Going through magazines like Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire at the beginning of my fashion photographic journey, there was a particular image-style I liked. I thought the image-style had a realism that wasn’t found in other camera formats. I found out these images were done by photographers using Medium Format cameras. Medium Format cameras? Sounds big!
It took me a while to figure out why and how to best articulate the reason for my image preference: Color gradient, detail and image resolution. I love the realism of skin-tones and little nuances in colors. Hair doesn’t blur together. About a year after I started photography, I knew MF was in my future.
So what’s the big deal? Bigger sensor size mostly. There are some other electronics that help and certainly the better quality of lenses that go along with the camera system. But the sensor size is a large part of the equation.
This isn’t all theory either. Phase One, a major player in the MF arena, showcases their gear on a regular basis. While I handled one of their cameras at one of their before before, it wasn’t until the most recent showcase at a Samy’s Camera where I got some real experience with their systems.
I heard they were doing a showcase and wasn’t sure I was going to go. After all, I had handled one and thought the ergonomics and weight were fine. But this time, we would be able to take pictures with the cameras and female models would be available at the event! We would get to keep the images after the event. Wow! I signed up immediately and started counting down the days.
So the big day arrived and I showed up about an hour into the event. I had an appointment before that ran late! When I got there, a couple of friends and colleagues were there and equally excited. I chatted with the store owner and thanked him and the Phase One representative for the event. The models they had were great too. Many events really don’t get good models. At least, no one I really want to photograph. I knew this was going to be fun!
So I got my hands on a camera and it was the new IQ250. This camera differs from other Phase One systems in that it has a new Sony manufactured sensor. Some new and great qualities come with this sensor. Mostly, it has a superior ISO performance. Most MF cameras are horrible with anything less than good light. Since I usually photograph outside, good ISO performance is handy.
While I had handled a Phase One MF camera, taking a picture was actually quite an adjustment. I felt awkward. For one thing, the way you measure lenses is a little different. With a full frame DSLR, 85mm is 85mm. But with MF, a 150mm lens works like an 85mm in a full frame DSLR. Not a big deal. The aperture is different too. At f4 on MF, it behaves like f2 on a DSLR. Not a big deal. But it’s an adjustment. Really, give me three or four days and I’d be right at home with the camera.
So what happened when I got the focus correctly? Wow! The images here are just two from the event. The model and I clicked and we were going to town! The model originally wore the scarf gently around her shoulders. I asked her to wrap it around her neck, around her head and different poses. Models love it when a photographer does creative things. Most photographers are quite shy. Not me! We had fun!
I got a quick look of the images at the event. But it’s not the same as looking at it from your own monitor. When I did, I knew my faith was warranted. Focusing took a while to adjust to and had to throw out many images. But the ones where focus was in check were amazing. Even the greatest of images from my DSLR need some adjustments. Especially color. How did the Phase One camera do? Nada. I added some contrast for a little extra pop. That took 10 seconds. But that’s it. I love these images!
When you zoom into an image taken with a digital camera, you get those blocks that form the eventual shape. At 100% zoom, the details in a DSLR will get a little blurry and the pixilation is becoming noticeable. With these same settings with MF, details are clear, crisp and beautiful! I have to zoom into 800% to see the pixilation increase noticeably. Lines and borders on the image look much better. Stunning!
But the main story behind the images is color and detail. The colors are amazing! The dots of pink on her upper chest, the little changes of white on her scarf, the slight colors of red and pink on her face. The fabrics look superb. I know part of the image look comes from the fantastic lenses. Did I mention they look like they’ll be perfectly fine with 20 years of usage?
Have I ever mentioned I have expensive taste? It’s not intentional. I joke with people that I must have been royalty in a previous life. If you show me three suits that look exactly the same but in different price categories and you asked me: Which one would you like? I would probably pick out the one that cost the most! It’s weird. Happens with everything. So guess if MF cameras are expensive?
Certain electronics become geometrically more expensive the bigger they are. LCD monitors were terribly expensive when they first came out. The manufacturing process made it difficult to get large LCD screens to have little or no defects. Dead pixels were a big problem in the beginning of LCD screen history. Camera sensors are pretty much the same way.
I also believe MF cameras are made to a higher quality, higher-grade electronics and more durability. Lots of handmade assembly goes into them as well. Another nice thing about most MF cameras is that they are modular. There is the lens, camera body and ‘back’. The back contains the sensor and most of the electronics. Some MF cameras are even more modular. The great thing about this is that years later, you can upgrade the back without getting a new camera body. With DSLRs, you have to sell the entire camera. There is no upgrade option. Some MF manufacturers will even give you a credit on the back towards the purchase of a new back!
So what’s brass tax? How much? The least expensive MF camera I want starts at about $9,000. That’s three thousand dollars more than Canon’s top-end DSLR camera. But I don’t consider that model a true MF Camera. Most new MF cameras start at $20,000. And that’s without a lens! Add $5,000 for one of the better lenses. You can knock about $10,000 of the system for a used model. But that’s still a ton of money. Is it worth it? When I get the type of clients that allow me to justify the price of the camera it will be!
But there’s also insurance to think about. This camera better be insured or you’ll be crying if it gets stolen or damaged. It won’t be a huge bill, certainly not the price of car insurance. I’ve heard photographers complain of the file size of images and the processing power it will take to Photoshop them. Really? I processed the IQ250 images on my low-end Mac Mini. No problem. Disk space a problem? Really? Buy a $100 hard drive. Problem solved!
Now, I’m not knocking any other camera type out there. I still remember the incredible joy I got when I purchased the Canon 5D MKII DSLR. The color and resolution improvement over my Canon 50D was a major leap. About the same or more to MF I’m thinking. When I did my first photo shoot with the camera, I was blown away by it. When I used my Canon 50D in my earlier images, especially the black and white work, I was extremely happy with the results. Hell, even the beauty work I did with it is still some of my best.
I’m not into hero worship. But there are some photographers that are special to me. One of them is Peter Lindbergh. In the top 10 of fashion photographers in the world, I especially love the mood he creates with his lighting and how he works with his subjects. He also uses a Nikon DSLR. Does it matter? Obviously not to him it doesn’t. Look at one of my favorite fashion shoot videos. The Victoria’s Secrets Angels shooting for Vogue magazine. We’re talking top models, top photographer and top fashion magazine in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if the shoot cost $150,000+. Lindbergh could afford a more expensive camera if he wanted!
I look forward to the day I graduate to MF. It’s not just great gear, but a symbolic representation of where I’ll be in my career when I get there.
Wish me good fortune!