Choosing a digital camera – megapixels, sensor size, pixel pitch?

Choosing a digital camera – megapixels, sensor size, pixel pitch?

by Jonathan Bourla (

The choice of modern digital cameras seems bewildering. What separates one from another? It would seem that most laypeople judge a digital camera’s capabilities solely by the number of megapixels of its sensor. This is great for the manufacturers, persuading customers to part with their present camera with one for more megapixels. But is it the whole story?

In film cameras, in general the larger the film size the better, in terms of image quality. At the small end was the very popular 35mm format. There were smaller formats than this, but they weren’t great and didn’t take away from 35mm’s prominence. The next step up, the choice of many professionals, was medium format. The next step from this was large format. As with a lot in photography, the choice was one of compromise. Medium format was, for many professionals, a great compromise between good image quality and ease of use and portability.

Now, in the digital world, 35mm sensors have become the pinacle. You can get medium format digital cameras and backs, but they are extremely expensive and out of reach of all but a small number of professional photographers. So for most, 35mm, also known as Full Frame, is the best and what serious photographers aspire to owning. There are a number of different sensor physical sizes, ranging downward from Full Frame to relatively tiny sensors used in the cameras in some smart phones. In the chart here are some common sizes. Note that the names of these sensors are often rather weird. For example a one inch sensor is not one inch in either dimension, or the diagonal measurement. Another thing is the APS-C sensor size – Canon’s version of this sensor is of a slightly smaller size than the APS-C sensors used by other manufacturers.


So, which is it, what should we be concerned with – the number of megapixels or the physical size of the sensor? As it turns out, it’s a combination of both. What is important in several ways is the physical size of each pixel. The bigger the pixel size, the better. This measurement is often called the Pixel Pitch, and is measured in microns ( a millionth of a meter). Let’s have a look at the Pixel Pitch measurements for a range of cameras. Remember, higher is better….

But first, I want to point out that you will notice in the tables below links to .  If you click on a particular link, you will be taken to the page on associated with more details on that particular camera.  If you do click on one of these links and subsequently make a purchase on, I receive a small commission.  I (Jonathan Bourla) am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to .

Ok, let’s have a look at the cameras and their numbers:

