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Photography Question 
Gilbert Chatillon

35mm Vs 645 Medium Format

I know this topic is getting old, but nobody ever gave me a straight answer. At which print size can you start to see a difference between 35mm and 645 film? I mostly take portraits and get the color prints from a pro lab. The prints rarely exceed 4x6 or 5x7 with an occasionnal 8x12.
When doing B/W, I process and enlarge myself usually to 8x10 or 11x14. I don't plan to go bigger than that, but I want top quality prints. Is 645 worth it?

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5/11/2002 5:51:04 PM

Jeff S. Kennedy   In terms of sharpness and grain (assuming you are using fine grained film and all things being equal) you probably won't start seeing much difference until you get up to 11x14 or 16x20.

Another consideration, however, is tonal gradation. Larger format films produce much better tones along a wider scale. This has the effect of making skin tones appear much smoother and even. Is it enough to notice between 35mm & 645? Is it enough to make the investment in 645 worth it? These are questions you will have to answer yourself.

My preference would be to use both. I like to use Medium Format (I use 6x7) for the sharpness and tonal quality and because you just never know when someone will want something larger than 8x10 (which to me is too small anyway). But I also use 35mm because there are jobs where people just aren't going to ever get enlargements beyond 8x10 or 11x14 and it's just nicer not to have to lug that big 6x7 around if I don't have to.

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5/13/2002 12:16:08 PM

Oscar    This is a question I have been wrestling with myself. Is the trade off worth it? And like Jeff has indicated, I think it depends on your needs. Personally, I shoot with a Mamiya RZ(6x7 format) and the Nikon system. I too rarely go beyond 11x14 and my professional work (weddings, special events, etc.), generally requires prints no larger than 8x10 with 97% being 4x6 prints, and now I am getting requests for digital only cd's.

Since I do my own printing I am capable of fully assessing the pro's and con's first hand, my conclusion is this: at 8x10 using Kodak Tmax 100 or Pan F 50 the difference is there but it is subtle to me (lens resolution and photographic technique of course plays a major part in this observation). Overall the physics of the situation dictates that medium format will ultimately be sharper, but I can conclude that the smaller the output the less discernable this difference is. Some even argue that the film choice will have a great impact too i.e. the difference of 35mm, medium and large format on Tmax 100 is less than that on Tri-X 400.

And now the same guy who brought the famous argument about the Canon D30 beating out film, has recently wrote an article entitled "Canon EOS D60 vs. Medium Format" at He concludes that the next wave or two of digital cameras will start to give medium format film a challenge. Imagine a 35mm size digital camera yielding medium format results. Of course this means that digital backs in medium format will be even better. Wow!

We are in a position of photographic transition that ultimately will come down to you the user, your choices, your budget and your expectations.

I am delaying my medium format purchases (I am considering the Pentax 645NII) until the dust approaches settling in the digital realm.

A lot to consider.

Happy Shooting.

P.S. Since I do most of my shooting with th 35mm setup, I do try to offset the disadvantages of the smaller format by using the sharpest lenses I can for the situation. This generally means primes with a few exceptions at the wide and long end of the lens spectrum, i.e. Nikons afs lens series.

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5/13/2002 4:49:46 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
  I have and use both systems: 35mm and 645. For the same film I can start to see it in 8x10 and 8x12 enlargement. It's subtle and shows first in smoothness of tonal gradation before showing visible granularity.

My personal limit for 35mm using finest grain and highest MTF curve resolutions is 11x16 (or 11x14 if it's cropped). At that size, much attention must be paid to eliminating all camera shake, accurate critical focus and accurate depth of field control (for intended print size; DOF changes with enlargement). Some will push 35mm to 16x20 and 16x24 prints, but they usually cannot withstand close viewing at 12-14 inches compared to medium format, which is also my personal standard. I'm also presuming the lenses are world-class with high resolution MTF's also.

