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The following illustration is of 35mm imager (36mm x 24mm) overlayed on a Medium Format (49mm x 37mm) imager. While Full-Frame DSLRs such as the Kodak SLR series and Canon's latest 1Ds MK II are currently sought after, a DMF SLR can capture a lot more detail.

The Medium Format Factor
October 1, 2004

Photokina 2004 has introduced a few new products you might have never thought would become reality. A Leica digital back for their R8 and R9 35mm film cameras (10MP; $4995), and a Mamiya 22MP digital back and camera, which is expected to be priced much lower than typical medium format prices (rumors say about $12,500). Why are we seeing these high-end companies beginning to compete with the mainstream? The answer has to do with widening a consumer base, but it also has to do with a sector of photography that is slowly being squeezed into the corner by companies such as Canon and Nikon. Canon has announced a 16.7MP Full-Frame DSLR for $7,999, and Nikon has announced their 12.4MP flasgship DSLR for around $5,500.

A Brief History Of Medium Format

Medium Format is a term to describe the film size. Part of the term is called "medium" because, well, it's in-between a miniature film format (35mm film), and a large film format (using sheet film instead of roll film because of the size). Miniature Format cameras are 35mm sized film and smaller (although some may still think of 40mm as miniature but many also say it's medium format), and Large Format cameras are considered to use a film size of 4 x 5 inches or larger. Of course, you may talk to photographers whose size definitions of these formats differ. In any case, this is a general rule. As you learn in photography, there are few rules, but a lot of personal definitions of those rules.

The simple reason for using medium format cameras was basically the same reason you and I want more pixels and resolution on future imagers: Better image quality. Medium format allows for much greater image quality than a 35mm negative. Grades and shades of colors and tones, are much more easily seen and captured.

Digital Backs

As digital photography became a new alternative for 35mm users, and about a decade passed, the term Digital Back made its way into the medium format world. Dicomed's Big Shot series in the mide-to-late 90's, with a pricetag of around $30,000-$60,000 (that's in US Dollars, not Japanese Yen), depending on your model choice. Now you could attach a digital imaging device to your film camera, creating a medium format digital image. However, with a pricetag such as this, it was not for everyone, and it required special power systems (a belt pack which was quite heavy and bulky) and separate storage devices (such as a 1GB Iomega Jaz Drive). The digital back medium format market was still in its infancy (I still hear the baby-cries from medium format users who wanted to go digital but were hindered by the prices), but the very presence of digital was an omen of things to come, and had a minor setback in 1999. Why? Dicomed was considered one of the leaders in digital back technology, and when they announced serious financial difficulties in 1999, the question of whether going digital was a good choice, and whether digital would be a viable alternative to film in the future. In 2000, a company called Better Light made an agreement with Dicomed, Inc. to cover all outstanding warranties for digital scanning camera backs manufactured by Dicomed, Inc., and would continue to provide ongoing technical support. Repair services and replacement parts for all out-of-warranty Dicomed backs were also supported (and still are) by Better Light.

As the Millenium became official (and camera backs who were "Y2K Compliant" did not explode upon the first calendar day of 2000), Kodak announced the 16MP DCS Pro Back, to be released early 2001. The DCS Pro Back was more portable than the bigger and more expensive exotics, and it also supported its own storage system within the unit itself (two CF slots) and jacks for an external AC adapter or third-party battery pack. These kinds of features were a big deal at the time. An updated version called the DCS Pro Back Plus ("Plus" being the added nomenclature since it was compatible with several medium- and large-format cameras), was released in late 2001, and had a MSRP of $21,995. This wasn't cheap, but it was actually much less than predicted. Instead of paying in the mid-thirty-thousand, Kodak had reduced the price of obtaining digital back to the low twenty-thousand.

Digital Medium Format In 2004

During PMA 2004, Phase One announced the 16MP P20 (about $17,000) and the 22MP P25 (about $30,000). Prices were slowly dropping, but in 2004, Phase One had (and as of the date of this article still has) about 3/4 of the medium format market. Since most were using Phase One backs, the prices had not come down as quickly as they probably could have.

