Stepping Up To Medium Format

Stepping Up To Medium Format

Aaron Miller climbing on the Crystal Clear Arete (5.12c) in Diablo Canyon near Santa Fe, New Mexico. This image was shot with an 1,100 Watt seconds strobe mounted high on an adjacent cliff above my shooting position. Shooting Info: Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi, HCD 24mm lens, F/7.1 at 1/80th second at ISO 800. © Michael Clark

Michael Clark is an internationally published adventure sports, travel and landscape photographer, who has traditionally shot in the 35mm format, but has an interesting perspective about the role and possibilities of shooting medium format digital photography. For full disclosure, while Clark is sponsored by a number of companies, including Nikon, he is not sponsored by any medium format company, and he “paid for the camera [in this article] in full.” As a long-time, established DSLR shooter, he recently shared his thoughts about purchasing a new medium format system on his blog, and we asked him to share those thoughts. – Ed.

No matter how complex cameras may be technologically, they’re just tools. They’re really just black boxes with a lens in the front and an imaging surface in the back. There are some cameras that have more bells and whistles than others, but in the end it is the photographer who chooses the correct tool to realize their personal vision.

Over the last year, I have been testing out a wide variety of cameras from the latest mirrorless offerings, all the way up to the top-end medium format digital cameras. DSLRs are very mature imaging machines, and it will take some serious innovation to improve upon their already phenomenal image quality and their amazing array of features.

Recently I’ve shifted a portion of my photographic work to medium format digital, inspired by some medium format digital cameras that I tried out. There is a tangible difference in how you shoot when working with a medium format camera, which isn’t to say the images produced using medium format cameras are better than those created with DSLRs, but the workflow is different.

Stepping Up To Medium Format
Sandy Hill climbing the outside structure of Elixir Studios in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Shooting Info: Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi, HC 50-110mm lens, f/11 at 1/250th second at ISO 100, Elinchrom ELB400 Strobe. © Michael Clark

Back in the film days, I owned and used a number of different medium format rigs including the Mamiya 7II, a Hasselblad 503CW and the Mamiya RZ67. The Hasselblad 503CW was a gorgeous, elegant camera and shooting with it was such a pleasure, not unlike my current Hasselblad. The viewfinder was so large. It felt like you you could take a walk around the image inside that viewfinder. Regardless of how fun it was to shoot with, scanning film in the digital age became a royal pain and I stopped shooting with it because of that one issue. After a few years with it just sitting in the closet, I decided to sell it since I wasn’t using it. To this day, the only camera I regret having sold is that Hasselblad 503CW.

At the end of 2015, I decided to purchase a Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi. This was no small decision. While testing out various medium format cameras, I had a month of nearly sleepless nights mulling over the options and my own reasoning for even considering such an expensive purchase. I put a small note about that purchase in my Winter Newsletter and within hours of sending it out, I received several calls asking why I purchased such an expensive camera and what it does that my DSLRs can’t?

Many people also asked if I was planning to use this camera for my adventure sports photography. For those sports in which the athletes are not moving haphazardly or I can predict where they are going to be, I will certainly shoot with medium format when it is appropriate. But, for sports like whitewater kayaking, BASE Jumping or surfing, where I need wicked-fast autofocus, I will choose the much more advanced autofocus built into my DSLRs.

I will admit that the top 1/800th second shutter speed of the H5D is somewhat limiting when it comes to stopping fast-paced action. The new H6D and Phase One XF, which have top shutter speeds of 1/2,000th second and 1/4,000th second respectively will do a bit better in this respect.

Aside from the look of the image file and the extra color information, working with a medium format camera is a much slower process than shooting with 35mm DSLRs. The larger format forces you to be more intentional and thoughtful when shooting, and because of this it often results in higher quality images.

I need to emphasize that just because I have a medium format system, that won’t make it my main go-to camera for everything I photograph. As an adventure sports photographer, full-frame DSLRs are supremely versatile and for a significant portion of my action photography they are the cameras of choice. 35mm DSLRs are lighter, easier to shoot with and have a wide array of advanced features, including lightning-fast autofocus. For situations in which medium format can work, and will help to create unique images, then that will be the tool of choice. All I have done by purchasing a medium format digital camera is to add another tool to the camera bag.

Stepping Up To Medium Format
Daniel Coriz riding BMX at the Trash Pit, a local dirt jump bike park, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For this image I used the fast flash sync speeds all the way up to 1/800th second to stop the motion of the BMX rider. Shooting Info: Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi, HCD 24mm lens, f/16 at 1/800th second at ISO 800, Elinchrom ELB400 Strobe. © Michael Clark

While testing out cameras over the last year there were several factors that made me seriously consider a medium format digital camera system. First, whether you are shooting on medium format film or digital, the larger image format gives a different look to the images. In part, this is because there is significantly less depth of field than with 35mm DSLRs. That shallow depth of field, created by the larger sensor of a medium format camera, helps isolate the subject when shooting portraits or any time you are using a large aperture. This is not to be understated.

Medium format has a certain look that is quite different. I realize that only a small percentage of clients will be able to see that difference, but for those that can (or even if they can’t), if it makes the viewer look at the image just that much longer then it makes the image more successful. As I am already working with discerning clients who are looking for the best image quality possible, this new acquisition is another tool I can use to keep those clients and find others like them.

