Highlights in Medium Format - As subtle as it gets

2 Feb 2020

Copyright © 1993- Ganesh H. Shankar

Little Egret and Leaves - Phase One XF, IQ3 Trichromatic Digital Back, 240mm Schneider-Kreuznach lens

Recently I made a series of images of egrets in early morning backlighting condition. White feathered egrets in white backdrop were very appealing to my eyes. However, to render it properly it needs a fine dynamic range, probably reachable only to medium format cameras. I had with me both 35mm and Phase One medium format camera with IQ3 Trichromatic digital back. I used Schneider-Kreuznach 240mm blue ring lens to make some of these images.

Before sharing the images I made using Phase One let me first share the differences between 35mm (45MP) and medium format in this context, in particular exposure lattitude Phase One has compared to 35mm full frame digital SLR camera. The brand of 35mm full frame in this case does not matter since the limitation comes from much smaller sensor size which remains same for all 35mm digital SLRs.

Here are some sample test images

Phase One XF, 240mm lens, Over exposed purposefully

The medium format image above is over exposed in camera to test how much of it can be recovered back using the Capture One raw converter I use. The result is nothing short of amazing!

All of it!!

In particular, I am amazed by the tonal ranges and details I could recover, especially from water in this over exposed image as shared below. Please note no processing is done in Capture One other than pulling the exposure lever left by 4 stops.

Over exposed raw image minus 4 stops using Capture One 20

Here is a small crop of the above image, just to give you an idea of how much was recovered when I pulled the exposure down by 4 stops.

Small crop of the exposure reduced image

I also used my 35mm full frame with 600mm f4 lens I was carrying to do the similar test. The comparison of course is not fair due to much larger sensor of the medium format. However, I just wanted to share there is huge gap between these formats.

As shot on 35mm full frame, 1/500s @ f4 using 600mm f4 lens

About raw image minus 3 stops exposure in raw converter, equivalent of 1/4000s at f4

It is very clear we have lost significant tonal depth when we underexposed the image by 3 stops in the converter. I made another image of the same situation in camera. Here is the tonal range that is expected if we expose the image at 1/4000s at f4.

As shot on 35mm full frame, 1/4000s @ f4 using 600mm f4 lens

One may ask why do we want to over expose and then underexpose in raw converter? We don't need to. This test however shows how much of information is available in 16-bit raw files. This provides excellent capability to us as photographers for very subtle processing of images demanded by our artistic intents.

Here is a short series of some serious "non-test" images I made as part of this series. All the images below are made using Phase One XF + IQ3 Trichromatic digital back using Schneider-Kreuznach 240mm lens. If you are seeing this on a finely calibrated display you may appreciate the subtle movement of tones in the highlights and subtle separation of the egret from the background. These 16-bit raw files leaves us with enormous control for very subtle post processing.

As subtle as it gets...

I have read a lot on the net about "Medium format look". This topic has been beaten to death. Before buying my Phase One I made extensive qualitative real life tests like these that matters for my subjects for three months to convince myself of the steep cost in buying a medium format system. "Medium format look" may be elusive for many. For me it is very real. There is far more to "Medium format look" beyond just the mega pixel count.

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