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. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great comparison without any hyperbole. I've been having a blast shooting portraits with an RZ67. Developing B&W film at home & scanning with an Epson V700. It's just a ton of fun. I haven't shot any color film and am a bit nervous after how forgiving B&W has been.

    But I also have a Fuji X100S for travel and off tripod shooting. If you're interested the RZ67 portraits are posted here: (I'm still very new to this!)