As DSLR resolution approaches its limit, many photographers are seeking an edge by reviving this heavier, slower format.
A camera is a doorway between the lens and a recording medium, be it film, digital sensor or anything else recording light. A view camera is nothing more than a frame on which one hangs a lens and attaches a digital back. This is the essence; all else are merely features.
The following camera systems all deliver standard-setting resolution. Deciding on a particular system boils down to how well the camera fits particular work requirements. Do you need the flexibility of a back that can work with a variety of cameras? Or would you prefer a medium-format analog of a 35mm? Do you feel more comfortable with the digital version of a medium-format camera you used to use in the film days? You be the judge.
Alpa TC (alpa.ch/en.intro) — Alpa makes a series of medium-formats that act as frames. One attaches a lens board holding a small leaf-shutter lens to the front and a digital back to the rear. This is, in fact, a view camera. A high-resolution ground glass is added to the back of the camera and focused “old school” — upside down and backward — and monitored with a loupe. The last bit of resolution can be teased out by using shims to adjust the angle of the back into perfect alignment.
An Alpa TC with a Rodenstock lens and a Phase One P65+ back yielded the highest-resolution images of any camera in a featherweight package. Each shot required deliberation and care, but I can’t imagine a better backpacking camera in terms of quality.
Alpa’s offerings range from a very light, bare-bones camera to a heavier, more elaborate one that features shifts and other enhancements. Horseman, Arca Swiss and others employ the same approach with different features.
Hasselblad H4D (hasselbladusa.com) — Hasselblad has been the best-known medium-format camera company ever since NASA took one to the moon. Its latest offerings fuse back and camera, allowing the engineers to optimize the interface. Models in the new H4D series range from 40 to (soon) 60 megapixels. Although the latest Hasselblad digital lenses deliver the highest acuity, dozens of earlier designs work in the system, too.
Medium-format sensors highlight any focusing imprecision. Autofocus systems missing focus by millimeters can obscure inherent quality. After focusing, photographers often recompose, producing small focus errors. Hasselblad’s Absolute Position Lock detects this motion and adjusts focus accordingly.
Studio photographers of old, shooting with 4x5 view cameras, depended on shifts and tilts to control parallax and depth of field. The HTS 1.5 adapter brings that flexibility to five lenses, from 28mm to 100mm.
Ergonomics also matter. I prefer to work without removing my eye from the viewfinder. The logical arrangement of controls accommodates that preference so I can concentrate on shooting, not chimping from screens and menus to viewfinder.
Leica S2 (us.leica-camera.com) — Leica enjoys a well-deserved reputation for quality. But the 37.5-megapixel S2 is a true photographic jewel.
The S2 looks and operates like a 35mm DSLR. It is about the same size and weight as a Canon 1DS Mk III, and the simple controls and transparent menu system seem familiar. It has the fastest autofocus of any medium-format camera, visually undetectable focus shift, vanishingly small vignetting and no detectable softening of the corners at any aperture.
Like other medium-format systems, it has no anti-aliasing filter. It writes the data to digital negative, bypassing proprietary raw file issues. The S2 offers astonishing quality, but its optimization and integration eliminate the possibility of upgrading the camera.
Pentax 645D (pentax.com) — Pentax, known for its 645 and 6x7 film cameras, has jumped into the ring with a potential game changer. The 645D is a 40-megapixel camera selling for half the price of comparable cameras. It includes unique features for a medium-format system, including automatic dust removal.
Pentax hasn’t announced plans to export the 645D to the U.S., but it presages a drop in price throughout the market.
Phase One (phaseone.com) — Phase One is known for quality backs, including the mighty 60-megapixel P65+. Instead of relying on homegrown research and development, Phase One purchased competitor Leaf, bought a controlling stake in Mamiya (mamiya-usa.com; the Phase One is a version of a Mamiya 645) and is now integrating Microsoft’s digital asset manager, Expression Media 2, with its Capture One raw conversion software.
Some use a Phase One system for studio work and remove the back for use on a view camera for shooting landscapes, or when shifts and tilts are mandatory.