Are Medium-Format Cameras Overtaking 35mm DSLRs for Pro Photography?
Some of us are old enough to remember when medium-format was king in professional photography. If you weren’t shooting medium-format (MF), you frequently ran in second place.
Image quality was (and is) the reason to use medium-format. With film/sensor formats about three times larger than 35mm, and lenses to match, MF delivers the goods in color and black and white, in digital or film.
I’ve been convinced for some time that serious DSLR photographers should take another look at MF – particularly with the price convergence that we are seeing. One can now buy a lightly used or new MF camera with a 22MP back and lens, for about the same price as one of the high-end Nikons or Canon camera bodies! For example, the Mamiya AFDIII, and the Leaf Aptus 22MP back fall in this price range.
This may be something of a subjective judgment, but I feel there is a noticeable difference in the appearance of images captured with 35mm cameras and their MF counterparts. Some things I notice are sharpness, resolution, acutance (what is this?), dimensionality, subtleties in tone transitions, and detail in shadow/highlights.
The cameras are modular, which means that one can change viewfinders, choose different backs, or change film or digital sensors on the fly. On some jobs, I will switch my Hasselblad H-series camera from digital to black-and-white film and back again. Similarly, I switch from a horizontal viewfinder to a look-down viewfinder with the push of a button. I even have a Polaroid back (but we won’t go there right now).
In the past, MF cameras were all metal, and quite heavy. Many MF cameras are now made from polycarbonates and have magnesium frames, so the weight is not a big deal any more. I remember reading somewhere that MF is now the “Goldilocks” of the camera world – not too small, not too, big – just right!
A 6×4.5 negative or digital sensor ratio is much easier to crop to 8×10 aspect ratio as compared to 35mm. Additionally, most MF cameras have leaf shutters, which will handle flash sync at much higher speeds than any 35mm I know of. This is ideal for wedding photographers, for example, who need to use fill flash on moving subjects outdoors.
And what about stock photography? Many of the higher-end stock houses have been steadily raising their requirements for native resolution on the camera used to take the shot. This weeds out a great many “weekend warriors”, but it also pushes the upper tiers of the market toward high-res cameras. Nothing like a 135 MB file to get the attention of a photo editor.
Can a photographer get eight frames per second out of a MF camera? Or capture good digital images at ISO 6400? Of course not. I don’t think MF will take over from 35mm format for editorial work any time soon. But medium format will continue to improve, and give 35mm DSLRs a run for their money. Keep an eye on this category; better yet, try one in your work.