Does new-camera tech 'rival' old-camera tech?

I once read an article by a pro photographer (Ken Rockwell) saying the best digital DSLR cameras “rival” the larger-format view cameras of the past.

Is that really possible?

Doesn’t the sheer size of a large-format image area capture details or subtleties that a DSLR sensor can’t equal?

Ken Rockwell has a tendency for what you might call hot takes.

He simultaneously says that film is better, especially large format, while saying that the latest stuff is the best ever.


To me they are different beasts.

Mr Rockwell’s site may not be the most accurate but it is fun to read because it is so lighthearted. A relief from the ranting of the “gear religious”.

Not always. I read some interesting articles about this and there was the conclusion that many medium and large format lenses (especially the ones made for film) are not as sharp as the banal full frame ones.
The reason is easy: initially all the images ended up printed, and to print a certain size you needed to enlarge only 2 or 3 times the MF/LF film and maybe 10 times the FF film.
Now as the bigger formats also go to digital, this might have changed (or not, I did not checked).

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The question refers primarily to the resolution of photographic film and sensor, both plus camera optics. Although there are other factors determining image quality (like micro contrast) these are the most important ones. Here are very good articles, in which you also find a comparison of images taken with a digital camera with those taken on photographic film.



I reckon my Nikon D800 rivals the quality from 35mm film, uing the same prime Nikon lenses. But Schneider S-Ang XL lenses on 5x4 B&W film (eg Ilford Delta 100) knocks the socks off the D800. This also needs a good enlarging lens, eg Schneider-Kreuznach Componon-S. For image quality, there is no comparison.

The digital world has moved on since the D800. Perhaps later models are better. And larger digital formats are available. And I’ve never tried the Leica B&W digital world – the bank manager says “no”.

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I’ve been curious about the effect of formats for a while. Never found conclusive evidence what makes the large format magic (ignoring short dof). My working hypothesis is now that it’s mainly about tolerances in lens manufacture. It feels like it’s also about magnification because smaller formats look more “crunched” particularly wide. I really love the airy feel of wide angle lenses on large formats. They have the quality of short tele’s but with a wide field of view.

Now that also less good photographers have access to larger formats it’s also clear that much of what makes larger formats is the photographer. Digital images from larger formats made to look awful by less than stellar post production.

Even shallow dof is debatable because extreme wide aperture lenses like current f/1.2 and f/1.4 lenses do not simply exist for large format cameras.

I haven’t shot with medium or large format cameras, but I am aware of the mythical “medium format look” and I think I have seen it in portraits. The following is just speculation. Viewing mostly portraits, I would take a look on medium and large format lenses. Maybe old wide aperture lenses give a nice look and buttery bokeh at the expense of small detail sharpness, CA correction and field curvature elimination? Some modern era lenses like Canon 85/1.2 and Nikon 58/1.4 have similar aberration issues, but in portraiture give you the look you want.

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I learned a new phrase.

Thanks everyone for the observations, and external resources.

(mutters …) bank managers …

I can only recommend to get a ‘cheap’ analog medium format camera and try it yourself.

My limited personal experience is this: DoF ist not shallower than e.g. a Canon 85/1.2, but everything else can be. Going from in focus to out of focus regions can be smoother on a larger format, corner sharpness fall-off can be less visible, contrast wide open can be better, micro contrast can be better, distortion can be better controlled, the plane of focus can be flatter…minute details that add up.

The Mamiya645 with 80/2.8 that I have has some swirly bokeh that I am not a fan of for example. Still, the whole package just looks very good even compared to good modern lenses. There is more to a lens (and a film/sensor) than just resolution.

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Do you use that lens on a digital camera body
or “just” on the Mamiya 645?

Have fun!
Claes in Lund, Sweden

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Imagine that you have a semi-antique lens, like a Mamiya 80/2.8,
and that you have a Mamiya (analog) camera body
as well as a digital camera body, onto which you can ‘adapter’ the lens.

What differences would you be able to spot from the images?

Have fun!
Claes in Lund, Sweden

Same lens, different ‘sensors’…

I think the sensors would need to be the same dimension in order to compare the lens performance on each. Think about how distortion and vignetting manifest; you’d want images with extremities covered by the same aspect of the lens… ??

