Medium format digital vs the best of 35mm digital continued

by Jonathan Bourla (

rock_faceI have become a bit obsessed thinking about these two digital camera systems. My wife pointed out to me that this started as a bit of a pipe dream but has become something real, thinking about actually making a purchase. But I think I have been kidding myself if I’ve been thinking I could afford the medium format based system. The prices for current medium format digital backs are simply astronomical, and beyond the means of most photographers. I have seen photographers justifying their purchase of a medium format digital back in terms of the processing and scanning costs they have had previously for their film negatives and slides. They seem to have taken a huge number of film exposures every year. And maybe in those circumstances one can equate the cost of the medium format digital back to the costs associated with digitizing their film negatives or slides. But I produce a relatively small number of negatives per year, with the vast majority being “keepers”. So this justification of a medium format digital back’s cost just doesn’t apply to me. Second hand medium format digital backs are far more affordable than their new counterparts, but still quite costly. I worked out the cost of a used Phase One P45+ back with Cambo WRS technical camera and two Schneider lenses as about thirty thousand New Zealand dollars, probably more. Although I’ve been thinking and talking about this system as a possibility, I can see on reflection that I couldn’t justify spending so much money on a camera system to replace my 4×5 inch Gandolfi/Schneider system, just for the sake of the convenience of not developing and then scanning my film negatives.

I have read of rumours that Sony will be producing its own medium format digital camera, at some stage in the near future. This isn’t surprising, as I understand that Sony produces the sensors used in some of the medium format digial backs by Phase One and possibly others. Sony has produced a very well regarded full frame 35mm camera, the A7r, which I will mention again in a moment, and it is at a price level which makes other competing seem rather dear. So there is hope Sony could make a medium format camera system that would be far more affordable than the Phase Ones and the like. I have read online of justifications why the current medium format backs are so expensive. The main one being that the market for them is so small so the price has to be high (read very very high). Well, I’m no high powered businessman, but that was surely their choice – they could have made the price more affordable, and surely there would have been thousands more photographers able to buy their products. I have read that it is hard to make these larger sensors, with a large percentage discarded due to faults. I have no idea if this is true or not, but I find it hard to believe the discard rate is so high to justify the high prices. But I do have high hopes in Sony producing a camera system which will be accessible to a far larger proportion of photographers seeking a high quality alternative to the likes of my 4×5 inch camera. Whether it would have tilt/shift capabilities I wonder, and somehow doubt, but one can but hope.

The other system I was thinking about is the Sony A7r (I just mentioned) in conjunction with Canon tilt/shift lenses by means of an adapter made by a firm called Metabones. I had seen some impressive looking photos taken with this system, and I was very interested. But I’d seen these photos on my cell phone. Today I saw the same photos online on my laptop, and they didn’t seem to have the sharpness and quality I had thought when I first saw the cell phone versions. I have read quite a few reviews of the A7r, which all said how good it was, but the accompanying photos didn’t seem very sharp or detailed. This had me worried. Clearly I will need to verify this for myself by renting one of these cameras at some stage. I see the A7r/Canon system to be a replacement for my Mamiya 7, not for the larger Gandolfi setup. I would really appreciate the tilt and shift capabilities, which the Mamiya 7 lacks. The reviewers of the A7r cameras all seemed to be 35mm camera users, and as such, with all due respect, may not have the quality expectations of a medium or large format film user. But the A7r/Canon system is certainly far more affordable than a medium format competitor, and I could partly offset the cost by selling my Mamiya 7 outfit. I’m in the middle of things at the moment so it may be a while before I go and rent an A7r, but I look forward to when I do to quell the questions floating around my mind as to its image quality.

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Medium format digital vs the best of 35mm digital

by Jonathan Bourla (

The term “medium format” covers a range of photographic sizes. Some years ago when I was looking to buy a medium format film camera, I thought of 6x6cm and 6x7cm as the main sizes, totally disregarding the smaller 6×4.5cm as, well, too small, too close to 35mm to be thought of as a different format. Well today in this digitally dominated world, medium format is 6×4.5cm alone. One pays such a huge premium for medium format digital equipment over their 35mm competition that it would seem to rule it out for the majority of former-film photographers, except for apparently highly paid commercial photographers. There is no large format digital apart from scanning backs which require the camera back to be tethered to a computer, which limits their use in the field.

Being a devout film photographer, I am surprised to be toying with the idea of aquiring a digital back and camera system. It would have to offer similar sharpness and tonality to my main camera, a 4×5 inch view camera. I have questions: how much better is a medium format digital than full-frame 35mm cameras? And is the medium format going to compare favourably with my view camera?

Recently I saw some fantastic photos online that had been taken with a Sony A7R 35mm camera with Canon tilt/shift lenses by means of an adapter. They got me thinking that maybe such a full frame 35mm system might be good enough. But of course, small jpegs online don’t really give an indication of how good medium and large sized prints would be. I have found a rental place that has these cameras (but not the tilt/shift lenses) so maybe I will see about renting one. This camera has 36 megapixels. With a similar number of megapixels is the P45+ back, made by Phase One, and available on the used market at greatly lower price than its current generation replacements. How much better is this back compared with the 35mm system? A year or two ago I read about a well-known, very talented colour landscape photographer who went from a 4×5 inch camera to a digital system using a P45+ back. He said the results from the digital system were similar in quality to the drum scans he obtained from his large format camera.

But I really don’t understand the megapixel numbers for digital cameras and systems. For my own negatives, I scan at my (very good) scanner’s maximun resolution of 2500ppi, and obtain scan with the equivalent of one hundred and twenty five megapixels. The photographer I mentioned, who scanned using a drum scanner, would no doubt have scanned at a higher resolution and so would have files in excess of my one hundred and twenty five megapixels. So how can a digital back producing just thirty nine megapixels really produce similar results to a one hundred and twenty five megapixel scan? I don’t understand it.

There is another camera rental place that rents out medium format digital equipment. Not Phase One but Leaf, but again I may have to rent the equipment to get an idea if it really compares with my large film camera. In proportion to the difference between medium format and 35mm cameras when new, the rental price for the medium format back and camera is very expensive. Not knowing anyone with such equipment, I may be forced to spend the money. Sometime. I shall carry on thinking in the meantime…

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