When it comes to image quality
combined with convenience it's hard to match medium format. Simple
physics tell the tale: the larger film size means less magnification
to get to equivalent image sizes--in print or repro--than
the smaller 35mm format. In addition, medium format cameras are, in
general, made for pros, so lenses, accessories, and add-ons are made
for demanding eyes and hands. These days medium format also means digital
adapters, be they for scanning or "live" action photography,
with CCDs of larger size and greater pixel count and thus larger file
sizes for even bigger prints with finer resolution. And if you scan
a medium format film you can get larger file sizes and subsequent prints
with as much upscaling percentage as from 35mm. Given the right scanner
(and the new ones are yielding higher resolution at lower cost) medium
format film scans can yield higher quality images time after time.
You'd think that if quality
were the measure then medium format would have it all over other image-making
tools, but sales figures these days seem to defy that logic. Ever since
high-end digital SLRs made their appearance medium format has struggled
to keep up, at least when it comes to sales. This may come down to simple
economics--if you have to choose between buying a medium format camera
and an advanced digital SLR, and everyone is telling you that digital
is the wave of the future, which way would you go? And medium format digital
backs have yet to enter the realm of the affordable for all but the busiest
pros who can justify the expense with bookings.
Digital SLR cameras match right up against 35mm cameras, in many cases.
While 35mm SLRs still have certain functions unmatched by many of the
digital SLRs, image quality in the higher end models go head to head with
their film counterparts. In addition, it's easier to justify a digital
body when you have already invested heavily in compatible glass. In pure
terms--namely image quality--can it be as easily said that digital
SLRs can match quality with film (or digitally backed) medium format cameras?
Unless you know something I don't, then the answer is no.
Digital is ecumenical, in that any image source can serve as the basis
for digital prints. Those who scan know that working from a larger source
negative or chrome will allow you to get larger and more consistently
excellent results. Those who work in the chemical darkroom know this already.
This argument might lead you to consider larger formats than even medium
format. But given the ease of use, the portability, the advanced features,
and the incredible range of lenses available for today's medium
format cameras, and their adaptability for digital backs, 4x5 and above
seems like a cumbersome alternative. Indeed, some medium format cameras
offer limited shift capability, enough for even demanding architectural
and some tabletop functions. True, aficionados have the bragging rights
when it comes to the amazing quality and experience of working with 4x5
and above, but medium format gives you all of the above with minimum compromise.
With these musings in mind I recently attended the Photo Plus show in
New York in the hopes of finding new and wonderful cameras and lenses
in the medium format realm. It was a fairly futile search. There are two
new lenses for the Hasselblad H1 and a Leaf Valeo back (highlighted here
for the Hasselblad H1 but available for other systems as well). Frankly,
we've covered most of what was at the show before. So instead I
decided to go window-shopping and report on some of the cameras and backs
that caught my eye. This is by no means a comprehensive report, just a
fanciful journey through some of what I consider the most attractive medium
format cameras and accessories today.
New Hasselblad H1 Lenses
The "hybrid" Hasselblad H1 system has grown with the addition
of two new lenses, which should be shipping by the time this report reaches
print. The HC 50mm offers a moderate wide angle focal length with an aperture
range of f/3.5 to f/22. This rear-focusing lens has a minimum focusing
distance of about 2 ft. The 210mm lens is touted as being one of the best
tele lenses Hasselblad has ever made, with an aperture range of f/4 to
f/45 and a minimum focusing distance of about 6 ft.
By the way, if you'd like to try out the H1 the company is running
a "test drive" promo through March 31, 2004. If you rent an
H1 from an authorized Hasselblad dealer, Hasselblad will credit the daily
rental fee, up to $125, toward the purchase of an H1 kit. The same goes
for renting an HC lens, and the rental fee up to $100 will be credited
toward the purchase of a lens.
In other news from Hasselblad,
the company has announced the Leaf Valeo 22, a 22-megapixel digital back
with a CCD measuring 36x48mm (nearly the exact full frame format of the
H1) that eliminates lens factors. The huge 126MB 16-bit files produce
over 65,000 levels per color channel. The Leaf back is said to be matched
to the optical performance of the lenses designed for the H1 system.
The Leaf Portable Power Solution
allows the system to operate with complete portability using the on-board
Digital Magazine with the capacity to hold over 200 full resolution, uncompressed
images. The battery-powered solution mounts directly to the bottom of
the Hasselblad H1. The Leaf PD67, a large 6x7cm screen that acts as a
"digital proof," offers an image preview.
While the Rollei 6008 AF can be used with all the lenses (20 in all) and
accessories of the existing lenses and accessories in the line, albeit
without AF functionality, three new lenses have been developed especially
for the AF modes of the camera. These include the Schneider 80mm AF Xenotar
f/2.8 HFT, the 180mm AF
Tele-Xenar f/2.8 HFT, and the amazing 60-140mm AF Variogon f/4.6 HFT.
There's also a 1.4x AF-Longar tele-converter for these lenses. Rollei
assures us that more AF lenses are on the way.
