Large Format vs 35mm – History Repeats
I want to be perfectly clear that I am not a professional photographer. Sure I’ve shown in galleries and sold prints, but I don’t do photography for a living. I’ve never taken a photography course, never had any formal photography training and never aspired to be a pro. I just love to take images; landscapes are my passion. Finally, just to set the record completely straight, I am not receiving any compensation from anyone for this essay. I am just writing it for my own pleasure; just like my photography.
Good. That’s out of the way. On to the meat of this essay. Why would anyone in my position (advanced amateur, unpaid landscape photographer) ever continue down the path of medium format back digital photography when there are now almost 40 megapixel, 35mm SLR’s available for 1/10th the price ($3,000 vs $30,000)? My answer is, of course, because a digital SLR doesn’t meet my needs; how I want to do photography and what I want from it when I do it. I’ll try to clarify.
My time photographing is precious to me (remember, I have a day job). If I am lucky enough to get out for a day trip photographing or take a week’s vacation for photography, I want to be able to capture the absolute best image I possibly can and with the equipment I ENJOY using. I would never forgive myself for taking that once-in-a-lifetime trip for the Eastern Sierra fall color, or a 19 hour day trip (4am – 11pm) to Yosemite for the dogwood blossoms and come home with images I wasn’t happy with because of my gear. Bottom line, I never want to be able to blame my gear; only myself. Of course while I totally care about the quality of the file and the level of control, I simply cannot ignore the FEELING of the camera itself. Taking a tech camera out of the bag FEELS more substantial, more real, and more “camera-like.” I enjoy it more. And I'm not ashamed to say it :-). (There, I’m out of the camera closet now!!)
Back in the day of shooting film, I went from 35mm to 6x6 to 4x5. I loved 4x5 for the incredible optics and control. Unlike 35mm, the system excelled at landscape photography. No R&D was spent on fancy autofocus, multi-zone metering, fast frames per second, zoom lenses or HD video. The whole system had been perfected to provide the best optics and platform for holding the optics and film solidly so the user had freedom to compose and create without limits. Plus the added wonder of composing upside down!
I was spoiled. How could I create this same control and image dimensionality in a digital world? I went through a 35mm digital phase; tilt/shift lenses, etc., but it looked so plastic. It was two dimensional, but even more so than 35mm film. Yes, there were lots of benefits, but that was because of digital, not the platform. And I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the process. One of the primary reasons I photograph landscapes is to take myself away from the everyday, workday stress. A huge part of escaping is loosing myself in the process of creating an image. I want to think, because thinking is fun, but I want to think in a completely different way than my work brain. 4x5 film photography did this for me. I wanted to recreate this in my escape into photography.
How do I do this with digital? How do I have a “no excuses” platform, be in total control, loose myself in the process of taking an image and create that same detail and dimensionality that I had in 4x5? The answer for me was a medium format digital back mated to a technical camera platform. The manufacturers concentrated on the best optics (again, not fast autofocus, multi-sector metering, etc.) and the most accurate, stable and user-in-control platform. Most importantly, the output from the digital back, so accurately mated to a 4x5 type platform, was simply phenomenal. My MFDB system has greater dynamic range and is sharper than my 4x5 with amazing detail and that three-dimensional look. I have been and still am truly amazed by the output.
I have been incredibly lucky in building my system. Over time it has cost me much less than chasing after the latest and greatest 35mm offering. I have had amazing support from my MFDB dealer. He (Lance Shad at Digital Transitions; hooo rah!) started me out with an inexpensive used back from another customer’s upgrade that worked on both my Hasselblad and Technikarden 45S cameras. This 22mp back cost less than half the price of a new high-end 35mm body! After a year of use I began to acquire a technical camera system. It was 1/4th the weight of my Hasselblad system and 1/6 the weight of my Technikarden system. I could tromp around almost effortlessly with it compared to my DSLR, Hassy or TK45s systems. And because the dynamic range was so much better, the number of filters (and associated filter holders) I had to carry was minimized. Basically I now had a light-weight (relatively) system with precise optics and mechanics that gave me the best possible images. I of course sold my Hassy V system and got just a bit less than the cost of the new tech camera body and a couple of lenses!
Then again the Lance-man worked his magic and moved me up to more than twice as many megapixels on another customer trade-in, giving me what I had paid for my original used back in trade. Amazing; that trade cost me about the same as a new 21mp SLR body and I had a Phase One P45+!! Now Lance is working with me again and I am upgrading from the P45+ to the Phase One P65+. Between the trade of the P45+ and the P65+, two 35mm high end DSLRs were released. I figure I would have spent about $12-$15k total if I had followed my normal “buy the best” path. For about that same cost (actually a bit less) I moved up to a bigger sensor with greater dynamic range. So without this kind of long-term relationship with a trusted dealer and a product that holds its value (almost guaranteed by the manufacturer), I could never have afforded these moves. By evolving the way I did into a MFD technical system, I really spent no more than if I had continued to buy the next greatest hit in the DSLR world (not even including upgrades to lens improvements, which I don’t worry about anymore).
When folks start talking about how a high pixel, 35mm cameras with the greatest autofocus, better multi-segment metering, faster frames per second, etc., it’s déjà vu all over again. I’d rather have a simple system with the best optics and total control that gives me that 4x5 (and even better) look. I still loose myself in the image capture process; I have total control (can blame no-one but myself). I have incredible dimensionality and detail in my images. I was able to do this economically and at my own pace because I didn’t have to buy the system all at once or sell my backs to upgrade through x-bay, etc.
For landscape photography, IMO, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind. Just as 35mm film did not come close to large format photography, with digital there also is no comparison. I think many (with the encouragement of 35mm manufacturers) try to argue that a multi-use, made for the mass-market system is equivalent to a system designed specifically for landscape photography. It simply is not. Try to say that about 35mm film vs 4x5 film. History repeats itself.
Some of my medium format images can be seen at Medium Format Digital Back Images