Another factor is image quality. My Nikon D810, with it’s 36 MP sensor, already has phenomenal resolution and overall image quality. It uses a 14-bit sensor, which is amazing, but even it can’t match the 16-bit images produced by both the Hasselblad and Phase One cameras. To understand the difference between 16-bit versus 14-bit sensors requires a bit of math. A 14-bit sensor can record up to 16,384 colors per channel, which means a total of 4.39 x 1012 possible colors. A 16-bit sensor can record up to 65,536 colors per channel, which comes out to 2.81 x 1014 possible colors. That means a 16-bit sensor can ideally capture 64 times as many colors as a 14-bit sensor. That is a huge difference. In terms of the final image, a 16-bit sensor shows many more subtle tones and smoother tonal transitions than an image captured with a 14-bit sensor. This is especially noticeable with portraiture, which is why pretty much all of the top portrait photographers work with medium format digital cameras. Having made quite a few prints of images shot with the Hasselblad, I can see the smoother tonal transitions and a film-like quality to the final images that I don’t get with my 35mm DSLRs.

Stepping Up To Medium Format
Michael Clark navigating a narrow path in Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument near Chochiti, New Mexico. Shooting Info: Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi, HCD 28mm lens, F/12 at .5 second at ISO 100. © Michael Clark

Historically, medium format digital cameras used CCD sensors, which were quite limiting in terms of usable ISO choices. By contrast, the new Sony CMOS sensors in the latest crop of medium format cameras offer unparalleled low noise at high ISOs. This fact, above and beyond any of the other specs, is the main reason that medium format can work for me as an adventure photographer, because it makes these new CMOS medium format cameras more usable in a wider range of scenarios than ever before. In my testing, ISO 6400 on the H5D 50C has similar amounts of noise as my Nikon D810 at ISO 1000, which is just amazing. That makes the medium format CMOS sensors incredibly versatile when shooting handheld without a tripod in less than ideal light. I don’t hesitate to crank up the ISO when needed and when appropriate.

Aside from the look of the image file and the extra color information, working with a medium format camera is a much slower process than shooting with 35mm DSLRs. The larger format forces you to be more intentional and thoughtful when shooting, and because of this it often results in higher quality images. Many medium format shooters work tethered to a computer all the time. As an adventure photographer this isn’t always possible for me but when I can shoot tethered I will. Even if I can’t shoot tethered the WiFi capabilities of the latest medium format cameras mean that I can use an iPad or my iPhone to check exposure and focus in the field. The WiFi options also allow art directors on set to follow along as I shoot, which invaluable on major assignments. They can even rank the images on an iPad as we create them, which helps speed up the digital workflow.

Stepping Up To Medium Format
A narrow path in Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument near Chochiti, New Mexico. This image shows sharp medium format cameras can reproduce a scene from corner to corner. Shooting Info: Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi, HCD 28mm lens, F/11 at .5 second sec at ISO 100. © Michael Clark

On the technical side, because many medium format cameras use leaf shutters (a.k.a. central shutters) built into the lenses, they can sync with strobes at higher shutter speeds than 35mm DSLRs. The latest Hasselblad cameras can sync up to 1/2,000th second and Phase One cameras can sync up to 1/1,600th second. And these cameras can sync at these high shutter speeds without having to play any games with the flash using High Speed Sync (HSS) or Hi-Sync (HS). That means that we can use strobes with fast flash durations and use the entire burst of light emitted by the flash. The high shutter speed flash syncs also allow us to control the brightness or darkness of the background when shooting outdoors. It also means less light output (less Watt/Seconds) will be needed to get the same effect as I would get with 35mm DSLRs using Hi-Sync. The higher flash sync speeds offers an alternative method to using Hi-Sync or High Speed Sync, which in some instances might be critical to getting the image.

Stepping Up To Medium Format
A long exposure star trail image from Shiprock (Navajo: Tsé Bit’a’í, ‘‘rock with wings” or ‘‘winged rock”), which is a monadnock rising nearly 1,583 feet (482.5 m) above the high-desert plain of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, New Mexico. Shooting Info: Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi, HCD 24mm lens, f/8 at 17 minutes at ISO 800.
© Michael Clark

Lastly, there are the lenses. When viewing a digital medium format image shot with a wide depth of field, the image is tack-sharp from corner to corner. With the Hasselblad lenses, the corners are very nearly as sharp as the center of the image. This is a massive difference from 35mm lenses, which are amazingly good these days but still no match for a top-end Hasselblad, Schneider-Kreuznach or Leica medium format lens. Even the best of the best 35mm lenses, like the Zeiss Otus lenses, are no match for medium format glass.

Of course, medium format cameras come with a premium price tag. This is partly due to the economics of producing a large CMOS sensor and also due to the number of cameras produced and sold. The economics of purchasing a medium format camera for most pro photographers is not unlike buying a new car. In fact, the process for me was very much like buying a new car. Not everyone will need or want such a camera. As with anything else, whether or not digital medium format will work for you and your work is a difficult question. Luckily, there are options at a variety of price points right now that make this a great time to consider a digital medium format system. 

Leave a Reply