If you are similar to other photographers, the questions related to the value and or benefits associated with moving to Medium Format digital photography are presenting themselves.
Should you make the jump from 35MM to Medium Format in digital photography?
The Bottom line
I chose to make the jump.
How do I feel six months after making that choice? I can say it has been worth it for me.
However when it comes to yourself, I strongly suggest you take great care in arriving at a decision.
If photography is your vocation the decision, in my opinion, is much more straightforward. Business is business – and if the move to Medium Format can be cost justified and will improve the company’s overall performance and results – go for it. If not, do not make the jump.
If photography is your avocation, then the decision is trickier – especially if you are passionate, sound in fundamentals and have an eye for composition. Here are some high-level thoughts:
Have a full understanding of what you shoot and the output platform.
Amongst other things, I like to shoot landscapes and other still life subjects. I print my work on large format paper (i.e., above 20” in size). The advantages of moving to Medium Format would be many in this case. However, I also like to shoot sports action in a variety of settings with output mostly on the web. Moving to Medium Format would provide few if any benefits on this front.
Have a full understanding of how you shoot.
Today’ Medium Format equipment – especially the top end Technical Camera – is designed and built for the photographer who enjoys and takes advantage of the journey as much as the result. If you like to think, dream and plan your shots – then in many respects the rewards are significant.
If you are more of an Ad-hoc, point and shoot person who principally uses Auto or Programmed mode the benefits are greatly reduced.
“Be quick but not in a hurry” is what basketball legend John Wooden told his players. That advice applies to Medium Format shooting. I have had to adapt and learn to be much more deliberate in my approach. When I have proven to be in a hurry, the results have been anywhere from disappointing to no shot could actually be taken. Now that I better understand the mechanics of what needs to be done and am prepared to do them – the results have been significantly better than I imagined. In short, my preparation and understanding have allowed me to effectively slow the shoot down, so that I can be quick if I so choose.
Identify and establish a trusted relationship with a vendor
Correctly establishing what is the most appropriate equipment in Medium Format photography and at the right price will not be achieved through a quick search and single-click purchase via of the world-wide-web. The information available via the Internet is great, but a choice like this is not similar to buying a consumer television. Therefore direct interaction with knowledgeable people who truly understand and can speak to the available alternatives is crucial. I chose Capture Integration, Steve Hendrix and his team out of Atlanta. CI offers almost all the brands my initial research indicated would be the best options. Their thoroughness and objectivity became obvious quickly.
CI’s references not only sang their praises, but suggested something that would prove to be even more valuable – after purchase support. CI encourages you to provide feedback, collaborate and learn from what they have learned and have to offer as a valuable resource. It is not done as part of some additional up sell related support package either.
My guess is that CI’s philosophy is; a customer has purchased some top-of-the-line equipment. If we make the customer successful they will return [sic., and purchase more top-of-the-line gear] and therefore we will be profitable and successful as well.
The result is that CI and the CI staff has been proactive, highly responsive and stunningly diligent in making sure I am as happy after the sale as before. What has that meant to me? An ad-hoc request by me for how to better use the White Balance and Color Editing aspect of Phase One’s Capture One software was recently facilitated by an immediate and personalized tutorial using my own photographs. No time limit and no extra charge. Each time I have a question the result is similar. A month after receiving a lens, its performance just did not feel right. CI took full accountability and responsibility to ensure the lens was performing as represented. There was no stalling, no delays through forms related bureaucracy, and no finger pointing. The issue was resolved way faster than I could have imagined.
Perhaps a quick backgrounder is in order.
I am a person who likes the entire process and workflow (planning, shooting, developing, printing, and at times framing). I experienced the film to digital transition. For me, the 35MM film world was Konica and Nikon and in the digital world it has been Canon and Nikon.
At the time of considering a move to the Medium Format the Nikon D3x and top of the line Nikkor lenses had been my principle equipment. My only experience with digital Medium Format was with the Leica S2 system as part of a three-week field test with the final pre-production equipment.
I shoot in the field and not in a studio setting. In order of interest I shoot landscapes, still (or somewhat) life, everyday life and sports. My orientation and approach is that I will travel with equipment on my back the distance required to get the shot. If that means it takes 27 miles round trip at high elevation and extreme temperatures (cold or hot) for the shot – so be it.
My output for prints (from an Epson 9900) is often as large as the reproduction quality allows. At current I print output over 20” by XX.” Although everyone’s threshold of output quality differs many of the D3x files proved to be able to print up to 28” by XX” and meet a certain level of acceptability. However I wanted better results.
If I took one thing away from the field-test work with the Leica S2 it was that the larger sensor, 16-bit color and remarkable quality of the S Lens’ improved the output quality in a significant and material fashion.
It should be noted that the photos displayed on the right hand side of this page are a few examples of the results in Medium Format. They are being displayed at about 6% of their normal size with resolution of about 20% of normal (72dpi versus 300 dpi).
The images printed at 100% – 300% of their size with full use of all output capabilities have yielded a common comment – “It feels as if could walk right into the picture.” The equipment performs that good. As for the photographer – “better to be lucky than good.”
Setting the Criteria and Selecting the Equipment
If the move to the Medium Format was to be made I needed to be able to make it in an informed fashion. I also had to acknowledge that I was considering a move into a subject area for which I had little experience and no expertise.
Following the adage do not go to the grocery store hungry, I established my goal at the onset. I wanted output at the larger sizes (i.e., above 20”) with the best reproduction quality I could afford using equipment that was the most practical for use in my desired application(s).
Using the criteria above I settled on the following approach:
• Keep the Nikon equipment when the nimbleness and strengths of this high-end DSLR warrant (i.e., action, great diversity in possible focus points, or multiple frames per second). Note: the D4 might now be a better choice (e.g., less expensive at more frames per second) given the move to Medium format.
• Purchase a Medium Format Digital Back that best meets the criteria
• Purchase a Medium Format body and lenses that take advantage of the Digital Back and provide capabilities similar to a DSLR.
• Purchase a Technical Camera body and lenses that take advantage of the Digital Back and provide the best optical quality possible.
In short, with the above equipment I could attempt most any type of shot I desired to take and know if the shot was not achieved – it was the photographer (which is almost always the reason anyways).
Below is a listing of my equipment choice and my ratings of them to date: