It used to be, and may still
be the dream of many 35mm shooters to try their hand at medium format.
The larger film size is certainly an advantage when going for big prints,
and the clarity and fine detail it reveals makes 35mm look like the
subminiature format it once was called. Indeed, there has been a real
movement upward for some time, which might be a quality as well as maturity
issue. Perhaps as photographers get older their format gets larger.
But I've also seen a real "downward" trend, with quite
a few old hands going from large to medium format shooting. One vet
we know, Bill Davis from Taos, New Mexico, was a tried and true 4x5
shooter. One day he got his hands on a Contax 645 and never looked back.
The icing on the medium format cake is top-quality glass. These cameras,
though certainly attractive to weekend warriors, are primarily professional-grade
instruments, and poor-quality lenses are simply not tolerated. And because
medium format is the main workhorse of pros, the camera bodies themselves
are usually built like tanks, perhaps inelegant and of course bulkier
than 35mm, but always sturdy and ready to roll. Yes, you probably wouldn't
want to carry your Hasselblad unprotected in a backpack, and everything
breaks if dropped from the right height, but the shutter, transport,
and other mechanisms are built for many more "takes" than
your average camera. True, medium format cameras were and are expensive,
at least when put up against their 35mm brethren. But anyone doing more
than the most casual photography knows they are well worth the price.
The Digital Intrusion
All seemed well in the medium format realm until along came something
called the digital SLR. No, not the 3-megapixel cameras seen in the
Disneylands and soccer pitches of suburbia, but the pro SLR models
that boast multi-megapixels and an integral chip that seems to eliminate
the need for a digital back. That digital back was and is medium format's
ace in the digital hole, but hybrid solutions might have problems
competing with units made expressly for the pro digital photographer.
We saw more than a few of these digital SLRs (built to look like a
35mm SLR but in truth a digital powerhouse) early last year and what
started as a snowball has turned into an avalanche, witness the Canon
and Kodak intros at photokina this year. And the full-frame digital
chip makes for some other competitive issues.
So it has come to pass that pros with a few grand to spend now have
to make a decision--another medium format camera and a digital
back, or a digital SLR with everything they need in one body, and
that could take the stock of lenses they already had in their case.
There is little doubt about going digital, at least for part of their
work. The question becomes how that digital image would be captured.
The result? Waiting lists for high-end digital SLRs and some wavering
about making any medium format decisions.
It's not that medium format is going away. Indeed, a very strong
argument can be made that medium format film cameras offer the best
quality and convenience available for photographers today, pro or
advanced amateur. Whether the medium format film is printed through
enlarger or scanned, or an add-on digital back is used, there's
no question that the result is still ahead of what many digital SLRs
can deliver. The quality debate is over for 35mm vs. digital, at least
for those who can afford the mega-megapixel cameras. Now medium format
might be up for grabs.
A Winning Combo
But unless I'm being myopic it seems to me that medium format
and film is a combination that's hard to beat, especially for
black and white photography and, in color, when you match digital
against a dazzling chrome. Take a good look at a 6x6 or 6x7 chrome
that's been well exposed and put that up against most any digital
file you can imagine, and that chrome wins hands down, at least when
comparing captured file to processed chrome. What happens after that
is up for grabs, but you could argue that the same cosmetics applied
to a digital capture can be applied to a scanned chrome as well. And
that chrome is still the master shot made right at the back of the
camera, without passing through CCD or enlarger, if that's worth
anything these days.
When it comes to black and white film, try playing Zone System with
digital and you'll find yourself in a bit of a contrived mess.
But load some film in a medium format camera, hit the significant
shadow with a spot meter, drop the exposure by two stops and underdevelop
your film a bit to control the highlights and you've got an
original image that you'll rarely see straight from a digital
Even with all this verbal wrestling there's no denying that
the lure of digital is too great for any working photographer to resist.
Wedding, portrait, commercial, fashion, and even the occasional stock
or fine art photographer has taken the bait. Labs now encourage digital,
as opposed to shrinking from it in horror, and every pro knows that
image distribution, speed and access, is a digital attribute that
feeds their bottom line.
So, rather than make the argument for medium format as opposed to
digital, we'll paraphrase and invert the Old Bard and say that
we are here to praise medium format, not to bury digital. With that
in mind we thought we'd take a look at some of the recent product
introductions that help keep the medium format spirit alive. As we'll
see, medium format manufacturers are making a gallant effort to bring
digital into their fold, and that odd word hybrid, perhaps more apt
when describing tomatoes, is once again raising its head. The borders
between binary and silver halide are fading fast, and rapprochement
is certainly more to silver's advantage.
Despite my promise not to bash digital here there is an interesting
trend in medium format lens design that speaks to one of digital's
disadvantages--lack of availability of super wide angle lenses.
Now you certainly can go through life without ever even hoisting a
40mm or 50mm (on medium format cameras) lens to your eye, and many
great shots are made with the standard 80mm. But I do get the feeling
that medium format manufacturers have seized on this lack of super
wides for digital and have brought out a number of wide angle lenses
for medium format. Plus, they are also appealing to those using digital
backs on their medium format cameras. Of course, now that we've
got "full-frame" chips for 35mm-type digital SLRs this
advantage may be moot. But then again there are less of those in the
hands of photographers than you might imagine.
For those who still have to multiply to figure out the focal length
of the lens on their 35mm digital SLR there's a reason you haven't
seen super wides for your work, at least according to some. The whole
issue of angle of incidence was the cause of much discussion at photokina
after the announcement of the Kodak/Olympus Four Thirds digital format.
See our photokina coverage for more information (December 2002, Shutterbug).
In a nutshell their case is that digital and super wide don't
mix because of the oblique angle of incidence of some of the light
rays that does not bother silver halide but seems to cause all sorts
of falloff problems with photo sites on CCDs. You can accept this
argument or think it's voodoo optics, but the fact remains that
something has kept the super wides unavailable to date.
Medium format has its share of wides, but in some cases this requires
an entirely different body format, e.g., the Hasselblad 905/SWC and
various medium format panoramic systems. Even 35mm systems adapted
to digital, until of late, had a conversion factor that has even the
hallowed and fairly exotic 20mm behaving like a quite common 28mm.
The new 35mm-size chips should settle that, however.
Into this breach comes Mamiya with their recently introduced ultra-wide
for the RZ67 Professional II camera. The prototype seen at photokina
sported a field angle of 92Þ. The M 43mm f/4.5 lens has an aspheric
element and focuses from 28cm (a bit under a foot) to infinity. If
you think in 35mm terms, the lens is equivalent to 21mm. If you insist
on putting a digital back on the camera you get a pretty wide view
as well--25mm (35mm equivalent) for the 36x36mm-sized CCD. The
minimum aperture on the lens is f/32, making for some amazing depth
of field potential. As this was in prototype form there was no announcement
of price or availability. Another wide prototype discussed was for
the Mamiya 645AFD. This, at 26mm (about 16mm in 35mm angle of view
equivalent) is said by Mamiya to be the widest angle of view for any
6x4.5 camera. (Well, it's the widest prototype, anyway.) When
used with the digital back it delivers a 22mm equivalent angle of