Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I've been reading about Hasselblad, Mamiya (medium format) and Sinar (large format), both offer lots and lots of megapixels and the frame format. On the other hand, I've been learning about concepts that additional light (flashes) help images to get sharper in a way that even using an iPhone you can still get amazing pics (source).

So what's the point investing so much money in high end cameras like them plus the lightning equipment, when you can be investing in just the lightning equipment with a FF, an APS-C, or even a smaller sensor?

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You seem to be focusing on studio photography. Large- and medium-format cameras are also "popular" (for small values of popular) in landscape photography, where artificial lighting isn't very practical or useful. –  coneslayer Apr 26 '11 at 11:27
    
Poor choice of words I think. One does not invest in digital cameras, lenses maybe. You buy one because you need the resolution, level of details and dynamic range in a single exposure. Otherwise you should probably invest in a good tripod and learn panorama stitching, HDR and exposure fusion. –  Itai Apr 26 '11 at 15:47
    
@coneslayer: You're right. I was kind of complaining (pure jealousy) about using those kind of expensive cameras with larger formats for studio photography, where you can use lightning arrangements/equipment. Of course, because I watched those kind of strobist reviews. –  Diego Apr 27 '11 at 8:44
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@Itai: When you buy an object or pay for a service, you expect something from it. Doesn't matter hoy much you paid, that's an investment. In other words, it doesn't matter if it's a camera or a lens, in both of them you're investing for getting something that you're expecting from both products. Investment meaning by Cambridge dictionary. –  Diego Apr 27 '11 at 8:59
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3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Firstly there's reproduction size. Yes you can get good results on screen with an iPhone and properly lit photo, it wont look good printed in a glossy magazine, or on a 10 foot advert! I see this time and time again when someone produces an attractive image from an otherwise maligned camera such as a phone camera and uses it to argue that more expensive cameras are redundant, and the image in question is 600 pixels by 400 pixels!

There are other advantages to medium format other than image resolution, that is superior lenses (even the most expensive 35mm lenses costing over $2000 are comparatively mass produced and inferior to the best medium and large format lenses), faster sync speed due to leaf shutters, and better micro contrast on account of the format size.

Another issue is repeatability and reliability. You might be able to get good results with cheaper gear and that's great. But it might also be a lot more work and less reliable, making the expensive gear a better option for a professional. I shoot with a 1D and 1Ds, not because they take better quality images, but because they are more reliable, and have features such as simultaneously recording to two memory cards in case one fails.

Finally pro photographers aren't stupid or wasteful (though it often seems that way!) if they could generally get the same results with an iPhone then most simply wouldn't buy a Hasselblad.

iPhones aside you make a good point regarding full frame DSLRs which are genuinely starting to tread on the toes of medium format, with talk of 30 megapixels plus in the next generation. However the genuine advantages of format size in terms of sharpness and micro contrast (note that I don't consider shallow depth of field to be an advantage of MF due to lack of extreme fast lenses) will always hold out, as will the lens and accessory support.

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Here's a nice review of a high-end piece of kit: luminous-landscape.com/reviews/alpa_stc_review.shtml, showing some of what you get when you shell out for the high-end gear. The funny thing is you can buy an iPhone holder for it. –  gerikson Apr 26 '11 at 10:45
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For professional photographers, shallow DOF isn't an advantage, it's something they fight against. In the real world, clients want images that are sharp, where their products are visible. If anything, the larger sensor is a problem in these situations and a lot of photographers were more than happy to move to DSLRs because they could reduce their lighting gear by half! –  Jędrek Kostecki Apr 26 '11 at 11:09
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That's true, but it doesn't stop Hasselblad citing depth of field control as a selling point: dpreview.com/news/1002/10020210hasselbladh4d40.asp –  Matt Grum Apr 26 '11 at 11:23
    
@Jędrek: That's almost completely based on the type of pro work being done. Sure for products the client usually wants to get everything in sharp focus, but plenty of my commercial contracts have been won over the years because I like to use lots of DOF in my work... –  Jay Lance Photography Apr 26 '11 at 16:02
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Yeah, Jay, but your photography business seems to be B2C - weddings, baby pics, family portraits, senior portraits. The real money is in architecture, commercial, fashion and product photography. There, pretty much everything needs to be sharp (with exceptions, obvs). –  Jędrek Kostecki Apr 26 '11 at 18:03
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Matt Grum has it right: micro-contrast, lens quality and reproduction size are the main reasons, but I wanted to add a couple more points:

High-end MF cameras are outrageously expensive for amateurs photographers, they aren't for people who treat photography as a business. If you're a hobbyist or you use a computer for office work, the price of a workstation built for a high-end 3D graphics artist is incredibly overpriced, but for them it's a necessity. Same thing with cars: you can have a shipping company using a minivan, but really, you need a trailer truck to deliver the level of service customers in logistics expect.

