Digital Photography and Medium Format

Excerpt from my Spring 2005 Newsletter

I wrote this "Perspective" article over two years ago and was recently re-reading it and found it intersting just how accurate my predictions were based on a little physics. Hence, I thought I'd repost it here on my blog for those that may have missed it. If you'd like to check out the back issues of my newsletters, they are available for download from my website here:

Here is the article as it was originally written in May 2005:

Before I was a photographer I was a physicist. I helped to create the worldʼs first low temperature STM microscope that could slow the particles of an atom down so they could be “electronically” photographed by a chemically etched probe. All of this happened on a scale most people can hardly even comprehend. I bring this up because my experience with micro-electronics and CCDʼs gives me a different perspective than that held by the masses out there shooting digital. Donʼt get me wrong, digital is rewriting what is possible in photography, but we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of what it can resolve, and that is where medium format will come in.

I hear a lot of people saying “medium format is dead.” Pro photographers are selling off their medium format gear everywhere you look. Medium format seems redundant next to the latest 12 and 16 MP professional 35mm DSLRs. As a result medium format camera companies are having a very rough time staying afloat. But I can see in the very near future that they will have reason to celebrate once again. Physics tells us that in order to increase resolution you need to increase the size of the lens and the size of the medium the information is being recorded on. In digital we have already seen this - an 8 MP image from a tiny ʻpoint and shootʼ sensor is inferior to an 8 MP image from a 35mm sized DSLR sensor. And it is well known that the larger the photo site on a CCD the lower the noise and the higher the image quality. All this boils down to the fact that as resolution increases the sensor size and lens diameter will have to increase as well and that is where medium format cameras will make their comeback.

A perfect example of this is Canonʼs EOS 1Ds Mark II with its 16.7 MP sensor. It is a fantastic camera and Canon is to be commended. Sadly, I donʼt own one personally but I am hearing from many who do that they have to use the best lenses Canon makes because the sensor is very close to outresolving the lenses. No matter how well you make a 35mm lens it can only resolve so much information. A Hasselblad lens still out resolves any 35mm lens, that is just physics. Optics will be the limiting factor for digital imaging. I predict that 35mm DSLRs will top out around 22 to 25 MP. Above that you will have to use medium format to get higher resolution with digital. And I predict the limiting factor will be the size of the lenses, not the sensor size. Of course at 22 MP you may ask why would we need anything larger? But one look at a life-like print from a medium format 35 MP camera will have us all drooling.