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Big Camera Comparison – Comments

Feedback from our epic review

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Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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Joe Cornish

Having been involved in the testing process I was a little nervous whether our 'work' in the field and studio would stand up to close scrutiny. Previous internet-published tests often seem to have a hidden agenda, (possibly to prove that the tester is right having invested in a particular digital workflow!). As a reader it would be helpful to understand what that agenda is, if any. Tim, no regular reader of this magazine will doubt that you are a fan of film, and I know you were always intending to 'redress the balance' in this mammoth effort but I am confident that you have been as objective as possible. I think this examination has been incredibly thorough and is something of a revelation.

What it proves unequivocally is that technology and marketing cannot conceal the laws of physics. Film 'engineering' is a great deal more mature than digital, and modern films are simply superb (digital is also superb, but we can all agree that a great deal of additional development lies ahead). Relatively low-tech, inexpensive lenses render huge amounts of detail on film. The vast size of the film capture area means that the images are subject to far less enlargement stress (let us not forget that 8x10inch film is nearly 25 times the image area of the IQ180's CCD sensor). The fantastic detail and colour rendering of the negative films was striking. The remarkably usable detail of the IQ180 was, in its own way, equally impressive.

Overall, the pervasive degrading effect of diffraction is an issue on all devices, but because of the greater degree of enlargement required, far more significant on the MF sensors than on the large format film. Subsequently I have tested most of my film lenses with the IQ180, and that proves beyond doubt that even film lenses are diffraction-affected from F/11 and smaller. None of this is new, but the relative importance of it can be nicely glimpsed in this test. As a committed 'fence-sitter' who uses both digital and film these were fascinating results. It is important to remember that just because diffraction is noticeable at 100% on a high resolution digital back does not make smaller apertures unusable for real world print application. In theory there is a clear trade off: depth of field vs fine detail. But the fine detail 'sacrifice' is in practice insignificant for most print scales.

Resolution is an important part of photographic quality, but only one part of the photographic experience. The opportunities and the ideas created by a workflow inevitably influence our approach. The scale and wonder of a large format ground-glass encourage very 'deep and resolved' approaches to composition (but possibly a risk-averse attitude due to the 'running costs'). The low cost and instant feedback of a digital system encourages a more experimental attitude, and gives us many more opportunities to explore timing relationships with fleeting and elusive subjects, such as clouds, light beams, waves etc (but it can also lead to an undisciplined 'I can fix it later' mentality). These apply equally, whether the work being done is personal or professional.

As a matter of interest, one of the opportunities created by digital (and not covered here) is stitching; once we start putting a few files together (for example in a panorama) then they obviously become much larger files and relatively speaking higher resolution 'devices'. Additionally, I was so impressed by the quality of the IQ180, and with its ease of use that I ended up part-exchanging my nearly 4-year old P45+ with Chris Ireland's demo unit, the very one we used in these tests.

As far as the whys and wherefores of which medium to adopt, the arguments advanced by David and Andrew above cover all the ground I would wish to visit. In reality, most will have already decided, and may simply use the results to prove that they were right. Especially if they shoot 10x8inch colour neg! However, in the end all of this is beside the point. For 99% of photographic applications, all of the devices tested will provide excellent quality. As has been said so many times before, the best camera is the one you have with you.

David Ward

I think it was Niall Benvie who described me as an ‘evolutionary denier’ (that’s someone who denies things, and nothing to do with hosiery) because I’m still emulsionally attached to film. (Enough puns for now…) But reading Tim’s incredibly in-depth and fastidious examination of the differences in quality between digital capture and film gives me, on the one hand, some reason to believe that I have made the ‘right’ choice but, on the other, shows me that in real world situations some of the quality differences aren’t that great.

So if there’s not that much to choose in terms of quality, why don’t I convert? It seems to me that there are two main reasons, one economic and the other based on quality, but not just a narrow definition of quality relating to resolution.

Let’s get the economic argument out of the way first.

It has to be said that looked at dispassionately on purely economic grounds I would have to be mad to want to convert to digital capture when I only make around three hundred images a year on 5x4. I calculate that at around £5 per sheet processed (and that’s Quickload so things will be a lot cheaper when I run out) my film and processing bill is around £4,500 per year. If I wanted to swap to an IQ180 not only would I have to invest in the back but also change the camera body, a number of my lenses and get some new gear, such as the Linhof sliding back. It’s interesting to note that I failed to find a price for the IQ180 during a quick look around the net. My mother always told me to be wary of shops that don’t put prices on their goods… In search of answers, I rang Paula at Linhof and Studio and asked her what I’d need to put on my shopping list and how much this would come to. The basic price for me to convert to digital camera - including Phase 1 back, Techno body and other gubbins - would be £35,283. On top of this I would need to change some of my lenses (a further £3,600) and perhaps upgrade my computer to handle the large file size (let’s say £2,800 for a suitable Mac Pro). So the total bill is in excess of £41,000 – or more than nine year’s worth of film and processing. Even given that I will have scanning costs on top of the film and processing, it’s easy to see that there’s a strong economic disincentive for me to make the move.

But for someone shooting product (who would have spent a far larger annual sum on film than I do) or in an industry that demands digital output such as advertising (where the day rates are also much higher) converting to digital capture is a no-brainer. And we should not overlook the reassurance, that digital brings, the comfort of knowing that the shot is in the bag. When working in a pressured, professional environment this is a huge psychological benefit and one that simply cannot be overestimated.

And so to the issue of quality, my second reason for preferring 5x4.

One look at the maximum print sizes for critical sharpness will confirm that few of us will ever need to approach the limits of resolution that even the Mamiya 7 is capable of. So why would anyone want to shoot on an IQ180 or, as I do, on 5x4 film? Surely in real world situations we simply don’t need the quality that these cameras can achieve? Perhaps a more pertinent question is how relevant a measure of overall quality is this analysis of acuity?

Whilst it’s fairly easy to define the technical results for this aspect of quality there are other indefinite, even ‘unseen’ qualities which using a view camera brings to photographs. For me there are two main reasons for shooting 5x4. The first is that a view camera allows me to manipulate perspective and plane of focus in ways that are simply not achievable on a rigid camera. Though it may not always be readily apparent in the finished photograph, these manipulations are critical to my image making. It’s wonderful to have a large ‘original’ to make a print from but my overriding reason for shooting 5x4 is very definitely not simply one of quality as expressed by the resolution of the picture. But, I hear you say, you can have the view camera experience with a Techno and an IQ180.

