Yesterday, I posted an email that I sent to a friend, asking for advice. Here’s his answer:
I feel your pain.
I have pissed away more money on electronic imaging gear over the years than I care to think about – including over $100K for an Optronics drum scanner in the early 90’s. I’ve made almost every mistake possible. A bright spot would be that that my old assistant talked me out of getting an IRIS printer and I never did buy any Hasselblad stuff.
SCSI and Firewire – wonderful. The two worst electronic interfaces ever invented. I actually never was able to get Firewire to work in any consistent way and SCSI voodoo – oh my God. Remember terminating or not terminating and making sure the address was set right and bad SCSI cables and so on? What a nightmare.
I’m jealous you got hold of the 85mm Otus – I’ve had one on order for months. I have never actually used one so I can’t really comment on the relative merits of the Otus vs the ALPA Rodenstock and Schneider lenses. What I can say is that if you use or would like to use rise and fall and tilt with wide angle lenses you are much better off with a technical camera. Throw in slightly better macro capability than the Nikkor 105 as an added benefit.
I think it’s senseless to buy the medium format systems now (PhaseOne/Mamiya Pentax or Hasselblad) unless you want it for weddings or portraits where the shallower depth of field might be desirable. But really, an Otus on a Nikon is going to do the same thing.
Technical cameras are an altogether different beast. I use the ALPA for any tripod work with lenses of focal length of 150 or shorter. I use the Nikon 810 with my 180, 300 and 500 Nikon primes and I use the Sony A7r whenever hand holding or lightness and portability are important. I have always ended up dividing wide angle and tele work up between different formats.
The difference is not as great as it used to be because, in the film days, true wide angle lenses on a view camera outperformed reverse tele lenses on a DSLR hands down. With film you were really better off with the true wide angle lenses on a Leica, if wide angle 35mm was a must. And indeed I carried a combination of Leica and Nikon for a long time.
That all changed when you had to get the lens further away from the sensor plane. There was a period of time when the reverse tele DSLR lenses actually outperformed the true wide angle technical lenses when using electronic sensors. But with the advent of the modern Rodenstocks it is a new ball game. These lenses are really good. Right behind them would be the Zeiss Distagons for the Nikon which I told you about a while back. I have the 15, 25 and 35 and they are all great lenses. You just can’t use them easily in a tilt shift environment.
Properly done a simple ALPA wide angle system is actually a bit smaller and lighter than the equivalent DSLR setup. But if you have no use for tilt and shift then you are really better off with the Distagons for wide angle work, the Otus in the middle and those classic Nikkor Teles. The 810, with its EFCS, is the first camera ever to realize the inherent quality of those Nikon tele lenses. They are incredible, quite an eye opener for me. I had always suspected shutter vibration was a huge problem; now I know.
I suspect you will really be much happier sticking with the Nikon stuff unless you crave the depth of field control of a tilt setup. There is no substitute for what tilt does for you, not focus stacking or stopping down etc. Tilt allows you to control the feeling of depth in a photograph that is available in no other way. If you want tilt it’s a no-brainer combined with severe economic consequences — which require the no-brain part if you think about it.
Oh yes – the Phase One backs really are nicely done. Really simple and intuitive menu and great Live View on the IQ 250. Very useable. Once you get on the Phase bandwagon the upgrades are a bit cheaper – I think around $18K when swapping backs. Phase One’s pricing strategy is now a bit out dated – they were thinking commercial studios and film costs. I think they will have to start cutting their prices back to remain competitive.
I get all my ALPA gear from Jeff Hirsch at Foto Care in New York and my Phase One stuff from Jim Taskett at Bear Images. You can’t do any better than those two guys. Jim will try to sell you on Cambo, but that system makes me nervous, I just don’t like the design and worry about a lack of precision when the lenses are in their zero detent position. The ALPA system is much simpler and zero is zero. The ALPA camera you want is the STC.