My personal limit for 645 is 24x30 and a 30x40 can be extracted from an exceptional transparency or negative. This is also using finest grain and highest MTF curve resolution film, and lenses with excellent, high resolution MTF curves. If 8x10 - 16x20 prints are the goal, and upper end 645 capability isn't desired for bigger ones, the film speed can be bumped up to about ISO 400; ISO 800 for 5x7 and 8x10 sizes (coarser grain). I don't necessarily like to do this, but know others that do this regularly for shooting low light levels.

-- John

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5/16/2002 1:46:40 PM

Gregory E. Milam   I have worked in a professional photo lab and also owned medium format and 35mm, so I can approach this from a few different angles. First of all, film is film is film. By this I mean that Kodak Portra 160VC is the same whether it is chopped into 35mm strips or 120 rolls. Tonal gradation has nothing to do with format, only quality of film and lens optics. If the exact same film (low-speed such as 160 or slower)is used to capture the same image of the same subject matter using the same lighting and high-end 35mm equipment, anyone that says they can see differences between 35mm and medium format with the naked eye in prints up to and including 11x14 is having a pipe dream! If you enlarge beyond 11x14 then you are talking about a wall portrait...key word being "wall"...images of the size aren't generally intended to be viewed using at 12" away! I have 35mm enlargements up to 20x30 that look fantastic hanging in my room and a few even look fantastic from 12"-14" depending on the film used! If razor-sharp quality enlargements (16x20 and larger)are desired from 35mm, then the answer is simple...have a high-quality 5x7 or 8x10 printed and have it scanned at a high-end digital lab (not your desktop scanner). A high-end digital print can then be made up to 7' (that's 84") wide and still look magazine-quality! That's more than can be done from most any medium format neg!

Also keep in mind that since medium format film is usually processed in a pro lab, it is being printed with better equipment and on better paper than your local 35mm lab. So an 8x10 done at Ritz camera will definetly look inferior to an 8x10 from medium format but this isn't because of the format, it is because of the lab.

An experienced 35mm photographer using high-end equipment and film along with a pro lab or high-end digital lab can compete favourably on every level with medium format photography.

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2/25/2003 11:24:27 AM

Jeff S. Kennedy   It's true that film is film. BUT, since larger film in essence increases resolution, tonal gradations are smoother with larger film. Take a headshot with a 35mm on 160NC and take the same headshot with an 8x10 camera and 160NC and the tonal gradation will be appreciably finer. In those terms tonal gradation has everything to do with format.

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2/25/2003 6:30:54 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
  Guess I must be having pipe dreams then. I can tell the difference in format among my 11x14 prints . . . same professional lab and same print materials. Some of it is the tonal gradation Jeff mentions and some of it is in fineness of detail.

Regarding viewing distance, the importance of an 11x14 or larger print being able to withstand close scrutiny from 12"-14" (minimum 20/20 human focus distance before age 40) depends on what the print is being used for. It's not quite as important for a photograph that will be casually viewed on an office wall or perhaps in someone's living room. Casual viewing is based more on the distance at which human primary field of view takes in the entire print. Larger print = greater viewing distance. It is important for gallery or museum works and juried photo/art shows. These works will receive close scrutiny and will be critiqued . . . if not by jurors, by other artists, knowledgeable art afficiandos and possibly art critics . . . from artistic merit, to print execution, to presentation. The latter two alone won't make a print succeed, but they can make it fail.

-- John

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2/25/2003 9:50:01 PM

Gregory E. Milam   If you are noticing differences between 35mm and medium format using a fine-grained film and the same lab then the photos weren't made under the same lighting conditions using the same quality optics...its really that simple, not a matter of opinion! If they are made under the exact same conditions and you STILL think you can tell a difference, then you are making judgements with pre-conceived notions. If you did not already know a professional quality photo was produced with 35mm, you could not tell it from medium format! As far as tonal gradations are concerned, if the grain is too fine to be noticed with the naked eye, then gradations on said grain are also to fine to notice! Hence very little, if any, difference! (8x10 camera? In normal use that's considered large format, not medium.) If you still don't agree with me, I have a name for you: Thomas D. Mangelsen. (
One of the world's premier nature photographers, he shoots 35mm almost exclusively! His website says he carries a single medium-format body along with five 35mm bodies, but his gallery manager in Las Vegas told me he has recently stopped using medium format altogether except for panoramics (which he shoots with a Fuji 617 and enlarges up to 90" wide!) All his regular images (which are available up to 30x45) are made with 35mm and look incredible! So any furthur discussion on format is really a moot point, because unless someone here thinks they are a more advanced photographer than Mangelsen and their photos need to be higher quality than ones that sell for over $1000.00 each...if its good enough for him, its good enough for anything any of us will ever do!