Camera (Smart Phones)Pixel Pitch in micronsnumber of megapixelssensor typeLinks to  
Apple iPhone 6
Samsung Galaxy S61.1161/2.6"
Samsung Galaxy S6
Camera (Compact cameras)Pixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelsSensor TypeLinks to 
Panasonic LX1003.912.8Micro 4/3
Panasonic LUMIX LX100
Fuji X302.1122/3"
Fujifilm X30
Sony RX102.420.21 inch
Sony DSCRX10/B
Panasonic FZ10002.420.11 inch
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000
Canon SX60HS1.316.11/2.3"
Canon PowerShot SX60 HS
Panasonic TZ70/ZS501.412.11/2.3"
Panasonic LUMIX DMC-ZS50K
Olympus Tough TG-31.3161/2.3"
Olympus TG-3 Waterproof
Canon Powershot D301.412.11/2.3"
Canon PowerShot D30 Waterproof
Sony W8001.120.11/2.3"
Sony W800
Camera (Entry-level SLR)Pixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelsSensor typeLinks to 
Nikon D33003.924.2APS-C
Nikon D3300
Nikon D32003.924.2APS-C
Nikon D3200
Canon EOS 750D3.724.2APS-C
Canon EOS 750D
Nikon D55003.924.2APS-C
Nikon D5500
Nikon D53003.924.2APS-C
Nikon D5300
Canon EOS 700D (Rebel T5i)4.318APS-C
Canon EOS Rebel T5i
Canon EOS1200D (Rebel T5)4.318APS-C
Canon EOS Rebel T5
Pentax K-504.816.3APS-C
Pentax K-50
Sony Alpha a584.320.1APS-C
Sony SLT-A58
Pentax K-S14.320.1APS-C
Pentax K-S1
mid-level SLR
Pixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelsSensor typeLinks to 
Nikon D71003.924.1APS-C
Nikon D7100
Canon EOS 7D Mk24.120.2APS-C
Canon EOS 7D Mark II
Nikon D72003.924.2APS-C
Nikon D7200 DX
Pentax K-S24.320.1APS-C
Pentax K-S2
Canon EOS 760 D (Rebel T6s)3.724.2APS-C
Canon EOS Rebel T6s
Canon EOS 70D4.120.2APS-C
Canon EOS 70D
Sony a77 Mk23.924.3APS-C
Sony A77II
Pentax K-3 ii3.924.3APS-C
Pentax K-3II
Camera - High End SLRPixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelssensor typeLinks to 
Canon EOS 5DS4.150.6Full Frame
Canon EOS 5DS
Nikon D8104.936.3Full Frame
Nikon D810 FX
Canon EOS 6D6.520.2Full Frame
Canon EOS 6D
Nikon D7506.024.3Full Frame
Nikon D750
Canon EOS 5D iii6.222.3Full Frame
Canon EOS 5D Mark III with 24-105mm lens
Nikon D4S7.316.2Full Frame
Nikon D4S
Canon EOS 1DX6.918.1Full Frame
Canon EOS-1D X
Nikon Df7.316.2Full Frame
Nikon Df
Sony Alpha a996.024.3Full Frame
Sony Alpha a99
Camera - MirrorlessPixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelssensor typeLinks to 
Sony A77ii6.024.3Full Frame
Sony Alpha a7II
Leica Monochrom6.918Full Frame
Leica M Monochrom
Leica Monochrom Type 2466.024Full Frame
Leica M Monochrom Typ 246
Leica M96.918Full Frame
Leica M9
Sony A7rii4.542.4Full Frame
Sony a7R II
Camera - Medium FormatPixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelssensor typeLinks to 
Pentax 645Z5.051.4Medium Format 43.8x32.8 mm
Pentax 645Z
Leica S6.037.5Medium Format 45x30 mm
Leica S

The tendency for manufacturers is to squeeze more pixels on a given sensor size. But it was interesting to find that both Nikon’s and Canon’s flagship models had relatively low number of megapixels, as did the very high quality Leica models. It was interesting to see that the latest version of Leica’s Monochrom camera, the Type 246, had more megapixels than its predecessor, and consequently a lower pixel pitch rating. Perhaps people who have experience of both could comment on how they compare?

The highest rating cameras were Nikon’s D4S and Df with pixel pitch of 7.3, closely follwed by Canon’s EOS 1DX and Leica’s cameras such as the M9 and the previous generation Monochrom at 6.9 .

I had expected the Medium Format cameras/backs to be better than any smaller format models, but the medium format models I assessed had pixel pitch rating of 5.0 or 6.0 microns, less than the 6.9 or 7.3 of the models above. For larger prints, theory would suggest these medium format models to reign supreme. But does that still hold true when printing at smaller sizes? If pixel pitch were the overwhelming factor for image quality, it would seem rather close.

So there you go, a factor to consider when you next buy a digital camera – Pixel Pitch.

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An insight into film scanning and manufacturers’ claimed resolutions

An insight into film scanning and manufacturers’ claimed resolutions

by Jonathan Bourla (


For some time when reading photo forums on scanning, I have realised how ignorant many people are about the scanner manufacturers’ claimed resolutions for their products. One time when offering up a response to a question regarding scanning, the subsequent answer to mine suggested I “upgrade” my admittedly long in tooth and out of production scanner with a new one with significantly higher resolution capability. What this person didn’t grasp is what I am going to address below.

My first film scanner was a Microtek i900. This scanner could scan film formats from 35mm through medium format up to 4×5 inch. The scanner was to be used to digitize my 4×5 inch black and white negs, plus the occasional 6×7 cm negs from my Mamiya 7 camera.

