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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Comeback - Medium-Format Resurgence

Medium-format is experiencing a resurgence. The dire predictions of a few years ago are being replaced by guarded optimism amidst higher-resolution products that are more portable and more affordable.

Comeback! “It's almost the same as it was in the film days,” says Leaf's Vice President Mark Rezzonico. “When the Canon AE-1 came out, a lot of people switched over and then later recognized that the quality of medium format was still better and they went back to it. Now with digital, for a long time D-SLRs were almost as good, and it was close enough that it really didn't make a difference. But with the advent of 33- and 39-megapixel cameras, there's no comparison.”

Phase One's U.S. Vice President Kevin Raber says that although the company saw stiff competition from D-SLRs, the familiarity of the smaller format was actually a benefit—making it easier for professionals to make the switch to digital. Given a little time, this was bound to benefit medium-format digital manufacturers, too.

“Jumping right into digital and going right into medium format is a rather large expense,” says Raber. “Four years ago, as digital started becoming popular, you had a lot of people who moved into digital with a D-SLR. They actually learned about digital, learned about Photoshop and learned about workflow, and then they also learned that they needed better quality. So what you're seeing here is the maturing of the marketplace for people who got in, tried to figure it out, figured it out and now are moving into the next level of their careers with digital.”

Is it strictly a matter of megapixels drawing users from the smaller formats? Not so, says Leaf's Rezzonico. The ubiquity of all digital cameras has shown clients that “new” technology is capable of producing amazing results.

“When the art director has a digital camera,” Rezzonico says, “and he's taking pictures of his kids and knows he's getting good quality, that certainly makes digital on the high end in his professional career much more acceptable. The photographer isn't having to battle with a client: ‘Would you accept this digital file from me?' Now it's expected.”

Phase One's Raber agrees. “Many art directors and organizations are requesting certain file sizes and certain bit depths in their files,” he says, “which actually makes the photographer have to move to a medium-format image. The art buyers and the people who are buying this photography are making the photographers move in this direction if they want to be able to shoot certain jobs.”

Raber says this dramatic change occurred because of a kind of perfect storm among support technologies: computers, hard drives and printers all matured simultaneously. “If you were going to do photography, you had to do digital. Thus, we've seen a huge growth. You can look at it not as a steady straight line, but as a little curve that nicely shoots up.”

Rezzonico adds that a major shift occurred when medium-format digital tools were freed from their studio tethers. “When you didn't need to have a computer strapped to your back,” he says, “that was really the big change. Before we had a portable solution, we were competing with 35s: They were portable, we weren't. Once that changed and we were a portable camera, too, it's sort of like taking a giant step forward and never looking back.”

Besides higher resolution and bit depth, medium-format digital systems provide prestige that allows professionals to differentiate themselves from all the D-SLRs in everyday use. The manufacturers know: For businessmen, differentiation is crucial.

“Customers hire a photographer to give them a product they can't achieve themselves,” says Sinar Bron President Cathy Conner Strobel. “Medium-format digital is the differentiator. In addition to the quality difference, medium format shows the client that the photographer is serious about his or her craft.”


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