoing it.

Image from Leaf A7i file.

Many of the more recent arrivals here at the Visual Science Lab like to give me advice like: Try a full frame camera! Or, You should learn how to shoot with a view camera! Or, The pros all use three fast, f2.8 zoom lenses for all their work! You might want to try out the 70-200mm!!! Or, You should get your hands on a medium format digital camera and try it out!!!

The last one is my current favorite. The implication being that we're all new at this and we're all shooting everything with Olympus, Sony, Nikon, Canon or Panasonic. It's a pretty fair assumption given the sheer numbers of bloggers and camera sites on the web. Outside of www.Luminous-Landscape.com you won't find many sites that have a depth of experience, and user/members, with experience in buying and using medium format digital cameras. The reasons are pretty simple, the MF cameras are ruinously expensive for most people and the compelling uses for them are more or less rarified in this day and age of everything going to the web.

But in my defense I think I should point out that three different companies started sending me medium format digital cameras (and attendant lenses) to test and review around 2009, and occasionally we still get the random, big-ass camera tossed over to us through the transom.

In 2009 I took possession of a Leaf Aptus a7i medium format digital camera and a 180mm f2.8 Schneider lens for the better part of two months. That camera was built like a rock but it had its own handling issues. Still, the 40 megapixel images were enormous at the time. The biggest thing from Canon back then was a whopping 16 megapixels.... I shot a bunch of portraits with the combo and I liked the way the lens rendered portrait subjects very much. But the camera was clunky to use and at around $40,000 for the camera and one lens it seemed a bit out of whack in the market of the day. A wonderful image surrounded by too many caveats. For me.

The next camera we got on long term loan was the Mamiya budget MF camera of the time with a 29 megapixel sensor. While they sent along a nice zoom I much preferred the images I got out of the camera coupled with a 150mm f3.5 manual focus lens I had for the Mamiya 645e. Was that camera any good? Well, we got a lot of images like this one....

...So I could never really complain about the image quality under good lighting. Though most of the medium format digital cameras previous to last year had issues with noise once one crested the 400 ISO mark.

But again, the camera crossed over the intersection of cost versus performance at a different quadrant of the curves than I thought was good and so, after a few months of evaluation and a nicely done review in a photography magazine distributed to other professionals, I sent the package back to the manufacturer and soldiered on with the 35mm form factor cameras I had as my regular tools. 

The next camera was a Phase One camera that boasted (yet again) 40 megapixels and a much improved interface. I wrote about it pretty extensively and used it for more portraits but it was as expensive the previous Leaf camera and, after I used it to make many images for my book on studio lighting it got packed up and sent back as well. The review for that camera got published in Studio Photographer Magazine. I didn't notice any great uptick in acquisition of the units after my review came out but I was happy to have had the opportunity to live with the camera for a couple of months. 

Kirk in Studio with Leaf A7i camera.

The Phase One. Sitting on top of my wooden tripod. 

What I discovered in almost every engagement with the three medium format cameras above and the Leica S variants I have worked with since is that the lenses are critical and that the sensors in most of the MF cameras need to be bigger. Not denser, just physically bigger from side to side and top to bottom. The thing that makes MF images look better (to my eye) is the way the lens draws on the bigger surface area of the sensor. 

I keep get lured back in. But my new search is to find ever faster lenses that are still good near wide open for the two full frame cameras I have in house. I'd love the longer lenses of MF for the same angle of view but I'm still not convinced that the small difference in overall look is worth the investment. I see these systems the way cinematographers see high end production movie cameras; they rent them when they need them and bring them back to the rental houses when they wrap. I've rented several of the cameras from several sources when I felt the need for something that looked entirely different to me and my clients, and every time I breathed a sigh of relief when I returned the gear. 

But I would like my newer readers to understand that when I make these kinds of choices for myself ( renting versus owning? Shooting everything with one system?)  I do it with the background of having actually shot with five or six different medium format camera samples over a cumulative time frame of about a year. My opinions are rarely the result of having read and then parroted back something that some else wrote on the web. I have lifted the weights of medium format and broken a sweat with the 16 bit machines. So please stop recommending that I "try" one. Believe me, I have. I just can't justify using it to shoot images for websites and I'd rather put that kind of money into a retirement account. Your mileage may vary. 

At this point I think the new flurry of high resolution Nikon, Canon and even Sony cameras are a very good and sensible compromise. 

A quick advertising note: Craftsy is offering a bunch of course at up to 50% off. It's a good way to learn new stuff. You might want to browse their photo offerings. I'll be looking at the cooking classes.....   Here's the link!


alexander solla said...

One of the things I always appreciate about your posts, Kirk, is that you have done it... you've walked the walk... you've tried it, tested it, given it a good whirl, and then seen how it fitted into your workflow. I love that. You never scream GO BUY THIS _____ x product... and I really appreciate that. Gives me all the more reason to look at how I shoot as being more important than WHAT I shoot with. Thanks!

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Alex. I appreciate hearing from you. Always!

Anonymous said...

Hey Kirk,
Hmmmmm, I think I might be one of the bods you're talking about, as I can't help but wonder what the images you could get out of the new Pentax MF digital camera would be like (and have talked a bit about it in previous comments).

The angle I'm coming at from is that I really, really love some of the b&w MF film portraits you've shown over the years (and which you've kindly reminded us about with your 100 portrait site). It was on the back of those that I bought a Bronica SQ a couple of years ago and have been getting to grips with it ever since. I also use an Olympus EP5 - mostly to take informal portraits for an ongoing project. The Bronica clearly takes a very different approach and technique and I'm about to start a different portrait project with that.

It's a bit hard to put my finger on what lies behind my preference for 6x6 images (I have the EP5 set to mimic that) but there's something rather lovely about the rendering of the lenses (which seem much less clinical than modern ones) and the transitions of tone seem to have something rather special (with the right film and careful lighting).

I guess I'm just waiting to see when a MF genuine 6x6 sensor digital mirrorless camera comes out if it still has that magic or whether it's all illusory.

Anyhow, I kind of wanted to explain (and apologise). It's the images (and your discussion of how you got them) that has me reading you so regularly - so keep up the good work. It's much appreciated,


rlh1138 said...

I know you know what you mean, and maybe so do many others, but I don't, when you say, ' the way the lens draws on the bigger surface area of the sensor'. But.. I'd really like to know. I'm never going to have the experience of shooting with many different lens, cameras, etc. as you have, to learn for myself, so... can you say that a couple of other ways?

Thx either way, always learning from your site,

Ray H.

Spiney said...

Mark, my wife and I had a portrait studio for 15 years. For 11 years we shot film. First a pair of Bronica Etrsi's, followed up with a Maniya RZII with a full compliment of lenses and accessories. I loved the quality of the images I got with the 6x7 negs and transparencies. We later switched to a Fuji S2 which was the right decision business wise, but I loved the RZ. I consider it the high water mark of the many cameras I've owned. The next closest was a classic Rollie TLR with a Xenotar 2.8 lens. I've often toyed with the idea of picking up a Bronica SQ for personal B&W projects. They've become so reasonable today.