The Fall And Rise Of Medium Format

It’s no secret that the medium-format industry has experienced dramatic changes since the advent of digital. Open camera systems (think Hasselblad’s H2 series) became closed, leaving players such as Phase One and Leaf no access to Hasselblad’s systems. Additionally, the disappearance of beloved medium-format models signified harsh times in the sector as Contax, Bronica and Pentax fell by the wayside.

A renaissance has blessed the industry, however, as new systems have entered the marketplace. Hasselblad, Mamiya, Phase One, Leaf and Sinar all have pushed their technology forward and opened up a new arena once considered dormant.

Hasselblad has been producing medium-format cameras since World War II. Its latest creation is the H3D, a camera that reflects a radical change in direction for the company by effectively sacrificing interchangeability and backward compatibility. But this has allowed Hasselblad engineers to focus on ways of improving image quality and camera functionality. Examples include lens-correction technology to fix aberration issues and a new 28mm lens.

Phase One recently made an alliance with Mamiya after Hasselblad announced its closed H3D system. The result of this partnership is the 645AFDIII with a Phase One badge (Mamiya also is releasing the camera under its own brand name). The body will accept any Mamiya 645 standard accessory, including lenses and backs, and offers significant improvements over previous Mamiya models, including faster and quieter autofocus. Phase One will continue to be committed to open systems.

D-SLR Vs. Medium Format

Even with the release of impressive new models, medium format still wrestles against the virtues of 20-plus-megapixel sensors touted by various 35mm manufacturers. Fred Blake, rental manager at FotoCare, a respected 40-year-old company in New York, can testify to 35mm’s recent megapixel growth, specifically in rentals.“It looks to me like the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III digital SLR camera is having an impact in medium-format rentals,” he says. “The line between 35mm and medium format is now a little blurrier at 21 megapixels.” The bottom line is that a larger bucket on a medium-format camera always will deliver more image quality. “The fact of the matter is that you get a damn good photo in 35mm, but it just isn’t the same as medium format,” explains Jack Showalter, president of Hasselblad USA. “Let’s face it, it’s not just about pixel count. The reason you use larger pieces of silicon for medium format is to convert more photons to electrons and thus get more data with a deeper bit depth.” Deeper color bit depth also means better image quality. The Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III boasts an impressive 14-bit color depth, but the higher 16-bit color depth of medium-format sensors equates to more luminance within the same range of stops. Bits refer to the dynamic range—the larger the dynamic range, the better you’re able to simultaneously see details in bright and dark areas in the same shot.

The birth of a new pro camera is rare enough, but the launch of the Sinar Hy6 6×6 medium-format digital system from Jenoptik is unique. The Hy6 is based on a range of hot-swappable backs, employing a 48x36mm sensor with an image ratio of 4:3. Photographers can compose in vertical portrait or horizontal landscape mode by simply turning the camera back. A full range of Schneider Autofocus Digital (AFD) lenses and manual lenses from 35mm to 300mm are available.

“Dealing with true 16-bit color depth makes a difference,” says Mark Rezzonico, vice president of Leaf America. “The biggest difference between 35mm sensors and medium-format sensors is that the medium-format pixels are physically much larger, measuring about 9 to 10 micron pixels. This allows medium format to hold far more detail than any 35mm camera, regardless of megapixel size.”

Jan H. Christiansen, marketing director of Phase One, notes the different type of professional attracted to medium format. “We have a very narrow market to cater to—professionals who understand color depth and accuracy,” says Christiansen. “That’s not to say D-SLR cameras are poor, just that if you’re shooting in tricky situations and you want those subtle details, tones, shadows and highlights to show, this is where medium format really comes into its own.”

Rental Programs

Medium-format manufacturers not only are selling their systems to traditional camera stores, but also accomplishing high unit sales through deliveries to a prosperous rental market. Symbolic of the trend is L.A.-based Digital Fusion, a digital scanning, retouching and printing business providing a complete solution for professional digital photographers. Hugh Milstein, co-owner of Digital Fusion, offers a fleet of Hasselblads for clients and expects new models in the very near future. “The bottom line with medium format is that big glass makes a big impression,” says Milstein. “It has an intangible, atmospheric effect; the guy with the bigger camera gets the better shot because it elicits an emotional response from the talent. Plus, with new cameras available, it goes back to offering the widest possible choice of equipment because then photographers’ artistic sensibilities creep in. Digital medium format is finally allowing this to happen again.” “We’ve seen some good action over the past year in medium format,” adds FotoCare’s Blake. “Hasselblad’s H3D series has definitely made an impact. Plus, with Leaf’s new AFi body, I predict the trend to continue. When it comes to gear, we need to offer it all.”

