Another Camera Paradigm Shift. Mamiya Gets Sensible. And a few end of the year thoughts.
By Kirk Tuck
Noellia gives the Alien Bees Ringlight a test flash. Camera: The Mamiya DL28. Degree of difficulty: Not much.
If you’ve read my stuff here this year you probably know that I’ve had the opportunity to test a couple other medium format digital camera systems. And every one of them had a unique selling proposition. But the one thing they all seemed to have in common was price tag on par with the sticker price of a nice BMW automobile. If you’ve read my reasons for wanting a MFDC you know why I want one. If this is your first visit then let me bring you up to speed.
I’ve always liked the way the longer focal lengths we used on film medium format cameras created portrait images. The sharp areas were really sharp and then the images rolled out of focus very gracefully until the backgrounds were just a gorgeous amalgam of softness and mystery. Somehow I’ve never been able to get precisely the same effect with shorter optics (giving the same angles of view.…) on 35mm style digital cameras.
We also loved the sweeping image area of the larger format in film and by extension in digital precisely because it rendered images with a much greater subtlety than the smaller formats when all other parameters were equal. In digital capture the sheer quantity of pixels goes a long way to making images look smoother and cleaner. The larger pixel wells (when compared to high res 35mm DSLR’s) also contribute to very wide dynamic ranges. In the Mamiya DL 28 system the Leaf back is rated at 12 full stops of d-range which is almost two stops more than the best DSLR’s (excepting the exceptional six megapixel Fuji S5 pro).
Finally, it is only in the MFDC realm that you are able to shoot with a true 16 bit imaging file. This means lots and lots more gradations between tones and colors. The big drawback to MFDC’s has always been the price of entry. But that’s the paradigm that Mamiya shifted. The entry price has plummeted. The new camera package is just shy of $15,000. That includes the latest Mamiya AFD3 body (usable with both film and a range of digital backs.…), a newly computed 80mm lens that’s been optimized for digital capture, and a newly released Leaf 28 megapixel back with an enormous touch screen.
Still a bit more money than a Canon 1DS mk3 or a Nikon D3x but maybe a much better investment in the long run. How could that be? Well, for starters the sensor industry isn’t standing still but none of the 35mm style bodies are currently upgradable. That means a big breakthrough in sensor technology demands the purchase of yet another body. With the Mamiya system it means trading in the back and keeping the camera you know. It means being able to buy a back up body at a much lower price. And while DSLR’s keep improving so do the MFDC’s.
The latest from Mamiya goes a long way toward separating a portrait specialist from the pack. With state of the art autofocus, digitally optimized lenses and an open standard interface for a wide range of backs, it may be the most scalable, practical and sensible professional system on the market today.
The DL28 is state of the art in a number of ways that give it leverage against competitors. The Leaf back uses a new generation LCD screen on the rear that presents a lot of real estate for checking composition, histograms and relative color. The back is also a touch screen and it makes setting capture parameters very straight forward. Your clients will love the way this camera tethers to laptops and workstations because they’ll be able to see your work writ large.
The well protected touch screen keeps the camera design sleek and pared down. I think it’s the nicest designed of all the MFDC’s on the market. Note the battery for the back at the bottom of the camera. The camera itself takes six conventional double “A’s”. The back is good for 250 exposures per charge while I shot over 1200 exposures without budging the battery indicator for the body.
So why would you want to spend the money on one of these? Well, if you are in the business of providing carefully composed and styled images to art directors or big portraits to families, this system will give you a better image than you’ll get with the latest generations of DSLR’s. If you aim for the top of the markets you serve the difference in price will certainly be offset by the sheer quality improvement. In some ways it’s an intangible but to the really picky customers you can rest assured it’s noticeable!
The second reason is pure marketing. If you are truly the best (and most expensive) of the suppliers in your market your customer may want to know why you shoot with the same kind of camera as uncle Bob. You may think the gear doesn’t matter but if you are in competition with someone who is equally proficient and just as personable as you (I know, that’s hardly possible.….) the choice of shooting gear may just tip the scales in someone’s favor.
If you were a Mamiya shooter back in the film days and you still have your gear you’ll be pleased to know that all the AF lenses work flawlessly while all of the manual 645 lenses can be mounted and used with manual aperture stop down.
Given my recent article about surviving the recession how can I justify singing the praises of a $14,000 camera system? Simple, if it can give me the edge over several of my close competitors it could pay for itself in a week’s worth of shooting. Besides, I’m not saying you need to rush out and purchase one of these without regard to the overall market. I’m sure there will be plenty in rental and I think you’ll be wise to try one on the next large scale production you book.
Caveat!!!!! If you are a fast paced wedding photographer who routinely slams out 4,000 available light shots per wedding then no medium format camera system is currently for you. The frame to frame time is too slow (less than one per second), the autofocus isn’t as speedy as that on a Nikon D3, and the luscious, elegant files are Raw only and far too big to make speedy, templated processing fun.
If you are a methodical worker, a portrait photographer, still life shooter or architectural shooter one of these will certainly raise your game to a higher level.
Other News. Making Book.
My second book is wending its way through the production process and will become available at Amazon.com and at quality bookstores around the country on April 1st, 2009. It’s all about studio lighting and it’s aimed at advanced amateurs and working pros. We all know a lot about photography but I might know different stuff than you. It’s already up for presale on Amazon.