Magazine Article


Digital Backs Served Medium Well
Are integrated systems for medium format cameras and digital backs the wave of the future?

Sinar Bron
Phase One

The trend in medium format cameras is clearly toward digital. The trend in digital backs depends on to whom you talk. We asked several of the top executives in the business the following questions. Is there a trend toward creating a medium format camera and digital camera back that are designed to work together? Do customers prefer buying digital camera backs for their old cameras that were originally designed for film? How high do you see the megapixel limit going? And have we reached the level where the output is now comparable to film? While most agree that fully integrated systems are hot, others think the versatility of the current backs are the only way to go. The one thing everyone agrees on, is that the best is yet to come.

"Photographers want a fully integrated medium format solution that offers them the advantages of a DSLR, with the quality of a high resolution CCD chip, driven by fully featured and powerful software," says Cathy Strobel, president of Sinar Bron Imaging Inc. "They also want their investment in the high resolution chip to be leveraged by using it on a fully integrated view camera solution as well."

And, while there is a perception that photographers will stick with digital backs in an attempt to keep using their old, favorite cameras, Strobel says that is no longer the case. "That used to be their only choice. Not anymore," she says. "A system designed from its inception as an integrated solution offers too many benefits compared to settling for a state-of-the-art CCD matched to 20-year-old camera technology."

The digital revolution is here to stay, having won over even its toughest critics, according to Strobel. She states that we reached the zenith years ago of digital output reaching the level of film and "with the current Multi-Shot solution, we are seeing most of our 8x10 film users finally switch over. That was a tough crowd to please."

The multi-shot solution of which she speaks is the Sinarback eVolution 75H. It is said to be the only tethered, actively cooled multi-shot solution on the market. Developed jointly by Sinar and its technology partner JenOptik, the 33 million pixel eVolution 75H has been designed without components such as display, controls and memory, allowing for maximum transfer rates, higher speeds and outstanding image quality, according to Sinar Bron.

And while we have seen megapixel levels reach a stunning 39MP, Strobel says we aren't done yet. "When every new chip is announced you have a certain amount of people who say that is enough for them. You also have a certain amount of people who say they still need more. I believe there are at least two more steps to this process. The same holds true for the physical size of the chip, which, of course, affects lens ratio.

When it comes to integrated systems, Jack Showalter, president, Hasselblad USA Inc. agrees with Sinar Bron's Strobel, noting that recent announcements from Sinar, Leaf, and Mamiya all are clear indications of the accelerating trend in medium format digital capture to integrated systems. "This makes sense," says Showalter, "since one manufacturer can then design a complete system to work together, increasing speed, improving functionality and streamlining workflow. At Hasselblad, since the introduction of the H1D, we have seen our digital capture sales go from 0% medium format DSLR in 2004 to over 75% in 2007. There is a clear trend toward integration, and it is growing. I expect the DSLR percentage of our total digital capture units to be over 90% in 2008."

As for where the technology will lead us, Showalter says there are reports of 50- and 60-megapixel CCD sensors being developed, as well as very dense sensors using other technologies. "Regardless of how much data a photographer really needs in an image, it has been my experience that most want the greatest amount technologically possible," he notes. "I am confident that once new, larger sensors are available, we will implement them in new offerings, and if history is any indicator, these new offerings will sell very well, even if they are more expensive than current models."

To further prove his point, Showalter says all you have to do is look at the numbers. "From a business standpoint, I can tell you that at Hasselblad, our sales of digital capture dwarfs our sales of our film products. We manufacture and market both film and digital solutions (including film scanners), but if I look at sales of products like film magazines, for instance, I can tell you that the decline in film that started in the late 90s continues today."

Showalter says this is a clear indication that most photographers see digital "as good as or better" than film, since they have made a very expensive business decision to invest in digital solutions, sometimes at the expense of their film equipment. In short, he says, the empirical data clearly shows a preference for digital imaging over film. "While still viable, the film business is approaching a 'niche' business for us. The good news is that there is still a lot of great work out there on film, so sales of our scanners continue to be quite good."

Not everyone, however, thinks integrated systems are the way to go. When asked about a fully integrated medium format solution, Jacob Struckmann, president of Phase One US, doesn't see the point. "If this question is referring to building bodies and backs that are virtually glued together by only working with each other, this does not make sense," states Struckmann. "Why would you 'glue' two things together (camera and back) when you know that the development of backs is much faster than on cameras? In other words, you can expect backs that are better, faster and with new features, every 18-24 months. [It takes] five years or more for medium format cameras to really come out with something new."

