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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