Here Comes The Resolution

Back in the film era, medium-format cameras were the hot choice for wedding photographers because their larger negatives could deliver much better image quality than 35mm SLRs (35mm originally was known as "miniature format"). But, as digital took over, so did the "full-frame" 35mm DSLR for pro wedding photography. DSLRs offer better, quicker AF than medium-format cameras, quicker operation, more compact size, better high-ISO performance, and much lower prices for camera bodies and lenses—along with image quality challenging that of medium-format film.

Today, DSLRs are even challenging medium format in terms of pixel count. Canon’s new EOS 5DS and EOS 5DS R feature 50.6-megapixel sensors, while Nikon has offered 36.3-megapixel DSLRs since early 2012. But, on the medium-format side, we now have 50-megapixel medium-format products with CMOS sensors, which provide much better high-ISO performance than the CCD sensors traditionally used in medium-format cameras. Let’s look at these formats and cameras, and see what they offer today’s wedding photographers.

Image Quality

Image quality is a complex subject, encompassing resolution, dynamic range, noise, color reproduction and more. In general, bigger sensors can deliver better image quality at base ISO because they can collect more light, and more light means less noise in the image. Bigger sensors also have room for more pixels of a given size, or larger pixels for a given pixel count, both of which enhance image quality. All other things being equal, more pixels mean more detail and the ability to make bigger prints.

Historically, medium-format cameras have used CCD sensors "tuned" for low-ISO performance. And the 40-, 50-, 60- and 80-megapixel CCD sensors—at base ISO—delivered better image quality than the competing 20-megapixel full-frame DSLRs with their smaller sensors and lower pixel counts. At higher ISOs (above 400 for many users), however, the CMOS sensors in DSLRs, "tuned" for high-ISO performance, delivered much better results at higher ISO settings (i.e., in dimmer light). Today, though, we have 50-megapixel DSLRs and CMOS-sensor medium-format cameras. That’s good news for photographers seeking maximum image quality, regardless of their favored camera format.

Canon EOS 5DS and EOS 5DS R

Canon introduced the first successful full-frame DSLR, the 11-megapixel EOS-1DS, back in 2002, as well as the first "affordable" full-frame DSLR, the 12.8-megapixel EOS 5D, in 2005. Kodak briefly took the full-frame megapixel lead with three 14-megapixel models in 2003-04, but those cameras, which delivered excellent image quality, but very slow operation, never really caught on. Canon regained the megapixel lead with the 16.7-megapixel EOS-1DS Mark II in late 2004 and held it with the 21.1-megapixel EOS-1DS Mark III in 2007. In 2008, Sony’s 24.3-megapixel DSLR-A900 took the full-frame megapixel lead, soon followed by the Nikon D3X, also 24.3 megapixels. Nikon’s D800 and D800E upped that to 36.3 megapixels in 2012.

Canon has regained the full-frame DSLR megapixel lead with a pair of 50.6-megapixel, full-frame EOS 5D models introduced this year. The new EOS 5DS and 5DS R are identical except the R model’s low-pass filter effect has been canceled to further increase sharpness (at the risk of moiré in images of fine repeating patterns). There are also 1.3X (APS-H) and 1.6X (APS-C) crop modes, 30.5 and 19.6 megapixels, respectively, which are handy when you don’t need huge 50-megapixel files. Dual DIGIC 6 processors provide the power to handle such large files at up to 5 fps. Normal ISO range is 100-6400, 50-12,800 expanded; low-light specialists might prefer the EOS 5D Mark III.

Featuring the same 61-point AF system as the EOS 5D III (with up to 41 cross-type points, 5 double-cross-types and one cross-type that functions at ƒ/8), the new 5DS models provide better focus tracking because the AF system is linked to a better metering system, which features a 150K-pixel RGB+IR metering sensor that provides improved exposure metering and white-balance accuracy in a wide range of situations.

While Canon has become known for their groundbreaking inclusion of video in DSLRs, the EOS 5DS and 5DS R are squarely aimed at still photographers. But they do provide video features similar to those of the EOS 5D Mark III (which remains in the EOS lineup), including 1080p at 30, 25 and 24 fps, 720p at 60 and 50 fps, and 480p at 30 and 25 fps. However, there’s no headphone jack or clean HDMI out. Continuous Movie Servo AF has been added, and you now can produce 1080/30p time-lapse movies in-camera—features likely of more use to the still photographer than the headphone jack and HDMI out.

