I switched to medium format digital.
Just typing that opening sentence brought a slight smile to my face as I sip my morning latte and wait for my two-year old toddler to wake up. I’ve always dreamed of owning a digital medium format rig; but let’s be honest, I could put a down payment on a very reasonable house for the cost of what the systems go for. So with that dream in the back of my head, I was a dedicated Canon shooter over the last 13 years of my photography career.
In fact, since 2002 I have only purchased three cameras: a used Canon 10D which started my career as a photojournalist; a Canon 1DMK2N which to this day is probably my favorite camera ever; and the “love it and hate it” Canon 5DMk2. That’s twelve years, three continents, and three cameras. My 10D was stolen. I broke the shutter (rated at 200,000 clicks) on my 1DMK2N, and the 5Dmk2 leads me to write this post.
The point I am trying to make here is that I don’t upgrade very often. I am very cautious and intentional. I have always skipped a product cycle between cameras, waited until the gear was tested by others, and purchased when it was economical. I have never been, nor will I ever be, a gear junky who chases after the latest and the greatest. To be honest, that isn’t a good business model and not the type of purchasing behavior I want my children to grow up around. Factoring in meals or how many diapers you could buy with what a simple CF card costs changes your purchasing paradigm a bit.
As my 5dMK2 began to get long in the tooth, I started to realize I needed to purchase a new camera. Nothing in the DSLR market has really appeased me except the Nikon D810, but that would mean switching to an entirely new system that would cost well north of $8,000 when factoring in new lenses and strobes. In terms of image quality, Canon does not have an answer, and even if they did, it wouldn’t have the luring features offered by medium format.
After talking to epic photographer and good friend RJ Kern about the possibility of moving to medium format, he sent me over to the guys at Capture Integration (CI) to see if they had anything remotely in my price range. After a few weeks of chatting with their team, I decided to pull the trigger on a refurbished model. I’ll be blogging about my amazing experience with CI at a later time.
Why Medium Format?
This question has been answered on numerous blogs and I don’t believe my answers will be very different.
- Sync Speed. I use strobes for the bulk of my work so take that into consideration when reading my blog. The ability to sync at 1/1600th of a second and shoot at mid-day near 2.8 is just amazing. No more ND filters or being stuck at F8-F11 just to be able to break out my strobes. This alone was the primary reason for my switch.
- That “look”. There’s just something that pops out regarding medium format, especially in print. Since I’ll be creating a book highlighting the stories of our hardworking farmers and ranchers, this was a huge selling point for me. Also, I find there is just something about the transition between the highlights and the shadows that I was missing with a DSLR.
- I just wanted a change. I’m in love with the Fuji system, but the files just haven’t held up to the tweaking that I give them. The Mamiya rig is as close to joy as I have had since I shot with my old film Hasselblad 500c.
- Image quality was the final consideration. Honestly, if you’re just looking at image quality and printing small prints there are many reports that the D810 can go toe-to-toe with many of the 30MP digital backs at a fraction of the price. But as I’ll write about in the future, the image quality is still slightly better and the dynamic range is nothing short of incredible. Image quality was an important consideration, but to me it was the last and least important consideration.
So why the Mamiya Credo Series?
In the digital medium format world, there are very limited options: Hasselblad, Phase One, Mamiya Leaf, and the Pentax. I’m sure someone out there owns a Leica MF. But let’s be honest, if you’re a Leica enthusiast, you probably have an M series resting next to a bottle of 100 year old scotch.
The Hasselblad - Approximately $11,000 for a new 40 megapixel kit
I just wasn’t inspired by this system. I really wanted to be. I was in love with my 500c, 80mm Zeiss t* lens and a good roll of Illford 120 film. The files of the digital Hasselblad’s seem to hold up better in high ISO. However, sync-speed is limited to 1/800th of a second. I also liked the look of the Credo files more. They had that intangible quality I just can’t describe. That was a deciding factor. Some swear by Hasselblad. It’s a great system but the decision was a subjective one that worked for me.
The Pentax – Cost of body $8,400 plus $1,000 - $3,000 for lenses
I thoroughly considered this system and might often wonder what would have been if I bought into this rig. The Pentax 645z is weather sealed like a boss, has a 50mp CMOS sensor, and is capable of crazy-high ISO’s with great image quality. Sync-speed? 1/125 of a second and slower than a DSLR. Yes, I could put an ND filter on it to open up to larger apertures, but I don’t want to do that. Also, their non leaf-shutter lenses are very expensive, and I just don’t have the confidence the system will be around in 10 years. I hope I’m wrong because people say it’s a great camera.
