Musings on Photography

Large Format, further thinking

Posted in equipment by Paul Butzi on March 25, 2007

All the recent kerfuffle has had the positive effect of getting me to do some thinking about where the strengths and weaknesses of large format lie relative to the Canon EOS-5d I’ve been using.  Remember, now, I’m trying to decide whether to sell or keep my current large format kit, which consists of a 4″x5″ Linhof Technikardan 45s and a complement of lenses ranging from 90mm to 450mm.

Here’s the way I see it – below a certain print size, the 5d wins over the 4×5.  Above this breakover print size, the 4×5 resolution wins out, and the 4×5 wins over the 5d.  (Folks interested in my deeper thinking on this are invited to read How Big Can You Print).  As the resolution of the full frame Canon digital SLR’s improves (note that the 1DSmkII is 16.7 megapixel, the rumor is that the next version will be 22megapixel), the breakover print size gets larger.  I don’t think it will be long before I can buy a full frame Canon digital SLR which will outperform the 4×5 for prints up to 16×24.

At that point, it gets hard to see why I’d keep the 4×5; it just doesn’t offer enough of a compelling image quality leap over the digital gear.  On the other hand, an 8×10 would be a pretty significant step up – more delivered resolution than 4×5, with lower noise.

So maybe the answer looks more like this: keep the lenses that will cover 8×10.  Sell off all the stuff that is strictly 4×5 only.  And then, keep an eye out for a good deal on an 8×10 camera that I’d be happy using – like a Toyo 810 M II.

9 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on March 25, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    I think the 5d is the sweet spot – taking advantage of higher mp in a 35m camera demands nearly perfect lenses (a special problem for wide lenses) and very careful shooting (not so much of a problem for someone with LF discipline).

    While 8×10 is a real advance over 4×5, you would need to make BIG prints to see it, and I remember you writing about how really big prints pose a lot of logistic problems that make them less desirable. I am very interested in how you keep thinking about this – except for problem of film holders, 8×10 is perfect for consumer scanners. The lens, camera movement, and DOF limit the resolution so that it really does not do much better than 4×5, but you have to drum scan to get the quality out of 4×5, while you can get it from an 8×10 with a consumer scanner. (I think about this as well, but would probably go with 5×7 because I would not have to buy new lenses.)

  2. Nick Wright said, on March 25, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    I’m curious which lenses you use on your 5D?

  3. StephaneB said, on March 25, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    In the small format digital world, the 5D is probably the least demanding camera regarding lenses. The full frame sensor requires less enlargement for a given print than the APS size and the relatively large pixel pitch creates a rather low limit on the resolution it can use: somewhere around 60 lpm. The only area where it might be seen as demanding is to get equal sharpness corner to corner. In the context of a large format kind of photography, it is easily achievable by using the proper working apertures. In the context of reportage-style photography, it simply does not matter all that much.

    In fact, the 5D is doing remarkably well with very affordable lenses like the primes of the original 1987 line-up.

    The biggest problem I have with lenses on my 5D is the ugly bokeh most Canon lenses show. It demands care to be sure to use the right apertures to have it smooth. And even so it is not always possible.

  4. […] been investigating the purchase of a 4×5 camera as a complement to the Canon 5D. Paul Butzi doesn’t think 4×5 does much better than a 5D for prints up to […]

  5. Ed Richards said, on March 26, 2007 at 8:28 am

    Scaling up from my 10MP Canon, which makes great 9×12 images, I would say that up to 10×13 image size the 5D is going to do just as well as the 4×5 (or 8×10). Several caveats:

    cropping reduces image quality fast

    negative film has a greater dynamic range than digital, so you will have to do multiple exposures to get the range of a really bright scene

    Even using PC lenses, you do not get the perspective control you can get with movements on a view camera.

    Smooth images from the 5D with limited detail can be printed much larger and look great, as long as you use a little blur to control pixelation.

    It is much easier to control camera movement in adverse conditions with the 5D – if you wanted pictures in a gale, they would probably be sharper from the 5D than a 4×5.

    You can also freeze subject movement with the 5D in ways that are impossible with the 4×5.

  6. Ed Richards said, on March 26, 2007 at 8:35 am

    The real downside I see to LF is that while you can make great, large prints, what can you do with them? Looking at the high end photo mags – Lenswork, Black and White, for example – their reproduction size is so small that it is a waste to shoot 4×5 if that is your goal. Worse, a lot of great 4×5 images do not work as smaller images.

    The upside, and what really drove me to do my Katrina stuff with 4×5, is that you have a lot more info in the shot and you have the option of a smaller print. When I am shooting important things that are transient, I like the 4×5 when it is possible to use it.

  7. Guy Tal said, on March 26, 2007 at 9:20 am

    Here’s the point often (always?) missed in these discussions: there are two separate topics to be had here – one being aesthetics, and the other empirics.

    Empirically a 4×5 image will hold more resolution and detail at most print sizes.

    Aesthetically a good image from a small camera will always trump a mediocre image from a larger one in the eyes of most viewers.

    In each case one should ask without prejudice – who cares? Obviously some (mainly a vocal contingency of photographers) care deeply for the former though I would contend most consumers of photography would place a higher value on the latter.

    Certainly there is some aesthetic value in the high resolution “look” of a large format capture when printed at large sizes and for those cases I would say without hesitation that it should be your tool of choice. One would need to decide for themselves what ratio of THEIR OWN work these types of images make up.


  8. Martin Doonan said, on March 26, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Finally, betwen this post, Guy Tal’s comment and a re-read of the “How big” post I can articulate why I want to go to LF: the print sizes I’m doing for some work and the aesthetic I want (away from Nyquist limit resolution) lean towards LF. Plus movements (a 24mm-TS just isn’t wide enough in that respect).
    Until now, I don’t think I could have put it all into words without a lot of waffle.
    Thanks Paul & Guy.
    That doesn’t mean LF will suit every situation, place I visit or picture I want to make.

  9. Tim Atkinson said, on June 29, 2009 at 11:43 am

    I’ve been experimenting with photostitching together several images from a Canon 5D. The software available makes it quick and easy to blend together the components.

    The result is mind-blowing. i’m producing images 36″ square that are simply outrageously good. But it makes an impact at 12″ square or less too. Color gets smoother and deeper, the ability for the image to handle adjustments to microcontrast is much higher, so you can deliver an image that feels like it was taken on 8×10.

    OK – not the right solution for photojournalists. But walking in the forest with my little Lumix LX3 I tried the same trick, and came back with something amazing.

    In my experience you can say everything you like about pixel dimensions, number etc: But put a side-by-side comparison at 8×10 of a full frame 5D next to something that started off life as 8 frames, and there’s something going on that the emotions sense, which makes it all worthwhile.

    Would I use a 4×5 if I could? Sure – but I don’t have the time for film any more. A digital solution like this is so quick and easy – that there’s far more time for creativity, whilst maintaining the highest possible quality

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