The new cameras use the same LP-E6 battery as the 5D III and measure 6.0×4.6×3.0 inches, with a weight of 29.8 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $3,699 (5DS); $3,899 (5DS R).

Sony a7R

It’s not a DSLR, but Sony’s mirrorless a7R is currently the lowest-priced—and most compact—36-megapixel interchangeable-lens camera you can buy. Measuring just 5.0×3.7×1.9 inches and weighing a mere 16.4 ounces, the a7R contains a 36.4-megapixel, full-frame Sony Exmor CMOS sensor with no low-pass filter, along with a BIONZ X processor to handle the big files. Fast Intelligent contrast-based AF is about 40% faster than that of the NEX-7, Sony’s top APS-C mirrorless model at the time of the a7R’s introduction (late 2013).

Sony currently offers 11 FE-mount lenses for its a7-series cameras, including some fast wide-angle primes and 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm zooms ideal for wedding photography. The a7-series cameras also can use regular E-mount (NEX) lenses and, via adapter, A-mount SLR lenses (with phase-detection AF via the LA-EA4 adapter).

Other features include 1200-zone metering, ISO settings from 100-25,600 (plus 50), manual focus peaking, a built-in, 2359K-dot OLED Tru-Finder EVF for easy eye-level viewing, a tilting 3.0-inch, 920K-dot LCD monitor for easy high- and low-angle shooting, 1080p video at 60 and 24 fps, and built-in WiFi with NFC for easy connection. An optional battery grip doubles shooting capacity. Estimated Street Price: $1,899.

The Low-Pass Filter—And Its Absence

Conventional digital image sensors are color-blind—each pixel can tell how much light is striking it, but not what color it is. To get color information, most sensors employ a grid of red, green and blue filters over the sensor so that each pixel receives light of just one primary color. Through a process known as demosaicing, the camera’s image processor (or your RAW converter, if you shoot RAW, which you should be doing for maximum image quality and flexibility) derives the missing color data for each pixel from data from neighboring pixels via interpolation using complex proprietary algorithms.

This process works quite well—it’s used in all digital cameras except Sigma’s, with their unique Foveon sensors (more about the Sigma SD1 Merrill later). But the process creates moiré and aliasing artifacts. To do away with these, most
manufacturers place a low-pass or an anti-aliasing (AA) filter over the sensor. This minimizes moiré and aliasing, but does so by slightly blurring the image at the pixel level, which obviously isn’t ideal when maximum resolution is required. So, we’re seeing a trend toward eliminating the low-pass filter. As the sampling grid gets finer (i.e., as pixel count goes up), there are fewer real-life subjects that conflict with the sensor’s pixel grid, thus, aliasing is less likely to occur.

Currently, the new Canon EOS 5DS R and Nikon D810 are the only full-frame DSLRs without an AA filter (actually, the 5DS R has one, but its effect is canceled, as was the case with the original Nikon D800E). There are also a number of recent APS-C DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that don’t have low-pass filters. Medium-format cameras, with super-resolution as one of their primary benefits, have never had AA filters. Medium-format workers are concerned with ultimate image quality and are willing to take the time to deal with moiré in postprocessing, when necessary. Wedding photography includes dealing with wedding garments, and these can produce moiré with AA-less cameras. This can be fixed in postprocessing, but that takes time, which is of the essence in wedding work. This, along with cost, operational speed and high-ISO performance, is why medium-format lost considerable ground to DSLRs in the film-to-digital transition.

Nikon D810

Nikon startled the DSLR world with the introduction of the D800 and D800E in 2012, which shared, by far, the highest pixel count ever in a DSLR: a 36.3-megapixel CMOS unit, with the D800E having the effect of the low-pass filter negated for optimum sharpness. The successor to those cameras, the D810, shares the same pixel count, but features a new CMOS sensor that has no OLPF at all. Working with Nikon’s EXPEED 4 image-processing engine (the D800/D800E had the EXPEED 3), the new sensor delivers more resolution, a wider dynamic range and a stop higher standard ISO range (64-12,800, expandable to 32-51,200). Metering is via Nikon’s 91,000-pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering III (II in the earlier models) to optimize exposure, AF auto-white balance, i-TTL flash and subject tracking.

