Field comparison: medium format VS a modern full frame DSLR and premium prime lens.

Sometime ago a wild flicker user challenged me that any full frame SLR can do what a medium format (MF) film camera can do. He made that claim on a very specific kind of portraits, similar to the ones I'll use here. Challenge accepted! I decided to shoot where I previously shot a Mamiya RZ67 in the same conditions, and do a similar picture, same light etc. Here are the competitors:

In both cases, I'll shoot the same portrait, window light later afternoon, on a heavy duty Manfrotto tripod, at maximum aperture for each lens, with a speed of 1/25s. For the record, 110mm on medium format is about 50mm in 35mm format. The depth of field on medium format at f2.8 is about the same as 35mm format at f1.2. Only difference is the model and the day, but it's as close as it can get. Here are my conclusions:

Focus: Medium Format wins

Manual focusing with MF cameras allows a lot more precision: the viewfinder is huge, and you can zoom on it in most camera with a magnifier. The focusing wheel can has a little gear box to allow super precise adjustments. On the D600 in particular focus points are way too squeezed in the center, preventing me from good off center focus. So for parity purposes, I focused on the middle of the screen and off centered. At f1.2, even with camera assistance it is soft, and it is very very hard to be spot on focus. It works a lot better at f2.8 but then you completely loose the bokeh and lack of depth the MF system gives you at f2.8. For precision manual work, no doubt MF rocks. Even with auto focus, the D600 struggles to focus even in the center: it does work, but if you aim at something as small as eyelashes, it doesn't get it.

Sharpness: Medium Format wins

Sharpness is a pixel peeper criteria: it doesn't matter much, what matters is the sharpest part of the picture is where you need it to be. Yet, it creates an impression of crispness that is nice...and it's an easy win for the MF camera. On a computer screen, where doesn't matter so much, it shows a little. On an A3 print, it's night and day: it's crisp as hell wide open at 1/20s on the MF system, while it take 180% sharpening in photoshop on the D600 (1/80s, ISO 400) to get something remotely comparable. On a very large print, the perceive gap in sharpness -how sharp the focused area looks compare to the rest of the image- between the MF and DSLR  is very much in favor of the MF system. Once again in perfect lightning conditions, it's going to be similar, but on the edges of digital system's capacity, MF  cameras destroy a SLR system. This is a fact of life, the larger the format, the more you can separate the plans of your image. For proof, see this large format picture by Pierre Herbert.

Definition: Medium Format wins at 24MP, but 36MP I'd give it to the DSLR

Definition is more or less how big the file is, or in practical terms, how large can you print before you can see pixels or dots. Little to do with how the image feels. On the digital file, it's simple you know how many pixels you have. You can print large with a D600: A2 for sure, but I've never tried bigger to be honest. With the MF, it all depends on the gear you use to develop or scan. I personally scan my negs with an Epson V700 and at 6400 DPI the definition is absolutely monstrous. It is however a royal pain to process, files are gigantic etc. It's a win for the MF Mamiya in my case, but a close one. 
If I compared against a D800, I'd give the D800 the win as it wouldn't be much more defined but it would be a lot more convenient to work with.

Bokeh: Medium Format wins

Bokeh on a MF system...there's not point in even comparing. I know it before testing. However, I have to say I am very very happy with the bokeh wide open at f1.2 on the 50mm lens. It is comparable to MF, see for yourselves:
D600 50mm 1.2 AIS @ 1.2
However, keep in mind that with a 80mm 1.8 for example, you'd get a soft even SLR-like bokeh that is nowhere close to that feel. What does this mean? It means that any portrait MF system will give you that on a large range of aperture, but to get it on a digital system is takes an exceptionally fast and expensive lens like the 50mm 1.2 AIS. Yet as we mentioned earlier on, at f1.2 the SLR sharpness drops. 

A similar shot, with the Mamiya RZ67. Bokeh is comparable indeed, but the area that is on focus stand out a lot more against the rest of the shot. The image is also more contrasted naturally, even prior to editing. It's even more striking on a large print.

Mamiya RZ67 II 110mm 2.8 @ 2.8

Colors: DSLR wins

Film tones are superb, dynamic range is superb but let's face it, post processing and development is difficult and leaves a lot less margin for editing than digital. With the DSLR you have control and a lot of option. Keep in mind that I am rather average at editing, and still I find the possibilities endless as opposed to film. In terms of results, it's not more pleasant than film, it's actually a little nicer on film thanks to dynamic range (next point), but artistic freedom digital gives you is priceless. 

