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Medium Format Digital Backs — Q3, 2003

A Survey of Current
Medium Format Digital Backs

In mid-summer 2003 I was working on a major article for a leading U.S. photography magazine. The piece was titled The World's 25 Best Cameras, and appeared in the Nov / Dec issue of Photo Techniques. In a telephone discussion with the editor and publisher they had agreed with my suggestion that such an article wouldn't be complete without a look at medium format digital backs. With the sale and use of film rapidly heading south among professional photographers, and digital swiftly climbing in the other direction, a look at the state of the art in medium format cameras would be incomplete without considering the digital backs that are currently available.

But, over the prior 6 months I had been left with two self-reinforcing impressions from discussions with other professional photographers and retailers. Photographers were telling me that they were selling their MF gear and switching to 35mm format DSLRs, especially the Canon 1Ds. This camera's 11 Megapixel size knocked everyone back on their heels in late 2002 because it offered full-frame 35mm coverage as well as resolution and image quality previously reserved for medium format digital backs, which were themselves mostly 11 Megapixels at the time. Film was simply becoming a thing of the past for many pros.

The other reinforcer for this anecdotal evidence were conversations with photographic retailers who told me that their medium format sales were drying up, and that there was a glut of used MF equipment on the market. One look at E-bay helped confirm this. But, was it all true, and if so, what did it all mean?

The Unintentional Cover up


Canola Field, Ontario — July, 2003
Mamiya 645AFD with 16 Megapixel Kodak DCS Pro Back
150mm f/3.5 lens @ ISO 100

Back to the plot line. As I started my research for the magazine piece I came to realize three things; firstly — mid-to late 2003 is shaping up as a transition period for makers of digital backs. Old models are on their way out, and new ones on their way in. But, the time between when a new back is announced and when it actually becomes available can be as much as a year. Several backs announced at Photokina in September 2002 were still not shipping as of August, 2003. The other realization is that the amount of independent information available about these products, either in print media or on the Net, is pitifully small. There simply isn't a single resource that catalogs these products, let alone one that reviews them. An equivalent of DPReview for medium format digital backs just doesn't exist.

This leaves the manufacturers themselves and their press flacks as just about the only source of semi-hard information on these products. But neither are they the best or most objective source. Far from it in many cases. With some products the company web sites and PDF brochures are so full of marketing hype and so lacking in consistent and clearly presented information that putting together a coherent list of current models and their capabilities is a daunting task.

Clearly there was a hole here; but why? As best I can figure it there are a few different factors at work. Medium format digital backs address the needs of a small segment of the marketplace — professional photographers. No, not the hobbyists who sell the odd print every now and then and so call themselves professionals, but the folks that make their day-in-day-out living using this gear. These folks rarely have time to chat on Net discussion boards. They're too busy actually using the tools that others chat about.

These photographers also don't make their buying decisions based on ads and word-of-mouth. They usually have a sales rep from the manufacturer, or distributor, or a major retailers call on them in their studio and do a pitch and a comprehensive demo. With medium format backs ranging in price from $12,000 to $30,000, wouldn't you expect that kind of personal service?

But that was then, and this is now.

Once again we're in a transitional period. Yes, these backs are still expensive, and will likely remain so for some years to come. But the late 2002 introduction and shipment of the Canon 1Ds really shook up the game. With it, for under $8,000, you had not an 11MP back, but a complete camera. While wealthy amateurs snapped up this latest and greatest DSLR, many pros also quietly did their evaluations and made the switch as well. Yes, the Canon 1Ds really did equal and often exceed the image quality possible from medium format film as well as some MF digital backs, many costing double what the 1Ds cost alone. And, while the 1Ds is a stand-alone unit — most definitely at home on location, many of the 11MP backs were still tethered to a computer.

So, the first half of 2003 saw a migration by many photographers from medium format film and dedicated digital backs to the Canon 1Ds, since Nikon did not have anything comparable to offer. The Kodak 14n was a big disappointment to many, though at ISO 80/100 image quality is fully the equal of the 1Ds. But, essentially Canon had the field to themselves for most of the year.

