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Getting into Medium Format: Part 1

I had the pleasure of shooting with a Pentax 645D a while back and as soon as I saw the results of the shoot. I knew I had to get a medium format camera someday.

Medium format isn’t an easy thing to get into. Price obviously is a pretty major factor; some of the new ones go for the same kind of money that new cars with leather seats can go for. You can of course mitigate the price issue to a large degree buy purchasing used but then there is public awareness to deal with and system complexity. On the public awareness front you’d normally be dealing with Canon and Nikon or maybe Sony or one of the lesser brands but people know whats up with them. In the medium format world I only personally know two photographers who use medium format and they’re not very helpful in a technical sense. I’d normally turn to reviews and guides and I have but they’re at least a couple orders of magnitude rarer and in many cases they  lack the quality of reviews done for more common cameras. Dealing with the system complexity issue has been no less of a challenge. While two of the current manufacturers operate like SLR cameras in that they have a body and a lens and that’s it in my opinion the more interesting manufacturers have fully modular systems. These modular systems have at the very least a lens a body and a back and in some cases have interchangeable viewfinders and grips as well. All of this would be ok except for the fact that many manufacturers made parts for the others so that even though your body and back may say Phase One that Phase one and come from the same generation back may only work on Hassleblads and to make matters even worse because both the cost is lower and the output quality on even very old equipment is still good or even great by DSLR standards we actually end up having to deal with the compatibility of equipment across several generations and to make matters even more complex while there are only four active medium format manufacturers at the time of this writing we actually have to include several companies that are either dead or have left the business either partially or entirely like Contax, Sinar, and even Kodak if we want a full picture of what’s available for something less than a nice luxury car.

I started trying to understand the landscape of the medium format world by figuring out who the current players are.

  1. Leica: They’re the newest player in the game. The released their S2(Typ 006) just a few short years ago and followed up somewhat recently with their S2(Typ 007). They’re known for their M line of full frame rangefinder which have high quality glass and even higher prices. They are not known for their electronics or their software. They have killed their slr R line completely and started up a large number of other mounts and systems. Given that I’ve never actually seen a modern Leica in the wild they can’t be that popular I’m more than mildly concerned about their dedication to any given line. They seem to be using a scatter-gun approach to line development which does not bode well. They seem to be focusing on extremely affluent amateurs.
  2. Pentax:These guys have suffered some hard times in the transition to digital and have been thoroughly trounced by their competitors in the small format market but they’re hanging in there. They’re long time veterans of the medium format market and in 2010 released a fully integrated body and sensor for an incredibly low price. By all the reports that I’ve read they’re killing it in the medium format market not because they’re the best but because their camera is good, simple and extremely inexpensive by the standards of the medium. They lack a few features of their higher end cousins but that may be an acceptable trade off at a third or less of the price you may otherwise expect to pay new or otherwise.
  3. Hassleblad: Probably the most recognizable name in medium format this company has had a long and storied history. The cameras they make are extremely high end with all the features you could hope for and price tags to match. They are one of the two manufactures who currently offer fully modular systems. They’ve had financial troubles in the recent past which may or may not be ongoing which may have resulted in some strange choices including the closing then opening of their H system cameras so only some of them can accept digital backs from other manufactures and the creation of wildly over-priced  boutique re-brands of Sony cameras such as the Lunar. Their name recognition is strong enough that even if they do go bankrupt it is unlikely to kill their main line of cameras.
  4. Phase One:Primarily known for their high quality digital backs and their Capture One software Phase One has been re-branding Mamiya cameras to sell as their own for years until recently when they acquired the manufacturer. Phase One is the second of the two current high end fully modular systems. Phase One has integrated Profoto Air technology into some of their more recent cameras which allows them to trigger Air based flashes without anything in the hotshoe.

I’m going to stop there because that’s who’s alive at the moment. Here’s what I’ve got currently. I’m using a Canon system with Profoto lights and Capture One as my raw converter. I’ve got action related things like wildlife, sports, and poor light events covered pretty well with the canon system and I’m happy with it but what I’m hoping gain is additional image quality for huge blowups of landscapes, better tonality for portraits, and more flexibility for food, lifestyle and architecture photography.

What do I want? It would be nice to have one of the larger sensors so I could go wider for landscapes. I’d like for the camera to play nicely with Capture One because I strongly prefer it to Lightroom. It would be cool If it had a removable back so I could use that on a technical camera body and get those amazing lenses and tilt shift movements they have.  I’d like to have the option of using leaf shutter lenses because those ultra high flash sync speeds would be handy outdoors. I’d like a newer sensor ideally one of the Sony CMOS ones with high iso sensitivity ones so that I could use the camera at slower better lit events. It would be fun if it could talk to my Profoto lights without an external transceiver. I’d like to be able to shoot long exposures. I’d like to try and break 40 megapixels for large prints. I’d like to pick and stay with a system. I accept that I probably can’t have all this.

Ok… so lets start tossing things out and see whats left. I really want to stick with whatever system I start with so lets toss the dead manufacturers like Contax and Rollei as well as anything that doesn’t have an actively maintained lens mount so the manual focus hassleblad V system is out but their autofocus H system can stay. I don’t like Leica. I don’t trust that they’re going to stick around in this market so they’re out. Pentax doesn’t have a removable back, doesn’t play super well with Capture One and the only lenses that can flash sync past 1/125th are very old and only have manual focus. I have to admit Pentax is attractive because a complete camera AND lens with a sensor costs somewhere around half of what an equivalent digital back alone costs which is pretty major but I’m taking the long view here so Pentax is out.

Right… So I’m left with Phase One and Hassleblad. To the best of my knowledge Hassleblad backs won’t play nicely with Capture one but that’s ok because as long as I watch my step I can get a  Hassleblad that can use a Phase One back or even a Leaf back(Phase One owns them too) which will play nicely. At this point it’s really turned into something of a Nikon vs Canon debate maybe with even less merit if that’s possible.  Hassleblad has a slightly wider lens selection but Phase One has a more uniformly compatible system. Hassleblad has a more recognizable name which is great for showing off to clients but Phase One may have the sharper lenses. Maybe. Phase One has integrated support for my studio lights but then again I have plenty of triggers. They both have super high flash sync speeds if you count their latest and greatest with Hassleblad slightly edging out Phase One but they’re actually both so high that even my B1’s with their legendary speed will have a hard time.  Hassleblad might have the better autofocus but Phase one seems to have better viewfinder options on their latest cameras. Ok this is all crazy pointless nitpicking. Here’s the key for me. Mamiya/Phase One has been more stable both as a company and as a system over the past 15 years. We’re talking about a lot of money and a lot of time spent learning the system and I don’t want that to just go away.

Now that I know I want a Phase One I can dig deep and figure out what I need but this post is getting very long so look for a part 2!