BTW...if any of you have the opportunity to stop by one of his galleries, you would really enjoy it! (If y'all can handle the appalling sight of gallery/museum enlargements with poor detail and inferior tonal gradation, that is!)

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3/27/2003 4:03:32 PM

Jeff S. Kennedy   Wow! That is a supremely arrogant statement to say that we simply can't see a difference between 35mm and MF. How do you know that? I've never heard of Mangelsen and I'm not sure how your knowing him makes you the final word on the subject. BTW, I cruised around his site. His work is good but I wouldn't classify him as better than average in terms of the top nature photographers out there.

The fact is there is a difference and I can see it. That's why I shoot MF in addition to 35mm. I would love to think that I could do it all with 35mm. It sure is more user friendly. But I simply can't. I get the feeling that you're maybe trying to justify your use of 35mm. And it may be good enough for Mangelsen but it's not good enough for me. I make my living at this and I will not compromise.

My reference to 8x10 was to proove a point. If gradations are appreciably better when moving from 35mm to 8x10 (and they are) then you can logically deduce that gradations will improve when moving from 35mm to MF. I didn't think I had to draw a picture. Maybe I was wrong.

Maybe you need to stop getting all your information from gallery owners and websites. Read a few books and experiment in the real world for yourself. As I said, I do this for a living. I know what I'm talking about.

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3/27/2003 5:29:21 PM

Wayne Attridge   Gilbert, With the advancements in film in the last few years, evidenced by the improved quality of motion pictures, which are generally shot on 35 mm film, there is not the noticeable difference in the two formats that there was previously. The fact is that the larger the negative, the better the resolution, for a print up to the size of that negative. This is not a personal idea, but science, much the same as a digital photo of 6M pixels will be better than a photo of 2M pixels. That does answer your question though, nor does these other fellows having turns peeing in each other's Corn Flakes. I suggest that perhaps you borrow or rent a MF camera and do some test shots to see the results for yourself before you invest in the equipment. For most purposes, 35 mm will give you excellent results at the size you require. If a digital camera at 6M pixels will give an acceptable print at 8 by 10, then 35 mm film, having much better resolution than that will be appreciably better (in B&W or Colour).

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3/28/2003 12:30:55 AM

Jeff S. Kennedy   "peeing in each other's Corn Flakes" - EEWWWWWW!!! ;-)))

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3/28/2003 9:37:46 AM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
  I wouldn't be using a 645 if it didn't make an appreciable difference with large prints. Regarding "A" vs "B" comparisons, the most telling were done making essentially the same photograph sequentially with each format using the same technique. In projection, the same projector and projection lens was used . . . a dual format that can handle small and medium format transparencies. Obviously it's not possible to use identical camera lenses but both systems have high end primes and the small variation among them does not account for the difference seen in projection or in prints. Any claim there is no difference in format, either theoretical or in practical application, is simply untrue.

I've known about Mangelson for a while. He has done excellent work. That he is selling them for $1k each speaks more directly of his reputation, artistic qualities, marketing, and presentation (print materials, framining, etc.), than it does about the technical aspects of the format being used. It's not surprising to me the bulk of his work employs small format considering what he's doing and what he's written about how he does it. Each format has its strengths and weaknesses. IMO the weakness of medium format is its size and weight, how that can hamper agility in working very quickly, and the general lack of very long lenses. "Working quickly" is a relative term; it is the agility to move equipment, compose and capture fleeting moments. It also includes ability to unload, reload and store film quickly. These are the qualities Mangelson desires with much of his nature work which is done in very remote areas from comparatively very long distances (based on what he's written about his work). His patience in waiting for a photograph notwithstanding, when the "decisive moment" occurs, it is often very fleeting and a photographer must be able to respond to it immediately or lose the opportunity.