It’s true that many of the manipulations that I use are available on other ‘platforms’ (why aren’t they called cameras when a digital back is attached?) but a medium format view camera offers, in my opinion, a diminished experience - especially when one has used a 5x4 for as long as I have. The 6x4.5 ground glass feels cramped and it’s hard to focus accurately in the corners. As the format size diminishes with a view camera so the accuracy with which one needs to use movements such as tilt increases. Yet it’s harder to see if one has applied these ideally. The IQ180 helps out by showing the ‘in focus’ regions on live view. But this only works really well on subjects with reasonable contrast and granularity. In focus, smooth, evenly lit surfaces won’t be identified so well.

The second reason, and perhaps the more compelling one for me, is that I still feel that film gives a better result than digital – both in terms of sharpness and other rendering qualities. It’s interesting looking at the image resolution target images for the Provia 5x4 and the IQ180. There are some very weird artefacts appearing for the latter, presumably because the algorithms for calculating what happens with a curved line are failing to cope very well. This rendering problem is also apparent in the image of the Nikon lens. On the 5x4 Provia it is possible to read the figures on the barrel but these become meaningless blobs on the IQ. Now it can be argued that this doesn’t matter in real world situations as this is an extreme enlargement and having readable text in an image is not of huge importance to landscape photographers. This is a little like the CD versus LP debate in hi-fi circles. The CD manufacturers claim that the audio information that is lacking in comparison to an analogue recording is of no importance, as most people can’t hear the difference. I’m just not sure that this argument really holds up under close scrutiny.

Of more significance to me is the colour rendering of film, the feel for want of a better term. Each film has a particular feel as each responds in a prescribed way to the differing wavelengths of light. I really like working with the fixed palette of a film and treat what might be considered a limitation as a positive advantage. I am convinced that after a while one begins to see like one’s chosen emulsion and that this helps with the creative process. With digital there are no such fixed points. Whilst this might seem to offer boundless opportunities I feel that it can actually limit people’s creativity as they may become paralysed by the choice. Colour is a very personal matter, with each individual seeing things slightly differently – or even, in the case of some well known artists, drastically differently – but I believe that 5x4 transparency’s colour rendition is both more appealing and natural than digital. I know that a film like Velvia can hardly be described as neutral but the superb way that it handles fine colour detail in my opinion far outstrips the digital equivalent.
So to summarise… Perhaps the economic question is a red herring and a more interesting question to ask is would I convert to digital if there were no effective cost barrier? Like many others I wistfully imagine the day when someone from Camelot phones to say, “It’s you!” but, come the day, I can’t quite envisage me spending a large chunk of dosh on a digital back. Having examined my motives for this view quite carefully I can honestly say that I don’t hold it because of any Luddite tendencies I may have, nor because I’m prone to parsimony. The real motives for my wanting to stay in the photographic Iron Age are to do with those qualities that I have mentioned. They may be hard to quantify but, nevertheless, I feel they are essential to my image making.

Andrew Nadolski

There are going to be some people who will see this extensive test as fuelling the fire of a ‘digital vs film’ debate. This is unfortunate as both have different strengths and for me it simply comes down to using the one best suited for a given situation.

I think the test does debunk some of the misinformation that is peddled about the resolving power of digital compared to film. Over the years I have grown tired of reading that each new generation digital medium format back betters 5x4 sheet film; some people have been claiming that since the days of 22mp backs. I can even remember reading many years ago that a 6mp Canon was supposed to be ‘better’ than medium format film.

If the goal is maximum resolution then at last we have the opportunity of an unbiased comparison of the best possible performers from each camp - drum scanned 10x8 film and an 80mp IQ180 digital back costing around £28,000. We can also see how the smaller formats scale up.

To my eyes, and my own experience, the overall ‘winner’ today is 10x8 Portra, both in resolution and dynamic range.

But looking forward, and being realistic, there is unlikely to any significant further development of film emulsions and we won’t be seeing any ‘new’ drum scanners or new film scanners of any quality. The next ‘phase’ (excuse the pun) of medium format digital backs will probably beat the best that film can realistically achieve in resolution but I think it is going to take a few more generations in sensor development before they can better the dynamic range of negative film. And, they are not exactly going to be cheap when they do!

There is an argument that says the best camera is the one that you have with you and the one that allows you to get the shot you want in the circumstances.

The following applies to me and how I work today:

My personal landscape work
For some of my landscape work I struggle to achieve with digital (regardless of price) what I can with film. That is to produce an exhibition print the size I want to be able to make with my style of working.

My commercial work
I cannot match the versatility of digital compared to film in today’s marketplace. To put it simply, I couldn’t work with the limitations of film in a commercial environment.

An explanation

I have been shooting colour negative film for 25 years, moving from hand printing to scanning my negatives when the Nikon LS8000 scanner became available. I found that by scanning my negs I could make exhibition prints which were far superior to anything I could achieve in the darkroom. I wrote an article for the late Chris Dickie’s AG magazine in 2004 about this.

With my personal work the only deadlines I have are the ones I set myself. There is no client demanding pictures the next day so I can wait for films to be processed and the one hour plus it takes me to scan a frame of 6x6 at 4000ppi. This file equates to a file size of around 430mb and can produce a print size of just around 29 inches square at 300ppi. Although I have produced prints around 36 inches square I generally downsize that file and make 20x20 inch exhibition prints. What is sobering is that I can achieve this with cameras that can be bought for a few hundred pounds today.

For a while I had a Hasselblad H4D 50. This was capable of achieving very impressive resolution and would produce a print 27x20 inches at its native file size, which, if shot under optimal conditions would appear to have more detail than film. I found I could obtain stunning results by focus stacking when I was working with non-moving images. However compared to film there was a greater deterioration in image quality as I stopped the lens down to its smallest apertures.

The biggest problem I had was the necessity to use ND grad filters under the conditions I often choose to shoot under, which I found very frustrating. The other aspect which I found affected my picture making was the value of the equipment! On a couple of occasions I found myself reluctant to get the camera out of the bag due to extreme weather conditions, £20k + doesn’t buy you weather sealing!

