Will You Switch To Medium Format Cameras?

Doug Levy is a photographer based in Ayer, MA. He shoots weddings and portraits. Check out his blog. Check out Doug’s first guest blog post about second shooting weddings. Doug will be teaching classes about his lighting techniques and the business of photography at Inspire Photo Seminars. Follow him on Twitter.

When wedding season starts to slow down, I start to look for interesting projects to shoot during the slower time of year. One thing I’d wondered about for years was the holy grail of cameras, medium format digital. Now, I should preface this with the fact that I’ve never shot medium format anything, let alone digital. My first “real” camera was a Nikon D70s in 2006 and I’ve shot exactly one roll of film since then, on my wife’s old plastic 35mm Nikon, and that took me six months to finish.

One portrait I’d had rolling around in my head for a while was to take a few minutes to introduce myself to Bob, owner of B&J Cycles, a Harley Davidson repair shop on my street. I thought a photo of Bob would be the perfect opportunity to test out a medium format system, so I called Derrick Brown at Imagelink to see if I might be able to rent a camera and back for a few days. I’ve been using Derrick’s calibration software for years, and we have a mutual friend, but despite his being just down the road, I’d never had the chance to meet him in person until recently.

Doug Levy Medium Format Portrait

When I called Derrick up he immediately invited me over to his studio, where we spent a couple hours discussing the options in the current medium format digital world, and ended with him offering to loan me a Hasselblad H2 and Phase One P25 back for a weekend. I suspect he knew I wasn’t going to be shelling out $20k+ anytime soon for a new IQ system, but that the used price of a P25 ($5,000-$6,000) was something I could probably pull off.

And it’s true, with a few months of careful budgeting, I probably could have afforded to pick up a used P25 system, and I even spent a few hours one afternoon looking around on eBay to gauge the market.

But here’s what I didn’t expect. While there were a lot of things to like about the H2 and P25 combo (1/800 flash sync, a gorgeous gigantic viewfinder, autofocus that was better than I’d expected, true 16-bit color), the back was beyond unusable to judge color, focus or exposure unless you shot tethered. It really makes you appreciate how far camera and LCD technology has come in a short time.

As 95 percent of the work I do is on location, and about 90 percent of that takes place in situations where tethering is either impractical or outright impossible, shooting the P25 was essentially equivalent to shooting film. By that I mean that you don’t know what you have until you’re back at your desk reviewing the files.

Now that doesn’t mean I had a horrible weekend with the camera, far from it in fact. I shot a couple hundred photos with it, and it’s an absolute joy to use. The ergonomics are well thought out and I managed its hefty weight quite well. The larger finder made manual focus fine tuning a breeze and the Hasselblad HC 80mm lens Derrick loaned me ranks up there with Nikon’s 200mm F/2 as the sharpest I’ve ever used. And when you do make it back to the computer, the files at ISO 50 and 100 are stunning in their depth and clarity.

This was probably an unfair comparison, to pit a camera that was at the top of the line in 2004 against my daily driver, the Nikon D4, but as someone who makes my living with my camera, I had to ask myself if my wedding and corporate clients would really see the difference between the cameras, and the answer to that is a resounding: “not a chance.”

That’s not to say that when Powerball hit half a billion dollars the week after I returned the camera that I wasn’t already building a brand new Phase system in my head (because I was), but until the current backs with their gorgeous iPhone-like screens drop into the sub-$10k used market, I’ll stick with my 35mm Nikon system.

So, will you give medium format its due? Do you work in medium format now? Chime in with a comment below. Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/ohnostudio Libby Stack

    You have to go into MF for the right reasons, and they are narrow in scope. They also have to be defined on your own terms. There are some jobs I get where MF is the answer. As far s clients not being able to tell a difference, that’s not entirely true. With good images they may not know the camera model or even care, but the more visually savvy will be able to discern differences. Sort of like that undefinable difference between DSLR and Leica M9