Our friend Ctein* has been a leading technical writer about photography for more than forty years, having published hundreds of articles in dozens of magazines.
He's also in a unique position to answer this question, because he photographed almost exclusively on low-ISO color negative film with a Pentax 67 (6x7 cm negatives) for 35 years, making prints up to 20x24 inches. He's also been a leading professional custom color printer for longer than most photographers have been shooting color, having been a master of the esoteric dye transfer process, the difficult and aristocratic (and expensive) color printing process available from the 1940s to the 1990s (it traces its roots back to a Technicolor movie process introduced in 1928, and was the go-to printing method for high-end advertising photography for decades). He still makes a significant part of his living doing custom inkjet printing on large and medium-size Epsons. He's been shooting Micro 4/3 for a number of years now (Olympus), and making prints from his files.
So how can there be a "definitive answer" to a "when will—?" type of question?
Because the answer, according to Ctein, is "about –6." That is, negative six. Six years ago, more or less.
"My '$19.95 Print Sale' spoke to that," he says. "Remember, that that wasn't a hero photograph, that was essentially a grab shot—a carefully-done grab shot, but a grab shot, nonetheless. While it made an excellent demo photograph for readers, it was not otherwise unusual in image quality from my typical work.
"That sale was four years ago and the equipment I was using was a year or two older than that (not a current-generation body at the time), so a half-dozen years in the past seems a safe number for the answer to your question.
We sold this print four years ago so people could see 4/3-sensor IQ for themselves
"Image quality is a multidimensional thing, some of which can be quantified and some not. Still, by no measure of image quality does a good Micro 4/3 camera and lens perform more poorly than a good medium format film rig, and by some measures it performs considerably better. My overall subjective evaluation is that the aggregate image quality of Micro 4/3 today, in film terms, falls midway between 6x7 medium format and 4x5-inch large format.
"Almost everyone you can find who is still arguing that Micro 4/3 can't match up to professional film has not done substantial amounts of serious work in both media. I believe the technical term is 'talking through one's hat.'"
So there's that.
*Pronounced kuh-TINE and it is his only name. "Tine" as in the first syllable of "tiny" or the tine of a fork—some people get confused over this, although I honestly don't see any other way to pronounce "tine." —Ed.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Henning Wulff: "My experience tracks that of Ctein extremely closely.
"For my work, I used 35mm, 645, 6x6, 6x9, 6x12, 4x5 and even some 8x10. My workhorse for construction and aerial work was 645 with Mamiyas, and I shot a lot of that, making prints up to 20x24 regularly. Four years ago I had occasion to replace some C prints that I had shot in the mid '90s on fine-grain C-41 process film with some new prints, as the old prints had faded noticeably. The new prints were inkjets and were all slightly larger than the former prints and were from files shot on 16-MP Olympus Micro 4/3 cameras as well as 21-MP Canon FF cameras. The Canon prints were slightly smoother than the Olympus prints, but both were definitely better technically in all respects than the Mamiya 645 prints they replaced.
"These were all medium contrast scenes; I'm not sure that very long range, high contrast shots would have shown such a decisive advantage without some extra heroics, but in the examples at hand there was no doubt."
Darlene: "I own one of the Moon and Bay Bridge prints, and it helped me drop large format all together. I have not left behind my MF digital for various reasons, but after viewing that print multiple times, it helped me make the switch from FF to APS-C and I have not looked back. I always look forward to reading anything 'Ctein.'"
Marcelo Guarini: "I got your print of four years ago because I was curious about your results. Technically an excellent print which I used as a comparison to improve my own technique. I also shoot Micro 4/3 and used for many years a Hasselblad 503 CW camera with some of their last-generation lenses. The digital prints I'm doing today, with an Epson K3 printer, are better than the best I was able to do in my darkroom, using a carefully aligned Durst with a 105mm ƒ/5.6 Apo Nikkor. The Micro 4/3 digital prints are also better than digital prints from very well-scanned Hasselblad negatives. I'm talking about sharpness and tonality. You have to use the best printing papers though."