When Will Medium Format Return? · DEDPXL

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I love medium format. I’ve always loved it. If you have never shot medium format, or a format above it, you are missing such a sublime and beautiful part of photography. DSLRs are fantastic. I wouldn’t be a photographer today if it weren’t for the Nikon D100. That 6 megapixel APS camera relaunched my career and I’m forever grateful for affordable digital gear like Nikons and Canons and Fujis and Sonys and the like. I can’t imagine life without them and I don’t want life without them, but life without medium format sucks.

Let me say that again for emphasis.

 

Life without medium format sucks.

 

I’ve told this story many times and I’ll make this as brief as I can. A few years ago I attended an opening in Dubai presenting the work of the instructors teaching that year at GPP. One of the photographers showing work was Drew Gardner. His prints stopped me in my tracks. My jaw hit the floor. I got really, really close to them. He walked up beside me and I began to say, “There’s something about these prints…” He stopped me and simply replied, “Phase One, mate. Medium format.”

It was then and there that I began putting a Phase One into my budget. I was going to have a medium format again.

In my Crop or Crap video I said that the difference between APS sensors and full frame 35mm sensors was negligible; I stand behind that statement with all of my being. Put some perspective on it, though, and realize I shoot with a Phase One. It absolutely stands heads and shoulders above 35mm based cameras. Where it falls flat on its face is size. And speed. And ISO performance. And auto focus. It’s an ISO 50 – 200 camera for me and, while I have taken it to the streets before, I rarely do so. I like it locked down most of the time and that brings a certain slowness to my work that I like, and a set of limitations that hinders me at times.

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Not very long ago the market was flush with medium format cameras. We had offerings from Hasselblad, Maymiya, Bronica, Fuji, Rollei, Pentax, Horseman, and others. There was a myriad of designs from SLRs to twin lens to rangefinders to point and shoots to cameras with large format movements. You could choose from 645, 6×6, 6×7, 6×9, and up to the big panoramic cameras like a Widelux or a 6×17 Fuji. One of the last new medium format designs the photography world saw was the Bronica RF645. The RF645 was produced from 2000 to 2005 —  it was discontinued only nine short years ago.

I love my Fuji cameras because they brought the quality of a DSLR to a package that is as easy to carry as any camera I’ve ever owned, aside from a cell phone camera. They are beautiful cameras both in operation and design. In a need desperation desire to have the same form and function for medium format I began searching for a small medium format rangefinder camera. I so badly want the look and the quality of medium format but in a smaller design for travel and location work. It was in this search that I began feeling sentimental for the “olden days” and pissed off about the state of cameras today.

Let me first state that when it comes to photography, nothing ignites more nostalgia in me than the word “film.” When I’ve been asked, “What do you think about film photography, Zack?”,  my eyes look to the heavens as I go back to the days of shooting photos and waiting like a kid on Christmas morning for them to return to me from the lab. All those days and nights in a darkroom learning how to print was such an invaluable education for me as a photographer; I truly feel sorry for anyone who has never had that experience. Seeing a print develop under a safe light was magical. However, after my heaven gazing reverie, I always sigh slowly, look whomever in the eye and say, “Yeah. Film is dead.”

At this point in the blog post my friend, Jonathan Canlasis cursing my name and smashing his computer. Film isn’t dead but it sure as hell is on life supportOne by one the old film stocks are dying off. Yes. I know. Ferrania.

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Enough about film. That’s not the point of this discussion.

Let’s look at what kind of new medium format camera you can get into in the year 2014 that is digital.

Phase One :: You can get the Phase One DF+ camera body. This is the one I own. It’s basically a revamped and rebadged Mamiya 645AF from the film days. It’s big. It has one big AF point that is akin to signing a check with a paint brush. You get the camera and then you need a digital back for it.

Hasselblad :: They have the H5 which is an upgraded H4 > H3 > H2> H1 from the film days which actually started its life as a Fuji GX645AF. They are great cameras and Hasselblad shooters that I know swear by them (and swear at them, too). I sometimes wonder if I should have gone for a Hasselblad.

Hasselblad has recently introduced the H5X at $6,000 that allows the use of film backs and third party digital backs which is something I’ve sort of eyed more than three times but that means selling my Phase kit (except the back) and buying into a new one. I have four kids — I could probably sell at least one of them.

