That medium format ‘look’: what is it?

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Today’s article attempts to answer a question which I’ve been asked quite a few times, both in comments and offline correspondence: what is the ‘medium format look’, and why do we find it attractive?

We must first assume that the output medium is sufficient to identify differences. Beyond the obvious very large print or Ultraprint, if you’re judging images at web sizes on a computer – or worse, a phone – sorry, you’re just not going to see it. A typical web image is less than 1% by area of a 40-50MP medium format camera. There is simply no way you can oversample that much resolution information in a meaningful way to those sizes, unless you’re heavily, heavily cropping, I suppose. How large would you have to go to see the difference? I’d say at least ~4MP (2560×1440, most 24”-30” monitors) or better yet, 4K. And that assumes the downsizing has been done in an optimal way, of course. It’s quite possible that some methods will completely throw away any resolution advantage whatsoever (line skipping, for instance).

What I’m going to attempt to do is break it down into five main categories – for digital – and please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments if you feel I’ve missed anything.

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A question of sensor size

The contenders.

Conventional wisdom states that the bigger the sensor, the better. The bigger the pixels, the better. All things equal, that’s true; however, 10-micron pixels would mean very low resolution compacts, and medium format digital doesn’t sell in sufficient volumes to justify the same sort of R&D spend that consumer or even midrange pro gear would get. I admit I’d always been curious to see just how much the technological improvements from generation to generation offset pixel pitch etc.; some time ago, I did a comparison of the Leica S2 against the then-new Nikon D800E. Today, we go one step further to see exactly what kind of gap exists between the various grades of equipment. Spoiler: it’s not as wide as you might imagine in some areas.

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