What’s New In Medium-Format Digital

The death of medium format has been greatly overstated. It’s true that 35mm-sized DSLRs are much more common among pros, but that’s always how it’s been. Medium-format digital, like medium-format film, has a dedicated cadre of users for whom these tools are the perfect choice. That’s because their image quality, under the right conditions, is unsurpassed. Medium-format digital is big, literally. The cameras, backs, lenses and image files are all much larger than 35mm-sized DSLRs, and their prices aren’t for impulse buyers, to say the least. But for those with the need, no other class of camera system will suffice. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the latest medium-format digital cameras and backs.

Hasselblad has unveiled the H5D system, with 40-, 50- and 60-megapixel sensors, plus 50- and 200-megapixel MS models (which make four exposures for each shot, moving the sensor one pixel between each, to record more and better data at each pixel site). The sensors range from 32.9×43.8mm to 40.2×53.7mm in size ("full-frame" 35mm is 24x36mm), with prices running from around $18,000 to $43,000. Featuring a "modern, fresh" design, the H5D cameras accept Hasselblad’s premier HC and HCD lenses (12, from 24mm to 300mm, equivalent to 18-214mm on a 35mm camera), plus, via CF adapter, more than 15 Carl Zeiss V-series lenses. Each camera body is calibrated, as are the HC/HCD lenses, so that the system can apply optimal corrections/compensations when you shoot. A big and bright SLR viewfinder is complemented by a 3.0-inch, 230K-dot external monitor. The camera body measures 6.0×5.2×8.4 inches and weighs 5 pounds (5.5 pounds for MS models). Contact: www.hasselbladusa.com.

Leica introduced the successor to its S2 DSLR at Photokina 2012. The new S improves on the original in a number of ways. Like the S2, the S looks like a big DSLR and uses the same 3:2 aspect ratio (rather than the 4:3 aspect ratio common to other medium-format digital cameras). The sensor is still a 45x30mm CCD with 37.5 effective megapixels, but it delivers better image quality with improved image processing, a wider ISO range (now 100-1600), a bigger buffer (it can shoot 28 full-res raw DNG images at 1.5 fps or an unlimited number of JPEGs), faster autofocusing with predictive AF, a big SLR viewfinder, plus a 920K-dot, 3.0-inch LCD monitor with scratch-resistant glass, and more. Leica currently offers eight S-series lenses specifically designed for the digital camera, from 24mm to 180mm, including a tilt-shift optic. There are also adapters to mount Hasselblad, Mamiya 645 and Pentax 67 lenses on the S to expand the lens range. Rugged and spray-proof (like the S-series lenses), the S body measures 6.3×3.1×4.7 inches and weighs 2.8 pounds (with rechargeable lithium-ion battery). Contact: us.leica-camera.com.

The Leaf Aptus backs have been staples of medium-format digital photography for years. More recently, the company came out with the Credo line, which includes the Credo 80, 60 and 40. The Credo backs feature large CCD sensors with broad dynamic range. The Credo 80 back delivers 16-bit files with 12.5 stops of dynamic range from its 80-megapixel sensor. It has a 3.2-inch, high-resolution touch screen that’s bright enough for exterior use and gives you the ability to control capture functions quickly and simply. The Credo backs also offer live view, where the bright LCD is especially welcome. The Credo 80 sensor measures 53.7×40.3mm with an ISO range of 35-800 (50-800 for both the Credo 40 and 60) and exposure time of 1⁄10,000 to 120 sec. (1⁄10,000 to 60 sec. for the Credo 40 and 60). You can order the Credo in a choice of four mounts: Mamiya 645DF, Contax 645AF, Hasselblad V and Hasselblad H1/H2/H4x. There are adapters available for various other cameras and systems, including view cameras. Contact: www.mamiyaleaf.com.

Pentax has always been a player in the rarefied air of medium-format photography, and the company has kept that legacy moving forward into the digital era. The Pentax 645D offers a compelling combination of medium-format capabilities at a relatively low price. The 40-megapixel CCD measures 44x33mm, and it shoots 14-bit RAW files in the Pentax PEF format or the Adobe DNG format. The ISO range is from 100-1600, and the camera can shoot up to 1.1 frames per second. Looking like a bulked-up DSLR, the Pentax 645D has an all-glass pentaprism viewfinder for eye-level shooting, as well as a 3.0-inch LCD on the camera back. The 645D is compatible with Pentax D FA autofocus lenses, as well as older 645 lenses, and if you’re using an AF lens, you can take advantage of the 11-point SAFOX IX+ AF system. Contact: www.pentaximaging.com. The Phase One IQ line of medium-format backs continues to evolve. The current lineup consists of the IQ 180, 160 and 140 at 80, 60 and 40 megapixels, respectively. The IQ 180 and 160 have CCD sensors that measure 40.4×53.7mm, and the IQ 140’s sensor measures 32.9×43.9mm. All three of the IQ backs shoot 16-bit files with 12.5 stops of dynamic range, and all of the backs have a 3.2-inch LCD touch screen. IQ backs are available for Phase One 645DF/AF and Mamiya 645DF/AFDIII, Hasselblad H1 and H2, Hasselblad V (555ELD, 553ELX, 503CW, 501CM) and Contax 645AF. Compatibility with the Mamiya RZ67 Pro II and RB67 is via an adapter. Contact: www.phaseone.com.

Who Needs A Medium-Format Camera, Anyway?

Considering the costs involved and shooting limitations, and the fact that many pros make a fine living using DSLRs, not everyone needs medium format. For example, action shooters are far better off with DSLRs. So are photojournalists, and those who specialize in low-light photography. Shooters who need (or want) to travel light are better off with a DSLR or even a mirrorless model, and so, of course, are those on limited budgets.

Medium format is an excellent option for those for whom image quality trumps all. It’s suited to pros who work at low ISOs in controlled studio light or outdoors from a sturdy tripod or shooting platform (you can shoot medium format handheld, but camera shake will negate much of the sharpness benefit; currently, there are no medium-format bodies or lenses with built-in image stabilization). Medium format also is ideal for fine-art photographers who want to make huge prints.

Who are these photographers? In a nutshell, studio photographers, product photographers and portraitists are good candidates for medium format, as are high-end landscape photographers.

Is medium format for you? The foregoing should give you an idea, but also consider the computing power necessary for medium-format file sizes. While the highest-pixel-count DSLR currently tops out at 36.3 megapixels, there are 80-megapixel medium-format digital backs—80-megapixel files are huge. Many medium-format shooters save their images directly to portable (or even not so portable) hard drives rather than memory cards. And you need a very robust computer system to handle files so big. What’s perfectly adequate for 20-megapixel DSLR images may not be able to handle larger medium-format files.

Medium-format digital has its benefits and believers, but it’s not the ideal system for everyone.

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