Thoughts on Medium Format Cameras
by Mark Dubovoy
"The Leaf". Leica S2 with 120 mm Macro lens wide open.
This article is a compilation of a number of personal thoughts about photographic tools. These are rooted in over 50 years of experience with all kinds of cameras in all kinds of formats, from 8 mm all the way to 12x20 inches. As such, it is important that the readers understand that these are my opinions, based on what works for me. I am sure that many will disagree with me. This is neither bad, not bothersome; it is natural. Some top violinists prefer Stradivari violins, others prefer Guarnieri. However, one common trait that all great artists have is the endless search for excellence.
It is my hope that this common trait regarding the search for excellence will be present in the vast majority of readers. I also hope that there is an understanding that for serious photographers what really counts is the image. While great tools can enable higher quality, there is no question that the most important element in a photograph is the photographer that made the image. Cameras do not take pictures. People do.
Better Cameras Can Produce Worse Pictures
Having a better camera can lead to worse photographs rather than better ones.
How is this possible?
Well, let's go back to our example of someone playing the violin. Some of us have had the excruciating experience of listening to a violin beginner. If you give a beginner a mediocre violin, because the instrument is not very responsive and not particularly loud, the beginner can go along without causing too much pain to the ears of others. However, give the same beginner a very fine instrument that is extremely responsive and quite loud, and you are looking at a real catastrophe.
The same applies to cars. Put an average driver behind the wheel of, say a mid-size Toyota on the racetrack. The person can probably go around the track somewhat fast and reasonably safe. Now, put the same person behind the wheel of a Formula One car, and they are almost guaranteed to kill themselves and/or destroy the car at the first turn. In fact, I doubt this person can even figure out how to start the car, let alone safely manage how to get out of the pits.
The very same thing happens to photographers. Give a low-end auto everything point and shoot to a mediocre photographer and they are likely to get a mediocre image. Give the same photographer a top of the line technical or view camera and he/she is likely to get a really bad image if he/she can even figure out how to make an exposure.
On the other hand, a great musician will make excellent music on a mediocre instrument, and even better music on a fine instrument. Similarly, a really good and well trained race car driver will go much faster than your average driver in a Toyota, but amazingly fast around the track in a Formula One car. Ditto for photographers: A really good photographer with a lot of experience will be able to make wonderful images with a low end point and shoot, and better images with the finest tools.
I use the word "tools" with serious premeditation. Cameras and lenses are just that: "Tools". Treat them as such. If you treat them as objects of desire, or as collectibles, or as hardware that gives you bragging rights, or as things you bang around and mistreat, you are likely to never get a good image. Tools need to be put to work and they need to be in top shape at all times. They should not be treated like "babies" and they should not be mistreated or abused either. They are designed to perform a specific task and they will do it just fine when properly used and maintained. They should become an extension of your mind and your body. The only way to achieve the latter is through mastering flawless technique with constant study and practice.
It is only when the worries about technique are completely out of the way, and the camera becomes an extension of your brain, your hands and your eyes that you can be free to concentrate on the art itself. Only when you reach this point can you start to explore and finally reach reach your potential for excellence.
"Brilliant Tree". ALPA SWA with P45+ back and 180 mm Rodenstock APO HR lens at F/11
The Car Analogy
Assume that you were given the task of designing a car that can do it all. It has to handle like a sports car. It has to be a convertible, but also have a metal roof. It has to have a sunroof. It needs 4 wheel drive and high clearance to drive off road. It needs to have lots of cargo and passenger space. It needs to be a luxury sedan, it has to be fast, it has to be fuel efficient, etc. You get the picture.
Could such a car be designed? It would be extremely difficult, and even if you could, you would end up with some ugly monstrosity that could probably perform all the functions, but excel at none. In general, multipurpose tools perform multiple functions, but excel at none. The old saying about being a "jack of all trades, but master of none" certainly applies.