But, the medium format back makers were not going to see their livelihoods evaporate, and they proceeded to develop and introduce larger and higher resolution backs. Many medium format camera makers though were left sitting with their thumbs buried in their butts. The only exception to this was Hasselblad with its H1 camera. Designed from the start as a digital hybrid, Hasselblad worked closely with both Kodak and Imacon to ensure that the H1 worked seamlessly with both the Kodak DCS Pro Back and the Imacon Ixpress. The only problem for Hasselblad is that the newly introduced H1 camera is priced at double what the competition (such as Contax and Mamiya) sell for, not a marketing approach likely to lead to brisk sales. But, that's another talk show.

Mamiya and Contax are in pretty good shape, though they are leaving the digital back solution to others. They have camera models with fully electronic back connections, and so most new digital backs interface quite smoothly. Pentax though found itself at the bottom of a marketing pit. Neither the Pentax 645 Nii nor the Pentax 67II have any capability for interchangeable backs. Though the writing was on the wall two years ago (as an owner of both of these camera systems I wrote about this topic on these pages then), Pentax kept its head firmly wedged in a hole in the ground and didn't see the onrushing digital freight train until mid-2003, when they finally and somewhat sheepishly admitted that they needed to do something about it. What that something will be should be interesting to watch, as it would appear that a complete redesign of their 645 body will be needed.

Fuji isn't in bad shape. Their GX 680 III will take a variety of digital backs, and their GX 645 camera (sold only in Japan) is indeed the Hasselblad H1, which is a joint venture between Fuji and Hasselblad. Fuji even has their own 21 Megapixel back coming some time late in 2003 or early 2004. That leaves just two companies; Bronica and Rollei. Bronica has become a bit of an also-ran, and doesn't appear too prominent on anyone's radar screen when it comes to digital, though a number of backs will work with various models. Rollei is a major player in the European market, has all the electronic back interfaces needed, but is underrepresented in the U.S. For this reason the manufacturers have been slow to create Rollei interfaces, but this is now happening, especially from the European back makers.

A History Lesson

In late 2000 Canon introduced the D30 camera, a 3 Megapixel DSLR at the then aggressive price of about $3,000. Up to that point I had been happily shooting film in both medium format and 35mm cameras. Yes, I had closed my darkroom a couple of years before, without shedding even a single tear for the 30+ years that I'd spent in the chemical darkroom, breathing toxic fumes, and fuming over the time it took to get a single "good" print. Film scanning and image processing using Photoshop became my standard MO, and as inkjet printers reached maturity I couldn't have been happier. Well, maybe a bit happier. Scanning film turned out not to be one of my favourite activities, though I did splurge and buy what was at the time arguably the finest desktop scanner for 35mm and medium format film, the Imacon Flextight Photo. My tests showed that it was fully capable of producing results equal to those from drum scans that I had been paying hundreds of dollars apiece for.

I bought a Canon D30 almost on a whim. I wanted to see where digital SLRs were going, and I thought that for those times when I was away from an E6 film processing lab, such as at my place in the country in summer, or on long field trips, it could prove to be useful and fun. Little did I know then that I would be jumping down the rabbit hole with both feet and no parachute.

I was blown away by my initial tests and first few weeks of use. Image quality was so far superior to scanned film in almost every respect (except absolute enlargability) that I was astonished. I published these results on The Luminous Landscape and suffered a barrage of criticism from those that had not seen such results or conducted such tests for themselves, but who "knew" that it was impossible. Well, they were wrong then, and for that matter still are. But in the intervening 3 years not only has the battle been joined, but it has been won. The current generation of 6 Megapixel DSLRs from Nikon, Fuji and Canon simply trounce 35mm film, and only the price of admission remains a barrier, though since we'll likely see sub-$1,000 6MP DSLRs before Christmas of 2003 even that barrier is crumbling.