The box for my i900 scanner touted resolution of 6400×3200 pixels per inch. What I found out subsequently was that the scanner had two scanning arrays, separated by half a pixel. Each of these was 1600 pixels per inch, and to get higher resolution than that the second array came into play, providing in theory a maximum resolution of 3200 pixels per inch. Note the “in theory”. I did a test scan at 3200 pixels/inch, and found the result no better than a scan at 1600 pixels/inch followed by interpolation in Photoshop. In other words, you got a lot more pixels, but the actual resolution was no better than the lower scan. I have seen a review of a different scanner by photo-I-uk which found exactly the same effect. Their reviewed scanner was an Epson with an advertised resolution of 4800 pixels/inch, and they found the optimum resolution was actually 2400 pixels/inch. So I quickly came to realise I should scan everything at 1600 pixels/inch.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me anyway if one looked at Microtek’s scanner lineup, the scanner just up from mine was the 1800f, which as the model name suggests, this time accurately, promises a maximum resolution of 1800 pixels/inch. The difference between this model and my own was the more expensive one used a single scanning array.

Fast forward a while, and I had the opportunity to buy a demonstration use only Microtek 2500 from the Microtek dealer/importer. This was quite an old model, using the SCSI interface (which discovered what preceded the current USB that we all know). I needed to use an early series Mac computer. The computer died once, with the power supply failing. Finding it was impossible to locate a replacement, I decided to use a standard computer power supply (and a second power supply needed to power the Apple screen) and with them sitting ontop of the computer box, with the numerous wires diappearing into the box through a less than perfect hole in its top. Now when I think about itI can’t believe I did this modification to the computer, and for some reason would have been probably too scared to do that today if the need arose.

The scanner produces marvellous scans. I read a review of my scanner on View Camera magazine which confirmed it produces a resolution close to it’s specified 2500. Recently, with my belongings (including scanner) in storage while my wife, my elderly dog, and I have been on an adventure travelling around the New Zealand’s South Island, partly on a photographic project. I got some films scanned by an Australian firm using an Imacon scanner. The scans do indeed seem very good, but I would rate them as similar to scans I’ve got from my Microtek 2500.

If you think I have a wonderful scanning experience with my 2500 scanner, you’d be wrong. I am afflicted by the computer and/or scanner freezing, more often than I would like – obviously I don’t want it to happen at all! I am using scanning software called Vuescan, which is marvellous in that it supports a huge number of scanner models. I don’t know if I were to get the latest version of Vuescan whether it would be better, or just the same. Silverfast is a competitor. A version of it came as standard with my old i900, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case with my 2500. I’ve looked into getting Silverfast for my scanner, but it seems very expensive, and not knowing if it will be an improvement, I am reluctant to try it. I did notice they may offer trial versions, so I will have to go back to their site to investigate.

When I looked into getting the Imacon scans carried out while I didn’t have access to my own scanner, I also considered drum scans. There were several places that I contacted. They were all phenominally expensive. Also, they were all 8 bit scans, whereas I wanted 16 bit scans. If you are looking to do significant work in Photoshop or alternative photo editing program, then I consider it important to have the original scans done in sixteen bits. So this ruled out the drum scans. In the end I was very happy with the Imacon scans.

So to sum up, be very wary of the scanner resolutions promised by the manufacturers. A scanner offering 4800 or higher pixels/inch may actually really be one of 2400 pixels/inch. There’s nothing wrong with such a figure, but it’s nice to know what you’re getting, and comparing like with like.

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Yearning for a new camera – a modern condition


by Jonathan Bourla (


I’m sure it’s very common amongst photographers to hanker after a new, better camera. Is this yearning for something better the same now as it was when the photographic world was dominated by film cameras? Or is it different today?