Out With The Old

Before we look at the latest developments in camera design, we need to briefly look back at the medium-format scene a few years ago. The major medium-format players at the time were Hasselblad and Mamiya, with Rolleiflex accepting the role of a minimal player. Leaf continued to offer digital backs for a number of different manufacturers, but many at the time felt the medium-format business was losing its grasp, especially in the wake of Contax, Bronica and Pentax exiting the market.

Leaf’s new AFi camera is the same model as the Sinar Hy6 except, of course, for the Leaf back attached. Designed and developed with Jenoptik, the Leaf AFi system incorporates Schneider AFD lenses, specifically created for use with 30-plus-megapixel medium-format digital camera backs. The camera operates in both portrait and landscape orientation without turning the camera, via the rotating back.

Hasselblad H3D

At Photokina 2006, Hassel
blad announced the end of its H2 model to make way for a fourth-generation camera, the H3D. This move meant that although the H3D possessed a removable digital back of its own, no other company would be able to, or allowed to, attach to an H3D body. What seemed sacrilegious at the time turned out to be a shrewd move for Hasselblad—an opportunity to start designing a new fresh, fourth-generation system. “To halt the H2 model was very controversial at the time, but we felt it was the best move for our company,” explains Showalter. “But to be honest, the integrated platform makes far more sense. Developing an integrated system allows us to make our own specific designs, tackle design problems and take a number of issues into consideration.” Showalter notes Hasselblad’s new 28mm lens, designed and optimized specifically for digital image capture as an example of what the new H3D has allowed the company to build. Image quality has been dramatically improved by lieu of digital correction for both color aberration and distortion. “Designing a wide-angle lens for film is one thing, but on a CCD you have to deal with a new level of chromatic aberration,” says Showalter. “Coming up with bigger optics and, more to the point, a completely new system, allowed us to compensate for errors normally experienced with regular digital backs.” Estimated Street Price: $43,995 (Hasselblad H3D-II 39MS with standard 80mm lens); $39,995 (Hasselblad H3D-II 39 with standard 80mm lens); $26,995 (Hasselblad H3D-II 31 with standard 80mm lens).

Mamiya 645AFDIII

The fallout of releasing a closed H3D system obviously had an effect on those manufacturers marketing backs, specifically Phase One, Leaf and Sinar. Hasselblad was a huge sector of the market, and one that each company obviously required, but out of this adversity came opportunity. The time was ripe for more sophisticated medium-format digital products, and the ensuing gap between Photokina 2006 and today has resulted in some interesting developments. Phase One took the first proactive step by joining forces with Mamiya to create a first-generation body, the Phase One/Mamiya 645AFDIII. The camera has open architecture, allowing companies such as Leaf to offer their digital backs on its body. “We have a fundamental, philosophically different approach to Hasselblad,” notes Christiansen of Phase One’s and Mamiya’s approach to the marketplace. “We want to develop a broader marketplace for our customers. Throughout our dialogue with the pros, we’ve learned that they don’t want to be limited by options. These are artists who need to choose the best tools for the job, and we want to deliver on that.” The Mamiya 645AFDIII picks up from previous incarnations of the design, improving autofocus capabilities by virtue of a quiet, powerful, coreless motor that includes variable user-selectable focus points. “There are incremental improvements to this new incarnation, but we also put a lot of thought into the ergonomics and usability of the camera,” adds Christiansen, “a larger more comfortable grip and buttons placed in different areas because these things matter in everyday shooting situations.” Not surprisingly, improved internal electronic communication with Phase One backs also has been developed, plus the aforementioned ability to use Leaf backs.

“This continues the Leaf philosophy of offering a completely open platform of backs for a number of different companies,” says Leaf America’s Rezzonico of his company’s place in the medium-format market. “In addition to the new Mamiya body, there’s still a high number of Hasselblad H systems in use, plus over 50 years of Hasselblad cameras still in rotation. But our own new integrated system is something that nobody else in this category can offer.” As this issue went to press, new pricing wasn’t available for the Mamiya 645AFDIII.