When Canon introduced the 11 Megapixel 1Ds in the Fall of 2002 I was among the first testers, and one again couldn't believe my eyes. It was capable of actually meeting and in some ways surpassing quality from medium format scanned film. After double checking my results, then triple checking them, then consulting with others who were doing similar tests, I simply sold all of my medium format film equipment. I had been blindsided by the rapid advent of digital, and a couple of years before had purchased complete Pentax 645 Nii and Pentax 67II systems to replace my aging Rollei 6008. (What a mistake — unlike the Pentaxes at least the Rollei now takes digital backs). But I wanted and needed autofocus, and Rollei had made no hint yet that they were going in that direction, (though they finally did in 2003), so even knowing that the Pentaxes didn't offering removable backs (though interchangeable film inserts were available for the 645) I took the plunge.


Two Barns, Ontario — July, 2003
Mamiya 645AFD with 16 Megapixel Kodak DCS Pro Back
150mm f/3.5 lens @ ISO 100

So there I was in late 2002 with a Canon 1Ds as my primary camera and a Canon 10D as backup. My medium format cameras were gone and I was doing 100% of my landscape, wildlife and documentary shooting digitally. Was I happy? Pretty much so. The image quality that I was getting from the 1Ds was excellent. 13X19" exhibition prints were of exceptional quality, and my range of Canon lenses, built up over quite a few years for my film system, were now doing the job for digital as well, though I did find that only the best Canon "L" series lenses were up to the high demands of the 1Ds.

By July '03, 8 months after starting to shoot with the 1Ds, I found that I had shot some 9,000 digital frames, and zero film frames with any of my remaining film cameras. I had been on landscape and wildlife shoots in Costa Rica, Iceland, Utah, Nevada, Florida, California and various parts of Canada, and had not shot one single roll of film. My M series Leica and Hasselblad XPan were simply gathering dust. So was my Canon 1V, but there was little point it putting it out to pasture. Who knows when I might want or need to shoot a role of film, even if just for old time's sake.

So, while I may be slow, but I'm not that slow. I could see that it was time to bite the bullet and put film behind me for good. So I called my friend Brian Lewington at Harry's Pro Shop, got a quote, and carted everything over for a trade-in. But a trade-in for what? This is where the two threads meet — digital backs and my next adventure in medium format photography.

The Threads Meet — Where to Next?

As part of my research for the 25 Best magazine article (and to scratch my own growing itch for even better image quality) I began speaking with manufacturers, distributors and dealers of digital backs about setting up opportunities for demos and equipment loans. In each case I was asked what camera I would want to test it with. "Duhhh". " Whatever". Not good answers.

So I decided that a good use for the money that I would realize from the sale of my remaining film cameras would be to put it into a new medium format system — one that I could use to test a broad range of medium format digital backs, and also that would serve as an eventual platform for when I made the decision of which MF back I would buy for myself.

Why, you may ask, if the Canon 1Ds is that good, would I even want a medium format digital back? Because the same considerations that have historically permitted medium format to be able to produce higher quality images than 35mm would, I assume, come to play again. For the same pixel dimension a 4.5 X 6 cm imaging area will always trump a 2.4 X 3.6 cm imaging area. All that needs to happen is for the portability of MF digital systems to become less problematic and for prices to become more affordable. Inevitable. But, in the meantime there would be lots of testing to do.

A Digital Back Survey

Now comes the fun part. I write "comes" in the present tense, because this is very much a work in progress, and I plan on publishing my ongoing findings as they become available.

There are a large number of digital backs and manufacturers. The models and the companies seem to ebb and flow. I will not be considering strictly multi-shot backs — those that take separate exposures for each of the R G and B exposures. Nor will I consider scanning backs, though photographer Steve Johnson has produced some stunning landscape work using these and large format. (An interview with Steve and visit to his Pacifica, California gallery will be featured in an upcoming issue of The Video Journal).

I will only be looking at so-called one shot backs and systems that are suitable for use in the field, even though in many cases this means carrying laptops and outboard batteries. Backs of 11 Megapixels or less are also excluded, for obvious reasons.

