“The Thing” is not a Grade B Horror Flick

In Kirk Tuck’s writing, he’s talking about the “medium format thing.”  In the most recent issue of ProPhotoResource.com Kirk takes the DSLR vs. medium format war to the ultimate battleground: the client. With a boxful of 13×19 “C” prints under his arm, Kirk sallies forth to some of the most high-priced art directors in town (Austin, TX) with photos taken by various DSLR’s and medium format digital rigs. The winner? Mamiya DL28 by a nose, medium format digital by a resounding margin. 

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Revisiting the Medium Format Thing…
by Kirk Tuck

If you are a regular reader of my column here you probably know that I’ve had the unique opportunity to test three leading medium format solutions, in depth over the last six months. I tested the Leaf AFi7s with it’s Leaf 33 megapixel digital back and the latest Zeiss and Schneider lenses. I put the Phase One camera with it’s 45+ 39 megapixel back through my torture test with a raft of Mamiya lenses. And, I gave the Mamiya DL28, with its 28 megapixel back a very good workout.

Many of my photographer friends took me to task saying that there was “no way” these cameras produced results that were so clearly superior to the Nikon, Canon and Sony solutions that they justified thousands or tens of thousands of dollars more to own. And in some ways I agree. If your business mainly supplies images for web or broadcast use I’m right there with you. If the biggest image your clients routinely buy is eight by ten inches you won’t get any argument out of me.

Most of my friends say that they just can’t see the difference. And I’ll admit that looking at my 23 inch monitor I can’t see much of a difference either so I decided to put the whole Medium Format versus 35mm Digital format to the most important test of all. The litmus test we call, CLIENT.
I had sixty C-prints done in a size that all of the cameras are acknowledged to be capable of filling without breaking a sweat, 12 by 18 inches. I had C-prints done because they are still the “gold standard” for shadow detail and color accuracy. I boxed up my favorite 45 prints from four different cameras and went out to visit some of my favorite (and pickiest) clients. These were art directors with twenty or more years of print experience who routinely work for national clients on huge accounts.

I opened the box of prints and let them meander through. The images they routinely liked best came from the Medium Format systems. The winner by a whisker was the least expensive system, the Mamiya 28DL. That in itself is a bit funny as I was using an old 150mm 3.5 manual focus Mamiya lens for most the work I did with that camera. Picked the lens up for $150.

The last place finisher was the Sony a900. The consensus of all the art directors was that the MF stuff had more substance. Not more detail. Just something that they each designated as “substance” or “presence” or “solidity”. To a person, each of the art directors mentioned that they loved the way the focus fell off compared to 35mm digital images…

So often you’ll read camera reviews where a reviewer has played with a camera for a week and then thrown up three or four images as examples. Usually these examples are printed less than half a page on a magazine paper stock that’s barely better than notebook paper. The interpretation of the results is less than scientific. Less than objective. If you want a real test shoot with the camera for a month and then find a picky art director who spends his days working with images and toss a bunch of big prints in front of him. Now you’ve got a real test.

The downside? Now all three of the art directors want to give me assignments but the assignments are contingent on using their favorite camera system from the “taste test”. Will the “wallet abuse” never end?

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