Leaf AFi & Sinar Hy6

The camera to which Rezzonico refers is jointly marketed by Leaf and Sinar—the first 6×6 medium-format digital camera. Developed in collaboration with Jenoptik and its manufacturing partner Franke & Heidecke (manufacturer of the Rollei MF cameras), it will be marketed by Leaf as the AFi and by Sinar as the Hy6 (Hy for Hybrid). While each manufacturer possesses different camera firmware, imaging software, digital backs and power units, the cameras are basically the same with different company backs. “The main difference is that our back is integrated into the camera, so one battery in the handgrip also powers the back,” explains Rezzonico. “Sinar’s Hy6 requires two batteries—one for the body and the other for its own back.” The AFi and Hy6 both possess Schneider Autofocus Digital (AFD) lenses specifically designed for 30-plus-megapixel camera backs, and the camera operates in both portrait and landscape configurations—each orientation created without turning the camera, merely by twisting the camera back. Plus, the camera shoots as fast as signal processing will permit. “All in all, one is tempted to say that we strived to create medium-format quality with D-SLR simplicity,” says Lorenz Koch, PR and Communications Manager at Sinar. “The electronically controlled between-the-lens shutter tackles every lighting situation with ease with leaf shutter speeds up to 1?1000 sec. Perfect sharpness is also assured through the body’s fast and accurate autofocus system, plus a very low-vibration mirror reflex mechanism erases any movement during exposure.” Adds Rezzonico, “It’s really the state of the art. It’s the finest focusing system available, and there’s nothing else out there that’s like it. The camera is truly designed for the future.” Just as D-SLR photographers clamor for full-frame equivalents of 35mm, so should medium-format users who appreciate the wealth of possibilities with the 6×6 format. It endows visually creative thinking with a 48x36mm sensor, delivering 33.3- or 21.4-million-pixel resolution with an image ratio of 4:3 for the AFi and Hy6, respectively. It’s the kind of camera that makes Rezzonico feel good about today’s medium-format market. “I think Leaf’s position has never been stronger,” he says. “We’ve actively taken steps to control our own destiny by working with companies like Jenoptik to develop the AFi camera. We’ve developed new software and incorporated features that make our backs more usable, of higher quality and with enhanced functionality, offering more value to the photographer.” With a camera that’s an open carrier for both Leaf and Sinar (also to be marketed under the Rolleiflex moniker by Franke & Heidecke), the design differs from Hasselblad’s ideology of the integrated system but, in essence, the quality of the system was paramount to its design. “The future in medium-format systems that will prosper are those that deliver complete solutions to the pros,” says Koch. “But we’ve also made sure that our camera system is a self-contained solution that guarantees the best possible quality due to its perfectly matched high-end components. We’re aware that the demand for single digital backs is noticeably decreasing in favor of complete system solutions where the individual components are perfectly matched to each other for ease of use and superior quality.” Estimated Street Price: $27,995 (Leaf AFi 5, 22 MP back—body, back and waist-level finder); $25,995 (Leaf AFi 6, 28 MP back—body, back and waist-level finder); $35,995 (Leaf AFi 7, 33 MP back—body, back and waist-level finder). Estimated Street Price: $36,500 (Sinar Hy6/e75LV—includes the eMotion 75LV (Live Video) 33 MP back, 2.5-inch OLED display, 80mm AFD lens and waist-level finder); $38,000 (Sinar Hy6/e75LVr—the same, except a new revolving adapter plate means there’s no longer any need to remove the back from the body to perform rotation).

Sensor Technology

As for the future, will sensor size be improved? “Enough is enough is really up to the market,” says Leaf America’s Rezzonico. “Remember full-page ads 10 years ago adverti
sing 4 MP sensors?” Showalter sees no big announcements in 2008 for Hasselblad in this area. “We’re obviously a tech company, as well as a photo company,” he notes. “But new sensors up to 60 MP isn’t an absurd statement.” Yet higher pixel count and bigger data flow don’t necessarily equate to what professionals need. “We feel that the continuous demand for digital backs with the highest possible pixel count has actually decreased,” notes Sinar’s Koch. “A number of our customers have issues efficiently handling enormous data volume. We’re seeing requests for digital backs equipped with up-to-date technology, but moderate pixel counts.” Adds Phase One’s Christiansen, “When it makes financial sense, we’ll see bigger sensors. It will always evolve in some fashion. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the megapixel race, but there will be a lot of new things on the table from a number of manufacturers besides pixel count.” With new developments on the horizon from a multitude of manufacturers, it seems medium format has found its footing in the digital age.


Phase One

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