Format Wars are Faux Battles

Want to start a fight? 

Here's a good line to try on one of your photo club friends: show me a medium format image that looks better than my full frame image (feel free to change the formats to two you know apply). 

Instant fight.

Let me say right up front that a larger format sensor with more pixels should be capturing better data than a smaller format sensor with fewer pixels. Two basic concepts make that true: (1) a larger format collects more photons; and (2) more pixels means more sampling, and more sampling is always a good thing in digital, all else equal.

I tried this line the other day on someone whose name I'd better not mention. 

First, they didn't want to show me an image. 

Next, they argued about their theoretical advantages, ad infinitum.

Once they surfaced for air again, then they quickly went to pixel peeping. 

I just wanted to see an image ;~). 

At some point photography is all about the image. At least it should be. More important, it's about how the image as it is being viewed. 

I first learned the latter bit while leading Backpacker magazine. One of my goals coming into the job there was to improve the level of the magazine's image use up to National Geographic standards, or at least as close as I could get to it using organic inks on 100% recycled paper with no whiteners. My creative director, photo editor, and I spent many of our productive hours each week at a light box that was bigger than most people's dining room table. 

On that huge light box, the larger format always won (well, almost always). Looking at Photographer A's 4x5 slides alongside Photographer B's 35mm slides always put the smaller "image" at a disadvantage. Indeed, my photographic mentor at the time, Galen Rowell apparently knew this, because he was having large format internegatives made of his 35mm slides, which were then converted to large format slides he submitted for review. Due to the expense of doing so, he only did this with his "A" images, but that allowed his "A" images to stand out on their own on the light box against photographers who were using medium or large format cameras.

These days, the opposite problem occurs. If all we do is look at Web-hosted images on a smartphone display, the large format photographer loses their potential visual advantage. In fact, the deeper focus field of the small format cameras—including smartphones themselves—might be said to have advantages with some subjects, such as landscapes. 

What I was hoping in my trick question to the medium format photographer was that he'd show me his work "at size." By that, I mean that he'd take me to the room where he stores all his 48"+ prints. Turns out, he wasn't really doing any large print work at the time. What he wanted to show me was some studio portrait work he was working on, and then only on a 4K display. 

My snide (but probably true) remark to him was that I'd have no problem plugging my smaller format camera into his Profoto lights and getting results that looked just as good. 4K, after all, is a pretty low bar (3840 x 2160). That would be like binning the pixels on my full frame camera. And do we really need more resolution on a portrait in the first place? After all, the first thing I usually see everyone do with portraits is try to remove detail from the face.

Too many folk keep getting caught up in the "more is better" arguments that continue to sell 4m+ cameras a year, and they do so without thinking about their intended output. Who's going to look at your images, and how? 

I'll put a straw man proposal out there for you all to set on fire: if you're not displaying your images larger than a desktop inkjet printer can create, you don't need more. More of anything. You don't need more pixels (24mp should be enough). You don't need more sensor size (m4/3 or APS-C should be enough). You probably don't need a better lens.

Which brings me back to Galen. He made his reputation by putting his body (and camera body) in places that others didn't or couldn't get to. His images tended to be unique and intriguing because you just didn't see those views and perspective elsewhere. With true care about his capture discipline, his post processing, and his printing process, he managed to make images that competed just fine against medium format and larger photographers. 

Galen almost always managed to get above me ;~)

So let me insert a new phrase into the evaluation process for gear:

  • Good enough
  • What you need
  • Best possible

Good enough is a very low bar, particularly if your output is small (Web). Your smartphone might do, and any interchangeable lens camera will certainly do.

Best possible is a very high bar, and an expensive bar to drink at. You'll keep paying incredible amounts for very small gains.

What you need is where most of you should be, but are you correctly evaluating where that is? 24mp APS-C or full frame seems like it fulfills this category perfectly well. 

Given my interactions with a lot of folk buying 45mp+ full frame cameras, I'm guessing no, you're not correctly evaluating what you need. You're buying higher than you need. 

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