In the case of automobiles, for example, you can be less ambitious and develop a "sport sedan". Is a sport sedan as good as a luxury sedan in terms of comfortable ride, luxury features and space for passengers and cargo? The answer is no. Does it handle as well as a pure sports car? Again, the answer is no. It performs both functions, but it excels at neither. It gives you a taste of a luxury sedan and a taste of a high performance sports car, so if your budget and your garage space does not allow you to purchase both, it might be a reasonable compromise. The point is that it is a COMPROMISE.
Specialty cars may be less practical and they may be more expensive, but for the purpose they were designed for, they are (at least in principle) not compromised.
Back To Cameras
Current small format (35mm and smaller) DSLR's are, in my opinion, multipurpose tools in the extreme, and as such they are highly compromised.
People expect to be able to do everything with these cameras: Portraits, architectural, fashion, landscape, still life, product, events, fine art reproduction, sports, wildlife, underwater and even video (and I am sure I missed many other categories). Unfortunately, just as with the car analogy, these machines end up being ugly and overly complex. While they can perform these functions at some level, they are far from the tool of choice for many of them.
Here are some specific examples:
Architecture- You can certainly shoot architecture with a small DSLR, but the choice of focal lengths with tilt and shift is drastically reduced versus what a technical camera offers. With a technical camera you can use any focal length as long as the lens has enough coverage, with a DSLR you are normally stuck with only 2 or 3 focal lengths, usually in the wide angle range. Also, the resolution and general image quality of a small DSLR is not in the league of what most clients in this area expect and demand. This is why the vast majority of serious architectural photography is done using technical cameras.
Fine Art Reproduction- If you shoot art objects for reproduction with a small DSLR, you will have two problems: First, the lens has to focus very precisely on a flat plane for paintings. The vast majority of DSLR lenses do not focus on a perfectly flat plane. Second, you need extremely fine resolution and extremely accurate color reproduction. With a small DSLR you will never get results comparable to a scanning back on a large format camera with specialized repro lenses.
Landscape- Lots of folks shoot landscapes with small format DSLR's. To my eyes, the results are sub-standard. The cameras have neither the resolution, nor the shadow detail and fine color and tonal gradation nuances I demand from a good landscape shot. Furthermore, without camera movements available at all focal lengths, one is at a terrible disadvantage versus a technical or a view camera with a Medium Format back.
Portraits- Most of the best portrait photographers use either Medium Format or larger format cameras. This simply relates to the quality of the image and the look of the image. The shallower depth of field of lenses of equivalent focal length in these larger formats (an 80 mm lens is "normal" in MF and a 300-360 mm lens is "normal" in 8x10, versus a 50 mm lens for a full frame 35 mm DSLR), gives images a different look. The different look, combined with the additional smoothness and resolution versus the smaller cameras yields better portraits.
There are many more examples, but I think these suffice to make the point.
The direct conclusion is that if you are looking for excellence, and for the ultimate tool in a very specific area, more specialized cameras and lenses are a much better choice. There are plenty of reasons why Cartier Bresson used a Leica M camera, why Edward Weston used an 8x10 inch view camera and why Annie Leibowitz prefers Medium Format, just to name a few.
I will give credit to the smaller DSLR's for allowing photographers to do things that were literally in the realm of science fiction not too long ago, and for dramatically increasing the "bang for the buck". I also believe that when it comes to shooting sports or wildlife, in spite of their shortcomings and compromises, they may well be the best tools in these two areas.
"White Sands Sunset". ALPA SWA with P65+ back and 35mm Schneider APO Digitar XL lens at F/8
How To Choose The Right Camera
As mentioned above, I strongly believe that there has to be some balance between the intended use of the camera, the final use of the images (prints, magazine, web, etc.) and the skill of the photographer. If you are a newbie and are not sure about what your area of focus (pun intended) will be, by all means, go ahead and start out with a multipurpose camera. You can narrow things down later.
Conversely, if you are a more experienced photographer and you know what your areas of focus will be, I would highly recommend that you work with more specialized equipment. Yes, it will cost you more and maybe give you less flexibility, but the results are worth it.
One final word of advice: Most people would never buy a car without test driving it. Yet, millions of people buy cameras everyday without testing them. They simply rely on an article they have read or on something a friend or a salesperson says.
