35mm, DX & FX, Medium and large formats...

Blogging at night (and watching American Dad...) makes me tired at work, so I'm using a coffee break to write this one :)

Today we discover what those terms means, 35mm, 135, 220 and 220 film, full frame, FX or DX digital cameras, medium & large format, etc.

This is tremendously important since the differences between all these are huge, and each format matches more a less a certain type of photography. Understanding format can be the key to picking the right equipement for you.

Let's simplify things first: imagine there is no digital yet. We would have "small" format, always called 35mm, medium and large format films.

  • 35mm camera use 35mm film also called 135 film. The frames are 24x36mm
  • Medium format camera use film called 120. The frame are about 60mm high, and width goes from 45mm to 90mm. That explain names such as "Pentax 67", or "Bronica 645". Depending on the width, it will us more or less film and you'll be able to take more or less shots on a roll of 120 film (from 8 shots in 6X9 to 15 shot in 6x4.5)
  • Large format is film or plates that are 4x5 inches and up. I won't develop large format since it remains very confidential and is not likely to capture your attention. Also I don't use it, and I'd rather not talk about something I don't know.
So we've seen that those formats correspond to different sizes of film. But what's with digital?
  • The vast majority of digital DSLRs are called DX cameras. Top or the range DSLRs are called FX or full frame (Nikon D700, D3, Canon 5DmkII).
  • A full frame FX has a digital sensor the size of 35mm film, 24x36mm.
  • DX camera has a smaller sensor, usually 30% smaller. It has one main consequence : it does not use all the image that the lens gets on. You end up with only the 70% center part of the image. If your lens is a 50mm, it's like you're zooming on the middle of your image with a 75mm. It's called crop factor.

See that shot? A full frame camera (FX) would give you the green frame, a DX camera body (Nikon D80, D90, D300, D7000 and Canon 550D, 7D, 450D, 50D, etc.) would only see the red frame, even though the all thing is "seen" by the lens.

FYI, medium format digital cameras exists, Hasseblad, Phase One, Mamiya but they cost an arm (15k and up).

Does format changes anything when it comes to image quality?
- Heeeeelll yeaaahhhh !!!!

It changes everything. Let's put is like this: 35mm is a horse, medium format is a car, large format is a plane. The best 35mm can't beat a standart medium format etc.
In other words, the bigger the format, the better. I mostly shoot medium format (MF) during photo shoots, and just acquired a portable MF system for travel because once you've tried it, you can't go back to only 35mm.

Also, lenses mounted on many MF camera destroy even the best Leica lenses...for as low as 250 bucks used on the internet...yes...I know...awesome.

This is one of the main reasons why many of us still shoot film: it kills the best DSLR in tones, details, file size (once scanned), color information in the file, etc.

However there are downsides to it:
  • MF camera are bulky, large format cameras are enormous. The bigger the better, but also the least convenient. I only know of one fully automated MF rangefinder: Fujica GA645. If you know of one, drop me a message !
  • MF camera often don't have AF or metering, so you have to measure light with a handheld meter or an other camera. No need to say it is only for those of you who organize photo shoots, or spend time shooting landscapes. If it's to point and shoot, forget it. However it will be greatly rewarding.
  • In order to expose manually, you need to know the zone system. I can only recommend this explanation from Luminous Landscape. It sounds like a pain, but if you read this blog you'll be into it :)
  • You can only shoot up to 15 images per roll, and film cost a bit, about $3 for a roll of BW, plus $3-5 for negative development only. Then you need to pay for scanning or get yourself a good negative scanner. I use an Epson V700 (review coming soon).

A 3 kilos Mamiya RZ67, a classic studio MF camera

So if you aim at getting few great pictures, weather it is portrait, and even more landscapes, get a MF camera. I'll right a post with recommendation and a complete overview of the market, since it's kinda hard to find exhaustive information on MF products.

What about digital? DX & FX? Well it does not really have an impact on picture quality. Both won't be as good as medium format film anyway, for a cost of gear far higher (disregarding the cost of film). The biggest difference is the crop factor : all your lenses will zoom x1.5 in DX, which can be annoying if you shoot wide angles.

Well now you know it all:
  • Casual shooters, stick to digital, DX or FX.
  • Landscape photographers, if you shoot digital shoot FX, but otherwise get an MF camera (Mamiya 7II, Pentax 67II or Fuji 680 are my choices for lanscapes, they all have exceptional lenses and built in metering)
  • Photographers aiming at subtile tones, large print, great color range, image definition, amazing bokeh, go MF film. And don't tell me it's expensive to buy film, because a mamiya RZ cost $ 800 used with a lens that is heaven sent (sharp as hell at f2.8 and amazing bokeh) ; so you can buy a lot of film with the price difference between this and a digital full frame.
  • You love film tones and BW but can't stand the hassle of MF, go 35mm film with a Contax G2 rangefinder (it's a leica 3 times cheaper, no kidding) or a Nikon F100, or FE. I'd go for the Contax, Zeiss lenses for the G series are amazing, but if you're tight on budget go Nikon.

Contax G2, a must have.

No comments:

Post a Comment