These days, for a photographer who cares, a “medium format” camera is becoming a serious option. This is something that, while large, you can still fit in your hand, but has a huge sensor and gives you gobs and gobs of megapixels. Examples would be the Leica S2 and the Pentax 645D. These cameras are beautiful, objects of desire, but really I’m not tempted.

They give you enough pixels (40M or so) that you can confidently sell your work to high-gloss magazines or use it on big display posters. For a sample of the 645D at work, check out the Svalbard gallery by Jostein Øksne, especially Sarkofagen.

In exchange for those all those pixels, you pay a pretty severe price. Your camera is larger and heavier, and its sensor is much less light-sensitive than you get in a modern SLR like my Pentax K-5 or a top-end “full-frame” product from Canon or Nikon.

Well, and of course, there’s the price price; you can buy a reasonable car for less.

Check out The Leica S2 as a Travel Camera, a report by Nick Rains. You won’t regret it, his pictures from Western China are exquisite.

But here’s what caught my eye. Rains writes “I try to use 160 as much as possible, but in the real world having access to 320 is very useful and I can see very little difference in the final prints. 640 is also great — I have made plenty of 20x30 inch prints from images shot at ISO640 to be able to tell you that I am perfectly happy shooting at this ISO. Almost 40MP of detail at a genuine ISO640 is a real boon in a travel camera.”

I’m glad he’s happy with that ISO, but on my immensely smaller, lighter, and cheaper K-5 I routinely shoot at ISO3200. Yeah, at that sensitivity, the pictures are a little grainy (but in a not-displeasing way), and a “measly” 16MP at that; but I mostly publish on the Web, and let me tell you, the limiting factor on the quality isn’t the camera, it’s me.

I’m glad things like the S2 and 645D exist, because they’re beautiful, and maybe some of those cost-no-object technologies will leak through into a product that fits in my camera bag. But for a normal web-oriented shooter, they’re irrelevant.


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From: John Wilson (Aug 23 2011, at 08:02)

It's all really about the lenses not so much the sensors. Medium format lenses are generally of an extremely high quality but are slow. A MF prime is generally 2 stops slower than the equivalent 35mm prime. So unless you're shooting in excellent light you're likely to be shooting with the lens wide open and the sensor gain as high as it will reasonably go.

I estimate that for a quarter of the price of a digital MF setup you could buy a 35mm full frame system with high end primes covering 24mm-135mm none slower than f/2 and most f/1.4.

If you are shooting in the studio or shooting landscapes on a tripod then the digital MF system will produce superior results. Otherwise the 35mm system is going to be as good or better.

If you want really big prints then do what the grownups do and shoot 8X10 film with a field camera!


From: John Wilson (Aug 23 2011, at 08:58)

Just noticed the lovely picture of the well used RB67 on the right of the article.

The guy shot your portrait with an original RB67 using mirror lockup to avoid any risk of vibration. The lens is the 140mm f/4.5 Macro. I bet the result were great and could easily be printed more than life size.

You could pick up a system like that in better condition on eBay about $500. Digital is great but I sometimes wonder about the ROI.


From: Ash Ponders (Aug 23 2011, at 09:37)

Have you considered something less expensive but still wonderfully capable in the medium format range. The Mamiya 7 comes in at a fraction of the price of the S2, while maintaining huge effect. Of course, the obvious difference is that it is film. This can be seen as a negative.


From: Ryan Cousineau (Aug 23 2011, at 12:44)

Ironically, there's not much technology to trickle down from an S2 or a 645D. If anything, the 645D was made possible by trickling Pentax DSLR tech up from the K-series. Their magic trick, as you note is the big sensor, and since that's largely the same technology as your K-5, only bigger, the only difference is price.

The rest of those cameras is optimized for their two uses, both of which you note: studio and landscapes. In other words, places with lots of light or tripods, and often both. There is no commercial pressure to develop a high-sensitivity MF sensor.

For those praising film's low cost, yes, but for hobbyists only. The pros who need medium format used to have Polaroid film backs for their proofing needs, so they could see if they were getting the lighting and the shot. A full-time studio photographer could plausibly run through $2000+ worth of Polaroids/year (200 days, 10 shots/day, $1/shot), so you can see that just that relatively minor portion of the consumables costs could pay for a 645D within its working lifespan, to say nothing of conventional developing costs and the faster workflow possible with digital.

Medium format is a dangerous obsession. It eventually all ends in madness, the purchase of a large-format bellows camera, and endless cold mornings atop mountains waiting for the sun to rise. Shooting flowers in the garden is safer.


From: Janne (Aug 23 2011, at 19:00)

The sensors aren't intrinsically any less light sensitive. But since one of the points of medium format is creating very high-resolution images they're optimized to give you extremely detailed information at low sensitivity even if they compromise higher ISO values.

And really, the 645D does a very nice iso1600 already; if you were to scale down the 40mp image down to 16mp, you could probably do an iso3200 shot (underexpose 1600 by a stop) that doesn't look significantly worse than your APS camera.

Me, I do medium format film. Why? It's a hobby. It's fun, and I enjoy the process, including — or especially — developing black and white film myself. Though as a previous comment warns, I _have_ been making eyes at large-format field cameras lately; if a used one happens by at the right price I may not be able to resist...


From: John Wilson (Aug 24 2011, at 03:22)

Now this is a big sensor!

Interestingly, he justifies the cost by savings on Polaroids for proofing. I know of a couple of LF landscape photographers who use P&S cameras for checking composition - not quite as effective but several orders of magnitude cheaper.


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