It Finally Arrived

A few days ago I took delivery on a new camera.  I’d pre-ordered it several months ago so I was getting itchy to get it in my hands.  Obviously, a camera is critical to my photography business so I was quite anxious to get it and put it to work.  Now, this is not a new experience.  Photographers upgrade their equipment all the time and this camera was just one of those upgrades that I’ve done  many, many times when a new generation of camera is introduced.  Since I'm still in the process of digging out of a 48"+ week long blizzard here in the Black Hills, I've had no chance to shoot with the new camera; consequently, there is little in this post about the camera specifically.  But then again, this isn't a product review.  

THIS POST MAY NOT INTEREST EVERYONE


But, getting this particular camera got me thinking about photography gear and the varying debates that surround the acquisition of new gear.  It also caused me to look back at my journey through cameras.  So with a new website and a new blog page I decided to put down some ideas about photography gear (cameras) and at the same time talk about the camera(s) I use to produce the images on this website.  It may not be a post for everybody, but some may find it interesting if they are curious about how photographers produce images and some of the equipment involved in doing so.  This post is meant to be informative, not a post bragging about the equipment I use.  Rather, I hope this post conveys my concern for image quality and the quest for high quality prints that I offer for sale on this site.  Additionally, it's not an endorsement or review of any product.

MEDIUM FORMAT vs 35MM


Like most photographers, when I started shooting seriously I used a 35mm camera.  I still use them today.  Through the years I’ve gone from Nikon to Canon and now Sony.  These are by far the most popular and versatile cameras today, especially since the development of digital sensors.  But after a while, I became intrigued by “medium format” cameras which, by then, had also migrated to digital sensors.  These cameras were quite different from the normal 35mm cameras.  Whereas the 35mm cameras were all one piece (except for the lens), the medium format cameras were composed of pieces that were often interchangeable with other brands.  There was a body, a viewfinder, a digital back, and of course a detachable lens.  But the most notable difference was/is the size of the sensor. 

                                                                            Medium format sensor                         Full frame 35mm sensor

As you can see, the medium format sensor is significantly larger than the 35mm full frame sensor and that difference plays a major role in the quality of the image produced.  Another notable difference between the two is price.  Medium format digital cameras traditionally have been very expensive.  My first medium format Hasselblad (plus one lens) was nearly $50K!  Yes, that’s right.  Nearly 10x the cost of my Canon pro bodies I was also using at the time.  Needless to say, these cameras are not widely used by the average photographer.  I read somewhere that only about 1% of all photographers use a medium format.  Not sure how accurate that is but I do know the number is small. 

But price isn’t the only reason they’re not widely used.  Historically, the cameras were big, awkward, and not very versatile.  They’re best known for their use in the studio environment.  But, with today’s emphasis on a “do everything” camera that weighs next to nothing, it’s understandable why they’re not used more.  Who wants to lug around a 5lb camera plus lens plus tripod?  Also, the "bare bones" nature of the camera didn't appeal to the "bells and whistles" crowd either.

                                                   Hasselblad H5D Medium Format                           Sony A7iv 35mm

SO WHY MEDIUM FORMAT?


So with all the negatives, why in the world would anyone pay that much money for a camera that has so many limitations?  Well, I can't speak for everyone; but for me the answer is simple:  image quality - detail, resolution, lens quality, color science.  I've never been concerned with size, weight, color, brand, placement of a certain button or anything else most of the so-called expert influencers bitch about when reviewing equipment.  That stuff just doesn't matter to me.  Medium format cameras produce higher quality images than their 35mm counterpart - hands down.  The larger sensors mean a higher pixel count and a larger pixel size. With larger pixels, more light is recorded, enabling the sensor to provide better light gathering power.  Yes, there are people who will argue the point, but I’ve shot medium format alongside 35mm cameras for years and I’ve seen the results side by side.  No one will ever convince me that the two are equal.  You can stuff all the pixels you want to on a 35mm sensor and it will never produce the same quality image as a medium format.  The detail is incredible, the colors are superb, and their dynamic range (the range of light they can record) is unmatched. 

Another aspect, at least regarding Hasselblad, is the fact that their lenses are not the “typical” lenses.  Sure the quality is excellent, but all Hasselblad lenses are “leaf lenses.”  This was one of the major reasons I chose to go with Hasselblad.  Whereas most cameras have their shutter in the camera body, Hasselblad leaf lenses have the shutter in the lens.  This gives distinct advantages when shooting in certain situations such as in the studio and/or when using artificial lighting.  All restrictions regarding “sync speed” are gone when using leaf lenses and so, unlike other cameras, there is no limit to the shutter speed I can use when shooting with artificial lights.  While this won’t mean much to many other photographers, for me, it was huge since I almost always use artificial lights when shooting cars/motorcycles outside.  It gives me far more control over the light, no matter what time of day it was.  It became big part of how I shot on location and allowed me to almost completely eliminate the influence of natural light, anytime during the day.  All Hasselblad lenses are leaf lenses.

