Why Shoot Med/Large Format Film?

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by njmac, Dec 1, 2005.

  1. njmac macrumors 68000


    Jan 6, 2004
    Is it a certain look that you can't get from a digital camera or will it make really huge prints that a 8 to 16 mp camera can't take?

    The info about medium and large format cameras that I have found seem a little outdated.

    Can you get the same results from today's super megapixel cameras?
  2. Sdashiki macrumors 68040


    Aug 11, 2005
    Behind the lens
    Digital vs Analog when money is of no object, is a personal preference.

    For most a 16MP camera is out of the question.

    Also, film is atoms forming grains of color. So, depending on the speed film, you will get extremely good detail from a 35MM blown up to even a huge poster.

    A 16MP might be able to blow up an image the same, but can it go larger? Can it go banner size without pixelating? Does it actually capture the crows feat, the iris lines etc etc?

    You cant compare film to digital, its apples to oranges.

    Do you want atomic scale or pixels?

    With large format its the same, but the you have a much larger surface area for light to shine on atoms.

    On a 16MP camera, the light sensor is not much bigger than a 2MP camera's sensor. So is large format vs 35mm actually that big a difference as 16MP vs 2MP is? NO way. You shoot large format because you like it, you like how you can go into the darkroom and not have to enlarge the negative to get a print. You see what you get, no hairs no dust, just fine detail.

    I can go on and on, but its all personal preference.
  3. -hh macrumors 68030


    Jul 17, 2001
    NJ Highlands, Earth
    Warning: Math intensive

    Setting aside intangibles and looking purely at technology of image resolution potential, IMO, the short answer for digital vs film is probably still: "vs 35mm? Yes. vs Med/Large? No.

    The longer answer:

    On the digital side, there's physics limitations to how small you can shrink the CMOS sensor, since every "pixel" has overhead of circuitry that can't be removed from the sensor's face. You can shrink the "photon antenna", but not really this circuitry, so the net result is that as you go smaller, the percentage of your sensor's surface that's actually gathering photons goes down (a bad thing).

    On the film side, our resolution limit is similar, and is called "grain" and/or "grain size". One common element of the trade-off is that as your ISO speed goes up, so too does your grain size (which is not good).

    To get more resolution, the general solution for both is to go to a bigger physical sensor - - medium format, etc.

    On digital, this can (and has) been done, but chip yields tend to go down the larger the chip is, so this gets very expensive very quickly. For example, Hasselblad is advertising a new camera, the H2D, which is a medium format 22 Megapixel SLR that's going to sell for a mere $27K.

    On film, we call it Medium and/or Large format. Popular examples are 645 (from 120 film), 4"x5", etc.

    That's the "input data" side.
    Now lets look for a moment at our "Output print":

    Insofar as print quality, it always, always, always comes down to how much data you have in your original, and how large you can enlarge it at whatever your minimum acceptable quality level is.

    Anyone can take a little bit of data and somehow enlarge it - it just will get blocky. You can even create images with 10ft x 10ft "pixels" in Black & White:


    If you don't want to see grain or pixelation, the value that's generally claimed as adequate for a "sharp" print is 200-300 dpi.

    If we do the math on a 4:3 ratio image to see how much data we need for a "sharp" 40" x 30" print, we can determine that we would need to have (40)(300dpi)*(30)(300dpi) = 144 x 10^6 pixels of information, or 144 Megapixels.

    Even if we back off to only 200dpi, we're still talking about (40)(200)(30)(200) = 48MP being minimally required.

    As such, the short answer to '...can today's super megapixel cameras make a good 40"x30"?', if your criteria for adequate sharpness is 200dpi or higher, the answer is No.

    But can film?

    Well, the general "Megapixel equivalent" (MPe) values that get thrown around (and argued about!) for 35mm film tend to be around 24-48 MPe on the higher end...where "higher end" means those values that are tending to give maximum credit to the resolution potential of film.

    What this suggests is that a 40" x 30" print is probably the maximum acceptable 'sharp' enlargement for a 35mm original, all other factors being equal (such as best glass quality, tripod, etc).

    Caveat: there's a lot of other factors that get thrown in here that I'm purposefully glossing over, such as "grain clumping", and the pragmatic ISO value needed to work with a particular subject, since the highest MPe values generally require very, very low ISO film - - you don't find many people out there taking landscapes with ISO 25 film these days, in no small part because its hard to find ISO 25 film these days (although I still personally have two bricks in my 'fridge :)).

    Where medium/large format comes in is that it allows you to have larger sensors - - be it a digital sensor or a chemical (silver) sensor.

    For a simple 120 film "645" medium format camera, it has a 60mm by 45mm negative, which versus the 35mm x 24mm negative from 35mm is 2700 mm^2 versus 840mm^2, or a bit more than 3 times (~3.3x) the area.