There are, it must be said, frustrations with working with film. I have had a film ruined this year by a lab and the Nikon film scanner I use has minimal depth of field even with a dedicated glass carrier. If there is any curvature in the film the sharpness can drop significantly and this can be visible in 20x20 inch prints. This is not an issue with drum scanners but I don’t think I would be prepared to go through wet mounting every piece of film I wanted to scan and print.

If I was shooting on transparency I would have abandoned film years ago. The reason I still shoot film is that at the moment there is no medium format digital back currently available that can match the dynamic range of negative stock.

Where I think digital has leapt ahead is in the smaller formats and this is down to the use of CMOS chips with the associated high ISO performance and other benefits such as Live View.

I shot two jobs the other week that I couldn’t have shot successfully with film. The first was some ‘editorial style’ portraits in a hospital. I wasn’t sure what the lighting was going to be like and the location prohibited lugging studio lights around. I ended up balancing daylight, artificial light and two wireless iTTL flashguns with my Nikon D3. I was able to adjust the ISO up and down as required as the light changed.

The other job was, I thought, going to be a three hour shoot. The client wanted me there all day. They ran me ragged shooting a mix of interiors, exteriors and even some floodlit sport. I couldn’t have packed enough film of differing ISOs to cover all that was required, or even enough film. And, at the end of the day the client asked for the best high res edits by the next afternoon!

Shooting film is like a drive in the countryside in a classic two seater sports car (that may break down on occasion) but has ‘soul’. Digital is like the Audi that you can rely on to get you from A to B.

In a ideal world you would want both but the ‘Audi’ would win if I could only pick one.

Hans Strand (from an email conversation)

Interesting results. However I would have liked to see the test being made on a typical shooting aperture. With 8x10" you rarely use f/22, since the depth of field is too shallow at that aperture. At least for landscape photography. A more relevant f stop would have been f/64. The same with 4x5" a more relevant f stop would have been f/32 and for IQ 180 it would have been f/16. You would never get this high resolution at f64 on an 8x10" as you got at f/22. Still I am surprised that the digital medium format was so mediocre. My own experience is that I am getting better results than from 4x5". Not that I have made tests like this one , but I can compare scanned transparencies with the digital files from my Hasselblad H3DII-50. When I compare large prints there is a significant difference in resolution in favour of the Digital medium format.

F-stop also have to do with shooting style. If you use big foregrounds, you need to stop down your 4x5" to even f/45 and the 8x10" certainly to f64 if you want everything to be inside the depth of field. If you have a large object in the foreground which is sticking up from the ideal tilt plane e.g. a rock a plant etc. Also when I shoot in a forest and have a tree close to me. That happens all the time for me:-) Today I solve the problem with focus stacking at f/11 and two or even three focusings. At f64 you will just have a fraction of the resolution you get at f22. This can be discussed in a special thread :-) However I am surprised, since my own experiences, from using both 4x5" for more than 10 years and 8x10" for 5 years, is that I am getting better files from my medium format and I would never go back to film again. I fully respect your test though.

My experience is that at f/16 the diffraction is still at an acceptable level whereas at f/64 there is no fine details left. Still I would sacrifice resolution for depth of field. A landscape image with patchy sharpness does not look good to me. With 8x10" you are extremely limited to what you are able to shoot. Depth of field is a big issue. Look at the images by 8x10" photographers like Christopher Burkett and you will see mostly flat surfaces like ponds of waterlilies or field of flowers or he shoots across a valley from one side to the other. This because he is avoiding depth of field problems. This problem was limiting me in the way I wanted to shoot my images. Now with focus stacking and better depth of field I can shoot more or less without any limitations. You also have the aspect of shutter speed. With 8x10" I was always getting several seconds and even minutes. Shooting in a forest without getting blurred branches was almost impossible. Then of course also the slowness of the operation of the camera which made it very difficult to catch the moment. That is another topic I know, but still it makes sense.

Baxter Bradford

Baxter used to use Ebony 45SU and a combination of Velvia or Acros and bought a P45+ back and Phase One 645DF a couple of years ago - ed

The test has clearly involved a considerable amount of work and commitment to bring it to the stage whereby results can be shown and compared.

It appears to me that the test was very much driven by the phenomenal capabilities of 8x10 with B&W film coupled with the 4000ppi scan. This is really pushing the envelope and whilst academically interesting, think that the practical needs and applications for such resolution are in the tiny minority, if they exist at all.

Because of the extreme magnification, I was surprised to see how Grainy/Noisy the film files were also how badly the Alpa/IQ180 fared. This latter combination has pixel-peepers world-wide in raptures with the incredible detail obtainable, likewise the IQ180 with lesser camera/lens combinations too. Jack Flesher’s B&W Passing Storm, Yosemite image impressed me greatly.
Post 208 shows 100% crop of trees on a ridgeline with the full image below

Image quality is not all about sharpness and noise though, tonality also comes into the appearance and perceived quality of the look of a print. Deciding how this could be measured leads to another quandary!

At my level of resolution and experience, I think that the P45+ back with the Phase One 645DF and lenses produces images which are the equivalent of my Ebony 45SU with Velvia or Acros using lenses such as the Schneider 110XL. Either system is more than good enough for the vast majority of situations. It was only my very best 5x4 film images destined for big prints that I scanned at the 2040ppi maximum resolution of my Imacon scanner. The vast majority were scanned at half resolution and they make 40x50cm prints at 240ppi which are not criticised for poor image quality. The same cannot be guaranteed regarding the picture’s content!

Comments on swapping from Film to Digital.
I’ve been using a Phase One 645DF with P45+ back for the last 18 months and prior to this had predominantly used an Ebony 45SU with a variety of film emulsions. There were a number of drivers which made me spend a considerable amount of money in order to sell up my film equipment and buy an MF digital camera system.

There is no doubt that my approach to photography has changed in these 18 months, some of which is by necessity for the new system, some by flexibility, trying new things and getting immediate/short term feedback and I have made more images than when using my view camera. I am very aware that quantity isn’t everything! Waves have featured strongly in my subject matter and they are tricky customers necessitating shooting many images which would be very wasteful of sheet film.

For some situations, I do miss not having camera movements to control both perspective and plane of focus. Should I wish to make another appreciable investment, then either a Linhof Techno or an Alpa STC, both with Digeron lenses would enable me to increase sharpness and have movements albeit the two cameras implement them slightly differently.

