Medium Format Update
When Worlds Collide

Telephoto Lenses For View Cameras

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 camera.
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 view.

Wide Angle Rolleiflex
Keeping with our wide angle theme, the newest (and oldest) model from Rollei offers a classic twin lens reflex design with a 50mm wide-ish angle lens. This writer still has his dad's Rolleiflex TLR from the late 1950s/early '60s, and it's still making sharp and precise images. Working with it is a nice break from 35mm film and even digital SLRs. Yes, there have been some fixes on that old camera, but who wouldn't need fixing after the age of 50? Maybe Rollei is going after the nostalgia crowd, but if this nice-looking camera is anything like the classic I still shoot with, it will become a lifelong friend, even if you aren't 50 when you buy it.

Dubbed the Rolleiflex 2.8 GX/FX, it comes with the new Schneider-Kreuznach Super-Angulon HFT lens with a maximum aperture of f/4 and 50mm focal length. I would have hoped for a 2.8. Features include parallax compensation, interchangeable viewfinders, and the usual hint of sound when the shutter is released. Some people say they can hand hold a Rollei TLR down to 1/8 sec; they can brag like that but you and I know that maybe it's the lack of mirror motion that helps eliminate vibrations.

The general appearance of the camera is largely identical to that of the original of the '60s. The camera offers center-weighted average metering with two SI photo diodes behind the finder mirror and TTL autoflash control and five-LED displays in the viewfinder. This, to true Rollei TLR aficionados, is a mere encumbrance of modernity, but of course these features can be avoided. It is covered, as Rollei describes it, with "brown, crocodile-embossed cowhide leather," sounding a lot less attractive than it looks and feels. The lettering on the front plate is exactly identical to the one used in the '30s, meaningful only to those who might have had a Rollei back then or luckily spy one on a garage sale table. We only joke because we love it so.

On the tech side the 4.0 FW delivers 6x6cm framing on 120 film (no 220, as far as we can see) and has a Rollei-made 50mm Super-Angulon f/4 lens with Rollei HFT multi-coating. The bayonet IV fitting is for adding filters. The finder lens is a 50mm Heidosmat f/4. The Copal leaf shutter delivers speeds of 1 to 1/500 sec and B. The aperture and shutter speed settings are cross-coupled with the exposure meter. We didn't get any price indication as we went to press.

We've already reported on the Rollei 6008AF in our PMA report issue last year (June 2002, Shutterbug), but here's a short update of this soon to be available medium format SLR. This fully automatic AF SLR medium format camera will sport new Schneider AF lenses, including the 180mm f/2.8 AF-Tele-Xenar HFT, the 80mm f/2.8 AF-Xenotar HFT, and the new 60-140mm f/4.6 AF-Variogon HFT. Happily, the 6008AF is completely compatible with Rollei's 6000 system, thus buyers will be able to use all the previous lenses (even SLX lenses from '76) by means of focus indication, as well as all accessories. We've also got an idea of price now--a bit under $4000 for the body with viewfinder and magazine.

The Rolleiflex 6008AF is based on the Rolleiflex 6008 Integral, but with completely redesigned electronics. Only the mechanical components and the functional design of the Rolleiflex 6000 family have been retained. The camera has an autofocus module with an H-sensor (three-zone sensor). There is a mode switch on the right-hand side of the body for changing to AF mode. Three special modes can be switched on via this AF mode switch: single, continuous, and "man," for manual focusing with focus indication for older lenses and AF lenses.

The new SCA 3562 flash adapter, developed in cooperation with Metz, controls a system flash unit such as the Metz 54 MZ 3. One of the more interesting features is how it performs in low-light conditions. The optical system of the LED integrated in the system flash unit projects a striped pattern onto the subject being metered. This enables the camera's AF module to measure the distance. Another new feature is that the system flash, if desired, switches on automatically in low light. In addition, pre-flash metering without prior mirror pre-lock can be used to check the flash output or adjust the aperture when using studio flash units.

Of course, this being the hybrid age, digital backs can be operated via the serial port of the Rolleiflex 6008AF to control the functions directly via the camera contacts (without additional cables). You can also program the camera's functions via a PC/Mac and, if you desire, run the whole ship by remote control.

Contax Carl Zeiss Glass
Of course when you talk about medium format you think of the glass, and for Contax 645 owners and potential buyers that means Carl Zeiss T* lenses. There are two new lenses on the plate that will be arriving soon, the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 45-90mm and the T* 90-180mm, both of which have a maximum aperture of f/4.5. The wide zoom, if you can call it that, has a focusing range of about 1.5 ft to infinity, making it a great travel, portrait, and general-purpose lens.

Tamron also introduced some new glass for their Bronica SQ and RF645 Range-finder cameras. The 645 intro is a Zen-zanon RF100mm f/4.5 lens is smaller than previous manifestations due to the "variation Gauss Type" design that's based on a symmetrical optical configuration. This is said to shorten the length and proportioning power to the front and back groups of the lens. The lens has a close focusing distance of about 6 feet and takes a 62mm filter size. The new lens for the 6x6cm Bronica SQ is a zoom, the first made for this camera. The PS50-100mm f/4-5.6 lens offers a field of view equivalent to 27.5-55mm on a 35mm format camera. Bronica says that this may well become the standard lens for the SQ due to its compact size and focal length range. The lens contains two large hybrid aspherical lenses in its construction of 12 elements and 10 groups. The minimum focusing distance is a bit less than five feet at all focal length ranges, with filter size being a large 95mm.

It's "H" For The New Hasselblad System
Of course, the main buzz in medium format as we go to press is Hasselblad's new autofocus 645 camera system. Dubbed the "H" system, and differentiated from the 6x6cm "V" non-AF cameras, the H1 is a hybrid designed from the ground up with digital in mind. Working in conjunction with familiar names such as Fuji, Kodak, Phase One, and Minolta, Hasselblad has come up with a camera that when film is loaded acts very much like a film camera and when the digital back is attached acts like an integral digital camera. It's all "plug-and-play," says Hasselblad, which means that the LCD and other functions switch whenever the digital back (freestanding, if you will, with the Kodak and tethered with the Phase One) is attached.

The rub for some Hasselblad owners is the new lens mounts and lack, so far, of a converter for using older mounts on the new camera. But this is the price of progress, as Canon gambled (and won) when they switched to EF mounts. In all fairness, Hasselblad does promise a converter, and we might see something on this come summer. Another bit of a shocker is the Fujinon nameplate on the lenses. Now these are top lenses, but perhaps the lack of the traditional association for the optics might make those who bleed Hasselblad blood a bit moody. And then there's that 6x4.5 frame...

The H1 was covered extensively in our photokina report (December 2002, Shutterbug) and it's recent enough so that we trust you haven't recycled your issue yet, so we won't repeat that coverage here. One nice feature that bears repeating is that the camera sports a single magazine system that uses either 120 or 220 film and is capable of automatic recognition of film (Fuji brand) that has a Bar Code system. In addition to the standard film backs, we hear that several manufacturers are producing advanced, dedicated digital backs especially for the H1. As you know, Kodak and Phase One have already put in the bid for your buck. Like the standard Hasselblad system, now designated the "V" system, the H1 system will offer interchangeable viewfinders, magazines, and lenses.

In fact, we just got back from a shooting session with the H1 and found it to be a smooth operator. There's a bit of programming to be done to make it a camera that works the way you want it to, but once you do you've got a prime piece of equipment in your hands. We'll have a full test report upcoming that will put the H1 through its paces.