    As such, if we *claim* that we can get 48MPe from a scan of a 35mm, a scan of a 120 negative would be expected to give us around 150MPe. if we go back to our 40" x 30" print, that's theoretically enough data to let us jack up the sharpness from 200dpi to 300dpi.

    When we move up to large format, a 4" x 5" original is ~12,900mm^2, or ~15x the area of 35mm. As such, ath the 48MPe for 35mm benchmark, we have 720MPe, and at 24MP, we would have 360MPe. For the latter, at a 300dpi print, this would suggest a practical max print size of ~71" x ~56".

    If we take a 71" x 56" print and go back to only 16MP of data, it suggests that the image would have to be printed at 63dpi...each pixel is roughly 1/64th of an inch tall and wide, which is slightly worse than what we used to get from an ancient 9 pin dot matrix printer (72dpi vertical).

    Going to the extremes, the current state of the art is a 4 Gigapixel equivalent camera. Its a film camera that uses a huge negative that is then drum-scanned:


    For an illustration of the resolution each image holds, you can check out the November 2005 issue of Popular Science, or this page:


  4. iGary Guest


    May 26, 2004
    Randy's House
  5. joepunk macrumors 68030


    Aug 5, 2004
    a profane existence
    Nice. Does it have a name?
  6. BrandonSi macrumors regular

    Oct 13, 2005
    Chicago, IL
    It's a Hassellblad, H2D.
  7. njmac thread starter macrumors 68000


    Jan 6, 2004
    I feel like I should send you some money for your answer;) :)
    That really made a lot of sense and was very helpful.

    Thanks Sdashiki for your answer also.

    You guys explained very well.

    iGary, that Hassellblad looks cool:cool:
  8. kwajo.com macrumors 6502a


    Jul 17, 2002
    Bay of Fundy
    ahhh Hassellblad, how oft I have dreamt of thee
  9. bousozoku Moderator emeritus

    Jun 25, 2002
    Gone but not forgotten.

    Too much of a Hassle, blad.


    If I've got to have serious pixels, give me a camera with a sweet disposition, not a torture device. j/k ;)
  10. atari1356 macrumors 68000


    Feb 27, 2004
    One thing to keep in mind though, is the distance that an image will be viewed from.

    200-300dpi might be necessary for something viewed very closely (like a 4"x6" photo) - but a 40"x30" poster will rarely be viewed up close like that, so that level of detail is not always necessary.
  11. puckhead193 macrumors G3


    May 25, 2004
    Nice, i'll take 4:rolleyes:
  12. GoCubsGo macrumors Nehalem


    Feb 19, 2005
    I shoot large format because it is 100% impossible to make a platinum contact print on 100% rag paper from my computer.
    Unless I print the image as a negative on a transparency and then I lose all tonal value whatsoever and life sucks hard.
  13. njmac thread starter macrumors 68000


    Jan 6, 2004
    Do you do this for a gallery or a museum? Do you do this so you can sell them and you like the beauty of the final print?
  14. -hh macrumors 68030


    Jul 17, 2001
    NJ Highlands, Earth

    Yes, this is a point frequently made. However, when it comes to the over-generalized question, which typically follows the generic form of: "...but if 35mm is good enough, then why does anyone bother with Med/Large format?..."

    ...what this suggests to me (yes, I'm speculating here) is that when it comes to larger prints, perhaps the "not necessarily necessary" generalization is where we trip ourselves up: its the retention of sharpness from Med/Large format in the bigger print - - - even when not viewed close up - - - that causes it to appear to be materially different than the same subject with lower resolution.

    It would be nice to have a pat, simple answer. My speculation is that the Mk1 eyeball is somehow perceiving the additional detail even if we're not conciously aware of it.

    I'm not sure if this is an example, but I'll mention it in the hopes that it is:

    I'm in the Northeastern USA (northwestern New Jersey), so we have the traditional changing of tree leaf colors - - the yellows, oranges and reds. For many of the days during the transition, the colors are ... well, I don't want to say "blah", but they're just merely there.

    But if I'm lucky, I'll have one or two days where on my drive home, there's some magical combination of leaf pigment, lighting and atmospheric clarity such that I feel as if my eyes are on detail overload. Its not that the colors are any more brilliant, but I get the visual impression that at that particular instant, I can see every leaf, every branch, every twig, and so forth....hopefully, you can understand why I'm describing this as "detail overload".

    Overall, I'm of the opinion that the same thing probably happens with large prints of higher-than-35mm-type resolution: you're not going to get a "WOW!" image from a fair/good print, but you may if it has the tiny detail that somehow can pull you in from far away.

    Just my guess. I wish I understood it better so that I could reproduce it on demand.

