The End of Medium Format’s Reign: My Journey With Phase One

The End of Medium Format’s Reign: My Journey With Phase One

For many years the real king of detail, sharpness, color, and DOF has been a 16-bit medium format system, such as Phase One. The larger the film (or sensor) the better the quality has been. Naturally, with my quest for maximum quality in every way, the path led me to medium format. Along with an obsession to be like Joey L for a longer period of time than I care to admit, it only seemed like the next step was to make the switch to medium format.

Image Quality

Yes, medium format technical image quality is very good with lots of detail and sharpness. Color rendition is excellent as well, and using Capture One really does make for technically sound images. However, there’s more to the story.

A great part of my reason for wanting medium format was the leaf shutter to be able to sync with my flash in daylight past the normal sync speeds and without using hacks like hypersync. Combine that with the larger sensor which at the same focal length of the lens will give you a perceived different look because the 80mm leaf shutter lens will have the DOF of an 80mm but a wider field of view than would be expected on a DSLR. All this sounds fantastic, right? Aside from the price of course.

Here are a few sample images I created with my Phase One system.

They have detail, sharpness etc. But is there anything about them that just screams medium format? Would you even know they were if I didn't say so?

Things Change

While medium format has been progressing in technology with the newer Phase One backs, the medium format world has not evolved anywhere near the meteoric rate that DSLR and mirrorless have. The features and usability of either one make the medium format feel very archaic.

Focusing

One of the biggest evolutions in DSLR and mirrorless both is the autofocus systems, my Phase One 645 body had one single AF point. A giant square right in the middle of the frame which makes it impossible to really know what specific part of the face is in focus, or on a half-length shot the square is as big as the whole body, hardly making nailing focus on a specific thing like face/eyes very consistent.

Compare that to the Sony a7R III with it's Fast Hybrid AF with 399-point focal-plane phase-detection AF and 425-point contrast-detection AF.

The speed and accuracy of DSLR and mirrorless cameras focusing is so far ahead. The Phase One focusing point made just getting a shot in focus much slower which in turn causes you to get fewer expressions, poses, etc.

Phase One has improved focusing with the XF body, however, it's still far far behind the usability of the other types of cameras. If you've had the opportunity to use both, you'll know what I mean. We feel like we are really holding something when you pick up a medium format system, we want it to be as awesome as the reputation suggests and certainly, it should be considering the easy five digit+ cost. But for a camera that costs more than my truck, I do have a certain set of expectations and nailing focus is obviously high on that priority list. Certainly, I am not stating that you cannot use the Phase to accomplish this, you can it's just significantly more difficult.

DOF and Lighting

With the changes in lighting over the past several years, and the HSS capability of the battery-powered monolights, Godox, etc. DSLR can now shoot at 1/8000th with ease… which actually outperforms the 1/1600th of the leaf shutter on the Phase, allowing you to shoot at 1.4 in bright conditions with your flash without needing to use an ND filter.

Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is important and the more of it the better, in the past the medium format systems have always had more than the DSLR equivalents. Until now. Unless you can afford a Phase IQ3 100 back, you're not getting the 15 stops dynamic range, you are likely using an older back like me which was in the 13 stop range. DSLR and mirrorless both also offer this, with the Nikon D810, D850, Sony A7R III and so forth medium format has no real advantage here either.

Sharpness and Detail

Medium format used to be known for being sharper and producing more detail than the DSLR as well, part of the reason being the lack of an optical low pass filter and/or anti alias filter. Most consumer or even pro DSLR’s have had those filters which aid in moire reduction etc., but at the cost of sharpness. This too has changed and some modern cameras such as the Nikon D810 also lack the anti alias and optical low pass filters, producing much sharper images than before.

Here are a few samples from my D810 various lenses and I see no sharpness difference from my Phase One shots, but I actually DO see a shallower DOF from the Nikon due to shooting at 1.4 which is more pleasing to me. So DSLR wins again. I know people like to sit and read data charts and split hairs, but at the end of the day can you really tell a difference from the Phase shot to the Nikon shot?

