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Cameras/Medium Format v.s. Digital

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Question
David,

My fiance and I were engaged to get married and looking for a wedding photography.  We were lead under the impression from a book that Medium format (Hasselblad) is better than digital photography.   Is this true?   Or has the digital age finally come up to speed in quality?  
What(if any) are the advantages Hasselblad has over digital?   

We are really looking for the best quality pictures.  Our wedding photographer will be using a digital 6.3 megapixel camera.    


Thanks  

Answer
Hi AJ,

Okay, you're sort of mixing apples and oranges!  To make it more complicated, you're neglecting a more important issue!

Let's look at the apples and oranges first...

The apples.  Yes, medium format is still sharper than digital for the simple reason that most medium format cameras make an exposure that is roughly 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches while most digital cameras make an exposure smaller than a postage stamp.  The cost to make a digital image receptor the same size as that medium format image is still VERY expensive, truthfully prohibitively expensive, so the digital companies continue to make the light senstive receptor materials "denser" by jamming more "megapixels" into them in an attempt to make up for lack of image area.  (By the way, Hasselblads are great, but they're NOT friendly cameras to use in an "active" situation, and I would be much happier to see a wedding shot by somebody using a Bronica or Mamiya.  In fact, I've done weddings with a Fujica rangefinder medium format camera.  Not only is it quicker and easier to use than a single lens reflex, it's also extremely quiet.  Hasselblads make an annoying "clack" with every exposure, and the motor drives or hand cranks sound like they could lift the Titanic's anchor!)  If image quality is your ONLY criteria, then you MUST go with medium format.  A sharp medium format negative can be enlarged to a 2 x 3 foot poster before you'd see any image degradation!  And all the lenses available for the top manufacturers (Hasselblad, Mamiya, Bronica, Rollei, Fujica, and even many of the Russian "clone" cameras) are awesome.  Image quality, as measured by potential sharpness and contrast, is just about guarantedd.

The oranges.  Yes, even a 6.3 megapixel digital camera is still not as sharp as medium format (although they're getting really close to 35mm quality, and frankly that's pretty amazing).  The other issue is that just because the camera can generate a 6.3 megapixel image doesn't mean the photographer will choose to use it.  There is always a bit of lag between each shot, especially if using flash, and the bigger the image the longer it takes the camera to process it.   There are also issues in the memory requirements to hold a wedding full of 6.3 shots.  More likely the photographer would choose to shoot in 5 or even 4 megapixel mode to speed up things and make storage easier.  However, there are MANY advantages to using digital instead of medium format.  First of all, are you planning on making any 2 x 3 foot posters?  Probably not, and the truth is that there is virtually no discernible difference in quality between an 8 x 10 glossy made from a medium format negative and a full 4 megapixel digital.  Only when you go past the 8 x 10 size do you begin to see a difference.  Secondly, the digital camera, with an accessory memory module, can crush at least 100 and porbably many more images without needing to change "film".  The medium format camera will have to be reloaded every 12 or 24 exposures (depending on whether #120 or #220 film is used).  Shots can be missed during changing!  Thirdly, digital cameras are quiet.  I already told you how noisy some medium format cameras can get.  People go to weddings to see the couple, not to get distracted by invasive photographers.  Fourthly, digital photographs can be printed out just as nice and glossy as traditional photographs, and can also be provided on one or more CD's from which YOU can make your own prints anytime you want.  The medium format dude can also have a CD made, but it's not the same and will lack the original digital's quality.  His prints are also nice and glossy, but most pros will NOT let you have the negatives!  They insist that you purchase additional prints, even years later, only from them!  Make sure you read the small print and demand that you get the negatives for yourself (provided that you are willing to buy a good sized package of photographs in advance so he makes his money up front)!  Lastly, even pros make mistakes.  Make a mistake with medium format (the flash failed, the shutter speed wasn't right, the iris wasn't opened enough...), and the image is toast!  Ah, but make a mistake with a digital, there are still lots of ways to digitally correct the image in the computer later!

Now I'm not going to steer you one way or the other.  I just want you to understand that neither option is truly better than the other.  They are different.  Medium format undeniably for highest image quality (and perhaps archival considerations as well, although they're still debating this issue).  Digital for image control and quiet.

As for that other issue you've neglected, as the saying goes: "It's not the arrow, it's the Indian."  You might find some pro who impresses you with all his super duper Hasselblad equipment, but if he's actually a hack with poor timing and poor image visualization (trust me, there are a LOT of "experienced" pros out there who truly suck, and the majority shoot weddings!), you might get better results from Aunt Minnie running around with her $99 2 megapixel Fuji!  Of course, on the other hand, the dude with the 6.3 megapixel digital might also not do any better than Uncle Fred with his $79 Yashica 35mm point-n-shoot.  Whatever medium you choose, you MUST see the photographer's previous work, and you MUST be confident he is competent.  Forget reading a book on wedding photography.  The book can't pick a photographer for you!  Ask friends and relatives, look at the photos that other recently wed couples got, and make your choice according to proven results.  Whether film or digital, you can't argue with results!

Best wishes for years of happiness and good health,

David Silver

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David Silver

Expertise

I'm an expert on all types of antique, classic, and contemporary cameras, as well as the general history of photography. Everything from ancient box cameras to modern single-lens-reflex; from simple Kodaks to sophisticated Leica and Nikon; from glass plates and roll film to movie and 35mm. I can identify and appraise them, explain how they work, and offer insights on their restoration and care. I can also provide historical background on vintage cameras and equipment, and guidelines on their purchase and sale.

Experience

I've been a professional photographer and a student of the history of photography for nearly 30 years. During that time my collection of vintage cameras and photographic paraphernalia has grown beyond 2000 significant pieces. I've published nearly 70 articles in the field, including 16 in the popular "Buying Classic Cameras" series for PHOTO SHOPPER MAGAZINE from 1995 to 1997, I'm currently a contributing editor for CAMERA SHOPPER MAGAZINE and McKEOWN'S PRICE GUIDE TO ANTIQUE AND CLASSIC CAMERAS, and I've written numerous entries for WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA. Portions of my collection have been displayed in museums and special exhibits in the past two decades, and many of the items were photographed as illustrations for books. In 1985 I founded the International Photographic Historical Organization (InPHO), which eventually evolved into its intended purpose as the best first resource for information on the history of photography. I'm also a founding member of several e-mail forums dedicated to specialized areas of photography, and I'm the moderator of the Internet Directory of Camera Collectors (IDCC), which remains the largest and most successful such group in the world. For more information about the International Photographic Historical Organization and its many services, please visit its web pages at:

http://www.photographyhistory.com


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