I was thinking today about a typical professional film photographer who used a Hasselblad medium format camera. The decision making that may have gone into his decision to use and invest in a Hasselblad system may have been seeking better quality than 35mm could offer, yet offering more convenience and flexibility than a large format camera could offer, – large format users will attest to the slow, methodical operation and dedication needed. Would he hanker after an improved camera to satisfy his photographic needs? I doubt it

What about today’s digital world? This photographer would probably be using a medium format digital single lens reflex, like the rebadged Mamiya Phase Ones, with a medium format digital back. These backs are regularly superceded by similar models with incremental improvents in megapixel rating. I read of photographers who go through a sucession of upgrading of their medium format digital backs. Have you seen the prices of these backs? It must cost these photographers a fortune, and will there come a time when they say “enough is enough”? Professional cameras – well, all digital cameras –have much in common with technology purchases, such as computers. Every year or two we are faced by new models with increases in processing power, and through marketing we are encouraged to discard our “ageing” computer in favour of the very much better one on offer. I wonder if this equipment we are buying, including cameras, are made to a much inferior standard to what we used to enjoy, as the manufacturers know in a year or two we are more than likely to want to upgrade anyway.

Having written the above, which must seem quite negative, I have my eyes and heart set on a new camera to join my Mamiya 7 medium format arsenal. Although I am sorely tempted by a digital solution, the costs are great. I would love to have “front rise” movement of my big Gandolfi camera in the smaller Mamiya 7 size. I have come across a camera made by the firm of Plaubel called the Proshift. It’s an unusual looking camera, down to the shape of the integrated film back, which is very similar to Mamiya backs from their old 6×9 press cameras. The Proshift also has the 6x9cm format, with a fixed Schneider 47mm Super Angulon lens, which has the same field of view as, if I recall correctly, a 17mm on a full frame 35mm camera. The Plauble has a clever viewfinder, which tilts up and down to mimic the effect of the rise dialed in. Originally these cameras came with a centre filter, which is quite important, but sadly lacking from many being sold online. I will keep my eyes open.

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“Real” sized medium format sensors

“Real” medium format sized sensors

by Jonathan Bourla (




I’m interested in the fact that all medium format digital backs are six by four and a half centimetres or smaller in dimension. As a photographer who uses a large format camera for much of my work, medium format seems small. I have a six by seven centimetre camera – a Mamiya 7 – which is excellent, but I never considered a six by four and a half centimetre camera, thinking it too small and too similar in format size to 35mm. I have read that early medium format digital backs were more 35mm than medium format in size. Why are there no six by seven centimetre sized digital sensors? I have read about production difficulties with digital sensors, with a high failure rate. Maybe this is true, I just don’t know, but would love to find out. But it sure would seem better to have digital sensors the size of what I consider “real” medium format.

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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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Gitzo Tripod Experience

Gitzo Tripod Experience.

By Jonathan Bourla (

gitzo-closeFor those photographers who use a tripod with their camera, that tripod is an essential part of their photographic kit. For my fine art photography and large format view camera, keeping the camera absolutely still on a tripod is vital. I do recognise that not all photographic persuits suit the use of a tripod. I recently came upon some fantasic photography online of farm and other animals by New Zealand photographer Cally Whitham. Cally later commented to me that she would lose “the moment” taking the time setting up a tripod for her photography. For my own photography, my main camera is a tripod-only piece of equipment, so there’s no option of hand-holding the thing. But in general, with the long exposures I tend to use and the contemplative style of photography, this necessitates the use of a tripod, and I think a tripod is essential to achieving the best results the camera and lenses are capable of.

When I started with my big camera, I bought a large and heavy Manfrotto model tripod. It was certainly stable but was really so big and heavy that I didn’t want to carry it very far. My wife and I were planning a trip to Australia, and so I investigated getting a lighter, smaller tripod. One thing I was keen on was a tripod without a centre column. I had read opinion saying these tripods were the most stable. Apart from some wooden tripods made by the American firm of Ries, the French company of Gitzo seemed to offer what I wanted in their Systematic line-up. Gitzo had the reputation as one of the best, if not the very best, of tripods available. I soon became the proud owner of a series three G345 aluminium Gitzo tripod (the move towards carbon fibre as a tripod material hadn’t really taken hold at that stage).