Loading Darkslides, emptying them, film developing, drying and scanning film and subsequent post-processing account for far more time than I expend when adjusting a very demanding image from my P45+ in Capture One.

In summary, I do not regret making the switch to MF digital from 5x4 film, which is what I expected, having undertaken considerable research before the making the large expenditure in order to effect the change. Equally, I am sure that there are many photographers who would weigh up their own needs and decide that a film camera provides their best solution.

David Tolcher

As someone who spends a lot of time considering how to get the best out of the different mediums I was very interested to see the tests that have been done. Myself, I have concluded that my D3X resolves about the same as a 1200 dpi scan of a 5x4 slide on my V700 but the output is very different. I am not surprised that film continues to impress especially in the larger formats. I believe that all the formats discussed are capable of resolving enough detail for commercial or ‘gallery quality’ work up to 30x20inches so we should concentrate on the look and feel of the image and its intended purpose. We are way past the point where any of the cameras tested cannot be said to produce good enough quality.

For me the key difference is that film is a 3 dimensional medium and I believe that this comes through in the lowest resolution scans in the smallest sizes files, the output has a depth. Digital is a 2 dimensional medium and however good the resolving power of the chip the images always look flat to my eye.

There are too many compromises fighting each other in the digital world for it to be an easy solution to get the quality you get easily from film and these are important in the real world. Diffusion on 35mm digital kicks in at F8/F11 with the D3X and lenses have to be the best in Nikon’s draw to get anything like the output the sensor is capable of. Use of T/S or PCE lenses only gets you so far and you still get issues with DOF. With wideangle lenses or movement on medium format digital sensors then you get colour shifts (magenta mainly) and fall-off issues in the corners so have to add extra steps in the workflow or use reference shots to realise the quality available technically. DOF challenges are even worse than 35mm and movements introduce more problems. For a few of the landscape photographers whose work I particularly admire these would be significant issues where extreme movement is used to great effect.

I am with Andrew on this one, for commercial work where the shot has to be nailed on the occasion then digital is king but for ‘slow time’ work in the landscape arena then if you want the best at most reasonable cost it has to be film and preferably on 5x4 for cost/benefit & portability.

Peter Cox

Good to chat with you just now, and thanks for asking me for my involvement.

As I mentioned on the phone, I'm impressed with the testing you've done, and admit surprise at the amount of difference between the IQ180 and the 8x10 results. Here are my comments.

My own background is landscape photography and mainly digital. I have about a year's worth of experience with 4x5 film (using Velvia 50, mainly). I started as a digital photographer and moved into film when my resolution needs were not achievable with the digital equipment I could afford. I will confess that while I enjoy working with medium and large format film cameras, I do not enjoy working with film as a medium. You could say I was spoiled by always being able to review and confirm images in the field, and scanning is a process that I abhor.

For my work, as I don't shoot large volumes in a year, 8x10 would possibly be more cost-effective for me, but due to the point I outline above I much prefer working with the IQ180 on my Arca-Swiss tech camera. There is also the issue of real world practicalities - 8x10 cameras are big and heavy, difficult to transport and are incredibly vulnerable to windy conditions. The IQ180 based system is much more compact, easier to travel with and can be shielded from wind much more effectively. As a result, in real field conditions, it's easier to achieve technical perfection than it would be with the 8x10.

I'll admit to some disappointment to seeing that 8x10 film still trumps digital for resolution at this point, but in honesty for my purposes (and the purposes of any non-scientific photography) the differences (while obvious) are probably minimal in the real world. As you mentioned in the test, we're looking at tiny, tiny areas of these images and pixel peeping to a huge degree.

Did you look at large format prints of these images when testing? I'd be interested to see what sort of subjective results you may have gotten if that had been done? I know from my own work that the IQ180 prints beautifully up to 30x45" - I don't make larger prints than that in general. I'd be very curious to compare an 8x10 image against the 180 in prints of that size.

Sami Nabeel

Thank you for the invite to comment on your very extensive report, very impressive Tim, I really have very little to add, it is very comprehensive and the reasons I went down to Phase One back rout are not technical or due to an extensive study. I had a hotel project in London that ran for 28 months that needed weekly progress reports documented with photographs and the the maths simply added up, it was much cheaper to by a Contax fit back P25 (we had a film based 645 Contax and lens) the immediacy of the output, quality and money saved was enough to upgrade to date to an IQ180. The fact that it easily fitted a view camera, which as you know is my preferred system for personal work clinched it. I still have my 5x4 system which I still use but a lot less since the P45+ came to be, it started to become apparent that the quality was approaching 5X4 and now with the IQ180 I think the images are a bit better that a 5X4 Imacon scan.

  • Fascinating stuff and interesting to read the different viewpoints. I must admit to feeling a slight sense of dislocation given the esoteric nature of much of the kit tested and I find it quite difficult to relate all of this to my own comparatively humble circumstances. Overall, I would have to agree with Joe, that the best camera is the one you have.

    • Hi Simon, Most of the kit tested can be bought for under a thousand pounds so not really that esoteric and you own or have owned the equivalent of four out of seven of the examples shown. The test goes to show that if you are printing 16×20 then a Sony A900 does a bloody good job (as would most high end DSLR’s) and a decent medium format 6×6 or 6×7 camera with good lenses, even better. We are going to run a test comparing DSLR’s, 35mm film and medium format camera in a future issue – I need a break from testing though! :-)

      • I take your point, although I stopped using sheet film a while ago, so arguably don’t use any of the high end systems now. As to cost, you and I don’t quite agree on that one, but let’s not start that one up again!

      • Having recently made the move myself, I think £1,000 is a little low if you factor in scanning – which I’d say is really important if you are shooting neg film, as it’s sometimes difficult to see whether an image is any good without going through the inversion process. At £20 per exposure (including film, development and your drum scanning service), the cost is prohibitive for all but those with silver-lined pockets so I’d personally recommend anyone thinking of getting into Large Format really trying to get to grips with scanning the majority of your own images on an Epson. If there are any images that are worth getting drum scanned by an expert like Tim, then it’s well worth paying to get them scanned properly.