Pentax :: Pentax has the new 645Z camera and it’s not too bad from what I’ve read. Pentax, though, in their infinite wisdom, decided to use a smaller sensor than other digital medium format cameras AND make it a focal plane shutter camera instead of using leaf lenses which is ONE OF THE MAIN REASONS YOU MOVE TO MEDIUM FORMAT. Seriously?

Leica :: Lecia has the S system. B&H has a two lens kit with body for only $34,500. I’ll take two please. I don’t know anyone shooting the S series. Not a single person.

The Pentax starts at $8,500 (body and back only). From there you go to $13,000 for an H5D-40 body with a back. The Phase One DF+ body is $6,000. That’s body only. No back. No lens. The Leica S is $22,000 for the body (The body has a built in sensor.)

In the digital world if you want a new medium format camera that’s all you have to choose from. You can get a digital back from Phase or Leaf and bolt it on to several older film bodies. You can put a back on an old Hasselblad V series or an RZ67 or a Contax etc. It is very easy to bring an old medium format camera to life in the digital age. Check out the used backs at Capture Integration.

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But what about innovative and new products? There’s nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Want a digital medium format rangefinder? There isn’t one. Want some sort of mirrorless camera with a big ass sensor? Not a single one out there. Want to see something new, fresh, interesting, and innovative in a medium format digital camera? Good luck with that.

I get that the size of the sensor is really expensive. I get that leaf shutter lenses cost more. I get that medium format is going to cost more than 35mm but guess what — it’s ALWAYS been that way. ALWAYS! There have always been really expensive medium format camera systems but there were always entry level systems and systems in between. My first medium format system was the Bronica ETRs 645 system. With a student discount I was able to get a body, a viewfinder, two film backs, and two leaf shutter lenses… as a student! It cost more than a 35mm system, but it was doable.

Where. The. F*ck. are the digital medium format cameras that the working photographer can afford?
One that doesn’t take years to save up for?

 

Yes. You can get some amazing deals on used systems that are spectacular. Again, Capture Integration has the best selection of those.

 

Capture One Screen Shot of Phase One image

 

I love this Bronica RF645. Why can’t I buy a digital version? Why is no one innovating and invigorating this market? For decades medium format was the workhorse in photography and now it’s unapproachable for most working photographers. It’s the most stagnant segment of the photography market. Well, except for large format but if just asking for a small 645 sensor at an affordable price, it is hard to imagine what it would take to get a 4×5 sensor! We haven’t even seen a 6×7 sensor yet.

A digital Mamyia 7. Can you imagine? How amazing would that be? Am I the only one that that longs for one of these cameras? I can’t be. I can’t be the only one.

Some of you are going to say…

But Zack. DSLR quality is so great these days there’s not really a need for medium format any more.

Uhhhh. I disagree. Small format cameras (35mm and below) don’t hold a candle to a Phase or a Leaf or a Leica or a Hasselblad. You can go on and on about your Nikon D810 but sorry. No. It’s still a small format. Everybody together!!! It. Is. Still. A. Small. Format. They are awesome. They are amazing. The quality is fantastic… but they still aren’t medium format and up.

Look at this photo and then look at the next photo that’s a cropped detail. Look at that detail. Look at the little tiny part of that full image and how the Phase One retains so much detail. So much tone. So much texture. You can feel his skin. It’s not just sharpness. It’s dynamic range. It’s tone. It’s leaf shutters. It’s optics. It’s how the focus falls off. Not just how much it falls off but the quality of that fall off as well. It’s gorgeous. It truly is sublime. Small format cameras can’t touch this. There isn’t a pixel of sharpness added to these images. Not even when sized for the web. Remind yourself right now you are viewing a small JPG on the Internet. You should see the print.

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It’s NOT just about the number of megapixels. It’s the size of the physical sensor combined with the size of the pixels on that sensor combined with great optics.

I think it was David Duchemin (I might be wrong) who used the analogy about Formula One teams spending millions to gain seconds. There are times you will spend a huge amount of money for a seemingly small gain — but that gain is worth the money. That’s why I took a very deep breath and signed that check when I bought my Phase One system. I wanted that gain. I wanted to have that next step. I wanted to hang my work and have that “something” different about them.

Is it meaningless pixel peeping? No. It can be seen by others. I had been shooting regularly for an editorial client of mine and when I sent the photo editor my first assignment shot with the Phase One his reply back to me was, and I quote, “Holy Shit! What in the hell camera did you just get? These are amazing.” I regularly have clients request that I shoot medium format. Once they get a taste of it they are hooked.