Offering one of the most extensive lens assortments around, Fujifilm's
GX680-series cameras deliver a large 6x8cm format with a host of accessories
that make this a true system camera. This system also features the exclusive
Fujifilm bar-coding system; when used with the Film Holder N the film
is automatically advanced to the first frame with data recorded on each
exposure on the unused portion of the film. The holder also sports a large
backlit LCD display for camera status. Two lenses that caught my eye are
the 500mm f/8 (with a minimum focusing distance of 20 ft and a minimum
aperture of f/64) and the 100-200mm f/5.6, with a minimum focusing distance
of 1.64 ft and 3.67 ft at the shortest and longest focal length settings,
The 6x4.5 format is very intriguing, offering portability, a wide range
of lenses and accessories, and a film format that one-ups 35mm in terms
of quality and enlargeability. One of the favorites of pros and advanced
amateurs is the Contax 645. The appeal begins with the use of Carl Zeiss
T* optics and follows through with autofocusing performance and a bright
finder unmatched by many other systems. The ease of use is enhanced with
a TTL pre-flash metering system, the option of spot or center-weighted
metering, and auto film loading that makes it good for wedding and location
work. There's also auto-bracketing, bar-code ISO setting (with films
that offer same), and a shutter speed as fast as 1/4000 sec, with 1/125
sec flash sync. And yes, it will accommodate digital backs from almost
every manufacturer of the same.
While the lens assortment is not as impressive as other medium format
systems, the Bronica RF645 is a fascinating camera that offers coupled
rangefinder focusing in a lens/shutter medium format mode. The camera
is pretty basic, with Manual, Aperture Priority, and Program AE modes
and a shutter speed range of 1 sec (manual, 8 sec auto) to 1/500 sec,
with sync at all speeds. It takes both 120 and 220 film, and the AE lock
holds for a surprising five minutes after activation. (It can of course
be canceled at any time.) There are three lenses available, a nice wide
45mm, a normal 65mm, and a modest 100mm tele (27, 39, and 60mm in 35mm
format equivalence, respectively). If you want to shoot with the 45mm
you get a finder for mounting in the hot shoe. There is a dedicated speedlight,
the Bronica RF20. All in all, a basic unit that still has appeal.
While I still use my "Texas Leica" Pentax 67, the third generation
of the Pentax 6x4.5 format, the 645NII, is probably more down most photographers'
alley. Sporting a textured matte finish, the camera has a "Dual
Six Segment" multi-pattern metering system that handles the light
coming from both the entire field balanced by that coming into the center
of the finder--this has been described as incredibly accurate by
those I know who use the camera. The company's SAFOX IV phase matching
AF system is also very much up to snuff. A built-in motor drive can handle
up to 2 frames per second, and high-volume users will be happy to hear
that the camera squeezes 16 frames out of 120 and 33 frames out of 220
film. The body is built for pro use, being constructed of rigid aluminum
and protected by glass fiber reinforced polycarbonate. A nice touch is
that all SMC Pentax 645-A lenses from pre-AF models can be used on the
camera, albeit without AF operation.
One of the top choices for 6x4.5 shooters is the Mamiya 645AFD, an AF
SLR medium format camera that, as the name implies, is all ready for digital
backing. You can use the camera with film or digital backs, whatever strikes
your fancy and budget, and still get a wide variety of exposure modes,
metering patterns, and overrides. The camera handles speeds from 30 sec
to 1/4000 sec, sync at 1/125 sec, and an auto shutter curtain open mechanism,
which opens when the film magazine, Polaroid holder, or digital back is
removed and closes when any of them is reattached. Flash exposure control
is especially appealing, with TTL direct metering; film advance with the
built-in motor is up to 1.2 frames per second.
Mamiya has made a real good
effort in terms of "digitizing" medium format. The Leaf Mamiya
ProDigital 6 is a marriage between the Leaf backs and the Mamiya cameras.
It also works with the Leaf Portable Power Solution, mentioned earlier.
The ProDigital system now also includes 12 and 22-megapixel versions.
There's also a pretty good price promotion going on right now--check
with your Mamiya dealer.
Another camera that always catches my eye is the Mamiya 7 II 6x7 rangefinder,
which could be considered the ultimate stock photographer's film
camera. Being a lens/shutter, flash syncs at all speeds up to the fastest
1/500 sec, and that rangefinder has auto parallax compensation. Having
tested this camera a few years back I can attest to its great field functionality
and startling image quality.
Just Add Lens
Without going into panoramic the largest medium format option is 6x9.
Those who have worked with this format do so because of the incredible
image quality and interesting aspect ratio, particularly useful for architectural
work. Silvestri, distributed by Bromwell Marketing, makes three bodies
that can be used with a wide variety of Schneider and Rodenstock lenses.
