The format matters, but not in the way you might think

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Having shot extensively with oue 645Z over the last few months, I’ve developed a new hypothesis: the format – i.e. the physical size of the recording medium – matters to the output, but not in the way that we’d expect. Naturally, we assume that the larger the sensor or film, the higher the image quality. Since so much of that is both subjective and perceptual and thus affects the final impact of the image, perhaps it’s important to understand exactly what’s going on.

All things being equal, yes, larger formats do deliver better image quality than smaller ones. However, what isn’t equal is two things: firstly, technology for say medium format digital has only recently caught up with FX and smaller in high ISO performance, dynamic range etc.; large format really has no options other than scanning backs. They’re no easier to use than film – and perhaps in some ways, significantly more inconvenient. I don’t remember having to carry a laptop, power source and SCSI cables with my Arca Swiss. Even the few visual hallmarks that make larger formats more obvious – depth of field, both amount and transition between in and out of focus areas; colour rendition, projection at the edges vs. the field of view* and perhaps dynamic range as a consequence of larger photosites – can be quickly negated if the presentation medium doesn’t adequately represent them.

*Wides on larger formats have the same horizontal field of view as on smaller ones, but simply don’t look as ‘wide’ because of the relatively reduced geometric distortion at the edges.

I am certain that there are a lot of styles that work independent of format – typically those that don’t rely on extreme angles or depth of field control – and as a result, up to a given size, you can’t really tell the difference easily. Viewer psychology, however, is a significantly different matter and saying something was shot with an iPhone or a Hasselblad or on large format will unfortunately affect the reception of the image, regardless of the composition or whether the technical quality produced actually justified the equipment or not. One sees this online typically as people complaining that MF images look ‘flat’ or ‘boring’ – unfortunately popular trends mean that turning post processing up to 11 is the norm – the simple reality is that the vast majority of screens are incapable of displaying the necessary subtlety in tone and resolution, and especially not at web sizes. I think images should be presented independently of the technical portion wherever possible for this reason: I want my audience to look at the image and the composition and idea, not pixel peep – that’s part of the job of the photographer.

We also need to be highly conscious of the psychological effect that the camera/ format has on us, as the creator of the work; though you might think nothing of using an iPhone to document social occasions or meals, there’s no way somebody would casually handhold an 8×10″ with flash even if film were free and they didn’t have to carry it for the rest of the evening. Why? Bigger is better, of course. I’ve seen this a lot in the reactions of my students and friends after handling my 645Z: there is definitely a perceived level of seriousness to the camera that doesn’t seem to exist with other hardware, regardless of cost. Similarly, I’ve seen very few people employ any shot discipline whatsoever when using an iPhone, but they express surprise at the results I produce – all I do is use the same level of care as I would with a larger device.

This is the crux of the matter: the format makes us as photographers act differently. The larger/ heavier/ more expensive the equipment, the more people tend to run towards caution and formalism; you bother with a tripod and stopping down and using flashes etc. The smaller, more ‘casual’ formats are perceived as being better for experimentation and lacking in seriousness; people just tend to be more careful with larger ones. I rarely see medium format street photography, for instance. I don’t even think it’s a cost thing –
a Leica M240 is about the same price as the 645Z, and I see far more of the former being casually toted around. Of course, weight might have something to do with it – or not, because it doesn’t seem to stop users of large DSLRs, battery grips and f2.8 zooms.

We are somewhat trapped psychologically, and thus creatively, by our preconceptions of what each format should produce. The interesting images come when we use things that are out of place – by which I mean applying serious shot discipline to every device as a matter of course, but at the same time not feeling that only certain formats can be used for certain things. Shooting reportage with medium format, or actually bothering to think about lighting, dynamic range and stability with an iPhone. Breaking convention and pushing boundaries results in different images, and that’s what photography is all about. Sufficiency means that for the most part, the output will be more than enough for most uses anyway. The restrictions created by the different formats force us to be creative and work around them; there will probably be a significant number of failures or experiments that don’t turn out the way we expect, but at the same time, hopefully some encouragement.