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What are we comparing? Digital full frame to digital medium format is a ridiculously small step.

let’s start with APS-C and step up to full frame. The sensor size is multiplied by two (or 2.2), most sensors in APS-C and FF are sold somewhere around 24 MP, so there is no real advantage in resolution. There IS an advantage in depth of field for FF but it’s not as big as the advertising tries to tell us. In real life you miss a lot of shots at f/1.4 because the eyes might just not be perfectly in focus and the slightly larger DoF of an APS-C sensor could save the shot. I do NOT think I can tell if a portrait was shot with a FF or APS-C camera.

Now let’s step up from FF to digital medium format: the sensor area is about 1.5 times larger. Not 2 or 2.2 times. 1.5 times only. I told you that I can’t really see the difference between APS-C and FF, so it’s completely hopeless to identify any difference between FF and MF. They DO sell MF cameras with 100 MP (Fuji) and that is an incredible resolution, but I rarely publish anything north of 4MP (2560*1712) … why punish me and my laptop with those super huge files? Plus the separation / DoF of a 105mm 1.4 or 200 2.0 on FF is unequaled and doesn’t exist in digital MF.

They say that opportunity knocks only once but temptation leans on the doorbell ;o) and my temptation listens to the beautiful name of Hasselblad X1D (doesn’t it sound like music? ExOneDee?) but there is simply nothing it can do that a D850 with a 105 1.4 can’t do better - at a quarter of the price.

Things change radically when we look on the analog side of things. The “sensor size” of a Pentax 67 is about five times (in words: FIVE times) bigger than the 24*36 mm negative format of a classic 135 film. The detail and resolution of such a large negative or slide is just rivaled by the new 100 MP sensors now. And no full frame camera-and-lens-combination can come close to the incredible shallow DoF of the Super Takumar 105 2.4 in front of a Pentax 67 (another temptation).

If you want to shoot material for real huge prints, say two by three meters (seven by ten feet) , you might still go with analog medium format rather than digital. But in order to benefit from that great resolution, you need quite expensive lab gear, an expensive rotating (drum) scanner and again) a PC that can handle those huge files … the cost of camera plus lens is ridiculously low compared to that


I have some old Hasselblad prints at home and I can tell you that they are a marvel to look at. The camera not so much, at least in the brief time we had one. The ease of use of the modern camera is much more compelling.


Now, this is interesting and the important question is Why?
What is it that makes those old Hasselblad prints a marvel to look at?
Darkroom skills?

Have fun!
Claes in Lund, Sweden

‘Just’ on the Mamiya for now. I would need an adapter. And I don’t really see why I should try. 645 is 56mm*41,5mm=2324mm² if I put this on my X-T1 (with a 370mm² sensor) I am really cropping in on the center of that lens…but…I literally don’t see the bigger picture. There are some people out there who did this, and it is a fine 80/2.8 lens, but you loose so much of the image circle. With that bigger image circle comes a lot of the ‘magic’ I think. It’s not magic though.

I am more interested in getting a decent macro lens and ‘scanning’ my negatives, stitching everything together.

Oh and that Mamiya lens is NOT a Planar 80/2.8…
Here’s what one could also do: cruise through the existing flickr groups for those lenses. You’ll see the ‘zeiss pop’ in comparison. And you can get a good grasp of what medium format can look like. I can only stress heavily: This is not only about DoF, that is rather irrelevant I think, it’s about all other aberrations which are SO much better controlled in longer focal length higher f-number lenses.

True. But since a lens is supposed to be at its best in the center, the idea to use
a large format lens for a smaller sensor is not a bad idea at all.

Have fun!
Claes in Lund, Sweden

Nothing wrong with that, but …

There are many trade-offs in a lens design, and one of those is the usable radius of the image circle. The larger the radius, the more difficult it is to make at high resolution, or large aperture or whatever.

For example, I have many lenses around 50mm focal length. They are mostly cheap and good quality for 36x24mm (FF, Full Frame). One of these is 47mm, max aperture f/5.6. Yikes, how come it has such a small aperture? Because it covers 5x4 film. It’s a cracking lens for 5x4. But I suspect the performance it gives on 36x24mm would be worse than the faster and cheaper lenses designed for that format.

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