But you see this is the “rare” camera now when one short decade ago this was business as usual for daily shooters. Editorial, fashion, commercial, portrait, and many wedding photographers shot medium format. It was expensive but it was achievable. It was expected of you to shoot medium format in many areas of photography. Today? We are, for the most part, shooting small format for everything.

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Imagine this. Imagine a town that had a lot of great restaurants. Indian. Italian. Chinese. Steak. Farm to table burgers. Specialty pizzas. Diners. Imagine a wide variety of food at a variety of price points. Now imagine all of those places closing down and being replaced with McDonalds, Taco Bell, KFC, Subway, and maybe… if you are lucky… a Five Guys or an In and Out. Imagine all of your awesome options for food being taken over by fast food.

But, Zack. Pizza Hut makes just as good of pizza as the old Sicilian guy used to make and it's a lot cheaper, Zack.
Is that what’s important? That it’s cheaper?

And having your family portrait made at Wal-Mart is just as good and cheaper. Isn’t it? Wal-Mart is just as good for family portraits as anyone else. Right?

Imagine the only good restaurant left in town requires a membership to the country club. That’s where medium format is right now. You have McDonalds and you have the country club. Don’t read too much into this. I’m not saying Nikons and Canons and Fujis and all that are crappy horrible cameras like McDonalds is crappy horrible food — I’m just trying to make a basic point.

Here is what I want ::

• Rangefinder style body with 645 full frame sensor. Bronica RF645 would be a perfect size.
• 3 leaf shutter lenses 45mm f4, 80mm f2.8, 120 f4 macro.
• Smart adapters for legacy Hasselblad, Mamyia, and Bronica lenses.
• Clean ISO up to 1600.
• Three AF points (Left, center, & right) or manual focus only with a great EVF and focus peaking / split image.
• Must be able to tether to C1 and/or LR.
• 3″ or larger LCD that is sharp.

I want this Bronica RF645 to be digital. I’ll pay top end DSLR prices for that and a bit more. A Nikon D4s is $6,500 for the body. A Canon 1Dx is $6800. Give me less bells and whistles and a bigger sensor. Hell, build the thing out of cardboard if you have to. I’ll take it. You can have a nice used medium format digital rig for those high end DSLR prices. Medium format has always cost more than small format 35mm but it was not out of reach of a working photographer.

Look again at the Bronica. Look at that thing. It’s gorgeous. It’s about the size of a DSLR with a grip. It isn’t that much larger than the X-Pro1. It sure is heavier though. I’ll tell you that. If I’m going to have a heavy camera then it’s going to be medium format and not small format. Can you imagine if that X-Pro1 grew up to a 645 system? Would that not be amazing?

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I leave for Germany tomorrow where I’ll be attending and speaking at Photokina. I’ll be going to see all the medium format players. All three of them. Oh… and that other one. Who is it? Oh yeah. Leica. 🙂 I’m kind of joking but I’m not. I honestly have zero interest in the Leica system (as nice as they are). I do want to put the Pentax in my hand and to my eye. I want to see what that is about. I hope to handle the H5X while I’m there. I already know the Phase stuff but I’ll stop by just to see if anything got past the rumor mills and is being announced.

I’m going to keep banging this medium format drum. Why? Because life without medium format sucks. Maybe I’m just crazy, but I want my local restaurants back. I want more options on the table. I want this Bronica on my desk to be digital and I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why no one has done it yet. We are 15+ years into the digital photography revolution and medium format options keep getting smaller instead of larger. Someone needs to step into this game and shake it up.

Yeah I know. Buy film and scan. Yeah. I get it. That’s what I’m doing. Just sent my first two rolls from this Bronica to the lab today.

Do you want an affordable digital medium format camera? If you could have a Fuji 645 or a Mamiya 6 or a Bronica like rangefinder how much would you pay for that?

How much would you at least be intrigued by it even if you don’t think you need it?

What would your dream system look like and how much would it cost? Realistically.

Realize this stuff costs millions to develop and bring to market and the market better be there to catch it. Someone starting from ground zero will be spending a lot of R&D funds to bring something like this to market.

Or are you happy with small format cameras and have zero interest in this segment?

I’d love to hear from everyone on this.

Cheers,
Zack

Zack Arias

A full time commercial and editorial photographer, Zack shoots everything from bands to CEOs to ad campaigns. A gifted teacher and communicator, he has an uncanny ability to meet and connect with all types of people.

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