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Personally, I like to mix things up because they help me to see differently: using small formats with infinite depth of field makes you highly conscious of your backgrounds, and thus focuses your attention on subject isolation. In addition, smaller formats tend to have limited dynamic range, which means you are also a lot more aware of the quality of light and metering, and which elements of a scene are shown or hidden as a consequence. Larger formats make you think about tonality, managing depth of field and secondary elements – simply because all angles of view tend to render in a somewhat more compressed manner as the format gets larger. The change in foreground-background relationship as your angle of view changes doesn’t seem to be quite as dramatic as with smaller formats, so you need to be conscious of things that might not otherwise have had quite so much visual prominence. On top of that, we tend to get into larger formats to see improvements in image quality; the further down that path you go, the smaller the diminishing returns and thus the more shot discipline is required to see the difference. That level of shot discipline is helpful for any format – and the difference in image quality can actually be quite significant.

I think bigger also results in better: the reason for this has nothing to do with image quality and is back to psychology again. There’s the shot discipline aspect, which we’ve already discussed; but beyond that, it’s one of effort and the fact that most of us are really quite bound by inertia: the harder we have to work to get a shot, the more thinking we’re going to put into it upfront to make sure that all of that effort isn’t wasted on a dud final product. Though there’s a degree of discipline enforced, one has to be careful not to let it result in limitation of creativity. I think this aspect of pre-curation and pre-visualisation is not at all encouraged with smaller formats; if anything, it’s the opposite: shoot more now, deal with it later. It is certainly many, many times more painful to curate the same number of 80MB DNG files than iPhone jpegs; I’m sure finiteness and restriction play a part there, too: hard drive space might be cheap, but if you’re shooting through a 32GB card in a day (not at all difficult with the 645Z) then you really have to ask yourself how much time you’d prefer to spend curating/ post processing as against making images. Less is more.

That said, there are good reasons to use whichever format – and some things which simply require specific hardware or formats (great depth of field with long lenses, very shallow depth of field with wide ones, tilt shifts, etc.). But it doesn’t mean that we should be restricted by it. In essence, it’s about decoupling the way you see from the gear you shoot – this is tricky, but I think necessary because we don’t want our creative vision to be limited by what we think or expect is possible from a certain format or set of equipment. The two images I’ve chosen to illustrate this article both attempt to do this: the GR (with 21mm converter) is framed and shot like a Hasselblad SWC; the 645Z is shot casually and on the run like the GR. It doesn’t ‘look like x’ – but then again, it wasn’t supposed to. MT


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  1. Shooting reportage with a medium format camera is out of the ordinary today, but it’s got to be a heck of a lot easier than shooting with a Speed Graphic- the mainstay of reportage photography 60 years or so ago.

  2. Jarle Vikshåland says:

    There is one great tool not mentioned here as far as I can tell, the monopod.
    Used right it gives you most on the benefits of the tripod and more fleksibility. For action photo its a must.
    I use a small puch attached to my belt (the backs that many lenses come with are excellent for this, alternatively the trouser pocket),
    stick the leg if the monopod in and gain a lot of stability with full freedom to move around.
    And when needed you just
    I started doing this with my RB67 to shoot pictures of my kids, and I now do it for all shooting video with my Lumix G3.

  3. Reblogged this on Eileen Lyn Wah.

  4. Regarding your thoughts on “popular trends” and pushing post processing “up to 11”, I think it’s interesting that this has always been professionally much more acceptable in B/W than in colour.

    Anyway, thanks for the reviews. I am an aerial photographer and I would love to see how this system compares to my Canons in the air.

    • I don’t think it’s any more acceptable in mono, personally…

      • Well to me the photography of Sebastian Salgado would be an example. But I grew up looking at burned, dodged, and bleached images of Bill Brandt and W. E. Smith on museum walls along with lesser manipulated photos from Cartier-Bresson. But in afterthought, it must be a digital thing as the rich colours of Pete Turner were perfectly accepted along with techniques such as solarization and deliberate granularity. Obviously digital has created a change of thinking. I certainly see it in the reaction to HDR.

  5. Taildraggin says:

    The tradition of teaching discipline by changing the tools does work. “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”

  6. “Wides on larger formats have the same horizontal field of view as on smaller ones, but simply don’t look as ‘wide’ because of the relatively reduced geometric distortion at the edges.”

