Yesterday, Phase One announced a new camera, the first with a nearly full size 645 CMOS sensor. I think this marks a pivotal moment in the medium format world, not so much because of the camera, but because of the chip. Let me back up a bit, and tell you why.
About a year ago, Phase One made a similar announcement, of a CMOS-sensor camera with a 33 by 44 mm 50 megapixel sensor. As I’m sure most of you know, the sensor was produced by Sony, and many medium format camera manufacturers followed with cameras based on the Sony chip.
Why wasn’t I very excited about last year’s sensor announcement?
The first reason is, at 33 by 44 mm, the sensor is not that much larger than full frame 35 MM sensors. I think to call it medium format is a stretch, although Leica has been getting away with that terminology for years with the even smaller 30 by 45 MM sensor in the S series. I still think of 42x56mm as entry-level medium format, and 56×84 as its upper end, although some people used to consider anything smaller than 4×5 inches medium format.
And then there’s resolution. At 50 MP, the old CMOS sensor was a bit more than the 36 MP full frame 35 mm (FF) sensors then available in Nikon and Sony cameras, and pretty much even with the 42 MP Sony and 50 MP Canon FF sensors announced later last year.
There was one notable announcement, however: the Pentax 645Z using the Sony 33×44 mm chip set an aggressive (by MF standards) price point. All the other MF vendors priced the new sensor pretty much in line with their old CCD sensor cameras.
At the beginning of last month, I received an email from Hasselblad, announcing an impressive price cut – to a little over half the previous price — for the month of December on the Hassy H5D-50c, which uses the 33×44 CMOS chip. I thought about upgrading from my ancient H2D-39, but didn’t do it. Why? Because the camera’s sensor wasn’t much bigger or higher-res than my a7RII, and because all my Hassy lenses are optimized for the full 42x56mm format, and wouldn’t be at their best on a 33×44 mm sensor. There’s also the fact that the new camera doesn’t support either USB3 or HDMI, limping along with Firewire.
The newly-announced 100 MP Phase One breaks new ground, doubling CMOS pixel count (I think the 80 MP CCD chip used by Phase One is too noisy for general photography, although fine for studio and some landscape work), and doubling the FF area. CMOS means lower noise and fast, crisp live view, which is critical for focusing as the pixel count goes up.
In my opinion, medium format digital photography was stumbling towards irrelevance, as FF cameras and lenses (thank you, Sigma and Zeiss, for your current lenses, and also Leica, for the old R lenses) got closer and closer to its resolving abilities, and CMOS sensor improvements, with the exception of the 33×44 mm Sony chip, seemed to avoid the MF world. I saw medium format being reduced to a tool for studio photographers and a few landscapers and high-buck wedding pros, and eventually being challenged even is those markets.
I’m sure many of you are asking yourselves how a $50K camera, no matter how stellar, is going to affect your photography. It probably won’t, but the sensor chip might. Let’s suppose that, as happened last year, the new 100 MP sensor is picked up by all the medium format camera makers. There is reason to believe that this might happen: Hassy has a new, low H5D-50c price, and Pentax has reduced the price on the 645Z – are they making room for new cameras in their product lines? What if Pentax prices a camera with the new sensor at less than $10K? What if the margins in the medium format camera industry come down so that the market can grow? The fact that Hassy can lower the price of one of their cameras by a half shows that the gross margins (if not the profits) of MF cameras are shocking.
Of course, this could all turn out the opposite way than I’m hoping it will. The profit erosion in the MF camera industry could occur, and the result could be, not a larger, richer market but a same-sized profitless one, causing the end of medium format as we know it.
And how much resolution is enough, and when do megapixels stop mattering? From the simulation studies I’ve done, for the best current full frame lenses, the answer, from the perspective of using all that the lens can deliver, is 500 to 800 megapixels. How much is enough for reasonable output sizes. From one perspective, you could say we’re already there. I consider 24 MP enough for a nice C-size print; 100 MP, all else equal, would get you the same quality at E size (34×44 inches).