        I did get some more expensive lenses (the Fujinon A 180mm and Nikkor-M 300mm) when I started buying my equipment, but I also picked up a couple of bargain lenses (the Nikkor-W 135mm for £115, and a Rodenstock Sironar-N 240mm for £120). There are bargains out there, but I’d say that if you opt for the Chamonix (which I’d recommend as a good, well made and affordable 5×4 camera) when you add in 6-10 dark slides, a changing bag, dark hood, lupe, shutter releases, lens boards, light table (even a cheap one) and a light meter, you’re probably not going to have much change from £1,500 – without considering the scanning I mentioned above.

        I think I spent close to £2,800 to build up a four lens kit (135, 180, 240, 300) with ~20 dark slides, two lupes, a (cheap) light table, Epson V700 and I already owned a light meter. I still get my development outsourced as I am still undecided as to whether I have the space to process my own film as space down south isn’t cheap.

        • I forgot to mention customs charges too, since most of the items you buy will need to be imported.

      • Hi Tim – yes, I agree, typically you will end up spending more unless you are willing to put up with some older kit.

        1) Burke & James + 160mm lens £225
        2) Epson V500 scanner – £160
        3) Soligor Spotmeter – £80
        4) Dark Cloth – £40
        5) Loupe – £40 (get a good one)
        6) Darkslide – £20

        oh and a couple of lenses at Tim Smalley prices would be £235 so for a total of £770 we have a three lens kit and scanner and all UK purchases. And the results would be just as good as an expensive LF, just a little bit more of a faff to use. And shooting neg film and you don’t need grads.

        Now we can buy a Jobo CPA for £150 so that developing is now only 60p a sheet. and film can be bought short dated from ebay for about £2.50 a sheet.. so for under a grand you can get the whole kit including developer, scanner and three lenses..

        • My two cheap lenses came from the States and I’ve also attempted to buy two Soligor spot meters in as many months – both have been faulty in one way or another despite being ex display models/in good physical condition.

          My costs per exposure are about £4.30 after importing film in large quantity from the US, which works out at under £2 per sheet of film and approx £2.10 for development and then the rest accounts for postage to/from the lab. It’s the cheapest option I’ve found – even including short-dated film on eBay. I do still keep an eye out for outdated film, but I’ve never managed to snatch any for much less than the price of brand new film imported from the US. I missed the recent sale of short-dated Velvia 50 on one of the UK retailers, but that’s usually the only other affordable option and you have to be quick.

          • On the spot meter front, I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you’re buying new you are in a bit of a lottery on eBay – both of mine were bought from reputable sellers. The first simply didn’t meter properly and was returned, while the second works sometimes, but is not reliable enough to be relied upon where exposure is critical.

            I find the Sekonic L758D a bit complicated (I’d prefer working in EVs) for what I need, but it is reliable and any underexposure is more likely error on my part rather than a bad meter reading.

        • Dimitri

          I will tend not to agree with the above.

          You make it sound like one can spend very little (under £1000) for a very good LF system and this is far from the truth. What you described can be the equivalent of a Canon 300D with kit lens.

          For a newcomer to LF and in order to own a good kit, one needs to spend well over £4000 by the time one buys a good enough system and lenses & a good scanner. Never mind the film processing that will skin you alive.

          So, lets avoid telling people that LF photography costs a lot less than digital.

          • Dimitri and me had a bit of an online ‘discussion’ about this point which should have probably been taken offline – however, I think some of the facts may be interesting so I’ve moved the discussion into a separate page as both myself and Dimitri were not going to continue taking the discussion further.

          • I cannot resist adding that I got a linof technika IV with a schneider super angulon 90mm, schneider symmar S 150 for £395. Thats far from being a ‘Canon 300D with kit lens’.

            I’ve had a Nikon DSLR set up, and digitally now use a Lumix GF1 (which cost more than my LF set up)

            The GF1 will get me superb 11x14s

            The Linhof I’ve printed and exhibited to 50 inch size – I cannot do that with a DSLR, would struggle with a Pentax 645 or the ‘cheaper’ medium format backs. So to switch to digital would be a significant cost for the fine art photographer who doesn’t make thousands of images. That’s the cost comparison that needs to be made. Don’t forget that a lot of us have been shooting with film for years, develop our own film and have been scanning/printing that way – so have already invested in the required equipment.

            The IQ180 was very impressive though and if it cost £3k I’d buy it in a heart beat. If photography was my career and not a hobby that pays its way I’d have to consider a switch to digital, although in my market people still want to buy images from film.

      • It would be interesting if the test was between a wholly digital print & a large format (10×8?) wet print. My own experience with a scanned 10×8 neg, digitally printed & a wet print from the same neg shows a marked advantage for the wet print. Which may just represent my sloppy work. Dennis.

        • Hi Dennis, If you can do the wet print, I’ll happily scan and print one of yours – what size are we talking about?

  • It’s all very well suggesting doing your own scanning and processing, but there is a significant ‘time’ cost to all of this, and not just for professional photographers. In my case, despite good intentions, I simply haven’t been able to find enough time to do my own scanning (and I would rather cut my own arm off than spend any more time spotting and cloning out dust). The idea that I could somehow fit film processing into my life is for me (and I suspect many others) a total non-starter. Not to make too big an issue of this but, as Mike Johnston is fond of posting, I’m Just Sayin’…

    • OK – large format isn’t cheap and non-time consuming.. you’ve got me :-)

      • In the spirit of gracious concessions, let me in turn admit, all things considered, that large format does seem to come out offering the best value for money if you weigh quality relative to cost.

        • And by the way, congratulations on steering Landscape GB (or is it now On Landscape?) successfully to the end of 2011. I wish it every success for the coming year and look forward to coming issues with great interest.

        • Thanks Simon!

      • If I get 10 stunning images a year – I’m happy – that makes it relatively cheap and non-time consuming, if it’s not worth it I don’t shoot it on film, that’s what digital is for! :-)

  • This is a very interesting article and must have been time-consuming to perform and write up. It makes some very good observations and points, especially to one learning such as myself. However, for 2012, and at the risk of incurring the Ed’s wrath, my preference would be to concentrate less on “gear” and more on “photography” and I find the debates on this string and on many other recent ones certainly less interesting than the articles that generated them. As an owner of both digital and film systems, both have their place and time and articles such as this are useful in giving an overview of advantages or disadvantages of either system; this isn’t something that is binary, in my view. Rules are meant to be broken and it is a leraning experince to harness one’s gear to your advantage at the relevant time. One of the outset aims of this Mag was, I thought, to move away from digital versus film debate, so here’s hoping for 2012! Merry Xmas.