    Have you made any direct comparison between different sensor sizes but equal field of view when shooting the same scene? It does not seem intuitive that there would be any difference, except for differently corrected lenses and the tendency to not stick a big MF camera in the midst of things (i.e. objects close to the edges are further away from the camera, reducing visible distortion).

    • Yes, and my conclusion is as you say mostly down to lens correction and the way wider real focal lengths tend to project as a consequence of optical design…

      • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

        Sounds strange. Wide angle is wide angle and rectangles or spheres shot withy fx. 28 mm FF eq. are equally distorted be it iPhone, Gr, M240 or 645. There are softwares (DoX ) that correct linear perspective with circular factor ( compressing the edges). Only other optical way to achieve more natural edges in wide shots would would be some kind of anamorphic element squeezing gently perimeters…. stop I get carried away :-). But law of practical perspective cannot be bent even if light rays can. I mean practical because as a matter of fact, in the space everything is relative like a sum of angles in a triangle can span from nil to infinity. Lobatchevsky.

  7. The only time I have ever seen a 654Z in the wild was in Japan in August, when I walked past a tour group and noticed one of the members was carrying one over his shoulder. I didn’t actually watch him take a shot with it, but he wasn’t carrying a tripod or any visible means of support, and the tour was just a standard “fast track past points of interest”. I’d be very curious to see whether he delivered photos that were noticeably better than those of his FF/ APS-C DSLR carrying colleagues.

    Certainly as someone who likes to take travel photos at relatively popular destinations, when I look at my photos compared to others’, I think the deciding factors for output quality are 1) composition / setup, and 2) shot discipline, with gear (including format) a very distant third….I repeat this to myself lest I ever feel tempted to “upgrade” to full frame…

    • Hard to say, but I can say I do carry one and use it frequently without a tripod. If I’m not getting better image quality than FF or APSC, I won’t bother with the weight and cost.

      • I did wonder actually, at the recent verticality photoessay with the 645Z. Did you take these handheld? Perhaps I’m overestimating the stability requirements. I’m certainly not saying that *you* can’t extract improved image quality versus FF or APS-C, but I am saying that *I* definitely couldn’t, and I’m not sure about the average photographer either. 🙂

        Incidentally, there was a post on dpreview this morning (you may have seen it already)

        I liked this quote in the article:

        “I loved my time with the Z. I loved that it took my inflated idea of myself and my own photography and smashed it to tiny bits. I loved how it was a camera-shaped trump card out in the normal world. I loved the idea of being able to print something measured in feet, not inches. I loved that it was different. Yes, it was a pain in the butt sometimes and I don’t think I’ll use anything I shot with it in my portfolio. But, I think it made me better by making me worse, if that makes any sense. Plus, not every shot I took with it was awful, it’s just that my hit rate dropped dramatically. The 654Z is a high-quality camera that demands a lot from its operator.”

        • Well, Verticality has always been about idea and subject first, and equipment second. Yes, I do maximise the potential of the gear, but there are circumstances under which handheld is fine too – a bright day where you have 1/500s f8 ISO 100 and a 55mm lens, for instance, won’t gain you any image quality unless you’ve drunk gallons of espresso. Having seen a lot of files from a lot of people, I can say that most don’t even come close to getting the most out of their cameras.

  8. You are able somehow to put into words ideas that float around just outside my mental reach but that are calling for my attention frequently. Maybe the fact that I grew up as a child learning to take photography seriously even when all I could afford was a Kodak 120 Instamatic has somehow become ingrained in my psyche such that whenever I hold any camera I’m trying to figure out its sweet spots and how to enable it to effect its highest potential in recording scenes. Perhaps it’s the learning to make do with whatever gear I had which was generally never the latest or greatest thing, no matter the format. Or just being too cheap to buy the best but not wanting to give up the idea I could still make the masterful image. I think you have an advantage in your kind of work in that you are pushing the envelope in both the technical and the artistic side of photography and thus you have learned the discipline of how to articulate each aspect through practice and effort to gain the best potential in whatever medium you happened to be using at the moment. Sometimes I think, ‘if only my iPhone had an add-on EVF and a flip screen…’ and at other times, ‘I would kill for my old OM-4t and Tamron SP 90mm Macro f/2.5 with some fuji slide film…’ anyway, I love photography so much that I would still be shooting if all I could take with me was my still working, Polaroid 95A Land Camera.