Each has rise and fall capability, and one even comes with the capability
to handle the Kodak DCS Pro Back. The model T30 offers 30mm front rise/fall
with a reversible body and optional viewfinder; the H25 has 25mm rise/fall
with reversible body and a coupled rangefinder; and the H has a 15mm rise
and 10mm fall with a non-reversible body and coupled viewfinder. The Silvestri
Bicam can be configured in any number of ways with either Nikon, Schneider,
or Rodenstock lenses and can be fitted with a back adapter for Graflok-compatible
rollfilm magazines, or a sliding back adapter for use as a viewing then
The spotlight on panoramic this issue goes to the Fuji 6x17 panoramic
camera, with four lenses that are both stunning in their image quality
and quite diverse in the subject matter you can cover. All save the 300mm
have a minimum aperture of f/45, with the 300mm coming in at f/64. You
can easily switch from 120 to 220mm, getting four shots on a 120 roll
and eight on the 220. There's the very wide 90mm (f/5.6) and wide
105mm (f/8), the "normal" 180mm (f/6.7) and the tele 300mm
(f/8). Use of a center filer is recommended for both the 90mm and 105mm
lenses. If you can't afford one of these babies book a trip and
find a pro shop to rent one.
Another option is the Horseman "wide angle" medium format
cameras, the SW612, SW612 Pro, and SW6x9. The 612's have a horizontal
viewing angle of 115Þ and offer interchangeable backs, shift movements,
and mechanical operation.
Aside from fishing around Internet auction sites for hopefully working
medium format cameras (and buying a camera used by a pro is akin to buying
a used car from a taxi driver) there are affordable options for those
who want to play in the medium format realm. One is posed by the Seagull
line of cameras, twin lens reflex models (where the viewing and taking
lens are integral and separate) that are quite similar in look to the
Rolleiflex of old. These are manual cameras in every aspect, including
advance, and require a separate exposure meter for getting light readings.
The Seagull 4A-109, which sells for about $229, delivers 6x6 (square format)
images through a 75mm (standard) coated f/3.5 to f/22 lens. The camera
has a folding waist-level finder and allows you to see your aperture and
shutter speed settings without removing your eye from the finder. Shutter
speed ranges from 1 sec to 1/500 sec plus a B setting for long exposure
times. If you use flash you can sync at any and all shutter speeds, and
there's even a self-timer for steadier shots. Coming in at about
2 lbs, 6 oz, the Seagull 4A-109, distributed by Phoenix here in the States,
is great for students or anyone who wants a good medium format alternative
at a more than fair price.
If you're looking for
affordable options in the single lens reflex class the Kiev cameras are
worth consideration. The Kiev line-up is available in square format as
well as 6x4.5. The Kiev 88 (the square format) has a full line-up of interchangeable
lenses, from 30-250mm and can be used with interchangeable film magazines
(6x6 and 6x4.5), an instant proofing back, and a host of accessories.
The camera has a bright finder, interchangeable eye-level penta-prism
viewfinders with or without built-in full aperture TTL metering, 10 programmed
speeds from 1/2 to 1/1000 sec, plus Bulb and an FP-X electronic flash
sync. You can also get a Kiev 88 Series Kit that includes the camera with
an 80mm f/2.8 lens, waist-level or TTL finder, a rubber lens shade, strap,
tripod reducing bushing, a 62mm filter set, and the company's exclusive
one-year warranty. Full details on this and their other cameras and accessories
are available on the company's website at www.kievusa.com.
For those with the budget to afford them and the jobs to justify them,
digital backs for medium format cameras allow for incredibly large file
size and image quality to match. Most must be tethered to a computer to
handle the workflow and take a few seconds to write the image, so they
are mostly for commercial work, although some adventurous types might
want to try them for stunning location photography. We already mentioned
the Leaf Valeo, but there were others at the show.
One is the eyelike M22 that mounts on various Hasselblad, Mamiya, and,
with a Hasselblad adapter, view cameras. The M22 has active sensor cooling,
said to reduce sensor noise to a minimum. The unit delivers either a 64MB,
24-bit file or 124MB, 48-bit file. Exposure time is 1/1000 sec to 32 sec
and can be used with virtually any lighting source. It links to a computer
via a 10 meter-long FireWire cable.
The Phase One H 25 can deliver
up to 22 megapixels in a form that can fit a variety of Hasselblad (including
their wide angle 903SWC), Mamiya, Horseman, and view camera bodies. It
hooks up to Mac or PC computers via FireWire. The unit can be used in
an ISO range of 50-400 and can be used in single or two-shot mode, up
to 64-bit CMYK. It's said to have a dynamic range of 12 stops and
delivers 16 bits per color.
While there is a lack of new
models and products, at least this time around, there is a growing sense
of a renewed interest in this most respectable format. Indeed, one maker
told me that some photographers who tried digital SLRs for wedding work
were dissatisfied and were returning to medium format film shooting. That
makes sense, but then again you must consider the source. In general,
some folks predict that medium format might be the first victim of the
higher digital SLR pixel counts. But then again, that's what's
been said of film all along, and it's still with us, and will remain
so for many years to come.