    • Sadly people on both sides of the supposed fence still can’t see that this isn’t a film vs digital issue. The test reviewed a whole range of cameras that included samples from each of the main ‘modes’ of photography. The fact that these can be split into film and digital is irrelevant really. You could easily say that the review was split between technical cameras and fixed plane cameras or canon vs nikon or hand held cameras vs tripod mounted ones. The main goal of the review was to see what real world output of all of these cameras actually looked like objectively and subjectively and get an idea of what sort of enlargements were possible. As far as I am aware, very few people have done a test to look across all of these platforms.

      Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view, gear is and important part of photography. Instead of getting into endless reviews of one SLR vs another SLR and what high ISO performance each camera has, we’ve made a test that gives real world results that people can use to assess potential purposes. And since the magazine started we’ve had over two hundred articles and only five have been about hardware – I think that’s a suitable balance?

      • Totally agree. I think I made this clear in my comments on the article which I found very useful and balanced; I would sooner have these types of articles than not; it’s the debate that certain articles generate (even when the article may not have been on “gear”) that is sometimes unwelcome in my view and it seems that it doesn’t take long for that debate to open up, certainly more so on recent issues. Your summary above is an excellent summary of some of the takeaways from the article and that is what I will be taking away from this. Thanks….I wasn’t intending to criticise your editorialship, just expressing a view as to what I would like to see as a paying punter. Please do not imply any other sentiment as none was intended.

        • No problem David – I agree that these things do spin out of control now and again and as the ‘curator’, I should help control things, not continue them :-)

  • I agree with a lot of the conflicting arguments above, it’s not cheap to use LF if I were to take as many photos as I would with a DSLR. However, it was the cheapest way for me to get the highest quality images I could, it just worked for me.

    For four years I used the following kit, all picked up used on ebay: Ebony RSW45 £650, Nikon 90mm f4.5 £350, Rodenstock 150mm £125, Pentax Spotmeter £200(back in 2004, they go for much more now) = £1325. Add to that a few film holders and it comes in at approximately £1400. I scanned it all on my old Epson 4870 which I still use.

    I know I didn’t create a comprehensive portfolio like a lot of the more prolific LF photographers, but over five years I’ve sold prints totalling a 5 figure sum from the above kit, and at least twice as much when you add my 6×7 & 6×17 film images scanned on my Epson.

    On the other hand, I sold my LF gear a year ago because of the film and processing prices. I used to pick up lots of second hand Fuji Quickload film on ebay for really cheap prices, it was easy to shoot 2 of each composition and adjust processing of the duplicate sheet if I messed up, but I just can’t get the film cheap any more.

    I’m now using a £300 Mamiya RB67 kit which includes 2 lenses and 2 finders, and still scanning on my ancient Epson 4870.

    I also want to congratulate you on the first year of the magazine, it’s become essential reading/viewing for me!

  • mdr

    I have just stepped into the realm of 4×5 and hope to get out in the next week, weather permitting, to shoot my first Velvia using my recently acquired set up:
    Sanderson camera with 150mm and 180mm lenses £160
    Schneider 120mm f6.8 coated £129
    Lens board: mahogany wood, sandpaper and French polish £12
    4×5 back: broken, not affecting my purpose, 8×10 to 4×5 reducing back £75
    4x Fidelity Elite film holders £58
    Lunasix 3 with spot meter £46
    Batteries and voltage reducer for Lunasix £24
    Silvestri 4x loupe £57
    Dark cloth £40
    Grand total £601
    The Sanderson came with one working film holder, however, the ground glass and film planes are not aligned as the camera is originally a glass plate camera. Also, it is impossible to get film holders that fit the Sanderson, and one is just not enough. So I bought a wooden 8×10 to 4×5 reducing back that accepts standard holders and was easy to cut down to the right size to fit the Sanderson.
    So with a bit of hunting, ingenuity and DIY you can get a good LF set up pretty cheap.
    Yes, I would love a Rolls Royce of large frame like the Ebony, but as long as the lens is sharp and the camera functions properly, the results should be the same.
    Yes, I still shoot digital and 35mm film and 6×6 film. To me there is a place and time for both media.

  • Let’s not forget that the quality or otherwise of the discussion is entirely down to… well, us! I don’t see any harm in a bit of lively argument. But – and without meaning to upset or single out anyone – let’s keep it friendly. Now I’m off to open a beer and peel the sprouts. Happy Christmas to one and all.

  • shinigami

    D. WARD said “my film and processing bill is around £4,500 per year.”

    What if we consider digital backs as a “consumable” rather than an “investment”; assuming an IQ180 is £30000, assuming we see a new Phase One in 4 years (P45+ is 4 years old isn’t it? and H25 is 8yo), assuming there’s a trade in discount of 40% for upgrading the iq180 to the next model (this is the P45+ trade in value), then the cost per year of using an IQ180 over the next 4 years is (0.6*£30000)/4. That’s £4500 a year…

    • Interesting view on the running cost. But you still have to pay £30k now which most people just won’t have in their pockets, even if one can afford £4,500 on film a year…

    • I’ve just re-read this article and wanted to comment further on David’s film costs/financial commentary – I’m not quite sure where the £4,500 per year comes from at £5 per exposure for 300 exposures (should be £1,500)?

      Does that value include drum scanning or is that a separate cost that isn’t accounted for in your annual film cost? If it doesn’t include scanning, then either the number of exposures per year is out by a factor of three or the film cost works out at £15 per exposure. :)

      Also, shinigami’s comments do make for quite interesting reading too – he’s right that Phase offer trade-in and a digital back would need to be upgraded after a few years (should an improved model be available, of course), which is something that’d be good to see Canon/Nikon/Sony offer on their high-end bodies however unlikely that may be.


  • Simonhi

    From what I have seen LF does stoke a fire within me.

    Until I have the space I will stick with the convenience that I have in using a digital workflow as it suffices for now.

    I personally would like to see film remain, particularly as some of my favourite photographers shoot film, the colour rendition is stunning to me and it also feels a very pure form of the medium.

    I do worry that I would struggle to begin with but I do like the idea of having a small collection of images that I don’t and won’t know whether I have the image I visulaised correct or cocked it up until it has been developed. I like the idea of not having Live View.

