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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! “Our main mission in the market is to be flexible,” says Holst-Andersen, “so we'll always provide products that can be used in all common cameras: medium format, large format, technical cameras, etc. We'll always be providing backs, but of course, I can't say that we'll never make an integrated camera. But the backs and the flexibility, that's what we go for; no closed systems.”

“One of the disadvantages of an integrated system,” adds Phase One's Raber, “is the fact that you're locked into that system and you can't unsnap the back and put it on a view camera when you need to do that still-life shot.”

Hasselblad's Showalter predicts photographers—and the market—gravitating to integrated digital cameras. “I think that medium-format digital backs are mostly a ‘tweener' technology that was necessary to get us where we are today,” he says. “Many photographers already had significant investments in cameras and lenses, and it made sense to substitute a digital magazine for a film magazine. Instead of being an ‘add-on' to a medium-format camera, we're now seeing integrated medium-format cameras. These cameras are no-compromise devices where each component is designed to work with the other—similar to what you see in high-end 35mm digital. In my opinion, integrated medium-format digital capture is the future for most applications.”

“No matter what I think personally,” says Leaf's Rezzonico, “history has taught me that things are always going to change. Who knows, maybe 25 or 35 years from now we're capturing on some whole new medium.”

That whole new medium may be a format somewhere between the small and medium formats, according to Hasselblad's Showalter. And it probably won't take decades to arrive.

“It's difficult to get a cost-effective yield out of a silicon wafer when trying to produce a sensor large enough for 645,” Showalter says, “and as a result, the sensors are very expensive. A sensor slightly smaller than 645 might be much less expensive and still give the benefits inherent in being larger than 35mm—such as more pixels, higher dynamic range, etc. It might also give us the ability to reduce the size of some optics, making them more affordable as well.”

The one thing manufacturers do seem to agree on is the idea that there's no end in sight for the ever-increasing resolution of medium-format sensors. With more pixels come larger files, though, and that requires bigger, better and faster support technologies.

“I don't think there's a limit,” says Phase One's Holst-Andersen. “Why should there be? Don't be surprised to see 60- to 90-megapixel medium-format cameras in the not-so-distant future. These also will become faster and better quality, especially at higher ISOs. Couple to this wireless image transfer at the same speeds as FireWire, and there are some exciting possibilities.”

Even if the technology stopped improving today, the market for medium-format digital capture would continue to expand. With large, untapped markets in Europe and Asia, the future looks bright for medium-format digital.

“If you think of the number of backs that are out there,” says Phase One's Raber, “and the number of photographers out there, it certainly shows that there's an awful lot of room for growth. Technology is moving at such a rapid rate, it's actually turned photography around. Think of all those possibilities. We have nothing but chances to improve and expand on what we're doing. It will be fun to see where it goes.”

Leaf's Rezzonico agrees: “The fact is that all of photography has grown; there are more pictures being taken now than ever before. I think we've only just started.”




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