April 20th, 2009

Other Photographers Comment on Medium Format Quality Articles

In response to my long articles on medium format quality issues, I have received, either directly via e-mail, or from postings to discussion forums, a number of comments from other photographers which echo my own experiences with quality control and/or my expectations for off-the-shelf quality from the high-end systems.

Don't misunderstand me — I think my new system is great and I am exceedingly impressed with the development efforts of Phase One and some of the other companies — but it was a lot more difficult to get my system working right, due to QC failures, than it should have been, and I fear that most photographers would not have as much patience and commitment to the eventual success of this quest for a properly-working outfit as I have. These failures, evident in equipment from several of the other most-respected companies as well, will, in turn, ultimately prove quite harmful to the small, but important, high-end equipment market, unless they are aggressively addressed.

Many photographers may not notice when a lens is not sharp in the corners at f/5.6 or f/8, and some may likely not notice when their focus is consistently off when shooting at apertures wider than f/11. Others will simply have never been shown how good a medium-format back's results can be, and so won't know what they're missing. And some will certainly not feel the confidence to complain because they haven't been able to make certain that they are not somehow themselves to blame for their results just not being all that great, with respect to sheer image detail. But sheer image detail is the biggest single selling point for the expensive medium format digital solutions, so I would argue that the ability of these systems to deliver corner-to-corner sharpness at f/5.6 and up should be expected as a matter of routine. At the very least, any lens for medium or small format digital capture ought to be excellent at f/8, and focus ought to be within an inch or so of the intended plane at about six feet, or within about a foot at 40 feet.

For the manual focus to work this well, supplemental magnification is required, but when used, focus should work as described, and the auto focus should accomplish the same job, when the AF sensor has a reasonable target upon which to zero in. (Supplementary magnification is great for verifying successful auto focus, by the way.)

The photographers with whom I have spoken about this topic are in unanimous agreement on these quality expectations. We all hope that these companies which make the medium format gear can each make certain that their QC standards are sufficient to the difficult tasks of achieving this quality level from these small sensors. Medium format has become the new large format, and this requires that the medium-format systems be viewed very differently with respect to expectations than they may have been in the past. The companies are, after all, many of our favorite camera equipment makers. Some may already be achieving the requisite quality on a consistent basis. If so, congratulations. But don't let down your guard, or assume that because you don't hear complaints from very many of your customers, that their experiences have been what they should have been.

Enough from me. On to the comments I've collected:

1) Tim Ashley In GetDPI's forum:

You know, we can always question other people's methodologies and memories but in general his experience exactly matches my own. I test every piece of equipment I buy as soon as I unpack it and have an absolute rule that if it isn't right, right out of the box, it goes back immediately.

Since I got into MF I have had to return (or test in store and not buy) more items, especially lenses, than I can remember. My Phase kit arrived with a wonky kit lens. Silvestri could have had a lot of my money if I had been able to get any of their kit to focus. Mamiya lost me after two 28D's were just C**P and I eventually went second hand. I could (and have in the past!) go on and on but the fact is that this stuff is mighty sensitive to poor QC and poor QC is widespread.

Had I read this article before starting my journey in November, I would at least have known I was entering a vale of tears. As it was, there have been months of lost shots, detective work to try and work out which of many elements was the weak link in the chain, a feeling that everything I purchased was doomed. Now I learn that this is just standard. And, controversially, I have come to the conclusion that anyone who has not had the same experience has probably been either extraordinarily lucky or, more likely, they are insufficiently observant or demanding.

I now have a setup that works perfectly: A Cambo RS with Schneider 35XL and a P45+ back mounted on a Gitzo GT354LS with Manfrotto 410 geared head. It produces images at F11 which are sharp to my standards from edge to edge. I also have a Phamiya AFDIII which I regard as very flawed and only just fit for purpose, a Mammy 28D which is a good example but not really good enough for a big exhibition print, an 'old' Hartblei super rotator which again is a great example but still flawed in some ways. I also have some good glass for the Phamiya. Then there are numerous discarded tripods and heads, the Metz flash kit recommended by Phase and yet not suitable for TTL use as advertised and so on and so on.

SO: for anyone thinking of going the MF route: read Mr Holmes' article. It is detailed, informative and in my experience entirely correct.

You have to kiss a lot of frogs.