While investing in light is a great idea, you can't light everything. Large format sensors tend to have a greater dynamic range, which is crucial for architecture, landscape, natural light, outdoor photography. Sure, you can mix exposures (HDR-style), and you can use GND filters... as long as you don't have people in your shots. Or anything that moves. Or you don't want to spend hours compositing the images. Luminous Landscape is probably one of the top digital MF sites on the net, most of its contributors are landscape photographers.

There's also one seemingly trivial matter: impressing clients. When a client shows up to a shoot, they won't be impressed a normal black DSLR. Pull out a Hasselblad, and they'll feel they're getting their money's worth. Is it completely illogical? Yes, but it's very real.

Besides, most beauty/fashion professional photographers rent their gear and pass the cost on to the clients, who demand the best their company's money can buy.

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First point is absolutely right, something I should have stated, price is a relative thing. A MF camera may cost $20,000 but a plumber could have $20,000 of tools in the back of his van. Professional gear is expensive, usually for good reasons. –  Matt Grum Apr 26 '11 at 12:07
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I'm mostly going to address one point raised in Matt Grum's answer and (especially) the comments on that answer.

On average, a MF camera/back does give more control over depth of field than a smaller format camera can. With the larger format, you don't need as fast of a lens to get just as shallow of depth of field. A "full frame" MF camera has a sensor roughly 1.7 times the size of a full-frame 35mm-sized sensor. At the same focal length you need to be just over half as far away to get the same framing, which reduces the depth of field considerably.

@Jędrek Kostecki commented that you often don't want shallow DoF. This is only sort of true at best. For a lot of product shots, what the designer often (usually?) wants is a depth of field that's almost impossible to achieve just by adjusting the aperture. With normal adjustments, the depth of field follows a pattern something on the general order of a sine wave -- at some distance, you get maximum sharpness, and then becomes progressively less sharp as you get further away from that ideal distance. With a large aperture, the sharpness falls over very quickly, and with a smaller one it falls off more gradually.

What the designer often wants wants is more like a square wave: essentially perfect sharpness for the full depth occupied by the product, combined with an extremely fast reduction in sharpness for all other distances.

There are a few ways to do that. One is to manipulate the setting, so everything else in the picture is either a lot closer, or a lot farther away than the subject. The problem with this is that it frequently leads to rather unnatural-looking perspective. To combat that, you can shoot from a quite a ways away with a long lens.

Just for example, I shot one like this with a 600mm lens (so old the focal length was marked as "24 inches") on a 4x5. It worked, but it was a pain to set up -- in that case, we had the camera way up in one corner of the studio (had to climb a ladder to get to it), the background at the diagonally opposite corner something like 60' away, and the subject object on a stand roughly halfway between. It was impressive looking though (I was looking at the GG, so I didn't get to see it, but I was told that the client walked in just as I was pulling the dark cloth over my head, incidentally "unveiling" that giant old polished brass lens barrel -- from the rather indelicate description I was given afterwards, he almost...um...wet himself on the spot).

A much easier way to do it is to set up all the objects at roughly normal distances, use a wide enough aperture to get the fast falloff of focus you want, and use focus stacking to get the amount in focus that you want. For small format cameras, focus stacking is mostly the domain of a few lunatic fringe macro specialists and such. With MF cameras, I've seen focus stacking used even for landscapes.

Of course, I would probably be remiss if I didn't also at least mention the fact that quite a few MF cameras also have T/S lenses available, or (in the case of a tech camera) have at least limited movements built into the camera (e.g., rise/fall is fairly common). This, again, lets you control DoF in ways that aperture alone just can't duplicate.