    • Jeffrey,
      Quote that I wrote down from somewhere, “I’ve seen good shots ruined by bad exposure or off the mark focus – but I’ve never seen a bad shot made good because the photographer nailed focus and a full range of colors.”

      I have a friend, living in Nova Scotia who regularly emailed me scans of old photos that she took with probably the same or similar Kodak camera. I would print them for her and enter them under her name in competitions. She took several first places with her work proving, that in her case, content was what mattered. For myself, I have too many expensive cameras and lenses, some nearly new. But 90% of the time I shoot with an Olympus E-PL1 and the Panasonic 20mm, each costing me very little used. Neither of which is the “latest and greatest”, but still better than I will ever be as a photographer.

  9. Thank you for sharing this article. The frosting on the cake for me was your two images. That totally drove the point in for me. I need to get out and shoot..

  10. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Small is relative, the GR is a lot smaller than the Pentax, but large compared to a Nikon V series camera. Then again, I have trouble making sense of a system camera with a 1″ sensor. IQ out of D8xx bodies is so good that one has to be printing very large (or ultraprinting) to need digital MF. I like “Legs” a lot.

  11. Another insightful essay.

    In my case, I’ve sold my digital equipment and shoot MF film. Ironically, you’ve reminded me that my results are not as good as I want because I still try to shoot the Hasselblad like my Nikon. The Hassy, a 203FE and with lens and prism, is heavy and difficult to hand hold. I resist carrying and using a tripod, even though I know that it is essential to the best quality images. There are other opportunities to increase discipline as well, so I have my work cut out for me.

    Thanks so much for your time in writing these thought pieces.

    • The Hassy really needs a tripod to sing, though it can be used handheld just fine. I’ve found with both of my bodies that care needs to be taken with mirror alignment though – both were not focusing on-plane, and there was a significant difference in sharpness afterwards. Very important if you’re not working on a tripod and can’t stop down due to lack of light…

      • Doug Rivers says:

        In the near future you will be able to use a 36mpix (maybe even more) ff cam with ibis….no tripod hassy is needed for that but with the price of no ccd as well…;)

        Sony A7rII and Sony A9 are coming….upcoming year / 2015 will be Sonys year….

      • Walter,

        I use the WLF when hand holding but prefer to use the prism when on the tripod for the exact reason you mention, to see more easily at eye level. The good(?) news is that I am fairly short.:) The bad news is that at my age bending is not always an option.

        Seriously, you make a good point and I actually like using the WLF. Thanks for your comment.

        • Jim,
          It can’t be done with all pictures, especially with portraits, but good photos will have an escape. If you look at landscape paintings you will usually see a road or path to carry your eyes. Or a crowded dance floor with an opening where you can picture yourself entering the dance floor. Or, several people in a photo standing around but you can see the space to walk in and join them. I consistently see people not liking pictures where they feel trapped. It’s not usually a conscious thing of course. I have noticed over the years that photographers using WLF’s do a particularly good job of working this space into their photos. Because the camera is lower the perspective on that space is more equally weighted. Sometimes holding your camera high above a group of people creates a place for those viewing the photo, where they can picture themselves joining in. Whereas shooting head on can trap the viewer. A good artist can weigh in on this better I can. Cheers…

      • Ming,

        I would venture a guess you have the skill to make the mirror corrections yourself. I probably should take mine in for what Hasselblad calls “check to spec”. They assess your camera and then tell you what needs to be done. Of course the price of any work is astronomical and with these old cameras, something always has to be “fixed”.

    • Try using a waist level finder. Your composition will be improved I think. Shooting at eye level, especially if you are tall creates distortions. Those using eye level focusing tend to set their tripods too high. Few, that I see, shoot from a lower perspective. We tend to set our tripod for our personal comfort. Rather than angling the camera down and creating distortions, try lowering the tripod. If hand held, try bending down and viewing from a lower perspective.

