Ponder, for a moment, the humble point-and-shoot camera. Each year, over 100 million Homo sapiens will slip a new one into their pants pocket or satchel — thus fulfilling their species’ instinctual obligation to substantiate all travels and milestones with irrefutable photographic evidence. Interwoven with this primary biological need is a second — to periodically replace a perfectly capable gadget with a shinier, newer model. Camera manufacturers, ever willing to satisfy both of these basic instincts, introduce new cameras with new features every few months. January’s pricey innovations become July’s budget orthodoxies, as developers leapfrog each other’s specifications — all in the hope that us humans will discard our old cameras and purchase new ones.
Today, $300 will buy you a snazzy little point-and-shoot camera like the Nikon Coolpix S70. For all those hard-earned dollars, you’ll get a 3.5″ high resolution touch screen, image stabilization, HD video recording, and a plethora of bells that’ll smooth skin and fix red eye, whistles that’ll recognize faces and prevent you from photographing a frowny one, and sirens that’ll insure your personal photos are at least reasonable facsimiles of those in the brochure. It might also include (though I’m guessing here) a backscratcher, a flotation device, and an instant popcorn maker.
That’s a seemingly tremendous value. At least until you consider what you’re giving up in return — a camera. OK, I know there’s one in there somewhere. Slide it under a microscope, and you’ll discover that most point-and-shoot cameras capture your precious images on a tiny, 28 sq. mm sensor. If you’re having trouble picturing how small that is, here’s a visual aid: the fingernail on the little pinkie of my left hand measures 120 square mm — and I have small, girly-size hands. This means all those cherished memories of your adorable puppy, your daughter’s first birthday, and your once-in-a-lifetime trip to Rome are being captured on a device that’s only one quarter the size of your little fingernail.
If this revelation elicits no more than a nonchalant shrug, I’ll remind you that photography requires the capture of light. The bigger the light-capturing device, the higher the potential fidelity.
Consider this: 110 years ago, Kodak created a new camera — the Brownie — and a new film format to accompany it. That film, which recorded an image “only” 3135 sq. mm in size, was considered too small for professional use, but was quickly adopted by amateur photographers. In 1901, Kodak made some slight modifications to the format, and dubbed the new film “120.” 120 film became the format of choice for Hasselblad, Mamiya, Bronica, Rollei, and other medium-format film cameras, and it’s still manufactured today. If, in 1901, photographers considered a 2.25″ square negative to be “amateur” in size, what might they think of the sensor in today’s point-and-shoot cameras — a sensor 112 times smaller than the Brownie’s?
To make matters worse, marketing pressures require modern camera manufacturers to cram as many pixels as possible onto that tiny sensor. Theoretically, the more pixels you have on your sensor, the higher the resolution of your photograph. The problem is, when you stuff 12 million of them onto a surface that’s only one quarter the size of your little fingernail, each individual pixel is going to be mighty small. And, since each of these mighty small pixels is responsible for gathering, capturing, and properly identifying the color and luminosity of the light that strikes it, they’re not overly accurate. The result is that your combination backscratcher, flotation device, and instant popcorn maker will capture your memories with limited dynamic range, and a whole lot of digital noise. But to be totally fair, if your intention is to post these photos into your blog or print them on the ubiquitous 4×6 inch photo paper, their image quality is perfectly adequate. A point-and-shoot won’t make Steven Meisel fear for his livelihood, but it’s a heck of a lot better than having no camera at all!
The Quality Factor
Those who want their image quality to take a quantum leap forward are increasingly opting for the popular micro four-thirds (MFT) format. Although these cameras are significantly larger than most pants-pocketable point-and-shoots, they’re still lilliputian in comparison to the average, bulky dSLR. An entry-level MFT system will cost about 3x as much as that Nikon Coolpix S70 point-and-shoot but, at 243 sq. mm, its sensor is nearly 9x larger. The pixel count remains the same at 12 million, but they’ve become meaningful pixels — pixels that are now big enough and thirsty enough to suck up light, color, and intangible bits of sparkle.
MFT cameras are capable of producing excellent images under good light. But, for many, the low-light performance of MFT is still somewhat unsatisfactory. Another problem, unless you’re quite adept at compromising your aesthetics, is that the 12 megapixel sensor essentially limits you to prints no larger than 11×17. Also, if you’re not as skilled as Henri Cartier-Bresson at capturing edge-to-edge perfection, you’ll probably need to do a bit of cropping — which means your acceptable print size has likely dwindled to 8×10.
In general, the next step up from the MFT format is a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera. Modern consumer and prosumer SLR’s have sensors that are larger than MFT, though still smaller than a traditional 35mm film frame. By now you’ve likely seen the developing pattern, and have rightfully concluded that the larger sensor in these entry-level SLRs will, all things being equal, provide even greater image fidelity than MFT.
For many professionals and enthusiasts, nothing short of a ‘full frame’ 35mm sensor will do. A sensor that’s the size of a single 35mm film frame has 864 square millimetres. All that extra elbow-room gives the sensor additional space for even more and even bigger pixels. The curious thing about the 35mm standard is that it — just like the 120 film format — was once considered “amateur.” In the 1920’s, Leica-designer Oskar Barnack chose the 35mm format because it allowed him to create smaller cameras, and because its aspect ratio conformed to the “Golden Rectangle.” Over the next decade, Leica’s popularity almost single-handedly established the 35mm format for still photography. In the earliest days, photographers were required to manually load the film into reusable cassettes before inserting it in the camera. In 1934, with the format’s popularity secured by Leica and its knock-offs, Kodak began to manufacture pre-loaded 35mm film cassettes, and the ‘135’ format was born. For the next 30 years, the 135 format would prove popular with hobbyists and photojournalists, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that it finally overtook 120 film as the “King of Films.”
