A New Camera! The Odyssey from 35mm Digital to Medium Format Digital Photography

June 23, 2012  •  1 Comment

After 10 years of working with Canon digital cameras professionally (not counting the early days of Pentax 67 and Fotoman 617 film), I decided that it was time to make the move to a new system. Over the years, I worked with all the 1Ds series cameras and a 5DMarkII and they have proved remarkable, high quality workhorses. But the stitching and post-processing to get the images up to artwork size and quality was getting too much. I knew the quality could go up and, altogether, I had the feeling that I wasn't able to reproduce exactly what I was seeing. The camera was somehow in the way. The cameras were adding something to the images - often something interesting - but they weren't seeing exactly what I was seeing. I was curious whether medium format digital, with its outrageous pricing and clunky, 90's cameras had something to offer.

So, in March, just before a major trip to Scotland and Ireland, I decided I couldn't face 4 weeks processing after 2 weeks shooting and took the plunge: I bought a used Phase One P45+ back with a Hartblei HCam B1 from Chris Ireland at Direct Digital Imaging in Leeds, who kindly drove 500 miles to (patiently) demonstrate various systems to me. The Hartblei would allow me to use my excellent Canon 24TS-E II lens with a medium format digital back - an odd 'frankencam', a stepping stone between two worlds, but with potentially a lot of strong points: useable shift on a very wide-angle lens; lens tilt; polarising filter; no lens flare issues; no weird colour cast issues, electronic shutter control.

Two-week photographic shoots are fairly major undertakings with a lot of potentially tricky issues: being far away from help if anything breaks being the main one. This is quite apart from the normal demands of fickle weather, exploring new landscapes, vehicle reliability, harmonious relations with spouse (or not) etc. So taking two completely unfamiliar pieces of equipment away with me was bordering on foolhardy. And so it proved. Sort of!

I decided to take a laptop and a calibrated 20" monitor so that I could see exactly what was going on with the files. Although this meant setting up and breaking down a whole system (including a tablet and 2 backup drives) in each of the 2 cottages we stayed in, and working on the computer each evening (not exactly a break from my usual days) it actually was the right decision as there were a few issues that I wouldn't have spotted on the laptop screen alone, such as tilt and focus accuracy, vignetting, and the chance to see the files at a decent size and with correct colours.

On the first day, my wife Alison looked over my shoulder at the files I had shot: she said, 'I don't know why those pictures look different but they do. It was worth it.'  I was amazed. I'd spent months bothering her about which gear to buy, whether to lease a load of new - and astonishingly expensive - equipment, and here she was telling me it had all been worth it!

The Phase back was definitely the right choice and produced some remarkable images but it had an issue with it's ability to recognise CF cards: I realised that the previous owner had used it exclusively tethered so the CF card contacts had oxidised. With a bit of use, this issue more or less went away, but not before I spent a  couple of hours running around Balleyboffey in the Republic of Ireland trying to find some new CF cards. Not an afternoon I would like to repeat.

To cut a long story short, the Hartblei wasn't the ideal field camera - it was a bit too heavy, a bit delicate and hard to handle for the kinds of wild places (and weathers) I was working in. It also had some reliability issues, which were sorted out by Stefan at Hartblei.

By that time however, I'd decided that I maybe needed to look at a more traditional technical camera and when one came up for sale on ebay - a very rare occurrence - I bought a Cambo Wide DS with Schneider 24 and 35XL lenses. The seller was an eminent landscape photographer called Tony Howell, who had got very good use out of this specialist camera. With the P45+ the 24mm lens is equivalent to a 16 or 17mm field of view on the Canons. The 35mm lens is equivalent to a 24mm lens.






And so began yet another round of extensive testing, struggle, eyes-popping-out-of-my-head-at-the-quality and the occasional disappointment at the inevitable limitations.

