Is Digital Medium Format Worth It?

sensor size chart
A comparison of digital sensor sizes - Wikipedia

In the not too distant past, you didn’t think about shooting a portrait with a 35mm camera.  You had your Hasselblad or Mamiya 645.  Weddings could go either way, I carried a 35mm and a Yashika Mat.  For some of the formal shots I’d even drag out my old Bush Pressman 4×5.

Today a medium format camera with a digital back will set you back nearly as much as a nice car.

The Mamiya RZ33 kit is a modern medium format digital camera.  The camera, digital back and lens run an eye-popping $18,000.  For that you get an imaging chip that’s 48 x 36.  Compare that to a full frame 35mm chip available in the Canon 5D MKII which is 24 x 36.  The 5D with a lens is closer to $3,200.  That’s nearly a $15,000 price difference just to gain another 24mm on the vertical of the imaging chip.

Why So Expensive?

That’s largely related to the physics of building the chips.  When you double the area of a chip it reduces the number that pass Q/A because of bad pixels.  Even a small increase in sensor size significantly increases the number of failures.

Add to that the limited number of companies building chips that size, mainly for space technology and remote sensing applications, where they are considered “low cost” imaging sensors.

There just isn’t enough demand in the digital imaging market to make large scale production for photography a workable reality.

Is It Worth It?

Some people think so, but I’m not convinced.  The pictures I’ve seen from Canon 5D MKIIs and even my Canon 7D rival anything I ever shot on any of my old medium and large format film cameras.  Certainly there’s a difference, but the question is whether the difference is enough to justify the cost differential?

If you have the money, go for it.  I’ve seen some amazing work from RZ33’s and the Phase One 645DF, but I’m not convinced you couldn’t get almost as good from your 5D and you could buy six of them for the same money.