A lot of people think it's hard to make the case for medium-format digital cameras in the age of 35mm-style DSLR ascendancy, with some boasting resolutions over 20MP. But there are a number of professionals who have come to understand that the pixel "arms race" is only part of the equation.
Let's start with sensor size. All things being equal, the larger the pixel, the less electronic gain or amplification that needs to be applied as the chip reacts to light and writes out each file. This means less noise and less color-information distortion for chips with larger pixel sizes.
Another drawback of smaller sensors has to do with optics, refraction, and the laws of physics. Really picky pros who've tested cameras with smaller pixels find that there's a small "sweet spot" for each lens. Most lenses don't achieve high sharpness until they're stopped down two stops from their wide-open aperture. For the industry-standard f/2.8 zooms, that means you'll want to use f/5.6. But, tests show that as soon as you've stopped down past f/11, you start progressively losing sharpness. The light blur is caused by the bending that occurs at the edge of each pixel well.
That can be a real quandary for the legion of still-life shooters in the business who depend on smaller apertures to gain needed depth of field. The larger sensor geometries of the medium-format cameras allow the use of smaller f/stops for increased depth of field without the attendant loss of critical sharpness.
There are other reasons to use medium-format digital cameras beyond mechanical characteristics. One critical difference is the widespread use of 16-bit capture. With 16-bit capture, each color channel is expressed in 65,536 levels, which delivers an extra safety buffer during destructive editing and, when used optimally, gives files a richness of detail and color that can't be matched by 12-bit cameras (the Nikon professional line now offers 14-bit color files). The Aptus line also offers HDR RAW files at a whopping 159MB per file. These files offer stunning dynamic range.
Another point to keep in mind is that lenses and accessories are generally the most expensive component of investing in a camera system. Once you've got the lenses you enjoy using, you'll be able to improve your system performance over time just by upgrading your sensor. In DSLRs, the only upgrade path is to chuck your current camera body and buy an entirely new one. In the medium-format field, the camera remains constant and only the backs are upgraded. If you find that a project calls for super-high resolution, you can also rent appropriate sensor solutions and use them interchangeably with your body and lenses. The same upgrade path or "scalability" is not available for DSLRs.
Additionally, medium-format shooters from the film days always knew that the larger finders of those cameras make composing, assessing correct focus, and viewfinder masking much easier.
Finally, there's the matter of image. Not the image on the print, but the image you convey to your clients. If you're reading this magazine, chances are you're a tier above most imaging providers in your market. You've done what it takes to ensure that your customers, be they families shopping for wall portraits or advertising agencies looking for high-performance imaging, can see that your work is demonstrably better than the legions of "wannabes" that we commonly refer to as IT professionals.
One way to convey your professionalism is by the tools you use. Using a professional medium-format system lets knowledgeable customers know that you won't settle for "good enough"--that you aspire to a higher standard.
Everything I've written above could apply to just about every good medium-format digital camera out there, so why do I think the Mamiya DL28 is so special? Easy. I think it's a market disruptor. When medium-format camera systems started in the mid-$20,000's and ran as high as $45,000, it was easy to ignore that market segment as a rarefied playground for rich dilettantes and a handful of top photographers like Annie Leibovitz. In most regional markets, clients wouldn't support the higher costs that were required in order to make these pricey systems viable.
And the expectation was that to achieve a lower price point, the manufacturers of medium-format systems would have to cut corners and cut quality to achieve a reasonable price. That's where the Mamiya DL28 shows itself as a market disruptor. Mamiya and Leaf have supplied a fully spec'd, very high-quality back with plenty of pixels, along with a state-of-the-art medium-format camera body and lens combination, at a price that's within striking distance of Nikon and Canon's top offerings--with the additional advantage of a hedge against obsolescence.
So how does this camera perform? The Mamiya DL28 package, with its Aptus-II 6 back and 80mm digital lens, is part of a new generation of medium-format digital systems that finally feel fully integrated. I shot with the same basic system from Phase One (with their 45+ back) last year and found the two companies both deliver systems that are very much ready for prime time.
The DL28 system starts up and is ready to shoot in about 6 seconds. Configured to shoot basic (non-HDR) RAW files, the camera's frame rate is 1.5 seconds per frame. The back will shoot either a compressed or uncompressed RAW file. The former is (at 16 bit) around 31 megabytes, while the latter weighs in at around 53 megabytes.
While the frame rate is not going to wow anyone used to higher-speed DSLRs, the cadence felt comfortable for all but the fast-moving fashion shoots when used in most studio applications.
I found the autofocus, even when used in the studio with 250-watt modeling lights in large softboxes, to be quick and not to hunt. The exception was when I absentmindedly tried to focus on a black velvet outfit.
The camera is much easier to use in a tethered mode than my Nikons, and the files edited in the Leaf Capture software are superb. I ended up doing most of my editing in Photoshop CS4 because of the greater flexibility and range of controls, along with the much greater throughput speed on my Macbook Pro.
Overall, the images were superb. I enjoyed being able to shoot at ISO 50 because I could use my Profoto Acute lighting without having to turn it all the way down to get the wide apertures I like. The files were noise-free to ISO 200, good at 400, and usable at 800.
The nicest benefit of using a camera like the DL28 is the wonderfully detailed transitions from midtone to dark shadow. It's wonderful to light dramatically without having to worry about the risk of banding in the shadow tones--always a danger spot for less-capable cameras.
Few photographers will make an "either/or" choice when it comes to owning both a medium-format digital and a DSLR. Most will be professionals who've shot with progressive generations of Nikon or Canon (and are happy with them for the most part), but who need, from time to time, to push past the limitations of their camera's files and sensor sizes to hit a new level of quality.
The Mamiya DL28 will be an additional tool that will probably give them the confidence to push for higher-level assignments. While day-to-day headshot assignments and public relations projects don't make me wish for anything better than my trusty Nikon D700, I would feel much more comfortable with a DL28 system in my hands the next time one of my favorite art directors calls to get a bid on "some tradeshow panels that will go up 8-feet by 10-feet each--and will be viewable from arm's length."
While everyone's mileage will vary, the increase in quality and the satisfaction of knowing you've brought along a new level of "A" game should be enough to push you into your favorite camera store to see if this system is right for you.
Things I love about the DL28:
1. I have to admit that I really love the industrial design of the Mamiya AFD3 camera body.
2. I love the fact that the camera takes its own AA batteries and that they last forever!
3. I'm happy that the battery for the Aptus back is widely available and quick to change.
4. I'm pleased that I can use just about any lens Mamiya has made in the last 20 years on this camera with very few restrictions.
5. The longer focal lengths for a given angle of view means I have less depth of field when I shoot portraits at wide apertures--a style I really like.
6. I like the big, fat FireWire connector nestled in just the right spot.
7. I love the way clients look at the camera when we set up.
8. I loved the special 159MB 16-bit HDR files when we're shooting high-contrast scenes in the Texas sun.
9. Finally, I love the fact that I can slap a film back on the sucker and still shoot Tri-X when I want to.
There's no "number 10" on my list. You'll have to try out the system and fill in that blank yourself.
Kirk Tuck (www.kirktuck.com) is a corporate photographer in Austin, Texas. He is the author of the bestselling photography book Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography, which is published by Amherst Media. His second book, Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography, is now available at all major bookstores.