With medium format film colors can look wonderful if you nail the exposure. If you don't, in particular with positive film, it will quickly go wrong. Then the result is, to say the least, random if you don't master your camera and the scanning / development process. 

Dynamic range and tones: tie.

Well I'm being inaccurate here: the camera itself as little to do with it, it's about the film and the sensor. 
  • For MF, it'll be film only (digital MF are not actually MF cameras). Velvia 50 is stunning an offer amazing dynamic range, then it depends on the film. It's usually pretty good.
  • For digital, this late 2013, I have to admit that sensors are getting very good, especially Nikon's and Fuji's (not Canon, sorry).

However, digital post processing allows to greatly compensate the lack of dynamic range. Doing it in a dark room is more of a pain. Since only the result matters, who wins? It's very hard to tell. With RAW files and the latest softwares, you can do miracles. I honestly couldn't pick a winner here. Digital is more flexible, film is superior from scratch but if you messed up exposure, you are screwed.

To illustrate my point, this is TriX film on a very old 35mm camera, same lens as on the D600 (50mm 1.2AIS). No processing whatsoever and very harsh light: notice how the details in the hair under the chin are still visible, as well and the area around the roofs about the head. Film can capture properly a larger range of brightness.

Black and White: Medium Format wins

See above, infinite gradient of tones on film, no need to master expensive softwares to produce a good B&W. Nothing to compare here. Also nicer noise, nice everything...
On the positive side for digital: Nik Software provides a good add on for Lightroom, Silver Efex Pro, to edit digital B&W. 

Mamiya RZ 67,  keep in mind that the left shot has been cropped significantly and Only ambient light.

Low light: DSLR wins

Easy wins, modern sensors are simply amazing. Very clear images up until ISO 3200, very usable at ISO 6400 for documentary. It's impressive. Yet during a photo shoot you use proper light, and even a slow speeds, MF performs terrific. So from a strict technical stand point digital destroys film MF here, but it's useful for journalist, wildlife photographers only. For a crisp portrait, even in low light, you'd use ISO 400 film and a tripod, and it would be irrelevant.


I can't do with a DSLR what I can do with a MF system. So that flickr gentleman was wrong. But on the other hand... I can't do with a MF system what I can do with an SLR either.
If you are into editing, if you are a journalist or a wildlife photographer, get a DSLR, no doubt about it.
If you are into B&W, portraits in studio conditions, craftsmanship: get a MF system.
The best is of course to own both, in which case I recommend:
- A Pentax 67II Medium format system. I love the Mamiya but it's a cube. Literally. I mean, how do you handle a cube? I'd like to see the hands of whoever designed that!
- A Nikon D610 , which is at the actual price the best value for the money you can think about. It will get you 95% of what you get from D800 or D4 for a lot less money and a much lighter package.
- A D800 is you're rich. 

Natasha @ Paris

Winter is coming, it was time to try a few portrait / nude sessions indoors. I have been playing a lot with back light, and for editing with the Nik Software excellent and pretty cheap package (review soon):
  • Silver Efex Pro to edit RAW files into B&W. 
  • Color Efex Pro for well...pretty much anything color.
For a change (ran out of film and the shop was closed), this is digital work, with a Nikon D600  + Nikon 50mm f/1.2 lens.

Product Review : Nik Software

Google bought Nik Software a few months ago, and their first decision, God bless them, was to drop the price from about 500$ to 149$. That makes it affordable to most of us, and therefore worth reviewing since many of you are likely to be interested.

Long story short : if you own a DSLR or premium compact shooting in RAW, Nik Software's plugins are a must have. Let's discuss why and illustrate that with a few examples. 

What is in the package

A series of 6 plugins that work with Lightroom (V.3 and above), Photoshop Element (V9 and above),  Photoshop and Aperture:

Those will allow to:
  • Create HDR images (read further, I am strongly opinionated on HDR)
  • Customize your raws into B&W images
  • Sharpen or denoise your files, with amazing results on RAW images
  • Adjust colors and tones
  • Apply creative color effects (the list is endless)
In other words, everything you might want to do while post processing a photograph. I'll be testing it with Lightroom 4.4, the combination that to me makes the most sense for a non photoshop maniac, and from a productivity perspective.