    I do worry for film though as some of the larger manufacturers stop making certain emulsions (too costly, not large enough profit making). Also some making of relatively cheap scanners not longer investing the R&D costs to further the medium, thus having to rely on systems which will eventually not work on current operating setups.

    This discussion should not be a digital versus film debate. I think both have their place as has been proven by some people that continue to use both mediums. It should never be about the camera, the photographers makes the image.

  • WB

    Excellent review….
    The few people that took on this endeavor in the past, either had an agenda, or simply don’t understand optics and the combining of film and optic MTF values. This is an area that has not been well published, but is not as complex as it seems once educated.

    The reality is, with todays modern lenses, in most cases, apt. diffraction is the limiting factor in a lenses resolving capacity. The longer the fl, the greater the f stop for equal DOF, as your test articulated well. At about f5.6-f8 there is a tipping point, whereas the larger formats loose their resolution edge due to aperture diffraction. The aerial resolution in lp/mm of a lens is limited at about 1500/f stop. (rough cut due to different wavelengths of light) This is can be calculated with no film tests. The only other factor that remains is film or sensor MTF. Of course, the film type matters as well, as Fuji has well defined in their 1/R formula in their handbook for photographers, long out of print. It takes into consideration the lens MTF, film MTF at a given target contrast.

    So larger formats still excel in total resolution if you can shoot at relatively wide apertures, f8-11 for 4×5 and f11-f16 for 8×10, much of this is dependent on the MTF of the lens design. So where can these relatively wide f stops be used? Mainly flat objects with no depth (such as a wall) or infinity captures. If you eliminate these two shooting parameters, LF has looses its stronghold on resolution vs. higher end digital alternatives. Of course, if budgets are considered, LF will always remain more cost effective for the low volume shooter with excellent IQ. As you correctly point out, for low rez neg. film, a low cost scanner will suffice….its chrome film that gains some benefits from the higher end scanners.

    But if you shoot at infinity or flat objects, LF still rocks.

    Then, all else must be considered as well in today’s modern digital medium. If the subject is NOT static, well, you have one click of the shutter to get it right…. but when the subject is static, this opens up a world of possibilities in which low cost gear joined with post processing can trump the most expensive gear with single exposure. The two most obvious examples are stitching and focus stacking. They have revolutionized static capture.

    So, with all the options available today, the right solution is highly dependent on the subjects (DOF and motion) and the final enlargement you desire.

  • This is really interesting research and needed to be done after the Luminous Landscape article, which seemed to have a few problems.
    I used 35mm film from the age of 11 until the age of 36. I had become slightly disenchanted with photography by that time, probably because of the annoyance of processing, and the pain of scanning; but the move to digital reignited my passion. I don’t blast away, I shoot quite slowly and thoughtfully, even though I am often tackling fast moving dragonflies, as well as very slow moving landscapes.
    I have recently invested in a 6×6 Mamiya, partly because of Tim and LandscapeGB and also because of a love of the square format, which was cemented by using an iPhone app which shoots square images!
    I have to say, I love using the Mamiya. I love the niggly setup, the way of viewing, the whole ethos of slowing down and composing. I even love the loading and unloading of film.
    But I find the rest of film as frustrating as I did in 2002. Speed of return, cost of processing, time to scan etc. So regardless of quality, resolution etc, I find myself hankering after my 5DMk2 or perhaps a digital back for the Mamiya (not that one exists). I guess I will continue with both, because there is something special about the Mamiya, but for me digital is great and will only get better.
    One’s mileage is bound to vary! :)

  • issafarhoud


    I commend you for taking on what appears a thankless task, but it is in your nature, to get to the bottom of any analysis, and you seem to have a very decent job.
    Having recently invested in Phase One IQ160, I can certainly tell all, there is nothing beats holding a Velvia transparency 5×4, can’t speak for 8×10. Firstly I will continue to shoot 5×4 for as long as possible, but will exercise more caution due to cost, as I don’t develop or intend doing my own developing. To me The quality and tonality of IQ160 is on par with 5×4, with some advantages, shadow detail and PP flexibility, however there is a price for that, not only huge initial outlay, but demand on focusing. A less than optimal focused IQ160 is very clear compared to 5×4, you really need to nail focusing down, then the results are outstanding , but don’t have the Velvia WOW factor. In addition whilst 5×4 or 8×10 is bulkier and heavier, handling and composing 5×4 is far easier than MF on a GG.
    Whilst it is impossible to please all, I think the two can exist side by side until economies dictate otherwise. Whilst on occasions I do question whether I have made the correct decision, I guess you can always justify what you want to support your decisions or bias.

    • Hi Issa, congrats on the IQ160! You have a wonderful camera and one that is capably of producing beautiful images that would be difficult to distinguish from film. As you say, there are advantages and disadvantages using any camera but it’s making the most of the platform you are using that counts. The good news is that you won’t need to upgrade for image quality purposes for some time to come. I can see potentially improvments in speed of live view for focussing and possibly ipad linking which would make using the cameras a lot more enjoyable though. Look forward to see the first crop of results!

  • I guess the only additional point I would make – and with all this analysis and comment, it may have been made already – is the cost of the computer hardware that goes with large files. Not only do you need colossal media storage space, you will also need buckets full of RAM. Both have come down in price but to get the right storage and processing speed for keeping and backing-up high res images/basic RAW files would be an additional cost consideration. With 16GB RAM for the Apple, I suspect this may have been about £150…..just a guess but the additional hardware expense must run into £’00s at the very least. It seems that it only takes a few years until you realise that your current RAM needs are nowhere near what you might actually need. Think I’ll keep MF as my poison for a little while longer… :)

  • Just a quick comment from someone who is thinking of subscribing……..

    Please don’t go too far down this route. It might be appropriate to discuss these topics at length elsewhere but we’re talking landscape here, aren’t we, not highly complex technical issues?

    For what its worth, a long time ago I came to the conclusion that using large format film equipment did not necessarily a good photographer make. It is not the medium that is important but the message.

