Format strengths: why do different sized media render differently?

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MF tonality and separation: in the full size image, the airplane is in a clearly different focal plane to the tree and hangar – even though it was shot at f8.

I’ve written previously about what exactly contributes to the ‘medium format look’. However, I think to some degree we also need to both define what constitutes the hallmarks of smaller formats, but more importantly figure out where each format’s strengths lie. Having now shot what I’d consider ‘enough’ with a complete MF system wth lenses ranging from ultra wide (24mm, or 18mm-e) to moderate tele (250mm, or 180mm-e) I think I’ve built up a much more complete picture. No doubt this will change if the recording medium size increase further – with the 54x40mm sensors, for instance – but I think it’s fairly safe to extrapolate based on the differences between subsequent smaller formats.

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Formats and creative intent

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The term ‘format’ has come to represent two things in photographic parlance – firstly, the aspect ratio of the capture area or composition (e.g. 3:2, square, 16:9) and also the physical size of the recording medium (compact, APS-C, M4/3, ‘full frame’ etc.) – to the point that we have somewhat generic terms like ‘medium format’ and ‘large format’. How medium is medium? Is that 44×33, or 6x9cm? How large is large – 4×5″, or 20×24″? Capture medium choices are more of a continuum than anything, and all other things being equal, to see a significant difference a good rule of thumb is that you’re going to have to double the linear dimensions – i.e. 4x overall area. But what does all of this have to do with the actual making of images, and is it possible that larger isn’t necessarily better for some things? Absolutely.

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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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