For the first few years, the tripod behaved itself and I was pleased. This was, after all, an expensive, high quality piece of mechanical equipment that I expected to last indefinitely. But then it started misbehaving. It may have been around this time that I took a photograph of a water fountain in Devonport by removing my shoes, and climbing into the water and setting up my tripod with the lower leg sections in the water. Well, when I was home I washed, cleaned and dried the tripod. I had seen photographs in magazines of photographers with Gitzo tripod set up deep in water, so I didn’t expect any issues. But I found some time later that, with the camera set up on the tripod, one of the tripod’s lowest leg sections would collapse. Fortunately this collapse was a relatively slow process that I was able to grab camera and tripod, stopping the whole lot tumbling to the ground. As I found on subsequent photographic trips, I would have to be vigilant and not turn my back from the camera and tripod for more that a moment so I could catch the camera and tripod in those moments of collapse.

I wrote to Gitzo, and received a reply recommending I replace the “leg bushes”, and put me in touch with the dealer stocking Gitzo products in my home city. I bought a bag of different size bushes, and installed the appropriate ones in my tripod. Feeling confident, I went on a photographic shoot, only to find the tripod misbehaved as before. Over time I sought out the advice of others via the internet, finding that others had had the same experience I had with my Gitzo tripod. Over time I tried different things I read about on the ineternet, such as sticking pieces of thin sticking tape to the bushes, but the results weren’t long lasting or effective.

Then, when visiting a different city, I asked the advice of a Gitzo dealer there. The helpful young man swapped the plastic collars on the lowest leg sections, and then proceeded to demonstrate how strong the legs now were. What I didn’t realise until a minute or two later was that he had tightened the leg collars with almost superhuman force. It took a huge effort on my part to loosen these collars. I couldn’t believe it was necessary to apply so much force in tightening the tripod’s leg collars.

Using the tripod revealed, with the collars tightened as much as I could, that the problem remained.

I was really disillusioned. I was contemplating buying a new tripod, as I clearly couldn’t trust my Gitzo. Investigating the different tripods available, I found only two makes that filled the bill. One, not surprisingly, was Gitzo itself with their carbon fibre Systematic tripods. What became clear was that Gitzo had changed the design on their tripods. Did they change their tripod design due to deficiencies in the earlier models?

The alternative was a tripod from American firm Really Right Stuff, which seem to be based on Gitzo’s designs with improvements. The model I would want was listed as not in stock.

In terms of getting another Gitzo, I felt quite resentful, thinking my original Gitzo tripod shouldn’t have gone wrong. Despite not trusting my tripod, I kept putting off buying a replacement.

Then I had a brainwave. I had always been under the impression that since the lowest leg sections, with their smaller diameter tubes, were only to be used once the larger diameter tube sections had been fully extended. So I would usually have the lowest sections only partially extended. But what if I did things the other way around? Fully extending the lowest leg sections, I found the tripod was finally stable and secure. After all these years.

For the moment, I will stick with my old Gitzo tripod. Largely out of mistrust of the brand, I baulk at spending a lot of money on a new Gitzo replacement.

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My dream camera

By Jonathan Bourla


Clearly if you were to ask a number of different photographers what their dream cameras were, you would get a variety of responses as everyone’s needs (and wants) are different. My primary camera is a four by five inch field view camera, made by the English firm of Gandolfi, which sadly ceased to trade in recent years after a very long history of production. I scan the negatives produced on the Gandolfi and create a digital file to be interpreted on the computer. I then print the fine art photographs on cotton rag paper with pigment inks.

gandolfi-cameraI also have a second camera, a Mamiya 7 medium format rangefinder, for those occasional times when, for example, the weather is too extreme for the bigger and susceptible Gandolfi.

