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Medium Format in the Digital Age

Yashica Mat-124G
Yashica Mat-124G photo by John Kratz

Sometimes I feel like grandpa telling kid’s stories about the old days of film photography.  The funny thing, I’m not that old.  A testimony to the rapid advance of digital imaging, particularly at the consumer level.

In the “old” days cameras and film were broken down into three basic categories:

Small format – Primarily 110, 35mm and 135 film

Medium format – 120 and 220 film at different aspect ratios, depending on the manufacturer.  The most common were 6 cm x 4.5 cm, usually called “645” which was carried as part of the brand names on cameras that shot that aspect ratio.  Along with 6×7 cm and 6×9 cm.

Large format – Primarily 4×5 and 8×10 view cameras but there were few limitations on outside physical size of a sheet of film.  If someone could make a tank to hold a 10 foot section of film, someone else would design a camera for it.

My first medium format camera was a Yashica Mat 124G, much like the one above.  I made a lot of money off that camera.  It took amazingly sharp pictures.  My old 124G launch several promising modeling careers and, along with my 35mm, preserved the memories of many weddings.

Today the medium format has run smack up against the digital revolution.  What I’m about to say may sound like heresy to some photographers but, in all but a few specialized cases, I’m not sure that medium format is economically viable in the digital age.

This chart compares the sizes of various modern camera sensors.  Even modern digital film cameras, such as the Arriflex D-20 are using chips that approximate a 35mm or Super35 sensor.

The Mamiya RZ33 kit is an example of a modern medium format digital camera.  The camera, digital back and lens will set you back a cool $18,000.  For that you get an imaging chip that’s 48×36 compared to a full frame 35mm chip available in the Canon 5D MKII which is 24×36.  The 5D with a lens will set you back closer to $3,200.  Almost $15,000 price difference to gain another 24mm on the vertical dimension of the imaging chip.

It’s my opinion, after shooting several different models of digital cameras, including medium format, that the difference in quality does not justify the price.  You’re paying geometrically more for incremental improvements in quality.  The RZIID will take fantastic pictures, don’t get me wrong.  But so will your Canon 5D. 

In post-processing you’ll still be throwing away the bulk of the visual information the chip captures, even with a 35mm frame.  There are very few applications today where you really need all the extra resolution.

So can the medium format digital cameras survive in the age of $3,200 cameras with 35mm digital sensors?  Probably.  There will always be someone who thinks the marginal improvement in quality will be worth the money.   If you want to spend money, my advice is to buy better lenses.  Cameras come and go but good glass lasts forever. 

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