Photokina 2004: Hasselblad Announces H1D

Hasselblad announced a 22MP Medium Format Digital DSLR, and it had an MSRP of $19,995. This was a big fat $10,000 less than Phase One's 22MP back (due take note Phase One backs have been decreasing in price since summer 2004; the P25 can be had for around $25,000). The H1D is a complete system. Since Hasselblad's merger with Imacon, it was only a matter of time before a complete Hasselblad digital system was introduced.

Photokina 2004: Mamiya ZD Digital Medium Format Camera

Mamiya has announced a 22MP, interchangeable lens, DMF SLR, and is rumored to be around $12,500 USD.


Today is the first day of October 2004, and we are in the middle of Photokina 2004. As you can see, only 4 years have passed and medium format digital technology has decreased in price, and seems to be decreasing even more rapidly in 2004. Mamiya will certainly not be the only medium format camera manufacturer to introduce a compact DMF (Digital Medium Format) system.

These are some of the questions I have in this article:

  • What will be the next technological leap in digital format photography
  • Will Digital Medium Format SLRs become as common as 35mm Digitals
  • Will 35mm DSLR giants be intimidated by the new kids on the block
  • Will Full-Frame DSLRs be overlooked for the new DMF cameras
  • Will 35mm DSLR users want more pixels than what FF Imagers deliver

Mamiya's announcement has already began to solve the first question. The other questions will have to be answered in the next year or two, but if Mamiya's 22MP ZD DMF SLR actually sells for an MSRP of $12,500, I think Canon's 1Ds MK II will not be as attractive to medium format users, who may have been debating going to a 35mm digital system. One of the key successes to a DMF system will be the retaining of your MF lenses, and versatility within the system you have. This might seem obvious, but the obvious sometimes is forgotten. And another factor of DMFs getting into the mainstream (and let's face it, this is where the money really is folks), is whether those who are looking at a Full-Frame DSLR system, might take a second look at a DMF manufacturer's offerings.

Taking Care Of Our Own

Another interesting behavior from medium format companies, is the release of digital products, being compatible within their own system--and nobody else's system. This is actually a change from digital backs which used to be made to fit a wide variety of cameras. It seems as if today, manufacturers are taking care of their own, thereby assuring their future preservation. Hasselblad has made their own H1D, and Mamiya has announced their own digital system. Medium format systems were considered much more "open" than today's current 35mm DSLR systems, but this may soon change.

The Full-Frame Limitation

Will Kodak and Canon slowly run out of room to put double-digit Megapixels on their Full-Frame imagers? This is a question that might concern a few who have been thinking of a FF DSLR. Canon's 16.7MP DSLR is nice, no doubt it, but when you have the clear advantage of much larger imager, able to produce 22MP without even blinking for under $13K, you have to wonder what's around the corner next year or the year after next. A 22MP on a DMF Imager suggest a 9-micron sized pixel. This leaves the DMF manufacturer a lot of room for future higher resolutions. The Canon 20D is putting out some great images, and it's only 6.4 microns. Theoretically, we could see a 40MP DMF in the future, with a 6.7-micron pixel size. A competing 35mm DSLR manufacturer would have to make an imager with a 4.65-micron pixel size to reach 40MP. Possible? Mmmaybe, and I am not going to say future technology won't permit it. But, it won't be easy. And if a 35mm manufacturer can do it, then you know a medium format manufacturer is not far behind in doing the same to their MF imager.

Hasselblad's merger with Imacon might be a formidable foe for Canon, because Imacon knows imagers too. Canon has been the leader in imaging technology for the 35mm DSLR world for several years, however, competing with a medium format company, is something totally different. We're not talking about companies who make cheap digitals for $200 a unit and cut corners on their imaging technology--we're talking about high-end professionals who see past all of the "FOV Crop" nonsense and all the marketing involved in selling it, and just sell you a superior product. Since prices of imaging technology have drastically been decreasing over the years, their professional products can quite possibly be delivered to your doorstep at a mere fraction of the cost of what it was only 4 years ago.


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