OTOH, when minimizing weight/bulk, maximizing agility and capability for very long shooting distances are not high priorities, medium format offers the advantages of larger film. To argue that a single person, such as Mangelson, is not using medium format and therefore demonstrates everyone can/should abaondon it (and large format) is fallacious. He makes tradeoff decisions about equipment and film for the tasks he is performing based on his priorities. I make the decisions I do based on mine. Mangelson waits all day or longer if necessary for a moose, but finds making a macro of a flower waving in the breeze frustrating. That's his personality and style. I don't desire to track large land animals over long distances in a remote wilderness, but am willing to "sit in the tundra" and set up what's necessary to make a macro of the flora.

The example of what an outdoor, remote wilderness nature photographer uses and how he uses it is not remotely related to the original question that asked about *portraits* (presumably of humans). For 4x6 (or 4x5) and 5x7, the difference between formats is not discernable. Go larger to 8x10, and especially 11x14 or 16x20, and the difference _in_general_ across many photographs becomes discernable. The larger the print, the more apparent the difference.

-- John
[Who doesn't eat cornflakes or do anything weird with them either.]

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3/29/2003 11:19:51 AM

Tim Chakravorty  
Gregory, I hate to have to disabuse you, but people with even severely impaired vision will be able to tell the difference between 35mm and MF from prints 8x10 on. :-) Well maybe not those
with impaired vision but still. I can even tell apart MF from 4x5, at 8x10 or larger. True. There is just something about 4x5 prints thats hard to define. I have seen David Muench's photographs of the American Southwest (all 4x5)and they are just teeming with fine delicate detail down to the limits of human vision. Its incredible. Large format is simply a world apart.

Under IDEAL CONDITIONS, you would be right. That is if you used equivalent focal length lenses of the same optical characteristics and formed images on the same kind of film then the tonality should be the same in the final same sized prints. BUT, thats assuming that film structure is continuous and totally devoid of grain, in other words an ideal film. But alas, film like everything else, is not ideal and in fact consists of distinct chunks of silver halide crystals, however small. Because any two tones in a scene are physically spaced farther apart on a larger format film, the larger format will 'resolve' the tonal seperation to a greater degree. This will not be apparent at small print sizes, but if you keep enlarging while keeping the final print sizes the same, it will start to show at some point. Goes back to the age old dictum, that all else being equal a larger format is better simply because you enlarge less ! :)
Hope that helps.

-Tim Chakravorty

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4/20/2003 9:12:38 PM

Gregory E. Milam  
  In Tune
In Tune
© Gregory E. Milam
Not arrogance, simply truth. Unless your vision is better than 20/20, what you are saying is impossible! I'm not saying there isn't a difference between medium format and 35mm...I understand that the larger neg produces better quality enlargements! But there is a point of diminishing returns. The point I'm trying to make is that format doesn't matter in smaller enlargements! Anything under 16x20 shot on low-speed 35mm by a competent 35mm photographer simply IS NOT discernible from medium format!!!! If it is, then all things WERE NOT EQUAL between the conditions under which each photo was made! I'm not an amateur here, either! I've been shooting professionally for over 14yrs and have owned very high-end medium format equipment. I'm not saying medium format isn't good, I'm not saying it doesn't do a great job...I'm simply stating that it IS NOT superior to 35mm unless you're going to enlarge to WALL-PORTRAIT SIZE or view prints using a loupe! A Lamborghini Murcielago is definitely superior to a Mustang GT, but if all you're going to do is drive to the supermarket while obeying all the traffic laws, its overkill! The Mustang will do just as good of a job of getting you to the market, it just won't stroke your ego as much on the way there! (Hmmm...maybe I'm onto something here...) I have a framed enlargement of wedding rings sitting on piano keys which was shot on 35mm and I would put it up against ANY format regarding clarity of detail! If you enlarge it further, yes, you will start to notice a difference. I'm not arguing that point. It just really ticks me off when photographers make a flat statement that their chosen method of photography is better than mine when I have enough "real world" experience to know better! Talk about ARROGANCE!!!

