I thought I'd weigh in with a few thoughts about Micro 4/3 vs. medium format film.
Without really meaning to, I've modified my thinking about camera and imaging systems* over a period of years. I used to think of "quality" as "the optimal quality a system is capable of." That is, what do the results look like, and how do they compare, when you've optimized everything?
Just for fun—as an exercise—to stretch myself and hone my chops—I used to try this with various equipment from time to time, just to define and get a better intuitive sense of the boundaries of my capabilities. A few examples: way back in the '80s, trying to see just how good my trusty old Contax 139Q and Zeiss Contax 35mm ƒ/2.8 really were, I shot T-Max 100 (new at the time; Kodak sent me beta samples) on a tripod in broad daylight, developed it in Rodinal, and counted the bricks on a distant building. Interesting, although of course not the way I wanted to shoot usually. Another time, when the denizens of the CompuServe Photo Forum were getting in a bit of a lather about sharpness, I tried to see just how sharp a photograph I could actually make. Again, just for fun. As an exercise. After trying various candidates, I ended up again using T-Max 100 in Rodinal, with a medium-format Mamiya 6 and its outstanding 150mm ƒ/4.5 G lens, at ƒ/8, with Speedotron Black Line studio strobes at partial power (i.e., a very fast effective "shutter speed"). That was as good as I could do (subjectively sharper, in my opinion, than 8x10 contact prints shot with a Deardorff, by the way. The culprit with the Deardorff was film flatness in the film holder, which wasn't terribly good). An interesting exercise.
My theory back then was that you had to learn to work both fast, and also optimally. So, for example, I strove to improve my speed and efficiency in the darkroom, but I'd also hone my chops by occasionally taking an unlimited amount of time and care to get the best possible enlargement I could possibly make of a given negative. I felt both methods of practice improved my skills, but in different—complementary—ways.
Anyway, my thinking in recent years has been along these lines: if you think of "everything optimized" as the "center" of a global IQ performance graph, then, as you push towards the "edges" in various ways, you explore how IQ starts to break down—and those are "image quality" issues as well. Let me give you an example. Take that counting-bricks test shot I mentioned above. Substitute faster, coarser-grained films; or move away from the lens's optimum aperture; or discard the tripod and handhold; or focus less carefully so that the focus is slightly off; or use a slow shutter speed which worsens the risk of camera shake; or "push" the film by underexposing and overdeveloping, ruining the tonal gradation...in any of these ways and others, you in a sense push away from the "center" of optimized performance and towards an "edge" where things begin to break down until they become unacceptable in the final result.
So it's also important to know where those edges or limits are. How slow can you handhold? How far can you open up a lens before the optical performance suffers? If you really learn your "imaging system," it helps you to know how far toward breakdown you can push these various parameters.
These things, to me, are part of "image quality."
The best Micro 4/3 B&W I've ever shot begins to approach the IQ
of medium-format B&W film expertly crafted.
And this is why the specific factors pertaining to image quality can be different for each of us...because we're all doing different kinds of work. A 4x5 photographer who never shot without the camera on a tripod might not care much about camera shake (except maybe outdoors when it was windy), but might have been much more concerned about motion blur (because of longer exposures) than a small-format photographer. A photographer who shoots tabletop and still life might be very concerned with how well a lens performs close up, but an aerial photographer might be exclusively concerned with how well a lens (even the same one!) does when focused at infinity.
In that sense, many of us tend to push towards different "edges" or extremes, in my IQ-graph analogy. We all care about different things, and different aspects of global IQ come into play.
So the question for me, in considering the question "Is Micro 4/3 as good as medium format film" is, what are we talking about? Are we talking about a comparison of both imaging systems when they're optimized—that is, when we're looking at the best image quality of which each is capable? Or are we looking at how they do with some aspect of performance pushed toward being "stressed" in some way? A few examples: which one does extreme enlargements better? Which one does high ISO better? Which one allows faster lenses? Which one allows more bokeh, i.e., shallower depth of field? Which one can yield more accurate color? Which one is easier to handhold?
Obviously, which of those parameters any given photographer will care about depends on what they're up to. And how good any imaging system is depends not only on a comparison of the results at the center—i.e., with everything carefully optimized for both—but with how quickly they push up against the edges—how quickly IQ breaks down under various kinds of stress.
Because, for me—just for me, based on the way I like to work as a photographer and the things I want to do—I always had trouble with medium format film. Unquestionably, the most beautiful photographs I ever made were on medium-format black-and-white film. But even back in the film days, when every image had to be a print made in the darkroom because there was no other way to see what a picture you'd taken looked like, I still had to make compromises that ruled out medium format. I wanted to handhold; I needed fast lenses; I wanted portability in my camera; and, I wanted to shoot more (one developing tank of film, measured in the most precious commodity I paid for it, cost me an hour and fifteen minutes. That same tank could process 105 frames of 35mm or 24 medium-format ones; 35mm won).
I was assigned in the late '80s to write a series of reviews of medium-format film cameras, which I did. (Prompting a funny comment from my then-editor, Ana Jones, when I asked her how she liked my Bronica SQ-Ai review: "Well," she said, carefully, "you've certainly said everything that can possibly be said about that camera." Which made me L OL, as that's how I L. I thought was a very nice way of saying my review was long and boring.) Believe me, I looked hard for a medium-format camera that would suit my work. But the films just weren't fast enough, the lenses just weren't fast enough, everything was too expensive (cost for lenses, to the cost in time for developing) and/or the cameras were just too big and heavy to carry around all the time.
So that's where I'd come down on "Is Micro 4/3 better than medium-format film." When they're optimized? For me—for my work and my taste and my definitions of "image quality"—hell no. I'd pick 120 Tri-X 400 in D-76 1:1 in a 6x6-cm camera with a beautiful lens, printed on gorgeous fiber paper, every single time. Every. Single. Time. Any day of the week and twice on Sundays. I loved it. Matchlessly beautiful. Quintessentially photographic. Magic, even. The best digital B&W I've ever made does begin to approach the IQ of medium-format B&W film expertly crafted. Emphasis on "begins to approach."
If that technique better suited the things I wanted to do, I'd probably still be using it today.
But when you push away from that center and head for the edges, where various parameters get pushed and stressed, that's where Micro 4/3 (or any digital, really) wins out. And it doesn't just "pull ahead." For high ISO, Micro 4/3 slaughters medium format film. In terms of the speed of available lenses, ditto. (I should mention that it's been rumored Olympus will be announcing a new series of ƒ/1.2 lenses this summer—anyone know if that's true?) For enlargeability? I don't care, because I like prints that are no bigger than about 15 inches in the long dimension, and the largest I ever printed medium-format B&W film was on 16x20" paper. I don't much care about color purity (I jones for B&W and naturally feel kind of "meh" about color) either. I'd still give the nod to my favorite medium-format cameras for the beauty of the viewfinder image, simplicity of operation (I photographed intensively with one medium-format camera for six months once without a light meter), and for bokeh potential. In terms of the portability of the cameras, Micro 4/3 slaughters medium format film. In terms of the ease of shooting more frames with less cost in developing time, any digital of course slaughters medium format film. In terms of hand-holdability in low light, well, have you ever heard of a medium-format film camera that offers IS? I'm not aware of one.
A lot of the ways in which Micro 4/3 is better are important to me and for my photography. When you can get a technically good or great shot in particular conditions with one that you can't get at all with the other, that counts as better "image quality" too, no question in my mind.
So my answer to the question is [cue innocent voice]: "Depends what you mean."
*An "imaging system" in my definition being everything that takes you from the idea of what you want to do to the fully realized final result, whatever that is.
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