In late mid-2003 it turns out that there are two major categories of such backs; 16 Megapixel and 22 Megapixel. All (except Leaf) use CCD chips made by Kodak. But there the similarities end. The following table shows the basics of what models from which manufacturers are available in each size. Each back is in some way amenable to being used on location. Other backs which aren't have been excluded from the listings. They exist, but if they don't offer some form of portable field solution they won't be included in this survey.

16 Megapixel Backs

Kodak DCS Proback 645
Imacon Ixpress
Sensor Size
4,080 x 4080
4,080 x 4,080
Pixel Dimensions
37 x 37mm
37 x 37mm
ISO Ratings
100 - 400
50-400
Bit Depth
12 bit
16 bit
Kodak DCS Proback 645

Imacon Ixpress

Update: October, 2003
This back is now available with both a colour LCD screen and a 22 Megapixel chip.

22 Megapixel Backs

Sinarback 54
Phase One H25
Leaf Valeo 22
Pixel Dimensions
38.8 X 50.0 mm
37 x 49mm
36 x 48 mm
Sensor Size
4,080 x 5,440
4,080 x 5,440
4,056 x 5,356
ISO Ratings
25 - 100
50 / 100 / 200 / 400
25 / 50 / 100 / 200
Bit Depth
14 bit
16 bit
16 bit
Sinarback 54
Phase One H25
Leaf Valeo 22

20.8 Megapixel Back — The Dark Horse

Fuji DX-2000
Pixel Dimensions — 37 mm x 52 mm (Claimed 41 Megapixel effective)
Sensor Size — 5408 x 7648
ISO Ratings — 100 / 200 / 400
Bit Depth — ??

 

16 Megapixel Backs

There are two 16 Megapixel backs for medium format, with roughly 4000 X 4000 pixel resolution, with an imager size of about 37 X 37mm. These still have a magnification factor over the nominal 60 X 45mm size that 645 cameras are capable of recording, but present a worthwhile advantage over the previous 11 Megapixel chipped backs as well as full-frame 35mm DSLRs.

There are currently two dominant 16 Megapixel backs available, the Imacon Ixpress and the Kodak DCS Pro Back 645. Both use Kodak imaging chip, (the Imacon being a second generation version with better red channel performance), and each offers a very different total packing concept, as well as support firmware and software.

The Kodak back is the most portable medium format back available, consisting of a completely integrated unit that includes LCD screen for image review as well as system settings. A removable Lithium Ion battery is also part of the all-in-one unit. Special models are available for the Mamiya 545 AF, the Contax 645 AF and the Hasselblad H1. (The Pro Back Plus is similar and is available for other medium and large format cameras).

The Imacon Ixpress also offers a portable configuration but instead of a fully integrated design has what the company calls an ImageBank, which is in essence a tethered proprietary hard disk and battery combination. With the ability to store over 1,000 96 Megabyte image files, and to power the camera for up to a claimed 8 hours, this initially appears to be a small price to pay for portability. When the ImageBank is connected to a computer these files can be transferred via a Firewire connection. Also, the Imacon works in true 16 bit mode, which the Kodak back is a 12 bit device, like all 35mm DSLRs. But, while the Kodak back has an integrated color LCD screen the Imacon only has a B&W screen built into the back for histogram review. No image review. Apparently you can't have it all — at least not yet.

22 Megapixel Backs

There are three 22 Megapixel backs on the market, the Sinarback 54, the H25 from Phase One, and the Leaf Valeo 22 from Creo, the latter two just hitting the market this fall. Each uses a roughly 36 X 48 mm chip from Kodak that covers nearly the full 645 frame. Only the Valeo 22 offers a field setup that operates on location without the necessity of being tethered to a computer and outboard batteries, but all offer some level of portability for field use.

These are the largest single-shot backs available, and each covers roughly the size of 645 film. A frame that's 5,400 pixels wide by 4,000 pixels high is capable of producing a print that's 16 X 24" without ressing up, and easily larger with little effort. This is about as big as most finecky fine-art photographers require, and even outdoor billboards are routinely made from files with less resolution that this.