  12. I use five Zeiss ZE lenses along with my 70-200 and people ask me all the time why did I buy those other 5 lenses when i could have got say a 24-70 and covered the focal lengths that way and have auto-focus as well. I often tell them that I love using the Zeiss lenses because they slow me down. I often have to use a tripod with them and live view, so I pay attention to each shot a lot more and the attention to details is enhanced.

    This makes a lot of my shots much more deliberate. I notice the light more and can control my focus points with precision. So I totally agree with this assessment that we shoot different depending on the equipment were using.

    Also, using the manual focus lenses often leaves me with a better memory of the shot and feeling of it while I was there. I can remember picking a location and setting it all up, moving the tripod up and down, composing the shot, checking my wb, focusing in on that one spot, rotating the big lee 105mm circular polarizer filter, dropping in that soft grad filter and then taking the shot.

    I get a better relationship with each shot than if I walked up, put the camera to my eye, snapped a pic and walked off.

    I have often thought about selling my canon gear and getting that 645Z… but I have been holding out for 2 years for Canon to build a d800 fighter. I get the feeling that as soon as i sell it all they will come out with a d810 fighter lol. Thanks for the good read.

  13. I shoot an Android and I only shoot it for Instagram. Since Instagram isn’t my primary photo network, these are just quick and fun shots. If it was easy to get images on Instagram from my Sony A7 then I would never use my phone, but the process is convoluted so the shots are I post are snapshots. I largely shoot an A7 and I try and make every shot count. I never shoot spray and pray. Even when I go back to my back up NEX 5N (cropped APS-C sensor), I find that I am still shooting single shot to make each shot a keeper as much as possible. I think it’s not the camera I am shooting as much as the social networking site I am using to share my work; Instagram is snapshots and Flickr is for my photography (and I am an amateur). I have posted a few of my best Android (Nexus 5) shots on Flickr, but only when I created very nice compositions on purpose, for example.

    On second though, I do have a Mamiya 645 (still on first roll of film). I guess I do take it slower than even my A7. I have been on my first roll for months. heh. I don’t even know that this old camera will work, so I should probably zip through this roll of film just to make sure. But shooting for film really slows me down since I am stuck with any errors, which are bound to happen even when I am taking care to try and get keepers.

    • I can’t help but wonder if the phone and camera makers are deliberately making cross-platform sharing difficult to keep the less serious users invested in one platform or the other (ie phones or cameras). Annoying, I agree…

    • I don’t know- I do it all the time on the A7 and my Moto X – quite easy to transfer photos

  14. I think, honestly, a lot of street photography is shot with smaller cameras such as the Fujifilm and the Leica simply because they’re lighter for walking, their smaller appearance doesn’t attract nearly as much attention, and they can get in and out of situations much quicker than they could with an MF camera. I don’t think seriousness (or lack thereof) has much to do with it.

    • It isn’t just street specifically. It can be done with medium format – I know, I do it quite frequently – and it can be done with smaller formats. Anything can be shot with anything, and discipline is independent and applies across the board. Using a faster camera is not an excuse to be sloppy.

      • Reread my comment. I was responding specifically to, “The smaller, more ‘casual’ formats are perceived as being better for experimentation and lacking in seriousness; people just tend to be more careful with larger ones. I rarely see medium format street photography, for instance.” I understand, and know, that street photography can be done with medium format, and I know anything can be shot with anything. In fact, I even know people can be sloppy with large format photography! But that isn’t the point. The point is, people don’t use smaller cameras in street photography because they these cameras are “less serious and more casual”. They use them for the specific benefits that I listed. Many photographers take their smaller formats very seriously.

  15. I try to play my A-grade game with just about every shot I take. It doesn’t matter how simple a shot may appear, you often learn something by thinking about how you are going to photograph the scene (starting with the question, “What am I trying to achieve here?”). Many years ago, I read a book on tennis by Ivan Lendl. The only thing I remember from the book is the following story: some-one asks Lendl how he serves so fast, so accurately and so consistently. We can all serve a fast ball every now and then, but not on a regular basis. Lendl’s response is simple: he started serving slowly until he got everything correct, then medium pace then eventually fast pace. So, the “fast” pace is now his normal pace.

