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Medium format system discussion for model-oriented photography
Old 10-31-2004, 01:21 PM   #1 (permalink)
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I'm a pro fashion and lifestyle photographer who recently switched medium-format systems from one that I've used for many years that was designed for maximum image quality and versatility in both location and studio but which handles very slowly and is generally not conducive to my somewhat improvisational technique to another medium-format system which I find compliments my semi-improvisational shooting technique and style much better. It was a heavy expediture, even when bought mostly second-hand, and was not a decision made lightly but made with an eye to requirements both present and over the foreseeable future, researched and with lots of hands-on testing of various systems in a couple of different formats.

Normally I don't give the gear and its design so much thought, the desired image and its feel and statement and usefulness to my clients takes center-stage, but this purchase got me thinking a lot about my gear needs/preferences. Were I in charge of one of the major manufacturers, and wanted to design a system well-adapted to my own shooting needs from the ground up, what would I have my team design? What would the rest of you look for in a model photography-oriented medium-format system? The ideal system I strongly believe does not exist. Every system has its strengths and weaknesses, something which is underlined by the fact that I pondered long and hard between two very different systems (in different formats in fact) before deciding on the system that I finally purchased.

The way I see it, a system I would choose has some very specific needs, as well as a few "wish list" items that are nice but less critical.

1) The system must be hand-holdable. To my eye, and in my way of working, fashion photograhy generally looks stiff when mounted on a tripod. Freedom for the model and photographer to move are essential. Weight, balance, and ergonomics are highly important considerations, as is the layout, feel, and intuitiveness of the control layout. Also, an accurate in-camera metering system involving spot metering is rather important. And, when working with only one photo assistant or occasionally none, in-camera flash metering is also a nice plus. Makes the shoot flow much more easily than constantly having an assistant jump in to meter, or much worse, putting down the camera and walking over to the model to meter.

2) The single most important aspect in any camera is its viewing system. A camera must give a bright, clear image in its viewfinder, one that actually allows you to "feel" the light on the subject and subtleties of the subject's mood and expression, as well as being able to quickly and accurately check critical focus. The merits of a camera's viewing system or lack thereof are often overlooked, most particularly in this day of digi DSLRs with often HORRIBLE dark, dim, teeny tiny viewfinders that crop heavily into the image.

3) With hand-holding comes the need for fast glass. And glass that looks at least acceptable wide or nearly wide open. When it comes to medium format systems, virtually all lenses and lensmakers are at very least acceptable in terms of image quality, and most are very very good indeed, especially when stopped down, but when shooting models you're not shooting test charts. Very minor differences between excellent and outstanding performance is largely moot. Especially hand-held. And resolving the texture of a model's pores really isn't needed or really wanted generally. Most of us like to have sharp glass for those situations when absolute sharpness is required (typically not in hand-held situations), but what's really at issue is speed and, almost as important, bokeh.

Some might ask why medium format quality is necessary in this case? Why wouldn't 35mm suffice if you're going to hand-hold anyway? There are a number of good answers to this question, but first off I'll explain that very often photo editors like looking at medium-format chromes and contact sheets. It's easier to wade through rolls and rolls of film in medium format, easier on their eyes, MUCH easier than previewing hundreds or often thousands of images digital on a monitor, there's a certain impact that a medium format chrome on a lightbox provides (unimportant in the final published product but makes an impression on your photo editor which is important) and finally, there's a certain medium-format prejudice in much of the publishing world. In short, the medium format choice is largely a matter of pleasing your client. A whole lot of photo editors out there really do prefer it.

Further, speaking of lenses, for my type of work the lenses most commonly used would be the focal lengths between (in 35mm terms, it's different for 645/6x6/6x7) roughly 35 and 85 or 100. A telephoto-ish lens that focuses closely without requiring very long extensions and gives good results at that range is important in beauty photography. I personally use "normal" lenses a lot. More often than many others because in fashion, a feeling of situation is often an important consideration; you don't always want to be tightly framed around your model, and quite often you want to "feel" the model rendered naturally in perspective within her/his surroundings. Therefore my lens lenght choices are usually rather moderate. Ultra-wide and very long length telephotos that drastically alter perspective are not too terribly important to my work and the work of many others, though there are those who disagree with reason.

4) Build quality must be high to meet the demands of constantly toting around and working under a variety of conditions on location and in studio. Reliability is at a premium. Further, access to qualified technicians who can repair your gear should something fail is also highly important. Finally, the availability of replacement or rental gear in a number of locations depending on where you happen to be (I'm currently in a globe-trotting phase building up a name/repuation) is also important.

5) Because of my current situation and typical shooting budgets where I'm currently working in eastern European markets, I rarely get large crews to work with. Generally I have one photo assistant, sometimes two but never more, and occasionally none at all (the magazine I shot for last week had a rediculously low budget and of course required professional quality results nevertheless). Consequently, the backs/bodies have to be quick and easy to load/unload, and the less frequently I have to reload, the better.

6) Polaroid proofing is important.

7) Because this sort of system is costly, an eye to future requirements is important. Therefore, though I currently don't need or desire a medium-format digital solution, having a migratory path to digital within the system should the need arise in the future without investing in a totally new system is a wise option.

Based on these needs I selected a system that works for me and I'm very happy with the choice I made, but it's not 100% ideal (no one solution is unfortunately). What say you? What system would you have picked and why? Or what would you have asked for in your system and why?

It's rare that I get too much into such gear debates, but I did have to step back and think long and hard about gear to reach this conclusion, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on the matter. Excellent pictures can be made with ANY gear, but picking a set of gear which matches your working method and requirements can be rather complex, and since relatively little of the gear discussion here focuses much upon these sets of needs I thought this discussion might be interesting and revealing.
I already thought of one...
Old 10-31-2004, 03:16 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Flash-sync at a reasonable speed. Rather important when using flash in any case, highly important when using strobe outdoors. The ideal system I think would be either a leaf shutter system or a focal plane shutter system with decently fast flash sync and/or a range of leaf shutter lenses available...

I'm trying to get people to think about they Why's of their gear, of the effects that the gear necessarily has on their working method for better or worse, and to think of what would be smarter, better for them and their way of working. It seems to me that the design of a lot of gear in the prosumer market, for one is largely idiot-driven, throwing in a lot of razzle-dazzle features of little use (but which increase it's attactiveness on the market) and neglecting a lot that is truly important. A raised awareness of those in the market might force brands to think their designs through more clearly.


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