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.
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?
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.
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 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?
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.