I have been a staunch film user. In general with film, the bigger the film size the better. Of course with the bigger film size usually comes a corresponding increase in camera size, and cumbersomeness, so different photographers may find their ideal camera is a compromise between film size and camera practicality. Four by five inch is the most commonly used large format size, although there are much bigger cameras available, from five by seven inch up to a whopping twenty by twenty four inch! Not exactly a pocket camera! So what of the digital world? In the small 35mm-like digital single lens reflex models, the pinacle is the “full frame”. The next step up is to a medium format digital back, and the “full frame” models here are approximately six by four and a half centimetres in size. There are larger backs than these, intended for large format cameras, but they work in a different way. Known as scanning backs, they apparently produce excellent results but are not ideal for use in the field.

So how do the medium format digital backs compare to a good scan from a four by five inch negative? Going just on the number of pixels produced I had assumed the scanned negative would be the easy winner, but I started reading online from photographers that said the results were comparable. Since I didn’t know of these photographers I was rather sceptical, until I read an article by Charles Cramer, who from magazine articles I knew to be very exacting and demanding of very high standards.

phase_one_iq260_achromaticI understand that for a given digital sensor size there will be an optimum number of pixels. The manufacturers can squeeze on more pixels per inch, but there are quality compromises like increased noise. Looking at the medium format backs, the current state of the art is sixty or eighty megapixels. I made the assumption sixty was best. One digital back really caught my eye – the Phase One IQ260 Achromatic. This is a black and white only device, and I thought this would be the most similar to what I am used to with black and white film. There is also a supposed resolution advantage to using such a digital back. Colour sensors have a special built-in filter to create the colour image. This is known as a Bayer filter, and although it does its job admirably, it is said to cause a loss in resolution. I have read a couple of reviews of these achromatic backs, one which reported this advantage over a similarly sized colour sensor, whereas another report said there was no measureable difference. So who knows?

So what camera body to go with the Achromatic back? You might think I would want a high end view camera. The one that springs to mind is the Japanese-made Ebony brand, which has a reputation as the ultimate wooden field view cameras. But I’m happy with my Gandolfi. After I had bought it, I found two areas of its operation to be problematic. I decided to effect some DIY modifications – with hindsight really quite a sacrilege for such a lovely new camera – but the modifications did the trick, and I find the Gandolfi an effective tool.

ALPA_max_wooden_handles_largeNo, I would love a camera that was in some way a melding of my Gandolfi and Mamiya cameras. My choice is an Alpa Max. Alpa is a Swiss company that produces specialist cameras, built to very exacting tolerances. They even have a system of shims, to get the digital back in perfect registration. The Max has camera movements of rise & fall, and left & right shift. There is an adapter to offer tilt, but with wide angle lenses this isn’t really necessary. The Alpa cameras were, I believe, originally intended for use with medium format film backs, in particular modified Linhof models. Now one can also use them with medium format digital backs, like the Phase One Achromatic I mentioned. Another possibility of the camera movements, in addition to image perspective control, is to make photo stitching possible. Using the camera’s stitching adapter you can keep the lens stationary and perform stitching movements on the camera back only – an ideal situation. The movements offered by the Alpa Max would seem ideal for a medium format digital back, and combined with the Achromatic would seem to make an ideal camera system for me.


Of course, a camera system isn’t a proper camera without a lens (or lenses). I have been loyal to Schneider Kreuznach with my Gandolfi camera. I have three lenses I use all the time, from a very wide angle, a moderate wide angle, to a mildly long lens. I also have a longer telephoto lens of much older vintage which I thought at time of purchase I could use, but find in reality it is left at home most of the time. Schneider make a range of lenses geared to digital sensors, called Apo-Digitar.  They also produce an exclusive range of lenses for Alpa called Apo Switar and Alpa Helvetar.


So there you have it, my dream camera of Alpa Max body; Phase One IQ260 Achromatic digital back; and Schneider  Apo-Digitar lenses and Schneider/Alpa Apo Switar and Apo Helvetar.   Hopefully one day I will be lucky enough to have first-hand experience of this dream camera system.

Jonathan Bourla

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