The D810 can shoot at 5 fps at full resolution, and 6 fps in DX and 1.2X crop modes (15.4 and 25.1 megapixels, respectively). Buffer size has been increased for longer bursts. New AF algorithms provide more precise autofocusing, even in dim light. The 51-point AF system includes 15 cross-type sensors and 11 cross-types that function at ƒ/8—ideal when using a teleconverter.

Video capabilities also have been stepped up. The D810 can do 1920×1080 full HD at 60p, as well as 30p and 24p (and 1280×720 at 60p), and video "zebra stripes" make it easy to spot overexposed areas. A Flat Picture Control profile provides maximum versatility in postproduction. ISO settings from 64-12,800 are available for video, including Auto ISO. DX crop mode provides a 50% boost in effective focal length when you want it. Smooth in-camera time-lapse and interval-timer shooting, plus a built-in stereo microphone, as well as a jack for an external mic, are provided, along with full-time AF and full manual control. Of course, you can shoot videos, as well as stills, with any of more than 80 Nikkor lenses.

While not a full-blown pro body, the D810 is rugged, with weather seals and gaskets, and a shutter tested to 200,000 cycles. Camera dimensions are 5.8×4.9×3.3 inches and 31.1 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $2,999.

Sigma SD1 Merrill

The images from the Sigma SD1 Merrill measure 4704×3163 pixels (14.4 megapixels), and it has an APS-C sensor, not a full-frame unit, but that sensor is the unique Foveon X3, which, unlike conventional DSLR sensors, captures all three primary colors at every pixel site. Rather than using colored filters over each pixel as conventional Bayer sensors do, the Foveon sensor effectively stacks three layers of pixels, relying on the fact that light penetrates silicon to different depths depending on wavelengths. Short (blue) wavelengths penetrate the least, medium (green) wavelengths more and long (red) wavelengths deepest. There’s more to it than just that, but the Foveon system does away with colored filters, demosaicing artifacts and moiré, and the need for the blurring low-pass filter. The result is resolution equivalent to that of a conventional Bayer sensor of much higher pixel count.

Camera-wise, the SD1 Merrill is a straightforward, traditional SLR, with a pentaprism viewfinder that shows 98% of the actual image area (0.95X magnification with 50mm lens at infinity), shutter speeds from 30 to 1⁄8000 sec., flash sync up to 1⁄180 sec., and an easy-to-activate mirror pre-lock. ISO settings run from 100-6400. There’s an 11-point AF system, 77-point metering, 5 fps shooting (up to 7 frames), and a 3.0-inch, 460K-dot LCD monitor (but no video). The camera measures 5.7×4.4×3.1 inches and weighs 24.7 ounces, and can use a wide range of Sigma SA-mount lenses, from fish-eye through 800mm supertelephoto. Estimated Street Price: $1,999.


DSLRs have much better autofocusing capabilities than medium-format cameras, especially for moving subjects. Granted, 30 years ago, all wedding photography was done manually focused, so it certainly can be done that way, but today, most wedding shooters prefer AF, and for that, a DSLR has the advantage.


There are DSLRs that can shoot 10, 11, even 12 fps with autofocus for each frame, while the fastest CMOS medium-format cameras top out at around 3 fps (and the fastest CCD ones slower than that). Obviously, sports-action shooters are going to go with the DSLR here, but while much wedding work is single-shot, quick bursts can be useful for available-light wedding shooting, too. Bear in mind that flash units won’t recycle quickly enough to use these high shooting rates.


Much wedding photography is done using flash as a main light source in dim conditions and as a fill in sunlight. Medium-format cameras using leaf-shutter lenses can provide flash sync at all shutter speeds (generally topping out at 1⁄800 sec. with such lenses). DSLRs (and some medium-format cameras) use focal-plane shutters rather than leaf shutters, and these can’t be used with electronic flash at shutter speeds faster than 1⁄250 sec. (even slower with some cameras). This can make using fill-flash in bright sunlight problematic (at ISO 100, at ƒ/2.8, the required shutter speed would be around 1⁄3200 sec., per the "Sunny 16" rule). Some DSLR flash systems have a high-speed sync mode, which lets you use flash at all shutter speeds up to the camera’s maximum (1⁄8000 sec., in many cases), but engaging this mode greatly reduces flash range. This isn’t an insurmountable problem (many wedding pros use DSLRs), but you should be aware of it. That said, Canon and Nikon DSLRs have extensive TTL flash systems that are much admired for wedding work, maximum sync speed notwithstanding, and there are other lighting options that can be excellent solutions.