Here are my conclusions:

1. There is a stunning and stark quality difference between 35mm digital and medium format digital. It is particularly noticeable in the much more realistic range of colours reproduced by the P45+ compared to my Canons. Slightly less obvious, but still a major contributor to the overall image quality, is the dynamic range, the range of dark and light tones the back can reproduce, which is above 35mm digital. The as yet untested Nikon D800 may of course have2.5m HIGH PRINTOUTS - PIXEL COUNTS ARE THE VERTICAL SIZE something to say about this. The Phase One back blows out highlights more completely than the Canons however: skies are impossible to rescue if flashing highlights are showing and there's a nasty cyan drop off if you try to bring the highlights back in Capture One. Contrary to what I've read, I've found the shadows easier to bring out than the highlights on the Phase than the Canons. In addition, the extra 'space' of medium format digital means that cropping is far easier, far more natural. I would have no problem cropping a 39MP landscape Phase One file to a 22MP portrait shot - and the 4:3 aspect ratio is so much more appealing and less pinched than 3:2.

The Phase back is eminently useable. It has a pleasingly simple interface that is very reliable and stable. It's exceptionally well-built and really gives a feeling of solidity, robustness and durability, even out in the wilds.

2. The quality difference is massively enhanced by using a technical camera with its astounding lenses: the edge-to-edge Screen shot of 100% from above Poppies image - this is from the bottom, just left of centre100% CROP FROM POPPIES IMAGE. This is in the bottom of the image, just to the left of centre. sharpness of the two Schneider lenses actually has to be seen to be believed. As a rough guide, from what I've seen, it requires a 100Mpixel stitched shot on the Canons to even get close to the 39Mpixel Phase One back and Cambo with Schneider lenses. That anti-alias filter on the Canon has a lot to answer for. I did one test that reflects a lot of our clients' requirements: I enlarged a panoramic image taken with the Canon 5DII and 45 TS-E to 2.5m tall, an average for wallpaper. The stitched Canon image was 9,200 pixels high. The Cambo/Phase image just 5,000 pixels high. When printed out at full size, the Cambo was significantly sharper. The forest greens were also more realistic, and there was a more accurate rendering of highlights and shadows. The whole thing had DEPTH and looked like the real thing, the Canon an approximation of the real thing.

And it isn't just about sharpness, the ability to render straight lines AS straight lines is a quantum leap better than even the Canon 24 TS-EII, which is no slouch. There's just so little distortion to these images, that going back and looking at Canon images is a bit of a shock - especially the edges.

3. Depth of Field. The Cambo lenses render a significantly deeper depth of field than either the Canons or 645 type cameras at the equivalent F-stop. I've no idea why, but it's the solution to a problem I've struggled with for a while: my images are often produced as wallpaper or very large artworks, and large out of focus areas can be really intrusive. Even using lens tilt or hyperfocal / infinity focusing on the Canons didn't come anywhere near to producing this kind of depth of field. For further away subjects, either infinity or one notch back is perfect. For close-up subjects, the Cambo isn't easy to focus and I usually take many attempts at different focal points. When focus is nailed though, wow! The depth of field is shallower when focused close-up, but even the out-of-focus areas are pleasant and not intrusive. I'll need lens tilt in the future for close-up work, but for the moment, I'm sold, despite the challenges.

4. Capture One. This is a bit of a revelation in terms of raw processing. I've been using Adobe Raw in Photoshop for a while but Capture One offers far more power, control and sheer quality to the images. Better colours, sharper images, and, best of all, using LCC calibration shots, you can get rid of vignetting and DUST on all images! Yes, massively reduced dusting! (Not gone away completely but very, very close - a huge relief).

5. Myths

Technical cameras are slow. I'm finding that setting up the Cambo is actually quicker than the Canons - just because it's a far less complicated machine. A mechanical lens and shutter is actually a pleasingly direct and simple thing to use. Knowing I'm shooting with such a high quality device is very exciting - it's brought the thrill back to getting out there.

