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.
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.
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.