Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs

Thoughts & Photographs #002


4x5 & 1DsMk2

by Alain Briot & a note Uwe Steinmueller


The response to my comparative essay between 4x5 and the Canon 1DsMark 2 has been remarkable (if you have not read this essay you can find it here). This essay is a response to the feedback I received.

First, I do not plan to stop using, discard, sell or otherwise “chuck,” my 4x5 in favor of the 1DsMk2. In fact, if we look ahead several years, my guess is that I will be using 4x5 longer than the 1DsMk2.

Why? Essentially because the 1DsMk2 is a step along the way to increasingly higher resolution digital cameras. At of June 2005, and comparing single-capture digital cameras, it is second in line behind 22mp digital backs such as the Phase One P25. In passing, and according to 3-way tests I conducted between the 1DsMk2, P25 back and 4x5 scanned film, the P25 advantage over the 1DsMk2 is real but not that dramatic. 4x5 is still the overall winner, in terms of resolution, by a fair margin.

On the other hand 4x5 has been an achievement in terms of photographic image quality for over 50 years. I believe first that it is here to stay and second that we will, sooner or later, have digital 4x5 backs that are easy to use in the field and practical for landscape photography. I do not consider the current “4x5” scanning backs practical for landscape photography because A-they need to be tethered to a laptop and B-they require exposure time of several minutes blurring anything that moves. The cost, interestingly enough, is not that much of a consideration for me as it is competitive with the cost of the 1DsMk2 or the Phase One P25 back.

What am I saying here? In short that the 1DsMk2 will be replaced by a 22 or 32 or 45mp version sooner or later, or by a medium format digital camera with higher resolution, or by some other device, while 4x5 will continue to endure as it has for many many years.

Case closed (at least for me). Let’s move on to another subject and that is that I currently use both the Canon1DsMk 2 and the Linhof 4x5. Why? Because both have unique advantages and disadvantages.

On the advantages side the 1DsMk2 is fast and simple to use and thereby allows me to create photographs that have to be captured extremely quickly. The 4x5 offers huge resolution, camera movements (tilts and shifts) and is perfect for photographs that I plan to enlarge to wall size.

On the disadvantages side both have shortcomings. The 1DsMk2 cannot generate the same definition as the 4x5 in sizes above 16x20. The 4x5 cannot be set up and used as fast as the 1DsMk2 and developing & scanning film takes longer than importing & converting raw files. These two cameras are really different tools used for different purposes. Together they allow me to capture a larger range of images than if I worked with only one of them.

Not sure if this is true? Thinking I should stick solely to 4x5 and live to its limitations? Or that I should use just the 1DsMk2 and equally live to its limitations? Well, I beg to differ. Let me give you an example.

I love river running. So much so that each year Natalie and I offer a different river running workshop. This year it is the San Juan River. Next year it is the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Both expeditions have photography as their first and primary focus.

You can’t use 4x5 on a boat. I don’t care how much you try, how dedicated you are or how hard you are willing to work at it. It’s just not in the cards. Yet, many stunning photographs are to be taken while boating, either action shots of other boats or stills of the scenery we are passing by. Being in the middle of a river gives you a unique viewpoint allowing you to capture images different from those you can capture from the shore. For this the 1DsMk2 is the perfect tool, and I will have it with me on our upcoming river trips.

When you are on shore things are quite different. You are on firm ground and you can take you time photographing in a deliberate manner. This is the ideal time to search for the most exciting photographic location, set up your tripod and work with 4x5.

Now you can certainly do everything with 35mm digital, either the 1DsMk2 or another comparable camera. But if you have large format you will be going further by opening the possibility of making huge enlargements from your images. As I pointed out, sizable enlargements are one of my specialties and one of the reasons why customers world wide purchase and collect my work. Those are my needs (yours may, and most likely, differ) and I need to cater to them. The combination of 4x5 and 1DsMk2 allows me to meet those needs perfectly.

To those who believe that everything can and should be done with 4x5 I say this: give it a try! I also suggest you read this essay about how having two cameras, in this instance 4x5 and medium format, is the only way you will get the shot.

Eventually we need to be reminded that cameras as just tools. No matter how much they cost, no matter how technically advanced they may be, no matter how enthralled we are with owning and operating them, they are just means to an end and this end is creating stunning photographic images. To me, the challenge is to find the proper tools for the job. I believe it is a challenge that all professional photographers face at one time or another.

Traditionally, photographers have been known for owning far too many cameras and for buying far more cameras than reason dictates. The times, in this respect, they are not a changing (sorry Bob). What has changed, is that we now find that for some photographers on the cutting edge of technology, these cameras are a mix of film and digital capture. Such is my case. Personally, I don’t see any problem shooting both film and digital simultaneously. However, my guess is that a number of photographers see my approach as a conflict.

For those who see it as a conflict one must either embrace digital or embrace film. It’s one or the other, black or white, left or right but not both. “No way!”, they say, “can one be in love with both approaches to image capture.” “Way!” I say. Way! because I am not in love with image capture. I am in love with the resulting image. And to me, when the print is made and the photograph displayed, it matters but little how it was created.


Note by Uwe Steinmueller

Our (Bettina's and mine) background has always been 35mm or medium format. This also means that we always stayed shy of huge prints as we want to stay inside the real capabilities of these cameras. The big shift was film to digital. In 2000 we bought our first DSLR(s): the Nikon D1.

Pelican Attack (2000 with Nikon D1)

While many people discussed "Film vs. Digital" at that time we had made up our mind: Get the best possible out of digital (that is also why we use only RAW for now over 5 years). In the beginning we actually very surprised how well the digital files could look at even 13x19 prints. The above image "Pelican Attack" is still one of our finest images (remember the Nikon D1 had only 2.7MP resolution and was at ISO 400 noisy like hell).

The next camera in line was the Nikon D1x and at this point prints were getting much closer to 35mm film. Finally with the Canon 1Ds people discussed whether this camera was close to 4x5. We tested it and found that is was still a very long way to go to match the 4x5 resolution. Ok, the 1Ds Mk. II is again a step forward but we second Alain's finding that the 1Ds Mk. II is no real contender for well processed 4x5 shots.

When our friend the top landscape photographer Charles Cramer will find that any digital back or digital camera matches his prints then we know we are at a point where digital cameras finally match 4x5 film (actually in the studio with still life they already rule as here the photographers can use multi shot backs and/or scanning backs). But in the field no digital camera is as flexible as the 4x5 and captures the same level of details. Also we should not forget that the 4x5 camera movements allow you photos that can hardly be done with any 35mm or MF camera.

What does this mean for our work? We gladly accept the 35mm limitations (means printing mostly to a max of 20x16"). On the other side technology helps us to get higher resolution by the year (although now already the 35mm optics are a limiting factor for more detail). We could imagine to use a MF digital camera with 22MP or more (maybe Mamiya ZD?). Mainly because we love the larger viewfinder of these cameras.

Alain wrote: "Way! because I am not in love with image capture. I am in love with the resulting image. And to me, when the print is made and the photograph displayed, it matters but little how it was created.". Same here the only difference is that we have a 35mm background and live with it's imitations (absolute resolution, limited movements) but also enjoy the advantages (speed, freehand). As Alain said, the final print counts.




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