Struckmann then goes on to explain the advantages of versatile backs. "The hallmark of the professional community and thereby medium format, has been versatility and a completely open platform approach," he begins. "Traditionally, a photographer could use the same film with any medium format system. Even photographers using 4x5 cameras could use medium format film with an adapter. Digital camera back manufacturers have continued on this tradition to ensure that the right tool could be used for the right job."

Struckmann added that Phase One has announced an alliance with Mamiya to develop an open platform-based medium format camera. Both Leaf and Sinar have started to deliver the Hy6 camera system private labeled, according to Struckmann. "The difference here is that the Phase One, Leaf and Sinar solutions are still open platforms and still allow for the use of film or competitive backs," he says. "The new Phase One Camera is even compatible with the new 28mm wide angle lens from Mamiya and will accept a film back or digital backs other than Phase One's." In addition, Struckmann claims the Phase One back is compatible with virtually any technical camera solution, enabling professionals to focus on photography and capture using the best tools for the job.

Struckmann notes that Phase One does continue to support older discontinued platforms like the Contax system and Hasselblad V series. "Backs continue to sell for these platforms, so there are customers who are using old systems designed for film and continue to invest in them."

As for the future, Struckmann believes it would be unrealistic to imagine that digital capture chip innovation and development will stop at 39MP. Noting that both the megapixel size and the capture area of digital capture chips has changed dramatically, he says it could be argued that theses changes may slow down, but they will most certainly, not stop. "How high can it go is anyone's guess," he says. "Many felt 22MP was the limit of medium format optics, but our sales reflect that a very high percentage of 22MP back users upgraded to the 39MP P 45 and P 45+ backs. Many photographers have suggested that the P45+ backs surpass 8x10 or even 11x14 film in range, resolution, and gradation. I really do not believe there is a question anymore [about digital output matching that of film]. With results like this, the future looks bright for further innovation!"

Mark P. Rezzonico, vice president, Leaf America notes that while it may seem that the technology is limitless, there are two factors that will limit the pixel count on a sensor. One is physical, one is financial. "Physical limitations are centered on the number of pixels that will actually fit," explains Rezzonico. "Originally, Leaf used an 11.4 micron pixel. We now use one that is 7.2 microns. By making the pixels smaller, we can fit more on the chip. There are challenges in image quality in making the pixels smaller. This can be overcome by making chips bigger, but there are set limits based on the format camera they fit on-24mmx36mm for 35mm cameras for example."

The second limitation, according to Rezzonico, is price. "To make larger physical sensors for medium format cameras is possible, and that would allow additional room for more, bigger pixels," he says. "However the costs of the sensor itself increase dramatically with size. There is also a limit to how much someone actually needs. People have been doing large-scale reproductions for years with resolutions much lower than we have now."

He concludes by saying that the amount of megapixels will increase, "but not as dramatically as we have seen in recent years."

Dick Dischler, national sales manager for Direct Source Marketing, Worldwide and the U.S. Distributor for Rolleiflex, Horseman, and Rodenstock believes a digital/film hybrid is the way to go. "The Rolleiflex Hy6 is an example of this trend. The Hy6 is an advanced medium format camera for film and digital applications that features the ability to accept pro digital backs, but also 6x4.5 and 6x6 format film."

Dischler says the choices for upgrading older cameras to digital are pretty slim, noting that price and performance are real considerations and there are real optical concerns when trying to use higher end digital backs on older medium format systems. Like Phase One's Struckmann, he believes the trend may be more along the lines of manufacturing new products that promote an open system user interface.

As for the future, Dischler says "Sensors that are 48mmx48mm, megapixels over 50MP and even some day sensors of 56mmx56mm [are inevitable]. These are real levels that will be reached. When 24mmx36mm gets to 20+ megapixels, and a bit [size] of 12 or larger, then everything in what is medium needs to either drop in price or increase in scale."

Dischler goes on to say that size matters, but size is scalable and he feels that appears to have been missed in today's medium format market. "Where is the medium format in the market that allows for a 24mmx36mm, a 36mmx36mm, or the possibility of a 48mmx48mm sensor all on one camera?" he asks. The way technology is advancing, and from listening to the experts we talked to, the answer to that question is in the not too distant future.