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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