Full Frame 35mm or Medium Format?

Yes, both, thank you very much!

Winter shores

An image from my first session with the Hasselblad H5D-50. Postprocessing to get the right colors and tonality in both water and sky was a dream!

First of all, for those of you not familiar with these terms: “full frame” refers to a camera sensor-size corresponding to the 35mm film back in the good old days (24 x 36mm). Medium format refers to the larger size film/sensor (6 x 4,5, 6×6 or 6×7 cm in the days of film now 33 x 44 mm and up sensors), wedging itself between 35mm and large format (8×10 inch etc., film only). Today, there is a number of high quality 35mm full-frame bodies both from Nikon, Canon and Sony. And Pentax is in the pipeline. I currently use full frame Nikon d800e bodies sporting 36 mpx.

However, as a photographer always striving for perfection and that little “extra” I have been struggling with the question in the headline for at least a couple of years now. Larger sensors have basically meant more resolution, bigger pixels and larger dynamic range. Furthermore, all medium format camera makers have amazing lenses, which is paramount for taking advantage of large high-resolution sensors. The depth-of-field is also more shallow on a larger sensor, making focus control somewhat different from standard DSLR’s. However, with todays amazing high-resolution CMOS 35mm full format sensors, the gap up to medium format is closing in with respect to technical quality. And when images are viewed on-screen or as small to medium-sized prints, there is basically no difference in technical quality.  Although I have been extremely happy with my Nikon d800e’s there has been a curiosity “could there be something even better out there”?

The drawbacks of Medium Format systems are obvious for anyone having looked into it. First of all there is the price. A complete medium format system with camera, digital back, viewfinder and a set of lenses will easily set you back more than a decent brand new car would. $ 40 000 will bring you a long way, but maybe not all the way…. Second, medium format systems are very much bigger and heavier than standard DSLR’s. They are (mostly) not as good weather sealed and are in many ways a little more complicated to use. The lenses also have to be bigger and heavier, not only to achieve optimal quality, but simply because they have to make a larger light-cone due to a larger receiver/sensor. And again, the lenses are ridiculously expensive too.

So, this is what I have been considering the last couple of years. A (very) slight, but definitely present increase in technical quality (at least in large prints) at a very high price and different workflow. At the end of last year I decided I had to give medium format a go and see if this was something for me. Would it be expensive? Yes. Would it alter my workflow? Yes. Would it be heavier to carry around? Yes. Would I make technically better images? Maybe. Would I take “better” pictures? Probably not.

What eventually made me go for medium format was not the technical considerations. It was the curiosity for the workflow. To get the little extra out of medium format, I had to be even more meticulous with exposure, focus etc on location, and it would be more demanding in post-processing (especially noise-reduction). I could probably snap away with a medium format system and take the same pictures as I did with my full-frame bodies and achieve the same results. However, if you put some extra work into the capturing and post-processing, there is a potential to lift the quality somewhat and make images sing even louder. E.g there are very few zooms available and working with primes is the norm. I don’t say that is necessary to produce fine images, but it alters the workflow. For me, probably in a positive, slower way. Of course I could have done all this also with my full frame systems, but modern DSLRs are so easy to use…. 🙂

Anyway, I decided to invest in a medium format system. Basically there are 4-5 systems available. There is Phase One, Mamiya Leaf (owned by Phase), Pentax 645, Hasselblad H-system and the Leica S. The Pentax is the outsider here. It comes at a price less than half of the other systems, is very well weather sealed and sports a 33x44mm 50mpx CMOS sensor. The same (Sony-made) sensor can also be found in other systems, but at a higher price. However, CCD-sensors have a particular charm to them and are larger in physical size. Something to consider when judging the assortment of lenses you need (larger sensor means that e.g. a 28 mm is somewhat wider compared to on a smaller sensor). Although less capable in low-light situations, images from CCD-sensors do have a certain quality to them that is hard to define. And I very seldom use ISO above 100… Well, long story short – I decided to go for Hasselblad H5D-50. Due to several reasons, sentimentality being only one. One of the most important considerations was a very serious dealer/service department (Interfoto in Oslo) and short way to Hasselblad’s main facilities (for service etc.) in Gothenburg, Sweden. Also, I felt very much at home with the Hasselblad body. Although having been criticised for lacking some functions (Woha- there is no video!!) I felt that this system had exactly the controls and functions that I wanted and needed, and it was to a large degree customizable to my needs. This is no bells-and whistles camera, it only carries the functions serious professionals need to do their job. Also, it is has a 16-bit color output which sets Hasselblad apart from all other currently available systems. And the lenses are amazing.

The last few weeks I have learned my new Hasselblad system and invested in a few lenses and other accessories. My accountant may disagree, but my personal experience so far is very, very positive. The more laborious way of working has brought me so much joy the last days. Will I keep my Nikons? Definitely. For low light work and long hikes.

If you have any questions or comments regarding DSLR’s vs. medium format, feel free to ask or comment! Have a splendid week!

Dag Ole

Copy 1B8403960

A more than 100% crop of a dark portion of the scene showed in the image on top of the page. After lots of work in postprocessing, a totally crisp and noiseless image is slowly revealed, even when viewed on a very large screen (well, at least in 16 bit TIFF, maybe not the low-res .jpg here :).