Not being able to see through the lens - or even having a viewfinder - seemed to me a potentially impossible problem to overcome. I'd been spoilt by years of SLR use and, in particular, live view. But, the fact that you can see the results on the digital back instantly makes this far less of a problem than I expected. For hand-held nature close-ups and long shots, of course, the Canons are still needed. Filter placement - which I generally do handholding anyway - just requires a test shot and a small adjustment. Some kind of hood for the screen is going to be necessary: seeing the screen on bright days is nearly impossible, as it is with most digital cameras in the sun.

Cocking the Shutter by hand. Taking more considered shots means taking less shots - so fewer shutter releases, making it not really a problem.

Needing a £300 Kapture Group cable release. This is occasionally a pain if you depress the shutter button a little and trigger the 5 second countdown. But there's a decisiveness and speed about using this kit that means it rarely causes problems. It's only required on older backs, not the recent IQ series.

Centre-Filters. Each of these lenses has a centre filter which adds 2 stops to the required exposure time. Tricky in windy conditions. But, they do their job well and if you wait for a moment when the wind dies down, the sharpness of the lenses makes slight movement less obvious. They do make exposure times much longer. Coupled with only really being able to use up to ISO200 on the back and in some situations, this could be a problem. I'm keeping the Canons for when I need to shoot at ISO800 in failing light.

Polariser. I have used a polariser in many of my photographs for years - just trying to squeeze out every drop of colour and punch in the image that I can. With the Cambo/Phase I'm realising that I was doing that because the Canon just wasn't showing the scene as it really was. I was trying to make up for it. So, not using a polariser is taking off the 2 stops from my exposure times that the centre filters have added on! Some shots, of course, I still need polarisers for but far less than before.

Exposure. I take a light meter with me but am finding I rarely use it. I just make sure the highlights aren't blown on the image replay and that the histogram looks good. In general, exposure is somewhere between 1/125 sec and 2 seconds but it's easy to guess. A little more accuracy won't hurt but even without metering, the results are excellent. Exposure times are at 1 stop intervals, so the aperture has to change (in 1/3 stop intervals) for intermediate values.

The Screen on the Phase One Back. The P45+ is apparently a big improvement over the previous generation of backs. It's similar to using a larger version of the Canon 1DsII screen which wasn't terrible. It's not quite as good as a 1DsIII and a long way from the 5DII. And of course, there's no live view. However, get this: the 5DII screen flatters your shots - they never look that good on the computer. With the Phase, it's the other way round. On the screen: meh. On the computer: OMG, look at that! Wow! Etc. etc.

Without a ball head, I improvised a low shot on the panorama head.

6. Other Cambo Good Points

A tripod mount on the handle on the left hand side means I can fix a quick release plate to it. Which means I can quickly rotate the entire camera for portrait shots and not have to remove the back to rotate it. An unexpected bonus.

Talking of the handle, it doesn't half make the Cambo easy to get level on a tripod - even on the Gitzo levelling tripod I use (which is normally a little tricky to get perfectly level), the big handle combined with the excellent, accurate spirit levels, perfect balance and light weight of the Cambo make levelling a breeze. Oddly, it is actually more difficult to use on the Manfrotto geared head I normally use for architectural work. I don't quite understand this but I'm happy I can make do with just the one tripod.

4 x 5 Film Mount. In the very unlikely scenario that solar flares knock out all electronics in 2012, the Cambo can use a 4 x 5 film mount on the back, so I'll still be able to document the disasters as they happen on lovely old film. I might do this anyway - for fun - as it's a lot cheaper than an IQ180.

Tilt Lens Panels. As and when my finances recover, being able to swap the lenses onto tilting lens panels will give the system that bit more flexibility. *** Newsflash: Charles from Cambo UK phoned me to tell me that neither of these two lenses is available on a tilt panel. It seems to be mainly Rodenstocks and longer focal length Schneiders.