General Usability

With the Phase One, having to charge batteries for both the body and the digital back separately, the speed, the single AF point, terrible LCD screen which was almost impossible to really see anything on outside comparative to the newer cameras, and tie in the cost factor, this makes the system very difficult to actually use in daily production. I would absolutely put up with that if there was a discernable different in the outcome, I will suffer a lot if it means the end result are better images. But can you tell the difference? And if a photographer can't tell the difference, someone who is constantly looking and pixel peeping... do you think a customer will be able to tell the difference in a medium format shot vs DSLR or mirrorless? Certainly not with today's camera options being so good.

I see no reason for a regular portrait or fashion photographer to even consider this option. Not only is the DSLR or mirrorless much easier to use, the workflow is so much more efficient that you actually get more keepers and in a less amount of time.

The Phase One tied my hands and really caused me to miss a lot of great shots. Technology has come to a point where the film size advantage does not really mean a lot anymore. Granted there may be a few situations where the Phase would prove to be stronger, perhaps a commercial photographer shooting billboards. But even then, plenty of billboards made off DSLR’s that look excellent and how much of your work is billboards vs regular sized prints?

It saddens me to write this, because I wanted the Phase One to work so bad, the “on set baller factor” as people refer to is quite cool, and nobody wanted that more than me. But not at the expense of actual usability, as the saying goes "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" it really is true. 

There are differences between the systems, I'm not stating there isn't. But the gap is much smaller than it once was, and can you actually see the difference in your own "real world" images between the two systems? And is it worth the workflow plus cost? I believe it is not.

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60 Comments

Michael Holst's picture

Digital Medium format hasn't really been a real medium format IMO. It's size is between that of films true medium format and full frame digital/35mm. So that makes the gap between potential performance of full frame and digital "medium format" all that much closer.

Heath McKinley's picture

You would see a difference if you printed your work

Leigh Miller's picture

Exactly...you really have to print LARGE in order to see the advantages. That said, I've printed my M 4/3 files at 5ft and they looked pretty good at normal viewing distances.

Mark James's picture

Me too. I have many large prints from M4/3's hanging in clients facilities and they all look great from a few feet away. This was a quick grab during construction, so take it for what it is.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

You don't need much more than an average 20MP anything to print an image if you don't want to let the viewer look the details of the artwork, just the whole artwork itself (ie. the viewing distance is not less than 1.5 times the diagonal of the print).
But if you would like the viewer to immerse into your art, and even view it from nose length distance, then you will need much more detail than that.
(In some situation for me it is quite important to be able to dive in, and explore the small details of a huge vista, or the small textural details of human skin in a print.)

What is leading you to assume he doesn't print?

Heath McKinley's picture

In the entire article there is no mention of print quality. Someone who prints regularly would know there is a significant difference between MF & 35mm Digital images and I would assume that they would mention this.

Leigh Miller's picture

Significant?

No, not anymore. That gap has closed considerably. I have three of the mainstream format sizes in my gear bag and I print from them quite a lot. There is a difference but the quality of the print depends on much more...capture, post-processing and prepping for print.

Bill Larkin's picture

@Leigh Miller is correct, and I do print. Yes a super large print would show a difference if you were using a $100,000 IQ3 100 setup.... but it's absolutely a classic example of diminishing returns. First, how many portrait photographers, or photographers in general print larger than a 30x40 routinely for their clients? Not many. But to lose the features and most importantly focusing... to gain a detail difference on a very tiny % of sessions at the cost of a really nice BMW... it just not worth it, especially when the customer won't be able to tell the difference and certainly not in regular sized prints. The gap USED to be huge, it isn't anymore.

Speaking as someone who works on the client side of things (though I take photos as a hobby), I can attest to what Bill is saying. The average client will not be able to tell the difference between medium format and 35mm; most just want photos that are high quality, tell the story they want told for their brand or product, and don't cost too much to produce.

Given that a lot of work is also being done for the Web and mobile (where folks won't spend enough time looking at the details), the extra punch that can come from MF isn't worth the cost. If you do a billboard, the low resolution printing essentially makes MF even less valuable.