2) Jack Flesher, by e-mail:

Hi Joe:

Very good articles on the vagaries of getting optimal results with MF digital! I just thought I'd mention one teeny point as re using manual focus in the second part that I think worth adding a few lines on -- the importance of first setting the viewfinder's diopter to your personal vision, and of course the proper way to do that ;-)



3) Chris Jordan, by e-mail:

Joe, wow those new articles are outrageous. I briefly scanned both, and
realize I need to spend a much longer time with each one. Thanks so much for
your continued contributions like this, they really are invaluable. The
Helicon Focus program is awesome-- I wasn't aware that it existed. It's
something I have wanted for a long time but couldn't imagine that someone
would actually create it.


4) Ian Scovell, by e-mail:

Hi Joe,

I just very quickly wanted to say, I read your excellent articles on your site about medium format digital.

I had a Hasselblad H3D-39 for a weeks worth of test in October 2007. All your comments about lenses such as the 35mm and off axis sensor focusing mirror my own, and at the time didn't please Hasselblad when I told them.

I just wondered what your thoughts were on Phase One/Mamiya building a camera with an intergrated sensor and if this will solve some of the issues. Also, what of Leica who are building a system from the ground up with their S2.

Kind regards

Ian Scovell

4B) More detail from Ian:

Hi Joe,

I'll try and keep this to the point as much as possible -

In Oct 07 I was given a H3d-39 for a week with the 35, 80 & 55-110 lenses.  My Hasselblad sales rep had sent me a sample image from the top of a mountain here in the U.K. called Snowdon which looked excellent. He was trying to get me the 28mm lens but it wasn't available so I had to settle for the 35mm for wideangle shots.

The 80mm lens never went on the camera - and I was interested in comparing the H3D +35mm against my 5x4 + 90 f4.5 Rodenstock lens & scans on my Imacon 949. I took both the H3D & my 5x4 to the same location to try & make some a/b comparisons.

This is easier to explain to you because you use 5x4 - when you focus your 5x4 theres a point when everything starts to zing, and you know you've got the image in focus. On the Hasselblad 35mm lens this never happened the 50-110 was better, but I was only really interested in wide angle so didn't really use it that much. I shot the 35mm at F8 - F16 & F22. I found that it was at its best at F22, but still not in the same league as a 5x4 lens. The image was sharpest in the centre with noticeable fall off towards the edges and particularly out of focus on the left hand side of the frame compared to the rest.

I never really got to the bottom of why this was, I was just really really disappointed with the results compared to scanned film. Later, speaking with the Hasselblad sales rep he commented 'you'll never beat the autofocus'.  This is something I couldn't get my head around at the time, but now reading your articles and Michael Reichmans additional comments about using autofocus it has all become clear.

So to summarise, what I was experiencing was all 3 things, the focus screen out of alignment, the sensor perhaps misaligned, and a very poor 35mm lens. Using autofocus would have helped with some of these issues, and should therefore be recommended, certainly for infinity focusing.

I have to say, however, I don't know how you find Hasselblad in the U.S. but here in the U.K. they must be one of the most forthcoming & customer friendly camera companies I've ever dealt with - really.

At the moment I've got a 305mb zoomify 617 on my website here: http://www.ianscovell.com/ian/SEAVIEW.html The image is 42" wide at 300dpi - I'm going to upload a full 848mb 72" wide @300dpi version in the future - I still think that the 39mp back can't quite equal 5x4 scanned film and for that reason don't think they offer good value for money, as for the 50mp & 65mp versions, I haven't seen raw files so can't make comparisons here's hoping.

Many thanks

Ian Scovell

5) Henning Wulff, by e-mail:

Dear Joseph,

I read your two articles 'Medium Format Digital Camera Optical Precision' and 'Getting Top Quality From Medium Format', linked from luminous-landscape with great interest.

As an introduction, my background is architectural photography, which I have practiced since the early 70's and I have been an architect for the same period, after studying physics for 6 years. I started in photography in the 50's. I don't have an MF digital system and still use 4x5 film for the limited number of shots that my reduced business requires, augmented by a Canon 5DII. I also have had Leicas for nearly 50 years, and shoot a lot of panoramas with Noblex and Roundshot. My 4x5 gear consists of Sinars, CamboWide and lenses from 35 to 480mm.