7. Problems

Calibration Shots and LCC. I'm not sure of the reason exactly but technical camera lenses produce magenta/green casts on images. The casts can be corrected in software but to do this a Lens Cast Calibration shot has to be taken at the beginning of each shoot using a piece of white acrylic. I tried to be a smart-arse and bought a piece off ebay for £1.75. Unfortunately, it's only 3mm thick - the real thing is 5mm - and I found colours in the scene were interfering with the cast correction. Duh! Once you use the real thing (which came with the camera), it basically works well at removing colour-casts but the process isn't infallible. Some images just have weird colour casts from lights at odd angles and they are very difficult to remove. Certainly this is going to take a bit of experience to work with and work around. A new LCC shot has to be taken whenever shift is used too as the cast changes. It's not such a big deal - especially as the LCC shots are used for dust deletion. Direct Digital Imaging sell LCC kits - a worthwhile investment.

Lens Flare. Possibly the biggest problem with these lenses. Like thoroughbred race horses, they are highly strung! At the first sign of direct light on the lens, they flare badly, so I find I have to make a lot of effort to shade the lens with my hands or a flare buster. When the sun is in the frame however, the only way is to take two shots one with hand in the frame one without and combine them later. It helps but doesn't get rid of the problem completely. Sometimes, the flares are in odd places and from odd sources: light that has diffracted through trees seems to cause blue ghosting all around the source of light - very tricky to remove, and particularly frustrating as trees are one of my favourite subjects. Schneider really need the new nano-technology coating that Canon have on their 24 TS-E II which has astonishing flare resistance. I think the choice of camera has an impact on the flare issue too - apparently some technical cameras are better than others.

Night Shots. Before getting carried away with the 1 hour capability of the P45+, I realised that each exposure requires a dark slide shot of the same duration. So, a 30 second night shot on the Canon (typical for night time in cities at F11), will require 2 minutes with the centre filters... then another 2 minutes dark slide. A four minute exposure? Fine if you're taking one-off shots. Not so fine if shooting a 13-shot panorama! Back to the Canons.

Focusing. I'm not sure that the focusing scales on the Cambo lens panels are very accurate. When set to infinity focus, closer subjects are better focused than those far away. It's the other way around when focused at 5m (the next mark from infinity) on the 35XL. Bit odd. And a bit difficult considering there's no other way to check focus except on the screen. For close up subjects, rotating the focusing ring on the 24 is an ordeal - it's tight and without much grip. You'd certainly struggle with gloves in Winter. One mitigating factor: because of the sharpness of the lenses and the incredible depth of field, even when focus isn't perfect, it's still so damned sharp - about the same as regular lenses when focused - that you can get away with it.

6. Mamiya 645D

I bought an old Mamiya 645D with a 55 and 80mm macro lenses. Just to see if this could replace the Canons. Uh, no is the answer! The back works OK with this camera except there's no mirror lockup - that's only available on the MkII version onwards. With such a huge mirror there is very big camera shake even on a tripod. I've found one great use for it though and that's flowers and details of nature: the colours from the P45+ are so stunning that it's a pleasure to use for this one purpose alone. The 80mm macro is a sharp, smooth lens. If I'm travelling light though, this kit will get left behind I'm sure, as it's a dinosaur that uses 6 AA batteries! Bizarre.


Thanks to some very helpful forum posts, I've discovered that the mirror lockup DOES word on the AFD Mark I, but only in manual mode. Here's the relevant info (thanks Ray):

If you lock up the mirror, the metering and AF systems receive no further light, so they can't function. You'll get a blinking "-no- AE" error message on the top LCD of the AFD, if you try to release the shutter while using one of the P/Av/Tv modes. 

So if the camera is setting the exposure and/or focus for you, you must lock them in (press the AE lock button) beforeturning the M-Up lever. I bet that will solve your problem?

If you're using one of the M/X modes, setting the exposure manually, there should be no problem - it should fire with the M-Up set. Mine does.

Among the things I like about the original AFD is that once set, the AE lock and M-Up last as long as you please, and the M-Up lever, being mechanical, does not drain battery power in long exposures. This is sadly not the case with the later bodies (which also dumped the T setting, a no-battery-drain long exposure mode for film backs).