My advice to you is: Do not buy anything unless you have thoroughly tested it. All you need is your own memory card and a halfway decent store. Rent or borrow the equipment first. Worst case, go to the store, put your memory card in the camera and take a bunch of test shots. Do it several times, as many times as necessary to put the equipment through its paces. Buying something you have not used, and without actually working with the files in your own computer is a huge mistake.
My Personal Choices
The Obvious And The Not So Obvious
The vast majority of my photography is landscape photography. Therefore, for me, in the bad old days of film a large format camera was the obvious choice.
In the current days of digital photography, the right choice for me is Medium Format (MF). This is the case partially because of the superior image quality of Medium Format and partially because of the availability of MF technical and view cameras. Most of my clients purchase 32x40 or 40x50 inch prints, so my main interest is to produce the best prints possible at these sizes.
When digital photography finally achieved the quality I needed for my landscapes, as a recovering 8x10 inch film addict transitioning into the digital world, it was completely natural for me to purchase a smaller view camera and an MF back. I was very happy with my tools and with my work, but then one of my favorite dealers threw a monkey wrench into the works...
The Importance Of A Good Dealer
Unfortunately, most people grossly underestimate the importance of a good dealer. A good dealer can have a huge impact on your photography. Box pushers and ignorant sales people add no value and increase frustration. Good dealers can have a significant positive impact on your work and lead you in directions you might not have found on your own.
So, let me start with a shameless commercial plug for one of my favorite dealers: Bear Images Photographic at 417 Lambert Ave in Palo Alto California, phone number (650) 321-2327.
I have been a loyal customer for about 25 years. The owner, Jim Taskett is one of the most knowledgeable people I know in many areas of photography. Jim has a technical education, loves photography, is very dedicated to photographers that work with professional equipment and he will bend over backwards to support and satisfy a customer. I have known Jim long enough to know that when he recommends something, I need to listen. He has rarely, if ever lead me astray.
(While I have singled out Bear Images as a truly outstanding dealer, I need to mention in all fairness that there is one other local dealer and two dealers outside of California that have been terrific to me over the years. I will probably mention them in future articles when appropriate).
I had purchased the Linhof MF view camera I was using from Jim. A couple of years later, he suggested I also try an ALPA. I was a little reluctant to try the ALPA, but he let me borrow one for one week. That seemingly innocent situation has had a major impact in my photography. I absolutely loved the ALPA, and it quickly became my primary tool of choice.
I currently use an ALPA SWA with a PhaseOne P65+ back. I recently received one of the first production cameras of a new ALPA model, the STC. I will be writing a review of the STC shortly. Stay tuned.
The ALPA is not only more precise than any view camera and an absolute joy to use, but it has also made my backpack much lighter, while still providing me with all the capabilities I need for my landscape photography. I have reviewed the ALPAs on this site in the past, so I will not dwell on this.
I do want to re-emphasize that the ALPA is the only camera that allows you to shim the digital back adapter so that the sensor is positioned exactly where it needs to be. I do not quite understand why so many people think this is such a mystery, or why some think this is not important.
The situation is very simple: Nothing is perfect. Therefore, when you buy a digital back, the sensor will not be positioned exactly where it is supposed to be, and it very well may not be perfectly perpendicular to the focal axis either. It will be "within manufacturing tolerances", but not perfect.
When you mount the back on a camera, even the thickness of the paint or the anodizing on the camera wil make a difference. The point I am trying to make is that your sensor is almost 100% guaranteed to be out of focus. How much out of focus depends purely on the luck of the draw, it can be very slight or it can be more severe. The crucial issue is that even if it is very slight, it is quite visible in the files, and as we all know, anything that is not captured is lost forever.
If you use an ALPA camera, through a clever design of the back adapter and a set of shims, you can correct for this and shim the mount in such a way that when you mount the digital back on the camera your sensor is in the perfect position and therefore in perfect focus (by "perfect" I obviously mean really close to perfect, close enough to make a significant visual difference). The difference is much greater than you can imagine. You can download some real image comparison files of a back set to exactly the manufacturer's specifications for the flange distance versus a shimmed back at http://www.alpa.ch/downloads/ALPA_Adjustment_Test.zip .
