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"The $64,000 Medium Format Question
If you’ve gone shopping for a medium-format digital camera system recently, you’ve probably noticed two things: 1) some high-end models still cost more than luxury cars; 2) more “entry-level” cameras are being offered at surprisingly affordable prices.
So what’s with the schizophrenic pricing? And, more importantly for photographers on a budget, why do top-of-the-line medium-format systems cost so much in the first place?
Last we checked, a fully loaded Phase One 645DF with a 60.5-megapixel P65+ digital back and a lens cost in the neighborhood of $55,000. Meanwhile, other medium-format manufacturers have caught limited edition fever, with cameras such as Hasselblad’s exclusive 499-unit Ferrari edition of its H4D camera retailing for $28,400+.
On the other hand, Hasselblad will begin selling its own entry-level medium-format system: the $9,995 31MP H4D-31. That is not a lot more expensive than a high-end digital SLR. The same goes for Pentax which, at the time of this writing, is slated to start selling the 40MP 645D for $9,995, as well.
With such a wide range in pricing and resolutions—from the heart-stoppingly high to the merely high—we wanted to know what it takes to produce these medium-format systems. So we decided to ask the manufacturers. We also talked to a few photographers to find out why they think the prices are worth it. Here’s what they told us.
Getting manufacturers to discuss pricing is not an easy thing. In fact, Hasselblad turned us down flat when we asked for an interview for this story, saying the information was “confidential.”
Other manufacturers were more candid, citing, in part, economies of scale as being a factor in the high pricing for medium-format systems. While we were unable to get hard numbers from any manufacturer on how many medium-format units they sell in a year, in general, it pales in comparison to sales of DSLR and compact cameras. According to several estimates we heard, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 medium format units are sold in a year worldwide. That’s a drop in the bucket when you consider the entire digital camera market moves about 60 million units in a year.
“In 2010, we shipped the highest number of units we ever shipped,” says Henrik Håkonsson, president and CEO of Phase One, a company that now comprises Phase One and Leaf Imaging, and is a major shareholder in Mamiya Digital Imaging. “Compared to Canon and Nikon, of course, it’s a very small number. Canon will sell more 5D Mark IIs in a week then we’ll sell in a year.”
The smaller number of camera shipments means prices must be set higher to cover costs. And the highest cost, undoubtedly, is for the jumbo-sized image sensors that go into medium-format camera systems. Compared to full-frame digital SLRs such as the Canon 1Ds Mark III and Nikon D3x which use sensors about the size of a piece of 35mm film, medium-format cameras have sensors that range in size from the 48 x 36mm Kodak-built chips found in many systems to the 53.9 x 40.4mm Dalsa sensor in the P 65+ digital back.
“It’s the most expensive part in a medium-format camera,” says Stephan Schulz, product manager for Leica’s 37.5MP S2 digital camera system, which is a medium-format/DSLR hybrid that uses a 45 x 30mm, Kodak-built sensor. “With its [large] size, it’s hard to get good yield from it because every time you double the size of sensor, the yield for production goes down.”
Schulz adds that the more pixels you put on a sensor the more possibility you have for a defect, and that makes quality control expensive. Leica’s S2 also has a special glass infrared (IR) blocking filter built right into the sensor which increases the cost. “To mount this special glass right on the sensor is more expensive. All other medium-format cameras have two separate pieces.”
Though the limited supply of medium-format sensors increases the expense, Håkonsson sees it as an opportunity to increase image quality.
“It’s a nasty fact of life and physics: When it comes to CCD sensors, the bigger the size, the lower the yield you get. The result is we never have two sensors that are identical so we spend a lot of time hand calibrating each one to get the performance we want,” he says. “We basically never ship new products. Every camera that leaves the factory has been through many shooting situations first.”
Håkonsson contrasts the approach with Canon and Nikon, which, he claims, “spit out CMOS sensors in a robot process and every single unit is put into a camera.”
The cost for that hands-on attention to detail is high. You could buy five 24.5MP Nikon D3x DSLR bodies for the cost of one P 65+ digital back and still have money left over. While many professionals dream of owning a medium-format system, the start-up expenditures can be out of reach.
“Unfortunately, nothing out there fit my budget,” says Frederic Wiggins, a Virginia-based photographer who had been looking for an affordable medium-format solution. “The Hasselblads I came across in the local stores, on eBay, KEH, B&H etc. were all too expensive as were the Mamiyas. So I did what anyone else in my situation would do: I looked to rent.”
Wiggins took a four-hour road trip to a rental house in Philadelphia where he found the cheapest price out there for a week-long lease of a 31MP Hasselblad H3D-31.
“In that week I managed to cram in three commercial clients,” he says. “The photos I took during that week have allowed me to obtain more work this year than ever before.”
He admits though that owning a medium-format digital system is still beyond his budget. “The cheapest systems still cost $10,000 which is more than I paid for my first two cars and my current car combined. Leasing is an alternative but, unfortunately, at this point in my career, though my business is doing better than ever, I’m still not drawing enough each month to justify the need vs. the desire.”
It’s a dilemma that manufacturers are starting to recognize. Both the sub-$10,000 Hasselblad H4D-31 and Pentax 645D have turned a lot of heads as much for their relatively low price tags as for their potential image quality. The 22MP Mamiya DM22, which came out a few years ago, can be found for around $9,000.
How are manufacturers able to offer lower cost models side-by-side with flagship cameras that might force you to take out a second mortgage? The answer: cost-cutting and retrofitting.
“With the decision to narrow down the target customer, the Pentax 645D is designed specifically for scenic photography for which expensive parts like AA (anti-aliasing) filters are not really necessary,” says Chris Pound, product manger for Pentax Imaging Systems. “In other words, we could successfully design this camera to be convincing for those who would consider it even without an AA filter.”
Pound notes that approximately 10 percent of the mechanical parts of the 645D are the same as those used for Pentax’s film 645 cameras. Also, since the 645D is compatible with most existing interchangeable 645 legacy lenses and accessories, Pentax didn’t need to build a whole system from the ground up.
“This was a significant savings as we did not have to develop these items all from scratch, meaning we do not have to add to cost of [development] to the body.”
BIG SENSORS, SMALL COMPANIES
The medium-format manufacturers we spoke with all argue that the relatively small sizes of their companies allow them to offer better customer service than their DSLR counterparts.
Leica’s Schulz touts the company’s “24-hour swap service” for photographers if an S2 is malfunctioning. Håkonsson says Phase One also has a 24/7 call service for customers and that every camera the company sells has its own file which technical support agents can refer to in case of a problem.
“We can look into the data and say, ‘Adjust this or adjust that’ on your camera. If that’s not sufficient, there’s a service where we’ll offer a loan program within 24 hours. If it’s New York, it’s within two hours.”
Though purchasing a medium-format digital system is a significant investment—and one not made lightly in a turbulent economy—at least one photographer told us he thinks it’s worth it.
“When I made the switch to medium format, cost was an issue for sure,” says Jeffrey Totaro, an architectural photographer who shoots with a Phase One P45+ back on Alpha view cameras. “But I knew I wanted to continue using a camera system that provided me with proper in-camera perspective controls, coming from a background of shooting 4 x 5 film. I think if photographers are charging appropriately for their digital post-production work, then fitting a medium-format digital system into their work shouldn’t be a problem.”