Sunday, February 14, 2016

Medium Format

Time was that Medium Format was a real thing. That was in the days of film. The canonical format was a square, 6cm on a side. There was also a bit of 6x7 running around and 6 by 4.5. The latter was, frankly, marginal. It was about not quite twice as big as 35mm (in linear dimensions), although of course the vendors touted its 3x area.

Surface area is all very well, but what really matters in linear dimensions. With linear dimensions 2x as big, you can enlarge 2x further. It is the linear dimensions which turn up in the diagrams which explain why focus drops away much more quickly with the larger formats, and so on. Obviously area and linear dimensions are inextricably intertwined, but quoting areas tends to obscure differences as well as making marginally larger formats look much bigger.

It is these linear dimensions that make the difference in the way larger formats look. The sharpness of focus drops off in such and such a way, there's probably something about how the lenses render out of focus material at that larger physical scale, I dunno. I am pretty sure that most of what you get from a 2x longer edge on the film or sensor can be obtained by opening up about 2 stops, but perhaps not quite all of it. In any case, you run out of stops to open up, quite quickly. Physics, it turns out, is not to be flouted so easily.

Enter the digital era.

We find medium format equipment vendors frankly scrambling. You simply cannot build chips anywhere near as big as the film sizes they were selling previously. The community of influencers making their living telling people to use Medium Format because it's what professionals use are likewise screwed. The systems are still present, but you simply can't make a sensor that's particularly big. There's just no way it's going to look like traditional medium format. Indeed, it's going to look a Great Deal like 35mm ("full frame").

And so you arrive at the present day when, essentially, you have a bunch of snake oil riding on the backs of what used to be a real difference. The largest available sensor is 100 mega pickles or whatever, and it's roughly the same size as what used to be the smallest medium format film. It's starting to look a little like medium format film. Introductory prices are in the $50,000 range. Systems affordable to all but the best off are still less than 2x the size of a full frame camera (linear dimensions), and even these are prohibitively spendy.

Yes, yes, you have much deeper color depth and more stops of dynamic range, maybe. Some of this is surely a sham. But everything modern digital medium format offers is small potatoes incremental stuff, stuff that that you can generally get out of the cheapest consumer grade stuff if you take a handful of exposures and use some software. That big leap from the 25mm by 35mm frame to the 60mm by 60mm is just not available. Of course there are subtle differences, and the enthusiasts have no trouble at all telling the difference until you blind the tests.

And yet the price differential is much bigger than it ever was.

As medium format lost ground on the technical side, it made up for it with hype and marketing. In order to cover the very real costs of what are, ultimately, enormous and expensive sensor chips, they've had to push prices through the roof. Digital Medium Format appears to be the exclusive domain of the well-heeled idiot.

A little poking around suggests that in 1976 you could get a basic 6x6 camera and standard lens for something in the general area of $1000 to $1500 new. In today's dollars, that's $4000 to $6000 or so. So, it's real money. It's also about half of what a 50 megapickle digital back will cost, all by itself. A digital back with a sensor that is 44mm by 33mm. A digital back that's going to make pictures that look a hell of a lot like those produced by a full frame camera opened up a stop.

Now, to be fair, digital MF has been leading the way. They always have more megapickles and bigger sensors. If you want to get out there on the bleeding edge, that's where you got to go. The trouble is that last year's products aren't really superior in any interesting way to this year's full frame products, and are still 3x as expensive. And, obviously, it's nobody's fault that there's no quantum leap to 60mm by 60mm available. Unlike film, where you can simply chop off pieces as big as you like, bigger sensors are arrived at in a series of small, painful, expensive, steps.

But that doesn't change that fact that these are expensive toys for wealthy nerds.


  1. What brought this rant on? (I assume it was something you read on LuLa?)

    And have you ever actually used a digital medium-format camera or compared its output to that of a 35mm format digital camera?

    As one who actually owns a medium-format camera outfit -- bought used for a small fraction of its original price, I might add -- I take issue with many of your generic pronouncements about them and believe that you've excessively oversimplified your analysis.