Once you've installed it, you can access the plugins like this: 

You can edit a copy, or the version you are working on in Lightroom. Once you save it'll create a copy in Lighroom anyway, so no risk of messing up the original file. A minor detail, but it illustrates how well thought this collection is. 

Let's deep dive into the logic 

It is for me the greatest strength of this package. The workflow is excellent whereas in Photoshop well...there is none, it's all up to you to figure it out. Because Nik provides a package dedicated to photo editing, it provides better guidance than Photoshop, which is essentially a gigantic tool box with few instructions. This is how the UI for one of the plugins looks like (in that case Color Efex):

You have on the left side a series of presets or filters, your image in the middle (you can see the outcome, a split view or a side by side comparison), and the different elements contributing to that effect on the right. So here is the way it works: 
  • You will hardly ever apply those filters as they are, first because they are overexagerated and mostly because every image requires a custom treatment
  • But those filters give you a good visual of what they can do if you push them. It other word, mouse over presets until you think "oh , I'd like some of that", then on the right side tweak it until you get just that part of the effect that you want.
One of the great things indeed is that the effect is alway decomposed so that you can extract just what you need. For example, just add a bit of cross processing from a filter, then apply an other one from which you'll just keep a tiny bit of color filtering. You can end up with very subtle images in the end. 
You can then save it, and keep on customizing it in Lightroom or in an other one of the plugins. It is very smart because it goes from the expected end result down to the execution: you first see what it can do, and you can very easily pick just what you want from it.

An other great thing is the control points: you can decide to apply the filter on just one part of the image, and separately edit the rest of the image from that area. That works brilliantly (the selected area blends in well with the rest). I'll show you further in an example.

This is essentially how it works, pretty easy uh? You can do simply what the best photoshopers can do with a lot of experience, in significantly less time. I won't go thru an exhaustive list of what you can do, because it's not needed really. First of all it would take forever, and mostly you can really learn how to use it just by doing.

Some Examples

Noise Reduction

Noise reduction on a raw file at ISO 6400, F5.6 1/200s. It is very impressive. Beware, you need a raw file for such result.

Whoooooo lives in a pineapple under the seaaaaa ?!!

Here is the same just using Lightroom 4.4. Open them both in a new tab and you'll clearly see that the file from Lightroom is significantly less clean on plain surfaces. It's a minor part of the Nik package of course, but sill a nice to have.

Some advice on how to use it
Experiment. There is a lot of buttons to press at first sight, but you'll quickly realize most effects are composed of very similar elements recombined differently. Learn to use those levers, spend 45min on a picture at the beginning, it'll be worth it in the long run.

Shoot in RAW. You get three times the data in each file, allows you ANYTHING in post processing. If you try to edit a jpeg in there, you are just a bloody idiot. 

Don't use filter and presets as they are. It looks gross. Keep in mind they are over exaggerated to help you visualize what they do. It's up to you to customized. Even for B&W, I never used the film presets they have. No matter how much you shoot, you'll always have a very few shots that are on top, you should only focus on those. Spend a lot of time processing them if you must

Is it worth the bucks?

Clearly yes. It's smartly done, fast and extremely exhaustive. The workflow/ logic is excellent and intuitive. It's also well optimized for your computer not to choke on those big files (I know what you are thinking about...), and last but not least: it is now correctly priced.

In other words, for a photographer (not a digital graphic artist), it is everything you need. Paying for a full photoshop licence is totally retarded for a photographic use only. At 500$, I'm not sure it was worth it unless you are a pro. You could have manually done it for free in Gimp with a lot of practice. But at 150$, you should buy it as a bundle with your DSLR, no doubt.

D600 / D610 Sensor Dust Fix

This is for all D600 owners who recently suffered from the sensor issue (dots coming from the top left corner and spreading rapidly), or who are afraid that it might come up. Here is my experience with Nikon support. 

First of all, it took about 9 months for my D600 to have the issue. From the chat I had with the Nikon guy, I'd say your D600 is likely to suffer from it at some stage. If it hasn't yet, don't worry.

Is that really a pain ?
Yes, it really f***s up images and the required post processing is too heavy. On this above example, it is a very mild occurrence, it can get all over the top half of the shot and ruin it.

Is there a temporary fix? 
The sensor cleaning function makes it a bit better, but you need to do it every 2 hours at least.