20.8 Megapixel Back — The Fuji Dark Horse

At the spring 2003 PMA show Fujifilm announced and showed a prototype of its 20.8 megapixel DX-2000 digital back. Beyond the initial press release little additional information has appeared, though a Fall 2003 release date was mentioned. Important information that's still missing are its power source (will it be completely self-contained like the Kodak DCS Pro Back) bit depth, and price.

Reviews & Criteria

Below are links to the medium format backs that I have reviewed and have scheduled for upcoming review. As mentioned above, this is a work in progress. Please note that the self-imposed brief for these reviews is as follows...

— 16MP and greater resolution

— One shot capability. No scanning or multi-shot backs

— Usable in the field on battery power, with or without tethered computer

You will see that these are not comparative reviews. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it was impossible to obtain the loan of all of these backs simultaneously. I was dealing with several different dealers, distributors and manufacturers, all of whom had varying schedules, as did I. Also, some of these backs are brand new; just coming to market in Q3, 2003, and were therefore difficult to round up. It's worth mentioning as well that these backs differ so much in their field capabilities that it really is necessary to evaluate each on its own merits.

It was my original intention to test all of these backs on my Contax 645AF, each with the same 35mm, 80mm, 120mm and 210mm Zeiss lenses. This turned out to be impossible since the various sample backs were not always available in that mount during the loan period. I therefore used whatever cameras were available for loan or rent, including Hasselblad 503CW 6X6 and Mamiya 645AF bodies.

Finally, I have taken the liberty of comparing some of these backs in terms of image quality against the 11 Megapixel Canon 1Ds. Why? Because I happen to own one and the comparison therefore interests me, and also because during 2003 this camera has become something of a benchmark for professionals who have made the move to high-end digital. Since its imaging capabilities are well known by now it also serves as a readily accessible benchmark against which I can compare the images from the various medium format backs under review. Those familiar with the Kodak DCS 14n will recall that though I did not give the camera an overall favourable review I did find that at ISO 80/100 its image quality was comparable if not slightly superior to that from the 1Ds, so this too can provide a relative benchmark. Finally, remember that it's image quality that I'm comparing vis-a-vis the Canon 1Ds, not shooting convenience, frames / second, camera-related features or anything else.

Kodak DCS Pro Back 645

Imacon Ixpress

Leaf Valeo 22

Phase One H25

Sinarback 54 — Pending

Fuji DX-2000 — Pending

All of these backs will be featured in on-location reviews
in upcoming issues of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal.

Product photographs are copyright their respective manufacturers


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Concepts: Large format, Medium format, Single-lens reflex camera, Hasselblad, Sinar, Camera, Digital camera back, Digital single-lens reflex camera

Entities: Pacifica, the Canon 1Ds, a big disappointment, Hasselblad, Pentax, the Rollei, Fuji, MF digital systems, Nikon, Bronica, Mamiya, Phase One, Contax, ImageBank, Fujifilm, U.S., Japan, Canada, Costa Rica, Iceland, PMA, Harry's Pro Shop, print media, LCD screen, image processing, that barrier, Imacon Ixpress, Michael Reichmann, Brian Lewington, Steve Johnson, Steve, The Video Journal, California, Utah, Nevada, Florida, Hasselblad H1, SLRs, DSLRs

Tags: medium format, digital back, camera, Canon 1Ds, image quality, medium format digital, megapixel, format digital backs, Kodak, medium format film, Kodak DCS, medium format cameras, Megapixel backs, 35mm, review, Hasselblad, Imacon Ixpress, multi-shot backs, pentax 645 nii, MF digital backs, medium format backs, new digital backs, professional photographers, higher resolution backs, Several backs, interchangeable backs, manufacturers, largest single-shot backs, Megapixel Canon 1Ds, Rollei, megapixel dslrs, various sample backs, Other backs, removable backs, cm imaging area, sale, Megapixel 1Ds, medium format sales, Hasselblad H1, Many medium format