7. Panoramics

Having lugged around a heavy, brutish panorama head on my tripod for years, the prospect of not having to is appealing. By keeping the Cambo and 35XL lens in landscape orientation, it's the equivalent of using a 35mm lens in portrait orientation on 35mm format - my standard lens for panoramas. The quality of the Schneider lens means that there's so little distortion this actually works well (though in the past, with such a wide angle lens, I've had significant problems). Bracketing is tricky though and I haven't really cracked it yet: having to manually adjust the exposure time for each bracketed shot in a panorama isn't ideal. I suspect it'll be a case of using the dynamic range of the sensor more carefully along with judicious use of grad filters.

8. Research

I'm slightly appalled at the amount of time I spent researching this investment. It must have taken up most of my free time over the last 3 months and a great deal of my free time in the last 3 years. It's COMPLICATED stuff but if I could have given myself one piece of advice a year ago it would have been this: jump in, buy the best thing you can afford and get used to it. But perhaps do it one step at a time - start with Capture One as it takes quite a bit of learning, then test as much equipment as you can get hold of - Phase One and Hasselblad are aware of how serious an investment they are asking you to make and are willing to visit you with the gear in your chosen setting, as are dealers such as Chris at Direct Digital Imaging, who will bring several different types of camera, something the manufacturers can't do. This makes assessing it much easier - especially when you can directly compare the same scene shot with your existing gear. It doesn't tell you everything of course but it's certainly a lot easier than just reading about it on the net.

9. Workflow

Digital workflows are the less fun, but crucial, aspect of digital photography. Changing them is not a small matter. Like all growth, it's uncomfortable: working with unfamiliar tools is awkward and, if there are problems on mission-critical work, potentially disastrous. I'm slowly working out how to integrate Capture One with the Media Pro / Photoshop workflow I already had. I think eventually I'll use C1 more, especially once I get into layers and masks.






10. Other Systems

Just in case you are getting the idea that I only tried one or two systems before committing...

David Summerfield from Hasselblad also visited me with a full system and I spent a day testing out the H4D40 with different lens combinations. I also tried a V-series camera with a CFV 50. All pretty good - I thought the image quality from the Hasselblad backs was excellent - but I wasn't so sold on the H camera - which has some very tiny and oddly placed buttons - and lenses which, though excellent, are very heavy. The Tilt-shift adapter is ok but degrades image quality somewhat.

Previous to that, Phase One loaned me an IQ180 / DF system. This produced remarkable images. But the weight of the lenses, the age of the basic 645 design (which really isn't much different from my 645D) and the massive price tag counted against it. And in the focal length I used most - 28mm (on the IQ180 equivalent to 17mm on 35mm), the lens flare was so bad shooting into the sun it made the lens less unusable to me, despite its sharpness. And yes, I get the irony of ending up with the flare-prone Schneiders!

Previous to that, I'd spent many, many hours reading blogs, forum posts, downloading samples, going to shows and retailers and testing out many of the possible camera/lens combinations... nothing satisfied. Now we have the Nikon D800E and I'm tempted as a replacement for the 1DsIII and 5DII. Canon appear to have abandoned the high megapixel market and these days seem to take forever between announcements and delivery. Just look at the 1DX.

Is my search for the perfect camera over and done with? Yeah, right! If money was no object, I'd consider three, perhaps 4 other systems:
- Arca Swiss RM3Di
- Linhof Techno
- Sinar Artec
- Alpa

A Cambo Wide RS with a sliding back and tilt lenses would do it too - if they made a sliding back. Love the nice new wooden handles.

All with an IQ180 back, of course.

I hope the above helps you make a decision if you're contemplating medium format digital. Is it worth it? Without any doubt whatsoever. It's all about the image quality...


Well very interresting steps to find your grail. I'm watching for same kinf of upgrade but will wait a bit fot a little more money .
Very nice work too.
Cheers from Britany
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