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The Return of the Medium-Format Camera

Return of the Medium-Format Camera Return of the Medium-Format Camera

Once thought outdated, medium format is enjoying a resurgence in the quest for higher resolution.

In a rapidly evolving market, pro photographers seek competitive advantages and ways to add value for the client. If your images look sharper and richer than the other guy’s, you will tend to get the sale.

Camera makers have responded by adding megapixels for higher resolution, but physics gets in the way. Packing more photosites on a sensor tends to increase noise. Higher resolution also reveals deficiencies in lenses, signal processing and sensor design.

Enter medium format. Or should the proper term be “re-enter”?

After a long, slow period of contraction, medium-format camera systems are ascendant again. In the past year, several manufacturers have unveiled new cameras, backs and even formats. Why would anyone abandon DSLRs for one of these slow, heavy and expensive hunks of photographic bling? Because clients can see the difference in the product at a glance, and that difference represents a competitive advantage.

They say there’s no substitute for cubic inches when it comes to car engines, and the same is true for photo-sensor size. Blow up well-executed images from a Canon 1DS III or a Nikon D3X for very large prints, and compare them with the prints from a medium-format system. There is a palpability that DSLR images can’t match.

Megapixels are just one component of the medium-format advantage. DSLRs apply an anti-aliasing filter over the sensor to suppress moiré patterns, which are easily seen in shots of fabric, screen doors and other objects with tightly woven grids. Unfortunately, the filter also blurs the image. Medium-format cameras forgo these filters, which doubles the apparent sharpness of images immediately. So if a 40-megapixel camera enjoys twice the resolution advantage of a 21-megapixel model, the absence of the filter doubles the resolution once more. 

While many 35mm lenses are reasonably sharp, medium-format glass is almost always superior.  Medium-format cameras capture more than 12 stops of exposure latitude. Some 35mm specs match that number, but the eye can discern tonal gradations more clearly with the medium-format models. 

Commercial acceptance 

To harness these advantages, photographers from varied disciplines are availing themselves of medium format.

For example, Photo District News cited Yuri Arcurs as the world’s most successful microstock photographer, garnering more than 2 million licenses a year. To showcase his work, Arcurs moved to a medium-format Hasselblad H3D-II-39, arguing that he needed to stand out from the crowd. He outfitted a studio to replicate a number of locations quickly and efficiently. He can set up an office, bedroom, kitchen, hospital bed or research space in a matter of minutes. Arcurs produces thousands of images a day, yet maintains the highest quality, leading to a lofty return per image.

Ken Doo, who operates a thriving commercial and wedding photography business in Carmel, Calif., was a digital skeptic for many years, until an early 16-megapixel Kodak back blew him away. “Bigger is better, just like film,” he says.

Doo upgraded several times before acquiring his current workhorse, a Phase One P65+ on a Phase One 645DF body.  “I advertise as the only digital medium-format studio in the area,” he says. “More savvy clients understand what it means to receive a 350MB 16-bit TIFF, and that gives me a leg up on the competition. They can see the difference, especially when they hang a large canvas print on the wall. The ‘wow’ factor gets a buzz going.”

Not every client, however, cares about megapixels. “I shoot wedding and engagement portraits with medium format,” Doo says. “The latest medium-format systems are fast enough to shoot the wedding itself, but I stick with the lighter-weight 35s for that. Brides don’t care about technology, but they want their dress to look its best.”

New palette for fine art 

The format is also making a comeback in the fine-art arena. Seattle’s Art Wolfe recently embarked on a series of abstracts shot with medium-format cameras, featuring painted nudes against Wolfe’s hand-painted backgrounds. Most people know Wolfe as a nature photographer, but he graduated with a degree in painting, and much of his photography owes more to the Abstract Expressionists than to Ansel Adams.

The life-size-and-larger black-and-white images from this painting series seem to jump out of the frame. “These prints demand scrutiny,” Wolfe says. “We usually see an image as a moment in time, but larger-scale prints are both theatrical and intimate, and the print becomes the subject.”

Recently, I watched Wolfe photograph at his Seattle gallery. Twelve feet above two models, the camera was fixed and tethered to a laptop below. As he choreographed the action, his voice-actuated shutter device, named Tom, snapped the images. When Wolfe checked focus on screen, the image zoomed without degradation. “I shot some of this work with 35mm early on, and they seemed static and thin,” he says. “This equipment endows the image with impact and richness lesser gear can’t capture.”

It was this work that persuaded me to return to medium format years after relinquishing my beloved Mamiya 7 film camera in favor of 35mm digital. I opted for a 39-megapixel Phase One.

This spring I shot Mount Rainier from a plane, handheld at 14,000 feet, two miles from the summit, with a medium lens. When I downloaded the card and zoomed in, I could clearly see not only footprints in the snow but grooves left by the dragging climbing ropes. I was hooked.

The recent resurgence of medium format reminds me of the backlash against CDs after they became the dominant audio format. While the first CD players seemed better than vinyl, they sounded metallic to audio experts. Similarly, numbers don’t tell the story of medium-format — the senses do.

Despite the rapid advances in resolution and noise suppression in 35mm systems, medium format still delivers noticeably greater impact. If you want to stand out amid the throngs of photographers struggling for business, consider medium format as a principal tool to deliver quality your clients will notice and appreciate.

James B. Martin
Story Author: James B. Martin

James B. Martin has written and photographed professionally since 1989, with articles and photographs appearing in many sports, photography and outdoor magazines. He leads photography tours for Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, including a medium format adventure to Burma and Cambodia. For more information, visit jamesbmartin.com

Website: www.jamesbmartin.com