Someone brought up digital. You can shoot the same subject using an EOS 1DS (11 megapixel image) and an EOS D30 (3 megapixel image). Is the 1DS' image superior? Absolutely! If you print both as 5x7s on the same printer can you tell them apart? Absolutely NOT! What if you print them as 16x20s? Absolutely! This is because all the information available to the naked eye in a digital 5x7 is able to be provided by the D30. The 1DS image is overkill that is not needed unless you are going for larger prints.

Now some are stating they can tell a difference between 35mm and MF on a 4x5?!?! Give me a break! I feel like I'm talking to a bunch of petulant children who stick their fingers in their ears and say "Nyah, nyah, nyah, I can't heeeaaarrr yooouuu!" whenever someone says something they don't like, then make even more outrageous claims to try and validate their earlier statements! (I can name that tune in 5 notes! Well, I can name it in 3 notes!) Do I hear wallets, anyone?

What I'm will say now is going to sound arrogant, but its something that I know from experience...If I were to shoot portaits using my studio equipment, have them processed at a professional lab, crop them to normal portrait sizes up to and including 11x14, and send them to anyone's home could not tell them from MF images if you didn't know ahead of time! I know this because I have friends (yes, they're still my friends!) that are experienced MF photographers and we have shot side-by-side during senior portrait sessions. Once the images are processed and put in presentation folders, NO ONE could tell the difference on prints 11x14 or smaller! If you claim you could, then your pre-conceived opinions are clouding your objectivity and obscuring your common sense and logic!

The original question was it worth it to purchase a 645 if you aren't going to enlarge past 8x12? The answer is also simple...ABSOLUTELY NOT!! Unless your ego needs a bit of stroking, that is...

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5/8/2003 9:43:02 PM

Gregory E. Milam   Guys, this is my last post in this thread…I didn’t mean to get into such an argument and I apologize if I offended anyone. I know I get a bit carried away. Allow me to make a clarifying statement and then I will be done.

I am a professional photographer. I specialize in weddings and also do some normal portraiture such as senior pictures. I am experienced in medium format and 35mm. I have chosen 35mm for all my current work. I have a lot of money in my camera systems and I am proud of them. My services do not come cheap and I have many happy customers. I do very little advertising and most of my business comes word-of-mouth. I would put my work up against anyone’s. I am very proud of the images that I create. I am routinely attacked by photographers in my area who think their work is superior because of the format they use. My potential customers have been told I am not “professional” because I use “amateur” equipment. I have lost weddings because another photographer told the couple not to hire someone who shoots 35mm. I have a raw nerve that gets agitated when someone starts making general statements about the superiority of MF. I believe MF is superior, but not within the realm of normal portrait photography and standard enlargements. Maybe you all have heard the saying, “It’s the singer, not the song.” I believe the same is true of photography…It’s the photographer, not the format.

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5/8/2003 9:57:41 PM

Jeff S. Kennedy   Do you have a website where we can see your work?

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5/8/2003 10:35:12 PM

Tom Walker   A few yrs ago there was a lot of difference, but then the 35mm "boom" hit and mfr's started improving their 35mm lenses. Recent test conducted by several photog magazines show no diff in 8x10's and 35mm actually a little sharper in 11x14 due to better lenses,
above that the bigger the print the greater the diff in MF's favor

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3/13/2004 6:29:44 PM

Gregory LaGrange
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/11/2003
  I wonder what Gilbert thinks of all this.

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3/13/2004 11:06:19 PM

Mario Mule   I also have shot with 35mm and 645. Let no one tell you otherwise there is a significant difference with 8x10!!!
The skin tones are much smoother with the larger negative. People justifying 35mm and Digital obviously do not appreciate clearity. I also shoot digital. It is cheap but also renders a nice quality. However, apples to apples, Medium Format still wins hands down on 8x10 in terms of quality. The larger negative reders a significant amount of information that cannot be ascertained with 35mm or a 12 megapixel camera.

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11/6/2004 6:20:36 PM

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