Pentax 645Z

By far, the lowest-priced 50-megapixel medium-format camera, the 645Z features a 43.8×32.8mm, 51.4-megapixel CMOS sensor with no low-pass filter, DSLR-quality AF (the same system used in the company’s flagship K-3 DSLR, essentially), 3 fps shooting, 1080/60i and 30p video, weatherproof construction and a lot more. ISO range is 100-204,800 (we expect wedding photographers will want to stay below the ISO 6400 max of other cameras using versions of this sensor), with shutter speeds from 30 to 1⁄4000 sec., and X-sync up to 1⁄125 sec. The eye-level glass pentaprism finder shows 98% of the actual image area, complemented by the 3.2-inch, 1037K-dot tilting LCD monitor. The 645Z can save RAW images in Pentax’s proprietary PEF format or Adobe’s "universal" DNG. There are two slots for SD cards; one accepts Flucard and Eyefi cards, which add wireless capability. Dimensions are 6.1×4.6×4.8 inches, with a weight of 51.8 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $8,499.

Hasselblad H5D-50c

Hasselblad’s H5D-50c features a 43.8×32.9mm, 50-megapixel CMOS sensor with no low-pass filter and can deliver 16-bit RAW files. ISO range is 100-6400, shutter speed range is 34 minutes (no dark frame needed) to 1⁄800 sec., with X-sync at all speeds. Hasselblad’s True Focus AF system automatically compensates for focus-and-recompose shooting (very important to wedding shooters). The eye-level viewfinder incorporates a fill-flash unit and can be replaced with a waist-level finder; the 3.0-inch, 460K-dot LCD monitor provides live-view operation. An optional WiFi module allows wireless control of the camera from an iPad or iPhone. Hasselblad also offers the 50-megapixel CMOS sensor in the CFV-50c back for V-series Hasselblad cameras. The H5D-50c measures 6.0×5.2×8.1 inches, complete with 80mm lens, and weighs 5 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $27,500.


Today, many wedding clients expect video as well as still coverage. All of today’s full-frame DSLRs are capable of delivering such videos, in the hands of a knowledgeable photographer. The big question is, do you shoot both stills and video, or do you employ a separate video shooter as part of your team? It’s probably best to have a separate video person so you can concentrate on your stills, and the video shooter, on the videos. But there are successful wedding pros who do both still and video with their DSLRs. It’s a decision you’ll have to make based on your skills, interest, needs and budget. But today’s HD DSLRs are capable of delivering the goods if you choose to go that route. Note that full HD video is 1920×1080, or about 2 megapixels, so there’s no inherent video advantage to having a super-high-megapixel DSLR. In fact, the dedicated pro camcorders, whose sensor resolution is 1920×1080 and, thus, don’t have to toss a lot of data to create the videos, have an advantage here.

Of course, you have to buy the camcorder, and its small sensor doesn’t deliver the low-light performance or lovely wide-open bokeh of the HD DSLR, and more affordable lenses are available for DSLRs. Also note that, currently, the Pentax 645Z and Leica S (Typ 007) are the only medium-format digital cameras that can do video.

Phase One IQ250

The IQ250 50-megapixel digital back features a 44x33mm CMOS sensor with no low-pass filter. It can be attached to a wide range of medium-format bodies, including Phase One’s 645DF+. ISO settings run from 100-6500, and exposure times from one hour to 1⁄10,000 sec. The IQ250 can capture images at 1.2 fps with a 2 GB image buffer. A 3.2-inch, 1150K-dot touch-screen monitor provides on-camera live view and touch operation, and built-in wireless technology permits control via your iPad or iPhone. The IQ250 measures 10×11.5×8 inches and weighs 1.75 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $34,990.

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