If I were starting out on the commercial side of photography today, I would simply buy a full-frame camera and rent a Hasselblad or Phase One when the client asks for it. Which will be almost never.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and assume someone that's bought into medium format isn't a Craigslist turn and burn photographer.

Motti Bembaron's picture

At the lab I regularly print, there is a large 4x5 poster of a model. It was photographed on a black background, the model has full blown makeup and it looks amazing. It was shot with a 10 year old 6MP Nikon D70.

The lab has one of those monster 6 or 7 feet printer and the lab owner told me that he can print a full width poster (6'x10' or so) with any photo from my D750, not a problem. He said that if the photo looks good when I focus to 100% it will look amazing printed. I was tempted just so I see the result but it would cost me a bundle and I would have nowhere to hang it. But I take his word, he knows.

Digital medium format cameras have moved a very slow improvement pace compared to 35mm cameras. Once upon a time you chose medium format because of its dynamic range and resolution advantages, this is no longer the case. Its also really annoying that no manufacturer has created a lens like the Contax 80mm f2. f2.8 is meh and the fuji 110mm is not versatile enough.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

The contax f/2 is meh af f/2. Soft. It is sort of usable at f/2.8 and is on par with the blue ring at around f/4..

Sony A7r3 are the best option for me. If I had the money for a Phase One kit I would by a nice car. Focusing alone kills of wanting to use a medium format for my part. Gear matters, the right tool for the job is half the job. That goes for a photographer, it goes for a builder. The future does not carry mirrors, and for now Sony is the better option.

The future does not carry mirrors for you. My future will continue to be well served as is, thank you.

I was more thinking the general direction then what you or others are using today. Maybe those who been shooting SLR cameras will hold on to it, but next generation will embrace mirrorless. But whatever gets the job done, and if it works for you then fine. Still many older photographers are getting into mirrorless to.

I understood your point. It just gets old, being told, in so many words, you're a relic. Whether it's true or not, it doesn't need to be said and so often.

If I understand you correctly you don't like my opinion?
Then you probably should correct me if I am wrong, better then spitting out some cryptic comment - I don't know what?

Or maybe I should feel sorry for old DSLR shooters who get offended when someone thinks it's old tech ready to die? And keep my peace?

I watched a live show with Edelman getting ballistic and mad like hell, someone asked him if a7r3 would be a good wedding camera. Then a few months after he changed to Olympus. Maybe you should try for yourself to.

No, no. I would never take offense at someone's opinion. But stating that the "future does not carry mirrors" isn't obviously an opinion.

Well lat us maybe agree it is not your opinion:)

Maybe we can agree that mirrorless cameras will continue to increase, proportionately, but mirrored won't go away completely.
Actually, we have a common enemy. As more people turn to their phones, fewer ILCs will be sold and development/maintenance may be affected to the point of making both types too expensive for some of us. Fortunately, I'll likely be dead by then! :-)

Mr Hogwallop's picture

In looking at the work you posted the speed of AF doesn't really play into it as looks like the subjects are deliberately posed so you can focus on them manually with a 80mm 2.8 on an old 500 c/m or the Phase One with clunky AF with the same speed/results
I'd hope that a print 3 or 4 feet wide from a MF would look better than a small format camera but I don't know. I have rented MF cameras but the difference between DSLR was marginal. not worth the cost. I have made some very nice prints form the A7R2...
I don;t think the difference is as dramatic as 35mm vs 6x6 or 6x7 was in the film days.
Some folks like the baller factor, look at how many Escaldes and G wagons are sold...

Billboards are very low resolution, a shot from a consumer dslr will look no different than a Phase one shot from 100 yards away at 50mph. The real proof would be a large print that oyyou view from 1 foot away.

