Are Medium-Format Cameras Overtaking 35mm DSLRs for Pro Photography?

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.

use this link to see my recent review of the Mamiya DF camera and DM56 digital back.

"Blue Bowl"

4 thoughts on “Are Medium-Format Cameras Overtaking 35mm DSLRs for Pro Photography?

  1. I would love to own a digital MF system but I don’t see the economic or IQ benefit at the 22 mega-pixel level in a world with 22-24MP DSLRs. Can you see a difference between DSLR and MF on prints at in the 22 mega-pixel range?

    If you step up to 30, 40 or 50 mega-pixels then the image quality is definitely superior but the economic comparison falls apart IMHO.

  2. @ Peter Adams…..

    Regarding whether or not you see a difference between DSLR and MF on prints at in the 22 mega-pixel range…absolutely!

    From my own experience, I made the switch from film to digital by buying an original IDs, believing all the sales hype that the digital capture was ‘just as good as film’…big mistake! While that first 1Ds was just fine for 99% of all editorial shoots I did, it fell far from being suitable for advertising quality. That’s when I got my first Leaf back, a Valeo 22. The color and image quality killed the Canon and for the first time I saw a digital file that equaled a scan from film. Even as the Canon 1Ds line improved, they still couldn’t match the output I got from first the Valeo and now my Aptus 75 (33mp). The shortcomings of the smaller format really becomes apparent when you move to really big outputs. Over the years, I have had to do a lot of ‘convention panels’ for clients, and when you’re outputting files to prints that can be 8 to 10 feet in size, the larger format is the only way to go!

    The Leaf backs do come with one big issue a Canon or Nikon doesn’t have, however…moire…! My next move will probably be to an even larger megapixel capture back, not because I crave even more ridiculously huge files, but because if I can believe the engineers, the only way to truly combat moire in a digital back is to move past that 50mp barrier. Trust me, the last thing I wanna do is drop another 30 grand and have to invest in even bigger hard drives for backup, but when you have to spend as much time as I do dealing with moire, there is really no other option…

  3. Moire is a problem that AA (anti-aliasing) filters solve in DSLRs by pre-blurring the image. One then tries to recapture that lost detail by software sharpening. However, once detail is lost it cannot be regained. Medium-format digital cameras don’t have AA filters which is why they’re prone to moire problems.

    Moire, though, is highly dependent on three things. The first is tight-knit regular patterns. Moire is not a problem for nature photographers because such patterns don’t exist in nature, only in man-made items or structures. The second is pixel density. The third is distance from subject to camera.

    The reason it takes 50MP for a MF camera to overcome moire is because that’s the critical boundary for pixel density to be dense enough to overcome the problem.

    However, DSLRs with their smaller sensor require only 30MP to overcome moire. Not coincidentally, that’s the same pixel density as a 50MP medium format camera has.

    Enter my newly purchased Nikon D800E — 36MP, w/ no anti-aliasing filter = no sacrifice of native sensor sharpness. Pixel density is equivalent to a 54MP medium format camera.

    Not trying to change your mind or anything, but that might be a viable and much less expensive alternative for at least some of your work. You could rent one and compare its quality to your 22MP or 33MP backs and see what you and your customers think.

    For me, at least half my heart is medium-format. But the shooting style required by my paying jobs thus far require 35mm DSLR.

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