So, even though I thought in the beginning that the image quality of a top notch view camera or technical camera depended only on the back and the lens being used, I was wrong. It turns out that the image quality of a shimmed ALPA is better than all other cameras. This has been the case with all the backs I have tested to date.
(By the way, the inaccuracy in the location of the sensor, combined with the lens tolerances, autofocus system tolerances and all that, is now well known to those who use DSLR's with "fine focus" adjustments. The very fact that this feature is available in a number of cameras is public recognition by the major manufacturers that their manufacturing tolerances are not tight enough to insure accurate focus at the sensor. Tthe likelihood of your pictures being out of focus is extremely high. Therefore, they have come up with a "band aid" post-production approach to ameliorate the problem. This will be the subject of another upcoming article).
The Dealer Strikes Again: Enter The Awesome Leica S2
When the Leica S2 was announced, I was pissed, skeptical and curious, all at the same time.
I was pissed because I had kept my beloved old Leica R lenses and I was waiting for Leica to finally introduce a DSLR. Unfortunately, when the S2 was announced all my R lenses became instantly obsolete and the prices for used R lenses plummeted.
I was skeptical because frankly, I thought that Leica might have bitten more than they could chew and the huge amount of money and resources dedicated to this new unproven format could literally sink the company. I was also not sure about where the system would fit in the market, and I was convinced that the system was not for me. After all, I already owned a PhaseOne back, an ALPA, a Linhof and a PhaseOne body. I needed another camera like a hole in the head! Or so I thought...
You can probably guess what is coming next: Jim Taskett called me up. He had just become a dealer for the Leica S2, the Leica rep was in town with one of the cameras and he thought I should take a look at it. He specifically told me that he did not think it would be a substitute for my ALPA/P65+ system, but he told me he thought it would fit nicely as an additional tool for me.
I was very reluctant to even look at it. I thought it was going to be a waste of time, but I finally capitulated. I played a little with the camera and a few weeks later I borrowed an S2 and 2 lenses from Jim. Subsequent to that, I spent time with the S2 product manager at Photokina last September and I was able to learn a lot about the system, to really put it through its paces and I was also able to see and work with the latest firmware upgrade which has not been released yet, but should be available in the not too distant future.
The end result of all these meetings and tests was that I could no longer resist. There were compelling reasons for me to work with an S2 and I ended up buying a system. It has turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made in terms of photographic tools.
"Train, Redwood City". Leica S2 with 70 mm lens at F/8.
Balance, Balance, Balance
I have mentioned above that one has to balance the photographer skills with the area of interest with the kinds of tools one is going to use. Well, there are other things one also needs to balance: Cost, weight, mobility and one very important factor, which is:
At what point is the image quality good enough for what I want to do? At what point does the law of diminishing returns hit with a vengeance?
For me, the S2 answers these questions as follows: The image quality is good enough for what I do, and this seems to be the level at which the law of diminishing returns really seems to hit hard. To take the next step up in resolution basically costs twice as much, and the next step in resolution is a lot smaller than twice the resolution of an S2.
The S2 has completely redefined mobility for me. It is the first digital camera I have used that allows me to move fast on a tripod and also shoot hand held while delivering good enough (for my standards) image quality.
In the ergonomics department, I believe that Leica has done a fantastic job with the body. It does everything it is supposed to do and the controls are what they should be and where they should be. The camera fits in the hand very nicely. The viewfinder is terrific, in a class by itself. Leica should be praised to no end for resisting the "feature creep" and lots of useless buttons , dials and ridiculous menus that the smaller SLR's and even the other MF DSLR's have succumbed to.
The rear screen is very good, but I have been spoiled by the resolution of the iPhone 4. I hope that we will see much higher resolution screens in future models of all cameras and digital backs.
In terms of the lenses, there is little to say, other than what Michael Reichmann has already said: Just look at the MTF charts and weep. Well, I will take it a little beyond that: I believe these are the finest lenses Leica has ever produced, and that is saying a lot. They are, for lack of a better word, stunning. In terms of sharpness, lack of all distortions, color, contrast, Bokeh and the cleanest, most beautiful look I have ever seen, they are in a class by themselves.
