BIG DE­CI­SIONS

Camera - - NEWS - Paul Bur­rows, Edi­tor

NOW WE HAVE the mea­sure of the mir­ror­less dig­i­tal medium for­mat cam­eras from Fu­ji­film and Has­sel­blad, is it time to make the move to the big­ger sen­sor? While both are con­sid­er­ably more af­ford­able than any of the re­flex-based sys­tem, they’re still quite pricey com­pared to the topof-the line cam­eras in any other for­mat, D-SLR or mir­ror­less. Let’s as­sume, how­ever, you’re in the for­tu­nate po­si­tion to have suf­fi­cient funds to spend on your next cam­era sys­tem, what then?

Well firstly, note the word “sys­tem”. If you’re switch­ing sen­sor for­mat then you’re not just buy­ing a new cam­era body; you’re up for at least a couple of lenses and what­ever ded­i­cated ac­ces­sories you might need. Then there’s a good chance you’ll need to up­grade your wider sys­tem to cope with the much big­ger im­age files – mem­ory cards and reader, com­puter (if you still want to main­tain rea­son­able speeds), back-up and stor­age, and pos­si­bly even your mon­i­tor. One rea­son for de­sir­ing big­ger files is to make big­ger prints (much big­ger), so add an A2 for­mat or even wider printer to that shop­ping list. Con­se­quently, up will also go your pa­per and inks costs.

Ev­ery­thing about a medium for­mat cam­era sys­tem is go­ing to cost more. Big­ger sen­sors are much more ex­pen­sive to man­u­fac­ture, as are medium for­mat lenses be­cause they need to have a wider imag­ing cir­cle and higher re­solv­ing power. And be­cause we’re talk­ing about much smaller vol­umes here, the economies of scale which work with the smaller for­mats don’t ap­ply. This means – par­tic­u­larly in terms of lenses – less choice be­cause the more spe­cialised de­signs just wouldn’t sell in the num­bers to jus­tify the cost of de­sign­ing and build­ing them. Both Fu­ji­film and Has­sel­blad have worked com­mend­ably hard to de­liver a se­lec­tion of ‘work­horse’ lenses, but don’t hold your breath for a tilt/shift, fish­eye or su­pertele­photo. And be­cause of the com­par­a­tively small num­bers in­volved, the in­de­pen­dents sim­ply aren’t go­ing to get in­volved in the way they have with the Fu­ji­film X, Sony FE and Mi­cro Four Thirds mounts.

Of course, t’was ever thus, ex­cept that there were se­ri­ous at­tempts to make roll­film pho­tog­ra­phy much more ac­ces­si­ble. The 6x4.5cm for­mat, in par­tic­u­lar, was more eco­nom­i­cal to run thanks to more frames per roll and smaller hard­ware, which was less ex­pen­sive than a 6x6cm or 6x7cm sys­tem. But here’s the thing. Un­less you’re a work­ing pho­tog­ra­pher, you prob­a­bly want a medium for­mat cam­era to just dab­ble with… for those times when you want to be slow and se­ri­ous. So it’s re­ally go­ing to be a se­condary cam­era and that means you’re not re­ally ex­pect­ing to pay any more than you did for your pri­mary cam­era, are you? Hmmm. This is where the idea of dig­i­tal medium for­mat pho­tog­ra­phy for the masses falls in a heap. You sim­ply can’t have a cheap cam­era with a big sen­sor. You could put one in a card­board box with a pin­hole at the other end and it would still cost more than the Nikon D850. It’s telling that there’s ba­si­cally only two medium for­mat sen­sors be­ing used now – Sony’s 50 MP and 100 MP CMOS de­vices – be­cause this is the only way to get the vol­ume up and the price down. Cur­rently, Sony is sell­ing to ev­ery­body who makes a DMF cam­era in any mean­ing­ful num­bers – Fu­ji­film, Has­sel­blad, Le­ica, Pen­tax and Phase One/Mamiya Leaf – and the prospect of any new­com­ers is slim (apart from, pos­si­bly, Sony it­self).

So this is where things are likely to stay in terms of pric­ing, which means a $5000 cam­era body is un­likely to ever hap­pen. It also means am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers still need to think care­fully about what they re­ally need in terms of im­age qual­ity, and also sep­a­rate the ro­man­ti­cism from the re­al­ity. As we’ve seen in our tests of the GFX 50S and X1D 50c, both de­liver su­perla­tive IQ, but if you aren’t mak­ing full use of it then it’s hard to see the point when there’s no com­mer­cial ben­e­fit.

Of course, there’s al­ways been a ‘feel good’ fac­tor as­so­ci­ated with buy­ing cam­eras, and it’s per­fectly OK to let the heart over­rule the head. But dig­i­tal medium for­mat pho­tog­ra­phy de­mands a whole dif­fer­ent mind­set, so it’s a big­ger move than many might fully ap­pre­ci­ate. Mean­while, the rest of us will fan­ta­sise about just how we might spend $20k on new cam­era gear if we could. Well, Christ­mas is just around the cor­ner.

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