  15. njmac thread starter macrumors 68000


    Jan 6, 2004
    Thanks for more great insight hh.

    Do you shoot film or are you just knowlegable about the format?

    If you don't mind me asking, what County do you live in? I live in Vernon (sussex county).
  16. -hh macrumors 68030


    Jul 17, 2001
    NJ Highlands, Earth
    I shoot both prints and film, plus I have the typical "Engineer's curiousity" about the hardware sides of things, and my nurturing environment included my father being an Art teacher with his Masters+30k, so I got dragged through a lot of museums as a kid and learned a lot without realizing it at the time :)

    In thinking about my photography history, its now 30+ years in the making, with my first camera being a 1971 Polaroid Square Shooter.

    But I'd say that it mostly got started with a fully manual (Pentax K-1000) 35mm SLR in 1978, which got me into landscapes/waterfalls.

    In 1991, I added underwater photography with a 35mm rangefinder Nikon Nikonos V. For UW, you shoot slides, not prints, because you need WYSIWYG because of lighting limitations. It turns out to be a pretty challenging medium - - lighting issues, light absorption issues, environmental and time limitations, uncooperative subjects, focus/exposure, etc. Even though the Nikonos has basic auto-exposure, I shoot fully manual and bracket.

    Later, I rented a medium format Mamiya 645 to shoot some landscapes - - about the same time that Kodak released their Ektar ISO 25 film, so that allowed me to stay with 35mm for my landscapes/waterfalls interests. I finally got my first 35mm autofocus SLR in 1998 (Canon Elan IIe).

    Between land & UW, and as of a couple of years ago, I've estimated that I have taken something in excess of 15,000 images on film.

    For digital, in 1994, our office dropped $1000 to get one of the original Apple Quicktake 100 cameras. I decided to wait :) The first real digital at home was a Canon A80 that I bought for my wife (to replace a 35mm P&S), but which I've borrowed a lot for my business trips to Europe. Its recently rolled past IMG_4000, so my total collection today's now over 20,000 images in total. I just recently finally got the 8MP Canon 20D dSLR after having watched (and agonized) over film-digital debate for at least the past 5 years, waiting for digital to equal film.

    My general philosophy on film-vs-digital probably comes from the low yields from UW photography ... they're often as low as 5% ... which suggests that since you can't later add resolution, regardless of what you're shooting for, you always need to have maximum resolution potential in your pocket for when you get lucky enough for that "WOW" shot that you'll want to enlarge.

    I'm down in Morris County; grew up in Dover & now work at Picatinny. A former boss of mine lives in Vernon and was an EMT on the local volunteer squad, so I know some of your neighborhood - mostly Rt 94 to the Great Gorge or Hidden Valley, although we've also found the "Stairway to Heaven" trailhead onto the Appalachian Trail (AT), and have bought cars from Intercar over in Newton.

    When spring arrives, we'll probably lace up the boots for a dayhike along Kittatinny Ridge ... the Catfish Pond / Rattlesnake Swamp loop on the AT: http://www.purdes.com/njhiking/kittatinny/ Any interest?

  17. poolin1243 macrumors 6502

    Nov 7, 2005
    Kansas City,MO/Milwaukee, WI
    use the hassy h2d all the time...almost every day at the studio...if u can afford one...grab it...haha. They even send a hassy rep to YOU to show you how to work everything, the software, etc....hassy is and always will be the best.

    as for you..

    theres nothin like a good piece of chrome.....
  18. revenuee macrumors 68020


    Sep 13, 2003
    A place where i am supreme emporer
    ya -- i know i'm a little late on this response, but i feel that resolution aside there are several other factors to consider.

    although nikon and canon both offer PC lenses which allow 35mm shooters to similar "tricks" as the med/large format boys there are just things that a 35mm camera can't do.

    one of the things that has always fascinated me with the beyond 35mm formats is the manipulation of focal planes ... the ability to not only control the distance, but the location, the angle

    sure ... you can achieve similar effects with a little tinkering photoshop but to be able to do right here and there is incredible.

    i out working with a master photographer doing some architecture photography, and at first he had me look through the lens and i saw what i normally see --- converging lines of the buildings --- then he adjusted the front of the bellows in the large format camera to be at the inverse angle to the rear portion of the camera and showed me how the converging lines disappear to yield a proper image ... now again i've corrected such problems in photoshop ... but to have the level of control on site and be able to express the idea as it is fresh rather then having to go back and FIX problems amazes me.
  19. Over Achiever macrumors 68000

    Over Achiever

    Jul 22, 2002
    Toledo, OH, formerly Twin Cities, MN
    This is one reason people like large format o:

    Amazing detail close up and amazingly large prints (10+' x 20+')

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