Today, the digital Leica M9 plops 18 million big, beautiful pixels onto its luxurious 864 sq. mm ‘full frame’ sensor. My 5D Mark II squeezes 21 million pixels into that same area. All that sensor area, dotted with all those cavernous pixels, gives you a wall-worthy 16×20 print. For a system nearly 4x the price of a micro four-thirds system, the 5D Mark II gives you a sensor that’s also nearly 4x larger, while also doubling the number of pixels.
Anyone not satisfied with this level of performance is usually shooting fine art, architecture, editorial, fashion, or high-end product photography. These endeavors are the domain of the medium format camera, which further extends the megapixel count while increasing the sensor size beyond that of the humble 35mm negative. Case in point is the new Leica S2. That camera puts 37 megapixels on a 1315 sq. mm sensor. It also gives us our first glimpse of the Law of Diminishing Returns: A basic Leica S2, with a single lens, costs about 7x the price of my similarly-equipped 5D Mark II, yet its pixel count has increased only 1.7x, and its sensor area only 1.5x. Ouch.
And the S2 still isn’t a ‘true’ medium format camera, which traditionally means ‘120’ film and a minimum of 2324 sq. mm on a 6×4.5 cm negative. To enter this rarified strata requires the new 60 megapixel Phase One P65+ system. If you must know, at the time of this publication, that camera will set you back $46,000. Well, $49,000 if you want a basic lens to put on it.
But what if you want more? What if you’re one of those guys (like me) who gravitates toward the 6×6 cm square format negative? If Phase One’s 60 megapixel, 2178 sq. mm sensor commands $49,000, what might a 72 megapixel, 3135 sq. mm sensor demand? $75,000? $100,000?
How about less than $100?!
(Virtually) Free Pixels
That’s right. I just purchased a medium format, 200 megapixel, 6×6 cm camera for less than half the price that Aunt Mildred gave the local appliance shop for her hot-pink point-and-shoot with 1/16 the number of pixels and 1/112 the sensor size.
The secret? Buy used!
Remember when, at the beginning of this article, I mentioned mankind’s instinctual need to replace perfectly competent cameras with newer ones? All I did is suppress this need and, instead, sniff around amongst the cameras cast off by generations past. Specifically, I ponied up $95 for a late 1950’s Yashica Mat with an 80mm f/3.5 lens. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “A camera from the late 1950’s? Surely they weren’t making them with more than a couple of megapixels back then, were they?”
Well, here’s the deal. The Yashica Mat captures images in analog format on that big, beautiful 120 film — a format nearly four times larger than today’s ‘gold standard’ for image quality — the 35mm full-frame sensor. The snag, of course, is that Adobe Camera Raw won’t read analog film files. To get your images into Photoshop, you need to scan them first — a process that’s a bit like strapping yourself into a DeLorean and traveling 10 years back into the past… only better. Better because, in a rush to convert to an all digital workflow, photographers have dumped their film cameras as if they were made of SARS, wrapped in H1N1, and sprinkled with Ebola. That means medium format cameras — still expensive a decade ago — can now be purchased with a few old coins and some pocket lint. Scanners, too, are far better and much less expensive than they were at the turn of the 21st century. And film formulations have evolved to become more scanner friendly.
The Yashica Mat gives me an image area 1.4x larger than the $49,000 Phase One. In combination with my Epson V600 scanner, it’ll also give me 200 megapixels — 3.3x as many as the $49,000 Phase One! In truth, scanning a 120 negative at 6400 dpi is overkill. To prevent my computer from melting down and my hard drives from filling too rapidly, I’ll likely scan my Yashica Mat shots at 3200 dpi, which still gives me a luxuriously large 50 megapixel image to dive into.
Tradeoffs? Well, the Yashica Mat is manual focus, but I actually prefer manual focus. The Yashica Mat has no built-in light meter, but I often shoot using manual exposure anyway. Then there’s that film thing. OK, that’s a bit of a pain. I’ll have to purchase rolls of 120 film, load one into the camera and, after only 12 exposures, pop in a new roll of film. Then, before I can scan it, I’ll need to process it. If I’m lazy and let the local lab process it for me, this camera could end up costing me $1 every time I take a photo! Guestimating that a yet-to-exist 6×6 cm digital medium format camera would cost a minimum of $75,000, I can easily calculate that, should I eventually take 75,000 photographs, I would have been better off steering clear of the Yashica Mat. In other words, if I shoot one roll of 120 film every day for the next 17 years, I’ll have made a mistake. Be sure to check back in 2027 for my follow-up article.
So, that’s my plan. Obviously, I’m not expecting that a negative from a 50 year old, fixed-lens Rolleiflex copy, scanned on a budget desktop transparency scanner, will approach the quality of a Phase One camera system. But did I mention it cost less than $100?
Nor can I neglect the demands that a high-speed, high-pressure shooting schedule places upon a modern photographer and, by extension, his equipment. For me, the Yashica Mat is a luxury — a frivolity that will let me relax and take pictures in an old-world way, while still processing and sharing them in a way that’s thoroughly modern.
In Part 2 of this report, I’ll discuss the ups, downs, and sideways of the Yashica Mat and how it fits into a photographer’s workflow during this, the second decade of the 21st century.
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