  16. Steve Jones says:

    Your ‘squares” always intrigue and impress me. You see and capture amazing compositions. I don’t know how many images with legs i’ve seen but this arrangement here is something different and all the better for it. I was wondering if it was just seen or composed but either way it’s a remarkably strong image, This one and your “Pool” shot are amongst my favorites. They both strongly suggest paintings, (one figurative, the other abstract) even though they are clearly photographs. Great stuff!

  17. *Raises hand*
    Yep, I’m one of those in the guilty party of acting differently depending on the format. I have a Nokia 1020, but I don’t take any of the pictures shot with the phone seriously enough. In fact, I rarely download it to the computer for post-processing; the images practically live on the phone, often unedited even with mobile apps, for the rest of their digital lives.

    • There are some images that are not worth transferring (things of record, or for communication) and others that are perhaps there because you didn’t have a better camera at the time – no reason not to practice discipline all the time…

  18. The thing I notice most is time required to use each type (and format) of camera that I use. My 4×5 is rarely ever hand held, and then just briefly to fine tune framing, then it goes on a tripod. Rangefinders are a different focus to SLRs, and manual focus thinking and input work differently than using autofocus. The one tough thing for me was getting use to using the back LCD on a compact camera, though I figured out a bracing method using the camera strap that helped. Even autofocus for me changes my approach. Ultimately the ideas happen with any camera, though there are times when I greatly prefer one camera over my other choices. If anything, sometimes too many choices, and too much carried in the bag, get in the way.

    I don’t know what constitutes an ideal camera. I do bias quickness over any other factor, meaning the time from me pushing the shutter button until the image is captured, because lag gets in my way. Maybe that describes a mythical ideal camera, one that simply gets out of my way, and allows me to concentrate on producing my ideas. 🙂

    • I agree: lag really does get in the way for me, but setup time is less of an issue. It’s much easier to get the 4×5 to do what you want it to than most compacts…the mechanical cameras are good in that sense: the response time is usually very fast, and at very least, predictable.

  19. Good thoughts here and very nicely written too. Reading your words reminded me, again, that the picture is far more important than the camera.

  20. Thanks for these thoughts. If my students understood english, I could show them another guy who explain that gear choice depend on what you want/need to do with it.
    As you wrote, shot discipline is far more important than format. And if we see better images out of better cameras, it’s because people who use high end gear are aware about shot discipline.

    • Well, one hopes they are aware, but often as not there are many who buy cameras simply because they’re expensive…not necessarily because they have any clue about shot discipline.

  21. Unfortunately, the MF sensor’s are not so much bigger as the FX sensors today, and the images qualities are not so much different anymore, as in the good old days of the analogue MF seasons! So I am not very much impressed, whether is is an so called MF LEICA S, Haselnut, PhaseOne, or PENTAX 645Z, except the high costs of these rare digital MF cameras.

  22. Caesar Merlin says:

    Who’s the model in the picture?

  23. I particularly like the “bound by inertia” concept here. I take a little more care with framing on the iPhone now than I used to, but do rattle off a few frames – especially when the subject is moving – in the hope of nailing one.
    Actually, my cameras are now divided somewhat around this inertia concept. It’s not to say I don’t try to be disciplined with the smaller ones – but they are more likely to get carried. The bigger ones only as a result of thinking ahead what I want to do – and they get carried for that photographic purpose already in mind. The smaller ones for capturing things that happen, taken to social gatherings, etc, and in those situations a lingering camera is not always as welcome.
    We could therefore divide this format question into ‘why are you carrying a camera’ – the larger cameras are almost always going to be carried when a more deliberate photographic purpose is in mind (though it does amaze me when I see tourists here in Hong Kong lugging D4s + 2.8/70-200s and the like around).

    • There’s definitely a relationship between purpose, format and social acceptability, but that shouldn’t necessarily affect your compositional discipline when using ‘less serious’ equipment: divorcing artistic and technical to some extent is the tricky part…

  24. Ming, I think you’ve finally found your calling: boudoir ultraprints… 🙂

  25. this is great. i’ve been wondering if i was an outlier for shooting with reckless abandon (not talking of the cursed burst mode) whether shooting film/dslr/phone, guess it’s just who i am as a photographer 🙂

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