As I understand it, Leica spends quite a bit of time individually adjusting the sensor in each body for perfect alignment and positioning. Also, the tolerances in the lenses and the autofocus system are much tighter than the competition. It appears to me from the many hundreds of images I have shot so far, that the focusing in the S2 system is deadly accurate. Much better than the other MF systems. I wonder if this is the only SLR system on the market that has tight enough mechanical and electronic tolerances to actually guarantee pretty much perfect focus at the sensor.
In terms of the quality of construction, the S2 system oozes Leica quality. The other MF systems look and feel quite inferior in terms of mechanical integrity, smoothness, materials, fit and finish, etc. The Leica also seems to be much better sealed against dust and moisture.
Is there anything I do not like about the S2? The answer is yes:
- I would have designed the body all in one piece, including the vertical grip. I know that this is a contentious issue among some photographers, but I believe very strongly that having a single body shell instead of an add-on is much better.
- I do not like the lens hoods. I wish they had been designed as sliding hoods similar to the Leica M and the Leica R, as opposed to what I consider a really bad Japanese style detachable/reversible design.
- I wish the eyecup was better. I would like it to be such that no extraneous light hits your eye.
- The OLED display on top of the camera is fine indoors, but worthless in bright outdoor daylight. I hope they will improve the top display in the future.
- I have a few other minor quibbles with the design and some suggestions on the firmware that I have already submitted to Leica and which they tell me are now on the list for consideration in future development of the system.
Conclusions On My Personal Tools
- I do not like 35 mm professional DSLR's. I make no bones about it. In my view, they are clunky, badly designed with too many buttons and dials and levers in the wrong locations, insane menus and terrible ergonomics. To me they feel made of cheap plastic loaded with lead. They weigh way too much for what they are. Between the AA filters, the smaller sensors and the manufacturing tolerances of the bodies, the lenses, the autofocus systems and the positioning of the viewing screens, the image quality is not good enough for me.
- In my opinion (some may disagree), the PhaseOne and the Hasselblad MF DSLR cameras are extremely slow, the exteriors feel like pieces of flimsy plastic and the general ergonomics and weight distribution leaves a lot to be desired. After performing a number of field tests and shooting many thousands of images with these machines, I am convinced that these cameras do not deliver what the sensors are capable of delivering (I can see this all day long by simply switching the digital back from an SLR body to the ALPA and shooting the same picture).
My take is that the sensors are not always perfectly located as explained above and the quality of the lenses is not as good as what the sensors can deliver either. I also do not believe that the autofocus systems are good enough in these cameras, I have had problems in the past which I have reported on this site and elsewhere. Nick Devlin and Mark Segal have verified that they experience the same sensor positioning and AF problems in their tests of MF DSLR's. You can read their article by clicking here.
- While the Hasselblad folks claim to have electronic and software corrections for the sensor location issue and some of the focusing issues, I am only a photographer and in every comparison test I have performed I still get better image quality using PhaseOne gear.
- I cannot comment on the new Pentax MF DSLR, because I have never shot with it.
- The current MF "King of the Hill" in terms of image quality is the PhaseOne P65+ back on an ALPA, as long as the back adapter is shimmed for the specific camera/ back combination. I have not found anything better than this combination, using Rodenstock APO HR or Schneider APO Digitar lenses. I very much enjoy using this system when I have lots of time and I can shoot "View/Technical Camera Style".
- In side-by-side comparisons with the S2, the Phase/ALPA system does have more resolution and better recognition of small tonal gradations. The difference is not huge, but noticeable in large prints. On the other hand, the S2 seems to deliver more accurate color, and the look of those Leica lenses is magnificent.
- Given the speed and convenience of the S2, the amazing lenses and great image quality, the superb build quality, plus the fact that the body costs about half of what an ALPA/P65+ costs, the S2 certainly qualifies as one of the best MF choices on the market today. I would say that for anyone who shoots with an SLR and does not need resolution above the 39 Megapixel range, the S2 is the best MF system available at this point.