How is Nikon about it?
Great, they acknowledge it fully, and this issue is covered even if you are not covered by warrantee anymore.

What does it take?
I took it to my local Nikon center, I reckon you can also ship it there. They said i'd be fixed in two weeks, it was. They now replace the entire defective part with the new part -the sensor cage- from the D610 (which is no more than a fixed D600), so it is a permanent repair. 

In other words, you can safely buy a D610 , and if you are tight on money, you can buy a D600 and leverage the faulty sensor cage to get a lower price (I reckon the remaining ones should come cheap). If it starts malfunctioning, Nikon will be totally cool about it. 

Update: Camera and Lenses Recommendation for this Christmas

Apologies to my followers, I have been way too busy with the part of my life that pays the bills to post as much as I should have. I will start adding more and more content to the site, and probably revamp the format a little bit.

Until then, time to update the gear recommendation section (Christmas is coming)! Many of you told me that what they liked best about this blog is the fact that I filter out marketing junk to recommend the cameras they actually need, at the benefit of their wallet. I'll then make sure this post follows the same principle, that is to say pushing you towards the camera that is best for your need and budget, while explaining you why such and such characteristic is more or less useless for you.

First let's remind everyone of the following: image quality comes strictly from the sensor, the lens and you. Every choice of camera bellow, no matter what is your need, will be based on this. Therefor it is important that you read the following if you are not too savvy about cameras.

The sensor
The bigger the sensor, the better. Noise, blur, 3 dimensional rendering, crispness of the image. All of this improves when the sensor gets bigger. Sensors are never names after their size, that would be too easy for you to figure out stuff. They are called micro four third, APC, APS-C etc. No matter what your budget is, you should look for the comparably priced camera with the biggest sensor. That all. Here is a chart to show you what that means:
Credits to Paul Fox

The lens
The rules with lenses are about as simple as for sensors: the simpler the lens, the better. For example, a prime lens (no zoom), will always perform better (sharpness and low light) simply because it can be optimized for a single focal length. On the other hand, a huge zoom will be average at everything, because compromises needs being made. Concretely, you need to balance functionality with image quality. Keep in mind that a X40 zoom lens on a 300$ camera is very suspicious. It probably is very very crappy. I selected cameras that privilege a decent compromise, or mostly image quality.

Yes you ! You probably already have a decent camera, and you might be thinking that a better camera will allow you to take better pictures. You've never been so wrong, probably. Indeed, learn how to use your equipment before buying. Try manual settings, learn the basics, and you might realize it was right there all along.

For the casual shooter with a small / medium budget

Let's be honest, 90% of all cameras sold will be used very casually: big vacation coming up, baby on the way, or desire to make a fancy gift, compact cameras are often the kind of product you buy because you feel like getting a nice gadget, treat yourself with something to play with. Good news everyone: those are perfectly valid reasons to buy things ! Yet, it doesn't mean you should spend your money unwisely. 

If you belong to that category, the "I just want an easy to use camera that does a job" people, keep in mind that you are the main target for marketers trying to sell you bullshit features and fake innovations. On the lower end side of things, let's be honest, image quality is about the same. You should privilege good travel companions, preferably rugged, possibly water & shock proof. Avoid mega zooms, they are useless because you won't be stabilized or have a bright enough lens to shoot sharp most of the time.

  • SH-25MR : because Olympus always made reliable cameras and good lenses over decades, because it is cheap, has image stabilization and because it's not pink. It has a touchscreen, a GPS and full HD recording. You can't possibly get more at this price. Many compacts over similar features, but for this christmas,  this one is also among the most recent ones.
Olympus SH 25MR

  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS5K : in case you party / travel hard. It will resist dives in ocean, swimming pools or beer. All compact waterproof cameras have the same size sensor and type of lens, and to be honest they are pretty close to one another. The overall package on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS5K appears to be the best. 
Panasonic Lumix FT5

For the casual shooter with little a decent budget

You are still a vacation shooter, you just have a bit more money. Go for either one of the following pieces.