I think you are quite correct in your castigation of the quality control that is so often lacking in all kinds of products. I too have noticed these issues in various high end products, although I've not had the benefit of an MF back to highlight them.

One of the main problems I always found with large format lenses was that many were mounted incorrectly, to the point that many displayed the same issues you have noticed. The lens cells (front and back) were often good but the mounting let them down. As you know, even very minute errors in spacing between front and back cells can lead to field curvature and worse. Mounting was often performed by parties other than the lens manufacturers, and even there if you get a lens in a helicoid mount a different department from the lens assembly workshop does the work. Schneider, Rodenstock, Nikon and Fuji were all plagued by this.

All the best,

Henning Wulff

6) Nick Wheeler, by e-mail, on a separate but closely related matter:

Any plans afoot to port C1 DB to the iPhone? That would be killer for location photographers like me trying to use the ALPA xy camera. It's really unusable in it's current configuration for fast field work. Any other ideas? Gotta figure something out if I'm going to upgrade to the P65+ for my ALPA.

On the other hand, the new PhaseOne camera has been on the road with me for a month and it has been a joy to use. This system has a long way to go but really does work well for my purposes.

Top of the list of no nos, there needs to be one on/off switch and the system has to be sealed. It's current iteration is pathetic in this regard and can't be considered a serious field camera until it is on a par with Nikon and Canon. Any kind of blowing sand or dust or precipitation present problems immediately. The switch on the back is easily kicked on just rattling around inside the camera bag. No good.

Old view camera hands like me are less annoyed than someone used to the superb sealing of the Canon. If this is to be an upgrade from the Canon etc it HAS to be an upgrade. One battery, one switch, CF card all sealed. Also the auto focus is terrible and there has to be a more consistent way to switch A/F on and off between various lenses. The focus ring sliding back and forth is probably the least desireable of the current methods. I think the switch on the body is best but probably not compatible enough with the future. Next best is the on off switch on the lens.

Also with my particular body there is a definite inconsistency between manual and auto focus. The manual focus is consistently wrong, auto focus is accurate after it settles down and stops hunting. I will try to research this more.

Another annoying problem is the return to default preview everytime one shuts the back off. One should be able to program the kind of preview setting one wants and have it stay that way!


PS: Please don't get lulled into complacency by glowing reviews from the likes of the Luminous Landscape, this will not ensure PhaseOne's long term survival. This camera has to become a serious professional instrument that works well in the field to survive.

7) Anthony Adachi, by e-mail:

Hello Joseph,

I read your very insightful and well researched articles on medium format
problems & sharpness...

While I don't own a digital back myself I've worked with them on many


7B) and more from Anthony:

Thanks for publishing your great articles! I've learned a
lot from what you've written on your site...

... Maybe, this is a long standing problem only being brought
to light by the demands of recent high mega pixel systems?

For the amount of money a professional invests in equipment one should
expect proper Q.C.

Why should buying lenses, bodies, and backs be like playing slot
machines - maybe you'll get one which is up to specs? Especially, pro-
level equipment? It's not like you're buying Cracker Jack boxes hoping
for a prize but with the prize being equipment up to purported
standards. Photo equipment tends to cost more.

How can professional photographers as a whole best collectively address that?

Take care,

Anthony Adachi
8) Elmo Sapwater, Imaging Insider. by e-mail:


the article is kick butt. this should get a lot of press.

i e-mailed 1001 noisy cameras to let him know we'd posted a link on it. watch your server numbers. I'm going to repost it for tomorrow so that no one misses it.

great stuff....

8B) More from Elmo:


just wanted to let you know that 1001 noisy cameras picked your article up.

i've reposted it 3 times to make sure that people read this. it's important! i also talked to some educators this morning to let them know that you had written this.

8C) More from Elmo:


yeah, but it was well worth it! i enjoyed this more than i have just about anything in quite a while.

the crater lake sample was great. no i haven't seen any good data at 100%. probably it's because no one wants to really put it on the line.

this is really a must read for everybody that's seriously into medium format. i've seen streams of request coming over from 1001 noisy cameras. so, some people are paying attention on the outside.

can't wait for the next installment!

8D) More from Elmo:

you hit the top read on imaging insider....congrats!..ee.e.