    • Hi Jeremy – we won’t be running comparisons like this often :-) However I do think it is important to consider photography as a combination of art and craft. The craft side is important to the end result and a photographer with no craft skills will be unlikely to fulfil their artistic vision. When we do reviews like this though, which we will occasionally, the main goal will be to provide readers with the raw assets to make decisions for themselves. For instance, one of our conclusions at the end of the article was that if you are printing smaller than 20×24 then the typical viewer will see little difference whether you were using a Sony A900 or a £55k Phase One IQ180 plus Alpa SWA and Rodenstock Imagon lenses. Arguably, most viewers wouldn’t be able to tell much difference at 20×24 unless the images were side by side.

      However, the aesthetics of each camera definitely plays a big role over whether the viewer likes or dislikes the end result. For instance, the majority of people chose the Sony A900 over the Phase P45+ in terms of “Which one would I hang on my wall”. This is arguably very useful information if you are about to invest in a camera and information that isn’t available elsewhere where there is a general swing towards just stating megapixel figures and lens mtfs – who cares, what we want to know is what it looks like and what will non-photographers think of the results.

      No equipment makes a photographer good and whilst there aren’t as many awful large format photographers by proportion, this is probably just because it takes a lot of effort, commitment to start using one. Finally using the camera doesn’t guarantee anything though. It’s the artistic choices that make the difference. In fact, large format photographers can very easily be sucked into a particular genre of photography that limits their creative freedom. Completely sharp near/far compositions, intimate shots that rely on detail to work rather than overall composition, subdued lighting because it’s difficult to capture transient conditions. It takes more effort to work outside these traps than perhaps a beginner shooting hand held would.

      Whilst there are quite a few LF/film photographers who comment on the website, there are many more digital photographers and I have no intention of making a bias or competition between one or the other. When I talk about film and digital in the same article, my goal isn’t to say one is better than the other, it’s to talk about their relative merits. Quite often digitals merits are well know and talked about a lot in many online forums. As a technology that has dominated the world of photography for nearly two centuries, I feel it has a home in the magazine, especially as it seems to have been pushed out of most of the print media (because there is no money in advertising film and film equipment). However, it’s home should be side by side with digital with both worlds being complementary.

      As for future articles like this – I would like to run a review looking at the ‘colour’ response of various digital cameras because I have seen a big difference between that of the Canon 5D2, Nikon D700 and Sony A900 – and a difference that is very difficult to neutralise in photoshop (regardless of what people say – colour is not just something you fix in photoshop – it is an imprint of the way the camera works and only be tweaked globally later. Unless you spend a lot of time on a picture, you are stuck with the aesthetics of the platform of choice. I’m looking at possibly replacing my digital camera so this is something I want to know and can’t find out elsewhere… as I said though, the majority of the articles will remain about the art of landscape photography, with technical articles only appearing to allow people to develop the craft they need to express their vision.

      • WB

        Tim, first, thanx again for sharing your findings, it takes days and lots of diligence to do this testing….. hard to imagine you had to justify sharing such with us, pls keep up the great work and kindness… Happy New year.

  • Tim, very interesting article. Having made the switch to LF about 5 years ago, I would agree completely that you don’t have to pay a fortune to put together a large format kit. My Shen Hao probably cost less than most digital SLRs, and I built up my lens collection slowly, starting with a single standard (150) lens, adding other lenses when finances allowed, and bought a second-hand scanner. Having just done a quick tally, I would say that the cost of the lenses for my LF kit were no more than the lenses for my SLR kit. No need to worry about updating the camera either – it would be interesting to know how often people update their digital cameras, I suspect most people shooting digitally will be on their second or third digital body by now.

    Surely whether to use digital or film, or a mixture of both, is entirely a personal decision. I never would dream of saying that LF is the only/best format, only that it is the right format for me. Digital has many advantages, but so does film photography. It is up to each of us to decide what works best for us. Articles like this are important to help people to explore the options, and decide which route is the right one for them.

  • Custard

    Great article…now can you do something similar comparing inkjets with silver prints!

    • I’d love to have a play with print output in general – comparing lightjets, inkjets, silver prints, etc. Printing from home vs sending off… etc. Perhaps one for the future..

  • Leo Grillo

    I have film cameras up to 8×10 which I use in landscape photography. In the Los Angeles area, shooting a LF camera these days gets me interviewed by the authorities on whether or not I have a film permit! So I shoot my H3D instead, with which I can move quickly. I am thinking about the IQ 180, and after your article, I am convinced it is the smart move since I want to make huge prints. That used to mean 8×10 except for one achievement possible only in digital: stitching! With stitching, the IQ can make larger prints than an 8×10 and, thanks to focus stacking, with more DOF and less diffraction as well. Please thing about mentioning stitching and focus stacking in your follow up articles as this is a now widely used technique. Meanwhile ,thanks for the labor intensive tests!

    • Hi Leo,

      I agree about digital definitely making it cheaper and a bit easier to stitch – however it isn’t only limited to digital. Here is a 3 shot 4×5 stitch I took of Glencoe recently http://static.timparkin.co.uk/static/tmp/glencoe.jpg and I have a two side by side 10×8 stitch possibly being exhibited in a UK National Park at approx 10m x 3m (file size when stitched was 4Gb). I couldn’t get a proper ‘nodal point’ head for the 10×8 though!! :-)

  • Custard

    Tim, the Glencoe triple stitched shot is a breathtaking photograph…but I’m not sure it can be interpretated as a green light for film based stitching.

    I mainly shoot architecture with a Phase One back on a Linhof M679cs technical camera. I’ll sometimes stitch when I can use lens movements or the sliding back, but almost never if I have to slacken the ballhead and change the camera’s orientation. The reason, as you hint at in your reply, is because I can’t get the correct “pivot point” and, as I generally have some close foreground content in the shot, this becomes important.

    I’d suggest that it’s more practical to say that if you’re stitching at infinity with a relatively stationary scene, then anything goes. Choose film or digital, slr or large format, as you wish.

    But as you’re getting closer to the subject, especially with moving elements in the scene, then the slower nature of large format and the difficulty resolving the nodal point problem, mitigates against this solution for either digital or film?

  • Leo Grillo

    Correct me if I am wrong, but …. I have a Really Right Stuff pano head and it comes in two parts. Since I don’t plan on two rows of stitching, I don’t use the second half of the head which involves setting the nodal point. I tried it, but I don’t need it. So if you simply leveled your head wouldn’t you easily get what you need for stitching? As I say this, I am looking up at a 7×30 stitched pano by Peter Goin. I was there when he shot it three years ago … hand held with a Canon 5D.

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