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The Top Two Things You Can't Do On the Internet

1. You can't drink beer on the internet

2. You can't determine the absolute quality of a digital camera

By Anonymous

The first statement is quite obvious, but that's not the focus of this essay. The second statement will, I'm sure, prove to be a lot more contentious – but allow me to explain.

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BACKGROUND

There has recently (and also not so recently) been a debate raging in internet forums focusing on the differences, merits and shortcomings of medium format vs. DSLR systems. Much has been written and said on topics from dynamic range to sharpness, to noise levels to frame rates. There have been valid points, speculations, musings and yes, even some outrageous claims.

While debates and discussions are, generally, a good thing, I have noticed that usually the talk turns to one side "demanding" proof in hard numbers, statistics, scientific white papers and engineering specs, while the other side of the debate speaks of "usable dynamic range" "tonality" or "microcontrast". The debate rages, some are convinced, some dig in their heels and yet others laugh the whole thing off. In the end, the discussion quiets for a little while and then starts again with slightly different subject line. The proponents of "scientific proof" ask once again for raw images, 100% crops and a slew of charts and graphs. The "artistic" camp counters with "I know what I know, and I'm telling you its better". Neither side is satisfied and we continue.

So you're probably thinking at this point that this is yet another in the long line of essays and articles that will solve nothing. In a way, you might be right, but I believe that the "proof" one way or the other exists and is really quite easy to see.

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THE CHALLENGE

Much has been written about comparing DSLRs and medium format backs. Entire companies have been established to test and quantify parameters like sharpness, noise levels and dynamic range. The tests and results are carefully planned and executed and the results are proudly published for the world to see. The statistics indicate that high end DSLRs and medium format backs perform very similarly. In some cases the digital backs have an edge, in others the DSLR is the "winner". With the exception of the occasional fanatic, the choice should be clear. DSLRs offer better overall value and performance. Except, people keep buying medium format backs. WHY?

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THE ANSWERS

There are in fact two answers to why medium format backs sell consistently and they can be separated into two categories of users.

The first type of user is the high end commercial photographer. I won't dwell too much on them in this essay, but suffice to say that these people do not just give out blank cheques. They demand performance for their money and have some pretty specialized needs. Waist level finders, perspective control needs (in both lens AND image plane) and the best possible conversion to CMYK for publications. On all those counts the medium format back has the edge, but that's not the market I want to address today.

The second category is somewhat harder to define, but it has a significant percentage of fine art and non pro photographers. These users tend to spend a lot more time in analyzing technical specs, reading reviews, internet forums and generally have a lot more free time to devote to tech specs and, in some cases "pixel peeping".

Now, don't get me wrong, I have nothing against this group of people, as a matter of fact, they are becoming a larger and larger portion of the high-end photographic market. Unfortunately, they have more than the lion's share of "If you can't prove it with numbers, I'm not interested..." clientele and also a significantly higher proportion of those afflicted with "Analysis Paralysis" There's always just one more test to do, or just a couple months to wait for the next generation Megaflex camera. Months, and in some cases, years later, they still have not made a decision. Why, you might ask? Well, in my opinion, its because this group fails to do the one important test that seals more decisions and deals than any other. They don't make prints.

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PAPER LIONS

The last four words of the paragraph above are the main reason we have such heated debates about medium format vs. DSLRs.

Here's a fact that has been proven more times than I can remember. If you make prints bigger than 16 x 20 inches, the difference between a DSLR and a medium format back is very, very clear.

Please note my choice of words....I said "difference".

I have observed many dozens, in fact probably hundreds of people that view prints in galleries, shows and stores. Virtually without exception, they all see a difference between DSLR prints and medium format prints. They quite often can't verbalize it, but there is absolutely no doubt that there is a difference.

In the end, what it comes down to is the undeniable fact that THERE IS A DIFFERENCE, and that difference, although marginal on a computer monitor, is very plain to see in a print. Those that have gone through this exercise will know exactly what I mean, those that have not will probably never be convinced. A shame really, because they're missing out on some very interesting points of knowledge.

Nobody's saying you have to rush out and exchange your DSLR for a medium format back (or vice versa, for that matter) but in a world where the print is still the ultimate expression of a photograph you owe it to yourself to know all the facts.

March, 2010

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About Anonymous

Anonymous is a senior sales executive in the photographic industry, with decades of photographic technology experience. He has no hardware biases as his company is involved in selling everything from point-and-shoots to MF backs.

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Editor's Comment

There's good news and there's bad news when it comes to the Internet. With the exception of in a few repressive countries, anyone can write anything that they like. That's the good news. The bad news is that anyone can write anything that they like.

But one also doesn't know whether the author is an expert in the field, with a PhD, or a neurotic poser with an axe to grind.

I'm not a technologist. I leave that stuff to colleagues such as Mark Dubovoy, who actually is a physicist with a PhD. But when it comes to photography I didn't just fall off the turnip truck last night. Decades of experience, and working with some of the industry's top technologist does provide me with some insights.

I write this, because I was reminded just a few days ago of how perilous searching for information on the Net can be in areas where one does not have expertise. I was looking for an explanation of horsepower vs. torque, and a Google search turned up the following link.

I read the first essay and figured that this was a good explanation. But then I read the one that followed, which contradicted much of the first, and then the third which drew into question what the first two discussed.

It immediately brought to mind how many readers on this site, and others with discussion forums, must feel when they find themselves reading arguments pro and con various positions with regard to digital imaging and photographic technology. What to believe?

In the case of horsepower vs. torque I just decided to get in my car, drive away, and simply not worry about it for another moment. In the case of photography I'd suggest closing the screen you're reading this on, grab a camera, and head out and do some shooting. Let the nattering nabobs of negativity natter away. I'll be out shooting and driving.

Michael


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Concepts: Photography, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital photography, Single-lens reflex camera, Debate, The Medium, Medium format, Format

Entities: Michael Reichmann, DSLRs

Tags: medium format, medium format backs, dynamic range, medium format vs, DSLR, noise levels, internet forums, high end, prints, medium format prints, high end dslrs, pretty specialized needs, scientific white papers, lens and image, Waist level finders, end commercial photographer, best possible conversion, different subject line, usable dynamic range, non pro photographers, DSLR systems, generation megaflex camera, essay, high-end photographic market, senior sales executive, photographic technology experience, DSLR prints, digital backs, MF backs, debate rages, engineering specs, carefully planned, undeniable fact, overall value, technical specs, blank cheques, valid points, outrageous claims, good thing, long line