Is There One System To Rule Them All?
Time for an intermission from the quiet, contemplative, musings about delicate papers and the book-making process. Welcome to my world of hyperbole and highly opinionated discourse. Today’s topic is what many of us aspire to and some of us are lucky enough to use regularly; the ultimate in picture-making and printing awesome, the digital medium format camera system.
If you are considering a jump to medium format digital or are a long-time user that has an itch to jump systems I wanted to offer a perspective, maybe even a different way of approaching that choice.
There are a few questions to consider before building your own perspective.
What exactly is this yet to be acquired camera supposed to do? What kind of pictures of what subject matter in what circumstances will you use it?
What things do you really, really like about certain cameras? I am talking about emotionally like, feelings, joy. What about a camera causes you fall in love? Not features, not specs, not theoretical things. I am definitely not talking about the practical “features” that might be of use in any theoretical scenario.
How does a particular camera suit or change your specific process while making a photograph related to #1?
I’ve been lucky enough to own, use, or evaluate many camera systems over a long time. I am also lucky enough to have close relationships with many photographers that own and use medium format systems. We are all different, with different answers to the questions I posed. Substitute your own preferences to reach your own answers. Take your time deciding on something as massive as a digital medium format camera system.
For argument's sake, I’ll assume you have a camera system now. There’s a good chance it does all the things you need to do and a lot of things you don’t actually do but might possibly do. I’ll refer to these as the do-it-all camera systems. All of them can do more things faster and better as new versions are introduced. All these systems, the Sonys, the Canons, the Nikons are all about doing everything faster and ”better”.
I’d suggest keeping that system. I’ll go farther, I suggest you use none of the do-it-all faster and better kinds of criteria to choose a medium format system. If you need a do-it-all fast system with no idea what you might want to do, keep the system you have. Satisfy that do-anything desire (nobody actually does that but there’s always the maybe) with what you have.
Look at a medium format system as a highly specialized second system. Go slow, don’t acquire “all the stuff”. Choose the system that is ultra-specific to do that one or two things with joy that drives your primary passions. Keep the other one for all the other stuff.
Every single medium format system will be slower and produce fewer pictures than the one you have. The question is how fast does it need to be? In my own case, my latest purchase was specifically to slow me down and get out of my face (literally) when I use it. I’ll divulge what my latest decision was some other day.
My do-it-all system is a Canon full-frame that covers a lot of territory. My tiny minimal system is either a one-lens, one-body Fuji X-Pro or a Leica film camera. I do not attempt for one to duplicate the capabilities and breadth of the other. I don’t take both with me. I know exactly why I decide on one or the other and I am okay that I cannot do “everything”. I don’t bother thinking about subjects that are beyond what system I decide to use on a particular day. I’m far less distracted by decisions I could possibly make.
My current medium format system (a hybrid digital/film menagerie) is the same in terms of a specific set of purposes with very different characteristics that do not cover the same ground as my other systems. More some other day if anyone cares.
On With The Show
Without further ado (blah, blah) here’s where one may want to start exploring the strange land of digital medium format. Just my own take and semi-accurate. Current users and fans of these systems PLEASE chime in with all the goodness (or badness) I am leaving out. Long-term scenario-specific experience trumps all!!!
The Common Sense Decision
Let’s get this out of the way first. Fuji “people” are quite passionate fans. On paper and in use Fuji’s medium format makes sense if you must use a do-it-all feature set and breadth of application criteria. They have a full lens lineup. They are budget-friendly compared to almost every other option. They are the most like other mainstream mirrorless camera options. Done.
I won’t offer critique here as most of my own opinion is taste and a narrow niche of things I like. There are still no T/S lenses but allegedly there will be (sorry, I am not criticizing but maybe if that’s really important you’d want a full-blown technical camera anyway???)
The 3/2 Aspect Ratio Lover
There’s a LOT to love about the Leica S-medium format system beyond the 3:2 aspect ratio but that’s unique in the land of medium format. There’s the bulletproof build, There’s the typical Leica-esque beautiful fit/finish/feel. There’s the giant DSLR handling. There’s the gorgeous, huge, bright, breathtaking optical viewfinder. There’s the submarine like weatherproofing.
If you like those things, very very good lenses (with a touch of classic Leica special sauce rendering at the tiny expense of not measuring up to the absolute state-of-the-art optical bench tests), and love the three by two aspect ratio, this camera is for you. Price is not so so stratospheric unless you want all of the lenses. The lens prices are Leica expensive, only medium format scaled.
I’d have owned one of these in a heartbeat when I was shooting a ton of fashion way back if and only if it were 4:3. It’s just not optimized to do that if that’s 90% of your output. Even now I toy with the option of getting a used non-CMOS version with one lens. Oh, did I forget to mention many of the lenses can be had with a leaf shutter if one has the cash?
The OVF lover
Hasselblad H or Phase One. I prefer the handling, ergonomics, coolness factor, and elegance of the H system. I owned an H2, some film backs, and a digital back as my primary “work” camera.
Classic well-developed systems, modularity, very long useful lifetime if you get what you need. Big, beautiful, heavy, slow, somewhat cumbersome but gorgeous and satisfying cameras for certain subjects and uses. This happens to be the “price is no object” category if buying into the current bodies and lenses. The newest versions are the only “real medium format” cameras as these have 54mm sensors, not those puny 44mm sensors.
The OVF Lover On A Budget
Pentax, yes they still make cameras. They have the same basic tech as the rest of the Sony 44x33mm 50 megapixel sensors used in all the last revision Fuji, 50mpix Hasselblad (the 50c), IQ3 Phase, etc. They are cost-effective options especially when you take a look at the lens options. They are not a pretty camera, they are not the latest tech, they have no “features” but they do the job and they are the only up-to-date sensor tech option that has a great OVF and can be even less money than a Fuji system. Really worth a look, just not as sexy. Maybe these are the “common sense” option?
Believe it or not, I don’t currently know anyone that uses one of the current versions so I’d love to hear from people that do. Is this the industries best kept secret?
The Fashion Lover
No, I don’t mean fashion in terms of subject matter. I mean fashion as in stylish, beautiful to hold and behold. I am talking about the Hasselblad X or V system. Don’t take that as some sort of criticism. These are capable devices with arguably the most comfortable cameras ever made if we are talking about the X1D, The most compact if we are talking 907X. The only budget option if you want fast flash sync and the only budget modular back for tech cameras.
They also offer great color (taste dependent but it is unique and consistent with the higher-end Hasselblads). In my use as of today, they are the slickest, simplest to use, and most well integrated with the dedicated iPhone, iPad, desktop software for remote control, tethering, etc I’ve ever used. They are very well designed but they are far from do-everything.
The Bottom Line
My proximity and affinity to photographers that love prints have proven that those same people either use or are curious about medium format digital. Is this anecdotal? Is it the other way around, medium format users also love to print? Possibly, but I hope all of you have found this helpful or at least entertaining for the people
crazy enough who have the requirements to consider these camera systems.
If you make prints and are a medium format user please let us know what you use and why. If you are considering medium format and want to know other members' opinions there’s a good chance someone here knows each particular system intimately.