  • Sony NEX-5 (or 3): it has an APS-C sensor (see chart above, second biggest after full frame), and quality interchangeable lenses. It to a large extent the same cameras as the NEX 7 which is a lot more expensive, due to marketers choice to segment the range. Also, as you learn and enjoy shooting, you'll be able to upgrade via new lenses, instead of changing it all.
Sony Nex 5

  • Fujifilm X100S : if photography tickles your arty bone, and you want a camera that will allow you to explore photography as a proper hobby, I recommend models that offer manual controls, and with simpler, higher quality lenses. The most obvious product is the Fujifilm X100S , that is essentially an excellent sensor and an excellent prime lens, in a well built body. In other words, a good camera. It only suffers from a autofocus that could be a tad bit faster. Yet it, its quality easily overcome that little flaw. 
Fuji X100S

  • Olympus OM-D : the limit of the Fujifilm X100S is the fix lens, 35mm only, which mean no zooming. A good alternative if the constraint of a fix lens is too much for you is still the Olympus OM-D , which a already recommended in the past. The sensor is a bit smaller but still of a decent size, and the camera body is weather sealed. With a vast array of interchangeable lenses, it makes it more versatile than the Fujifilm X100S . For the traveler, it might be an even better choice.

Olympus OM-D

For the advanced amateur who is willing to blow way too much money on cameras (you'll recognize yourself)

First of all, you need to bullshit your wife/husband on why you need a new camera. You are on your own, sorry. Once you've achieve getting away with it without too much blame, you might want to consider those babies:

  • Nikon D610 or Nikon Df , they are essentially the same camera. The Nikon Df looks way cooler, and the smaller resolution (i.e bigger pixels) allows better low light performance, as well as easier to process files. It's also a bit lighter. If you don't print large, I'd go with the Nikon Df, but it's 95% the same camera. Although, at 1000$ more than the D610, it's a but a of a joke, you clearly pay for design and marketing, up to you if you can afford it. Why Nikon? It is superior to Canon on built quality, customer service, sensor, metering...well you get the picture. Of course, a talented photographer will always take better pictures with a Canon over a bad Nikon user, and to be honest, who can spot the difference on picture, knowing that lenses do most of the job. Yet, if you are a lab rat, Nikon wins. If you are just a customer who care about 2 important things (durability and customer support), Nikon wins. Last but not least, the basic high quality prime lenses at Nikon are fairly cheap: the 35mm F2 full frame is around 400$.
Nikon D600

Nikon Df

You should not get a D800. It is too big to carry around, files are enormous to process (you probably would need a new computer too), and unless you print A1 format, it is simply useless. 

Those who are scared of the Nikon D610 because of sensor issues, be reassured: the issue doesn't affect the D610, and if you were to get a cheaper D600, nikon replaces the entire defective part for free, even outside the warrantee. I had mine redone, they are really cool about it. Overall they offer the best customer service.

I thought for a second of recommending a Fuji system, such as the XPro1, but I decided not too for the following reasons:
  • It isn't even smaller
  • Zeiss lenses are brilliant, but so are Nikon premium lenses
  • You pay the design and premium positioning

For the advanced amateur who wants to switch to {troll alert} real photography

You came to your senses: 98 megapixels, hybrid sensors with TRX 8000 technology and other geeky things don't make a good camera. Format does ! But what larger format camera to go for? What are you options:
  • 645 film: greater portability, often with metering and auto focus, cheaper, 15 shots per roll of film
  • 6x6 and 6x7 film : even greater images as the format grows in size, bulkier, often without metering. Avoid when traveling.
  • Large format film : stunning images, huge, requires mastery of photography basics, exposure etc. 
I purposely don't mention here medium format digital cameras, for two reasons: 33x44mm is not medium format, and mostly, if you can afford one (roughly the price of a nice BMW 3 series) you can afford every camera mentioned in this post, so choice isn't really a problem for you.

645 film cameras
Go for a Pentax 645 or Contax 645. I like Mamiya too, but in that format, the other two are a tad better both in terms of lenses and built quality. There are many version, AF or no AF, compatible with digital backs etc. Get them used, but check the version, they are mostly called the same yet some can be a decade older.

6x6 or 6x7 cameras
Go for the Pentax 67 II if you do portraits. Go for the Mamiya 6 or Mamiya 7 if you travel and do lanscape. I'd pick the Mamiya 6 for travel since it gives you a couple of extra frame per roll.

Large format cameras
I don't have for a habit to talk on this blog about thing I don't master properly. For good advice on picking a large format camera, I recommend you read this instead, or this.

For the pro

Come on, you're a pro, you should know what you need! Otherwise don't call yourself a pro, you're a phony :p

But you probably want a D800 and a Pentax 67II, just saying.