So, for now, my tools of choice are the S2 system and the ALPA/P65+ system. One gives me lots of mobility, quick operation and superb ergonomics with image quality that is more than good enough for my standards. The other one allows me to work in a more contemplative and deliberate mode, while delivering the top resolution and finest gradations of any single shot camera on the market today.
Personally, there is one other great difference between these two systems:
I always try and work with a system, as opposed to fighting it. The Bokeh of the Leica S2 lenses is drop dead gorgeous. So much so, that subconsciously and without even noticing for several weeks, I was shooting most of my images at large apertures. This is very exciting to me, because it makes my Leica images look quite different from my ALPA images. My ALPA images tend to be as sharp as possible in the entire frame. In contrast, many of my Leica images, at least for now, have large areas that are soft and out of focus.
This makes the two systems (for me) not only complementary in functionality, but also complementary in the representations of nature that my images deliver. In a way, this is as it should be: As I expand my arsenal of tools, my creativity and my vision should also grow.
"Fall Leaves". Leica S2, 180 mm lens wide open.
Final Thoughts on Medium Format
Some pundits criticize Medium Format users as "showoffs", and some zealots and mostly uneducated magazine writers claim that one can achieve pretty much the same quality using smaller systems. I believe, and my eyes believe that such comments are nothing but false nonsense.
The whole Raison D'etre for MF is image quality. No professional photographer in his/her right mind would go out and spend over $40 grand for a camera body and back unless he/she is getting something significant out of it that cannot be obtained from a much less expensive smaller camera. No field photographer relishes the thought of carrying bigger and more expensive equipment either.
The mere fact that so many professionals work with MF is palpable proof that there is a significant difference in image quality. These people are not dumb and they are not blind. Neither are their clients or the intermediaries like art directors.
I must also add that the look of MF images is different. Just like videographers relish the shallower depth of field of videos shot with larger sensors for the "movie look", many people relish the look of photographic images shot with the MF larger sensors. This actually brings me to an interesting tangent:
When I used to shoot film with a view camera, 4x5 inch film gave me all the quality I needed. However, shooting with 8x10 inch film I achieved a different look, which I liked better. Trust me, carrying an 8x10 inch film rig out in the field is the biggest pain in the butt one can imagine, but the sore back was worth it for me at that time in order to achieve the different look.
To summarize, the difference in MF image quality and the look of the image is clearly established. What is not clear moving forward is whether the price differential is sustainable. As we all know, Pentax is introducing an MF camera for $10K, which represents a price discontinuity in the market.
I am sure that the 35 mm crowd will be introducing sensors that exceed 30 Megapixels very soon. Although the number of Megapixels does not always correlate in direct proportion to image quality, it makes for great Marketing/PR and unfortunately most people do not test drive before they buy (for example, compare a Canon G10 with a G12. The G12 has a lot less Megapixels, but the image quality is better).
This leaves the MF folks with a very interesting environment and set of challenges:
- They will be attacked from the bottom by the massive marketing machines of the big 35 mm players.
- At the same time, Pentax has introduced an MF product at a very aggressive price.
- Leica is right in there with a superb product at basically the same price as the established MF players in the 39 Megapixel range. They are likely (in my opinion) to gain significant market share unless they do something really dumb.
- Leaf has introduced the first digital back with over 80 Megapixels. Since Leaf is owned by PhaseOne, I do not think anyone will be surprised if PhaseOne also introduces a back with a significantly higher Megapixel count versus the P65+, and perhaps some other improvements.
Where does all this lead?
I would expect the MF suppliers to continue to up the ante in order to preserve the image quality differential, but at some point lots of the above mentioned pressures, combined with the law of diminishing returns are likely to collide and change the complexion of the industry.
I am not sure exactly where we will end up, but I do believe that a change in the complexion of the industry is inevitable. It will be fascinating to see what happens.
My only hope as a photographer is that there will continue to be a healthy segment of the market that thrives on specialized cameras, way above average image quality and excellence on the part of the photographers to do something special with all these wonderful tools. If the photographers themselves do not improve their skills and their vision as fast as the tools are progressing, then the tools themselves will become useless.
The biggest pressure point to grow, improve, excel and raise standards still lies with the photographer.