Edit: (mostly in response to Matt's comment):

This is not even close to purely theoretical. For example, let's consider the Hasselblad 100mm f/2.2. At the risk of being accused of cheating, I'll figure things up for its closest focus (90 cm), using a CoC of .03 mm (fairly standard).

In this case, I get a total DoF of .97 cm.

Looking at the Nikon 105 f/2, and increasing the distance to maintain the same framing (approximately, anyway -- it can't be identical, since the sensors aren't the same proportion), I get a distance of ~160 cm. At that distance, (and using the same CoC) I get a DoF of 2.6 cm -- well over double the DoF with the Hasselblad.

If I go to the Nikon 85/1.4 instead, I have to move closer, to about 130 cm away, and I get a DoF of 1.86 cm -- down to just a tad under double the DoF of the Hasselblad.

If I go to the Canon 85 f/1.2 instead I maintain the same distance, but the larger aperture decreases the DoF to 1.56 cm -- only about half again more than the Hasselblad.

Assuming I could find a Canon 50 f/1.0, I'd move in a bit closer yet (76.5 cm away), and my DoF drops to 1.31 cm.

About the only possibility that's left would be to use the Leica 50 f/0.95 instead. That would drop the DoF to something like 1.25 cm, but it's still definitely more than the Hasselblad.

I do also feel obliged to point out that to use the Leica Noctilux 50 f/0.95, you're starting to get into MF-style pricing as well. The lens itself goes for $10,495, and to use it, you need a Leica M-series camera -- I believe the sole (digital) choice is the M9, which goes for $6,995. Assuming I've typed the numbers into my calculator correctly, that works out to $17,490 for the pair.

On the Hasselblad side, an H4D-31 (with an 80/2.8 lens) goes for $13,995, and the Hasselblad HC 2.2/100 goes for $3,255, giving a total of $17,250.

Bottom line: the guy on DPReview was wrong. An MF will produce shallower DoF, and even coming close with a 35mm sized-sensor isn't exactly cheap either -- and the Canon option is the one that requires a lens that's really hard to find.

Edit (mostly as a more complete reply to @coneslayer's comment): I've held the CoC constant because what's interesting here is the characteristics of the cameras themselves, not characteristics I might choose to impose on the results I get from those cameras.

If I change the size of the circle of confusion from one camera to another, then the result you get from the computation is almost entirely one of my own choosing. It's no longer based on the characteristics of the cameras themselves, but simply of my own judgement about the final result.

In other words, it becomes a matter of my creating depth of field by fiat -- deciding that if X amount of unsharpness was produced by one camera, that it still qualifies as "sharp", but if it came from the other camera, it's "not sharp".

When you start to do that, you can get whatever result you decide you want. The result you get no longer has much of anything to do with the cameras themselves at all -- it's just my preconceived notion, fed into a formula and turned into a number to disguise my idea as if it was an objective fact.

Now, I don't mean to attack the basic notion of varying the CoC to suit the kind of print you're going to produce. If you decide you want to be able to print a particular picture at a particular size, and have it meet some specific criterion for sharpness, that's perfectly fine.

While it's certainly true that the camera/lens have some effect on the decisions you might make in such a case, it's also true that most of the driving factors are the decisions you make, not the camera or lens. If you want to know something about the camera and/or lens, you need to factor your own judgements out of the equation -- and in the case of computing DoF, the only real way to do that is to hold the CoC constant.

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The arguments about medium format giving shallower depth if field are purely theoretical due to the dearth of really fast lenses for the commonly used mounts. Fast optics exist but are extremely rare. Someone did the sums in a dpreview forum thread and none of the current Hasselblad lineup even come close to the DOF you can get with a 35mm SLR and readily available lenses. –  Matt Grum Apr 26 '11 at 23:25
    
Why use the same 0.03 mm CoC for both formats? The 35mm format will require greater enlargement than the MF to produce the same sized print, and so should require a smaller CoC to maintain equivalent final sharpness. –  coneslayer Apr 27 '11 at 1:09
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@coneslayer: because that doesn't match how they get used. Yes, if you just wanted to produce the same size of prints, you clearly wouldn't enlarge as much with MF. In reality, they're built to allow larger pictures, and similar CoC (if anything, most MF are a tad sharper per-pixel, because most have no AA filter). –  Jerry Coffin Apr 27 '11 at 1:44
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