As a professional shooter who has owned and shot extensively with the Hasselblad H system and have used the Phase one, I have to agree with Mr. Larkin. The Sony A7RIII (a camera with which I absolutely loath shooting), the Nikon D810 (which I've also owned) and now the D850 make a compelling case for the obsolescence of medium format. Mr. Larking did not write about the plethora of very serious glass available for the Nikon and even the Sony. This factor alone may be reason to shoot full-frame cameras over MF. Zeiss, Sigma, and even the latest offerings from Nikon and Sony (who'd have thought?) are at least competitive with if not superior than the optics available for the Phase One and certainly the Hasselblad. Several of the Schneider optics are truly excellent, but so are the Zeiss Otus and Milvus lines, as well as the Sigma Arts. Better than most of all their MF equivalents.

Mr. Larkin wrote about the dynamic range and detail advantages of MF, but he did not touch one what I believe is the most salient advantage of medium format, and that is tonality. This quality is related to DR, but it not the same thing. The large pixel and sensor size of MF does indeed mean that that sensor gathers more light, and with it more nuance within that light. This is what is missing, or more accurately and less absolutely put, is to a degree less evident in his D810 shots when compared to the Phase One. However, even most working professionals don't need these the small incremental benefits of MF over great full-frames cameras, such as the D850. So all the advantages Mr. Larkin writes about trump the IQ improvements available in MF.

I was also very surprised that Larkin did not mention the Fuji GFX-50S. The Fuji outperforms—at the sensor level—both the Phase One and Hassy 50MP equivalents—a conclusion I've come to via controlled tests in my own studio. The Fuji is, of course, noticeably better than the Sony and Nikon, too. Furthermore, the quality of the individual GF System lenses generally outperforms the Schneiders and the (Fuji designed) Hasselblad offerings. In some cases by a large margin. No small thing, that. But most compellingly, the Fuji offers a feature and usability set that is much more like the D850 than it is like the Phase or the Hassy. In fact, the Fuji is so great, intuitive, and consistent to use that the small practical advantages in focus speed, etc., of a system like the Nikon is rendered largely academic. At least it is for me. The Fuji's hit rate is extremely high, both in terms of quantity of shots and the percentage of usable shots. In this regard, it is every bit as good as the Nikon or Sony—for the way I use cameras (I don't ever shoot action or sports).

barry cash's picture

John to your statement regarding tonality you are in my view right on with that, in fact so much so that tonality is with my 100mb a game changer. Gradation and light fall off is another not mentioned fact that medium format wins on in my eye.

My Leica glass when I nailed focus and for some unexplained reasons refraction of the light captured in just a certain way created some images were magical but unfortunately not repeatable on ones whim. To this I learned from many legendary photographers that you always take more than one set of images to be sure...and maybe you'll get that one magical one.

Nailing focus with a medium format camera is not the issue the issue it's ten frames a second that your Sony or Nikon is lending the most help. AF hit's the eyelashes it will never hit the pupil you have to compensate for that and to nail it with all things being equal that manual focus and a tripod.

Many extremely excellent photographs are available as examples of true genius from the 4x5 graphic days including spontaneous photos at a baseball game or weddings. They all have a magical quality with the subject, foreground and background. What a different view we get with a 120mm on a 4x5 40x54mm sensor vs 35mm. These 4x5 images also show incredible depth and critical focus leading me to believe what most people seek can be achieved with almost any camera system given the dedication.

Regarding your final paragraph, exactly!

Is that a fact. Well I've taken a mirrorless Sony and an old Phase one on a factory job a little while ago. This was the first and only time I've used any Sony on a job. It was also the only time a client ever complained about the quality of the file. Needless to say that Sony is sold and I will never try one again. It was a nightmare to operate as well. Many people don't understand what Phase One is good for. Then don't buy one. More for us. I can say that Canon 5Ds is not very far behind phase One, but it's still definitely behind. No reason for me to use Canon as long as I can afford P1. Many things P1 can do that Canon can't and never will. If you're shooting ladies outside, then P1 is not the best fit for that task anyway.

Just to clarify, you took a Sony a7rIII on a factory job and they complained about image quality? I'll take your word for it, but that sounds really really really hard to believe.

Unless I missed something, he didn't specify which model of Sony he took.

As someone who shoots MF film still, if only they put the same amount of effort into upscaling the 35mm sensor tech into MF, the story would probably be different. I have always lusted after the 645z but cannot justify the cost.

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