DSLR vs Medium Format: Fundamentals

July 21, 2009

PDN did an article in the Feb 2009 Studio Issue about DSLR vs Medium Format.

I read it over and what the article misses in the minutia of it’s details is the more challenging story, “What is the pro camera now, what will it be in the future?”

The answer isn’t mutually exclusive, pitting medium format against DSLR; the answer is both – in fact the answer is much more than either.  With the convergence of technology that is happening at this point, photography 2.0 will likely be all about video that is so sharp and clean that stills can be taken from it and used to push people to the web.

However, this argument about what it is has been raging since the first practical 35mm roll film cameras were introduced by Leica in the 1910’s.  It pitted the ‘professional’ photographers against hobbits.  The professionals of the era said nobody would ever use such irrelevantly small film.  However over time medium format roll film consumed much of the large sheet film market; but there was still a place for large format through 2000.

While the progress of time and technology has sped-up dramatically in the past fourteen years since digital shooting began there is still a place for both and the major manufactures are scrambling to define the future through leap frogging innovation.

When times are tough and the bottom line counts more than ever, volume and price take president for sure.  $8000 is more palatable than $30,000 for any consumer but one of the relevant points mentioned in the PDN story that relates exclusively to professional photographers involves critical color and exquisitely clean details in the highlights and shadows that just don’t exist in DSLR capture systems.  The relevant point isn’t just more pixels but more high quality pixels.  Right now DSLR cameras are all 8Bit color depth (and a hybrid 12bit), medium format cameras are all 16bit and have depth of color, clarity and resolving power that just can’t be matched.

As for megapixels, the idea that more is better is largely hype, any 10+ megapixel camera will deliver descent 16×20 prints which is, for most photographers, good enough.  While the growing dominance of the web and digital content distribution has triumphed the virtue of “good enough”; good enough does mean a great deal at the pro level.

I’ve done the digital capture work on some of the Target Ad campaigns that are five stores high in Times Square along with the Verizon campaign showing 200 extras standing behind test man and the IBM campaign with ads that run along 60 of jetways at airports around the world.  These jobs simply just are not shot on a DSLR.  Having said that, you wouldn’t shoot sports or journalism with a medium format camera ten years ago and you still wouldn’t.  But for almost everything else in the pro world, medium format is the best.

Here’s the scoop on what’s cooking in the medium format world.  PhaseOne owns an “interest” in Mamiya, purchased Leaf and took the best parts and went from being big to HUGE in the past six months.  Hasselblad crossed it’s fingers by integrating the digital back into the body and forced out or pissed-off most of it’s loyal customers who had made the H1 & H2 the leading digital camera body for the past 5+ years.  Sinar (High 6) and Leaf (AFI Dii) are essentially dead.  Along comes the Leica S2.  They may call it a “bridge” but for a company that only decided to get into the digital game two years ago they’ve got no chance of becoming a big player any time soon.  Likewise the RED, Scarlet is coming out of left field.  Unlike the rest however, RED is basically a video camera that’s being reverse engineered to shoot stills.

“What is the pro camera now, what will it be in the future?”  Simply put it’s a big-ass megapixel capture that does HD video and is made by the manufacturer that can build it not just first but reliably.

Michel Leroy
Michel Leroy PHOTOGRAPHER is a professional visual content solution creator. Primarily engaged in the production of commercial photography and film services, generally for advertising agencies, publishers, business and industrial users.

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