Some, though, will argue that the difference is not worth the high price and learning curve, and if you post images from both types of cameras on, for example, social media that no one can tell the difference anyway.  Personally, I think that argument is pretty weak since the differences are not easily detectable on monitors that are not designed to display high resolution images.  But if you only shoot to post to social media and never see your images in print, then yes, medium format would not be a wise choice.  (BTW, there are many photographers who have never seen their work in print.  For them, social media is their only outlet for displaying their work; so it stands to reason that these photographers are not too concerned about the differences between these two types of cameras.)  My main concern has never been shooting for social media; although as a photographer today, participating in social media is almost mandatory if you’re running a business.  But the demand placed on image quality is far less for social media than for fine art prints.  I try to shoot for the most scrutinizing media, and so far that’s print.  For most of my career in photography, my work has been for print - magazines, brochures, product ads etc. and of course now the nature/landscape prints available on this website.  There is no better camera for print than medium format.  Yes, I could get by with less, and, most people do; but that’s not how I shoot nor is it how I want to shoot. 

CHANGES OVER TIME


I’ve shot medium format now for over 10 years and during that time I’ve owned 4 versions of Hasselblad medium format cameras - H3d, H4d, H5d, X1Dii-50c.  I upgraded each time to take advantage of new technologies and features.  My new arrival, the X2D-100c makes 5, and during my shooting experience with Hasselblad, the cameras have changed considerably.  Image quality has definitely continued to improve with newer and larger sensors, better image processing, and more advanced color science.  My first Hasselblad was 35 megapixels (huge at that time).  Fastforward to the new X2D which is now 100 megapixels.  Sensors have changed from CCD to CMOS, which resulted in cleaner images with less noise.  With the introduction of the X1D, Hasselblad moved to mirrorless technology; thus, the newest Hasselblads are much smaller in size - about the same physical size as a standard 35mm camera.  And with the reduction in size has also come a reduction in price.  Now you can buy the newest Hasselblad medium format camera for just a fraction of the price of the older versions.  And while you’re probably not going to be using the camera to shoot Olympic events, they have improved their shooting speed; but certainly not enough to shoot sporting events or birds-in-flight.  My first Hasselblad shot at around 1/2 frame per second (compare that to one of my Sony 35mm cameras that shoots 20 frames per second.)  The new X2D now shoots 3 frames per second, but still kind of pathetic compared to 35mm cameras.  But keep in mind, these cameras were never meant for shooting sports or anything other than still objects such as products or slowly moving fashion models etc.  I use my Hasselblad exclusively for landscape shooting, stationary wildlife shots, and studio work.  While most of the older Hasselblads were basic cameras with only the basic controls, the newest version contains many of the “bells and whistles” that the standard 35mm cameras have - interval shooting, focus bracketing, live view, GPS, weather sealing, touch screens and much more.

Hasselblad X2D - 100c

THE SHOOTING EXPERIENCE - SLOWING DOWN


Although image quality is and always has been my main priority, there has been a beneficial byproduct of shooting medium format that is a little more difficult to explain.  The new 35mm camera technologies allow us to shoot at blazingly fast speeds - up to 30 frames per second.  We can shoot lots of pictures in a very short time.  This has given rise to a technique called “spray and pray.”  Basically, shoot fast bursts of images and hope you get something good.  We’ve all done it and for beginners it’s pretty common.  Other than being just a bad technique, the other downside is that you end up with thousands of images.  And, you have to review all those images to find the lucky shots.  But I’m convinced that quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality - as a matter of fact, I believe one comes at the expense of the other.  

During my early days shooting motorcycles, I used to shoot around 400+ images during a bike shoot for a magazine.  I had to sort through all those images and look for the best shots.  Of those, I usually only turned in about 50-60 to the editor.  While it wasn’t exactly “spray and pray”, I did tend to overshoot a bit.  But after switching to medium format, the slow, often cumbersome nature of the camera forced me to slow down and think about the shot and to carefully review the composition in the viewfinder before pressing the shutter button.  Medium format cameras are slow, and therein lies their beauty.  I had no choice but to slow down.  That “slowing down” of my shooting led to better compositions that were better thought out.  I became more aware of my surroundings and elements in the viewfinder, and I began to consider the intent of the image and adjust the shot accordingly.  The camera forced me to slow down and think methodically about the composition, thus giving me more time to be creative.  Shooting was less frantic and more relaxed.  My shot count per car/motorcycle shoot dropped to less than 100, with the vast majority as keepers.  Fewer images meant less time sorting.  Slowing down was truly one of the most valuable things I’ve gained from shooting with a medium format camera.

Now, going out into the wilderness with my camera and tripod, calmly composing shots and waiting for just the right composition before pressing the shutter button is one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career as a photographer.  “Less is more” has taken on a whole new meaning and is something that shooting medium format forced me to learn.

And finally, nothing beats the experience of coming back from a shoot, downloading your images, and seeing the breathtaking quality of an image show up on your screen.  That experience never gets old.

With all the limitations of medium format cameras, if I could only own one camera, it would be medium format.  And with the arrival of the new X2D-100c, I look forward to putting this new camera through it's paces, printing, and posting those new images to the site.