    In my opinion _and_ experience, for the right photographer, photographing appropriate subjects, there is potentially a very significant improvement in image quality to be had from using a digital medium-format camera instead of a smaller-format digital camera. Not all subjects and not all of the time, mind you, but enough of the time that they do serve a need beyond that of being another Veblen good.

    In reality, all things are _not_ equal when it comes to comparing the performance of cameras using different format sensors. My digital back, for example, uses a CCD sensor instead of a CMOS sensor and the inherent look of these two sensor technologies is very different, with my preference being for the CCD.

    And the larger sensors also mean that longer focal length lenses are used to achieve similar FoVs to smaller sensors, which likewise imparts a different "look" to photos. Plus the lens designs themselves are often quite different as well (retrofocus v. non-retrofocus), with each type having its own signature look.

    However, as was the case when using an 8x10 view camera instead of a 4x5, all is not peaches and cream when it comes to larger formats. For all of their benefits, there have plenty of drawbacks, too.

    Unfortunately, in my case, it turned out that digital medium-format was not ideal for the type of photographs I like to take (long-exposure nighttime photos), so my outfit is now gathering dust. But even so, IMO, its image quality relative to its price generally compares very favorably to the latest and greatest smaller format cameras and when the conditions and circumstances are optimal, it significantly surpasses their performance, despite its technology being three generations back from the best of today's digital back designs.

    But as the saying goes, there's an ideal horse for every course, and that holds true for cameras, too.

    So if you haven't actually used a digital medium-format camera yourself, I urge you to do so before you write them off based solely upon your experience with their film predecessors.

    1. I have not used digital MF, although I have used medium and large format film. I do in fact know all about the "look" of larger formats, and devoted a not-inconsiderable number of words to discussing just that in my remarks!

      My point is that the geometry in play simply does not allow very much of that "medium format look" to turn up. There's simply no getting around it, the sensors are Not Enough Bigger to get more than a small taste of the effects of bigger formats.

      Your remarks about different technologies are noted. There are also psychological aspects, the bigger, slower, more expensive, camera is going to change how you work and feel.

      My point, though, is that these are all smallish, incremental, effects, for which you are paying astronomical sums. Yes, you can do better in the used market, but it's still not cheap.

    2. (and no, not LuLa specifically, it's literally everyplace I pay any attention at all to that presumes to speak to Serious Photographers with the exception of Kirk Tuck)

  2. I know we all have different takes on all the technical stuff. I have been messing around with photography for over six decades and I never could get my head around the large format craze. In high school we used 4x5 Speed Graphics to photograph almost everything, and believe me, trying to photograph a night football game with one of those things was a real pain. I grant that there were and are photographers who really knew how to work with the larger formats and who made them work, and of course commercial photographers often absolutely need them for client work. BUT for every photographer who legitimately used a large or medium format camera there were a hundred who only thought they needed one.
    I remember one fellow who shot medium format and then would come to the darkroom and bitch about the quality of his negatives, and sure enough a couple of weeks later he would come in with a newer, more expensive camera, and still bitch, and after he finally got a Hasselblad he still complained that his negs weren't good enough......guess what, he was a lousy photographer. I think there are a million stories like that out there.
    When I look at my 35mm work I often think, 'you know what? I should have just stuck with my Quaker Oats pinhole camera!'

  3. I own a 3rd-hand Hasselblad HD39. The screen is rubbish, the batteries are rubbish, and focusing is a pain. The lenses I have are good. But with the appropriate subject (and mine live and breathe) and a bit of luck, the resulting images can still knock socks off what my main camera, a Canon 5dII, can deliver. No upsampling needed for nice A1 or A2 prints either!

  4. If you poke around in the deep, dark past buried in Lula's archives, you'll find a essay by M.R. in which he compares the output from his might-darn-expensive Faze-Something-or-Other camera to that of his Canon G10 (a 14 MP digicam). He did this by sitting the Canon on top of his tripod-mounted Faze, and duplicating shots he'd just made with that camera. He then made large prints from each camera, set them up in his gallery, and asked people to pick which prints had been made by which camera. Only a couple of people out of many could tell the difference.

  5. Ya. I remember that - that was one of the reasons I bought a G10. Which much to my sorrow I recently smashed.