Additionally, I don’t really go above ISO 400 in my portrait work, and I have Alyssa’s Fuji equipment if I ever do. So the allure of the insane image quality offered by the Pentax at high ISO wasn’t a big enough factor to make up for the limited sync speed or options of great lenses.
The Phase One system - $21,000 for an IQ 140 kit
Let’s be honest…running into a photographer with a new phase one system is like watching a man in a nice suit get out of his Maserati and step into that night club you feel like you were never cool enough to get into. Phase One is an incredible company with great equipment that really is the best of the best.
However, looking at the dollars and cents, the IQ systems might have well been Maseratis that were far out of reach. The only rigs in my price range were the P+ series (P40+) backs that had a more-than-antiquated screen that was just about useless in the environmental portrait settings I’d be using it for. I’ve heard it might as well be an Etch-a-Sketch on the back of the screen if you want to determine focus. Yes, I could purchase a tablet like the Surface Pro 3 to view the images on a larger setting, but that could sap the battery all the quicker and add to extra bulk on shoots where I am constantly moving. It would also be an extra $1,000 cost. On a positive note, they were so old that much of their depreciation had already occurred. Yet with all of the technology coming out with medium format sensors, I question the resale ability of a system with such a horrible screen in the near future.
Mamiya Leaf - $13,995 for the kit
When I first heard about the Mamiya Leaf Credo series, I viewed it as the red-headed stepchild of the Phase One family. Zack Arias made a comparison of the Credo to the Phase as Toyota vs. Lexus. Zack knows his stuff and is an excellent photographer I have learned a lot from in regards to his blogs and videos. However, this comparison irks me a little now. To be fair, the issue is more analogous and semantic than factual.
As I started doing my research, I began to compare the IQ series (mainly IQ 140) to the Leaf Credo 40 to see what the major differences were and to see how much those differences would impact my shooting experience, final image, and pocketbook. I included the Pentax 645z in this chart because I was strongly considering it but the slow sync speed means that it is out of contention.
Note: I did a brief environmental search online to find some of this information. I don't state that it is 100% accurate. Instead, it is what I had to work with and what I was able to use to influence my purchasing decisions. I included only reputable dealers that offered new / refurbished models with warranties.
So what did this tell me? If I purchased new, I would be paying nearly an $8,000 premium for Wi-Fi, the ability to shoot at a higher ISO at 10 megapixels, and a few other features. The majority of my work (outside) doesn’t work for WiFi and if I’m going to shoot at high ISO I’d probably just use Alyssa’s Fuji. So is there really a $4,000 - $5,000 difference?
For me, no. That chunk of change adds up to quite a few car payments, diapers, gallons of milk, and other things that come with a family.
I’m fine driving a Toyota if it means making sure my family is more financially sound. However, I still don’t think the Toyota vs. Lexus argument is sound. I view the options between the Credo and IQ system as I would the standard Ford F250 and the F250 King Ranch versions. The engine (sensor) and chassis (body) will be pretty much the same but the King Ranch, at a premium price, will offer the leather seats, seat warmers, and other goodies that only come with a premium price.
I would have compared it to Dodge or Chevy, but the Mamiya and Phase systems seem reliable so it wasn’t a just comparison J
The guys at Capture Integration have been nothing short of amazing to work with and put together a package on a used Credo 40 and new Mamiya 645 DF+ and 80mm LS lens. I am more than happy with this decision and after about 500 frames I do not regret my decision one bit.
I do want to be very clear on one aspect of this purchase. I do not work as a full-time photographer (nor do I want to). I am a very serious part-time photographer. I am in grad school. I have a wife that works incredibly hard, and I have been blessed to land some contracts that have allowed me to purchase this system. With the addition of selling my Canon gear, I really did not take a financial hit for this system. I know my situation is unique compared to someone who makes their entire living off photography. However, money is money and I factored the long-term value of this system into my decision.
On part two of this blog I will share my experience switching to medium format, specifically the Credo series. I’ll share some images from a national campaign I am working on and try to offer the most honest and complete review for the real-world photographer that I can.
But just because it is fun and this is a photography blog, here are some of my initial 300 images taken from this system. Remember, the web is a lot different than print :) And I could care less about posting a 100% crop. There's plenty of that online :)
Feel free to respond if you have any questions about my experience so far or something that I have included in this blog post.
Scott Stebner is an award-winning agricultural photographer specializing in powerful portraits of the agricultural community.