D800, medium format and other considerations

Lately the best looking color shots I have seen were from Jan Scholz on Polaroid Fp100c. Looks like a Wermeer painting, terrific !

Go outside and shoot stuff that makes someone feel something, that's what matters. If you don't have this as a main goal when shooting, you're not a artist in my book.

Now that I've reminded you that gear is meaningless, we can talk about gear a little bit :)

Today I have read some of the dumbest comments from wannabe journalists about the D800 stepping foot in medium format territory. The best of all being "If you have never shot medium format, this will blow your mind" by someone I won't name because everyone makes mistakes.

We are being served with a double dose of retardation driven by that gear frenzy everyone get caught into when a new super camera comes out.

First of all stop implying you did shoot MF and know what you're talking about. Most of those who write those troll lines don't even know what the zone system is, so using a MF camera... Also, such phrasing implies that format = resolution (number of MP) when those two things have not a bloody thing to do with one another ! 

Format is about how large the light receiving element is. Larger, it takes completely different lenses that perform, due to the laws of physics, in a different world. Give an SLR 120MP, it will still be nowhere near the image feel of a true MF. I mean a 66, 67 or 69 film one, not those fake digital MF overprice machines. 

The fact is, I have seen those D800 samples like all of us, and appart from a certain feel of clarity coming from the high resolution, it is not impressive at all from an image feel stand point (also the photographers are crap, appart from that tree shot, those portraits on the Nikon site are rubbish). 

In a 12% view on a screen at ISO100, you still won't see the difference with any other SLR. When non official unknown D800 shots are out, I'll be more than willing to demonstrate it by putting people to a blind test. 36MP only allows to print bigger, it's for advertising purposes or graphic designers who crop a lot. It is one feature, non related to image feel whatsoever (what a photographer should actually care about), useful for one kind of profesional usage. Getting all horny about it is ridiculous. It's a working tool for pros, it means that by exposing better automatically, you save processing time. Same for USB3, etc. It's like having a sharper knife for a cook, it doesn't make you a better cook. If you can shoot any camera will do. A good cook can pull a nice dinner is the kitchen of a student's studio.

That what you get using a pricey D3S... no wait, oh no! That's taken with a 2001 Olympus C5050 5MP compact. Does it feel right? Feels right to me. 

Back to the medium format point. 
Nothing can match large and medium format film for definition, clarity, color rendering and dynamic range. More important, nothing can match the feel of medium and large format unless with a 35mm sensor. Innovate all you want, it's physics. 

Disregarding the cost, the D4 makes a lot more sense than the D800 to me because it allows doing something film can't do: shooting fast in low light, for journalists, action shooters. But if you want portrait and landscape at its best and don't need productivity scale, you can buy all the digital 35mm gear you want, it will still be a horse, and large formats cameras will still be cars. 

For a pro shooting fashion...well if you get deals to shoot for Vogue, you can afford a Phase One 80MP Medium Format sensor. I actually see the D800 as a paparazzi camera: with the French riviera sunlight, a huge telezoom and the pixels, you can get a sharp image of Lady Gaga's nipple slip from very far away. 


So what are my points?

1/ For many uses, nothing matches larger formats on film. No matter what crappy journalist says after being invited by Nikon to a nice hotel :)
  • Medium format is medium format. Take a portrait with a Fujica 690 and compared to anything from a 35mm on an A2 print. You will cry blood if you bought your 35mm 4000$ with the intention of taking the best looking portraits.
  • Take a landscape picture with a large format camera and do the same comparison. You will cry your eyes out if you spent 4500$ in a D800 + wide angle lens.
Large format baby, imagine this one in a large print, look at the trees, the dimensions. You'll never get close to this in 35mm. Get the right tool for the work you want to do. Courtesy of Pierre Herbert, RIP.

67 medium format (900$ used). If I was to upload the 40 megabytes scan of this, you could (why would you but you could) count the veins in her eyes. To be seen on a large print once again for proper rendering.

2/ A D800 is a nice tool for someone who lives in a studio. It's a cheap alternative to a Phase One. That's what it's probably excellent at. Other than that, it is just an other 35mm camera: convenient to use for average results. 
  • In 2 years a 1200$ body will come out that will have even more software features and whatever else they will try to sell you.
  • If you don't print A2 and above you don't need it. Stop trying to convince yourself that you do because you're bored in life and the thrill of spend 3 grands on a new toy wakes you up.

3/ Know what you shoot. You probably already have a great camera for what you like to do. 
  • If you do a lot of post processing, maybe the D800 is a good idea if you have the money, but if you like the digital feel of images...what can you do with a D800 that you couldn't with a D7000? really? I mean 5 year ago pros where working with 12MP cameras, so don't tell me you need 36MP for editing.
  • If you like action and wildlife, a now cheaper D700 (erratum, not discontinued apparently) is better. Or a D4 if you can afford it, or a D3S.
  • If you like landscape, go large format and take the time to work your shots. If you need to carry it in a backback, get a Mamiya 7 with Velvia film.
  • If you shoot for Vogue, why not a D800, but you are probably not reading this blog anyway.
  • If you like making videos, well I have no clue I don't shoot videos.
67 medium format film (900$ used camera). Here again I wish you could see the full file. 12000 pixels by 14000, you can nearly read motivational posters inside offices. Sharper, more defined than anything any 35mm can get you.

4/ The D4, D800, 1D, 5D and all are just tools, they don't make you a good photographer. Most samples or demo shots I see are photographically boring as death. The French have an expression for that: "tout ça pour ça?". It our case, it would translate into "all that pixel talk and money for those images you'll never look at again a week after unloading your memory card?"


  1. http://kbesios.com/blog/2012/07/06/nikon-d800e-vs-6x9-medium-format-film/

    (I personally use 4x5 and a d800. Recently stopped using a Hasselblad film camera. Let's just say I don't agree with your conclusions. My experiences are closer to those in the fellow's blog post linked above).

    1. Thanks for sharing, valid debate for those who hesitate. I agree and I don't, it depends on what you look at. The post you mention is honest in the sense that his makes his interpretation on definition mostly, and colors. Definition is a matter of need: how big will you print? Figure that out then you know what you need. This being said, the 12800 dpi scan of the above time square picture is far more defined than a D800 shot. Depends on scanning technique too.
      When is comes to non flat pictures (portrait with little depth), a MF glass has very very different properties (let's not forget the glass makes most of it, not the sensor). The feel and bokeh will have unique properties (like it or not, some prefer digital feel). In that sense, comparison as inappropriate since they imply that image feel is linked to resolution. I have hundred of portraits taken with a full frame digital and a MF camera in a 5 second interval, and I would never pick the digital shot (used to meter mostly).
      For landscape, I would prefer a D800 over a MF system like you, convenience, color treatment options are great. But never over a 4x5...and I'm sure that you would never agree if someone said "the nikon D980 has 120MP, it makes it as good as a 4X5" :)