View Full Version : Large format vs. medium format

Jon Warwick
23-Sep-2008, 01:02
I've just started using LF using a Super Symmar 110 XL, so reputedly about as sharp a LF lens as one can get. I use a rock solid tripod, and I believe excellent technique to achieve maximum sharpness.

On a light box and a 10x loup, I'm now looking at the B&W negatives that I've taken with the LF camera, and comparing them with my B&W negatives that I took in medium format (both Hasselblad and Mamiya 7).

Using a 10x loup, the "sharpness" of the medium format negatives seems to literally jump out at me and is much more apparent than it is for the LF negatives.

It's not that the LF negatives are particularly soft or out-of-focus in themselves .... there is good detail there ..... but they seem to be lacking that overwhelming sharpness that I'm seeing in the medium format negatives.

Is this normal?? Am I doing a fair comparison?

Greg Lockrey
23-Sep-2008, 01:15
Could be the difference in thickness of the film base. LF film is thicker so the light being transmitted through it is a bit more disperse as you look through your loupe. Smaller negatives are and need to be sharper. Bare in mind that you won't need to enlarge as much for any given print size with the larger negative.

adrian tyler
23-Sep-2008, 02:31
my fuji/hasselblad negs/lenses are much sharper than any of my lf negs/lenses, it's a fact of life, don't worry, you start to see the difference when you print or scan big.

David A. Goldfarb
23-Sep-2008, 03:04
What do the prints look like? That's what you should be comparing.

neil poulsen
23-Sep-2008, 03:08
I think it's a trade-off between optimizing for sharpness or optimizing for enough additional coverage to allow movements. For example, the Digitar lenses don't have the coverage of regular film lenses, and they're sharper.

Arne Croell
23-Sep-2008, 03:52
From your description, it sounds more a contrast than a resolution issue. You did not state what format you were using, but I assume its 4x5? Did you use a compendium lens shade to shade the lens down to the used area? The 110mm XL just about covers 8x10, so fo 4x5 or even 5x7 that is a lot of non-image light bouncing around in the bellows, whereas the MF lens image circle will be close to the format size. Furthermore, in my experience the 110XL needs f/22 for best performance, it is a little softer at f/16. For f/16 its predecessor, the Super-Symmar HM 120mm is slightly better. Which f/stop did you use?

Peter K
23-Sep-2008, 03:52
A high-resolution lens isn't the whole thing. Also the camera, film-holders etc. must have the same precission. And a heavy camera on a weak tripod doens't help to get sharp negatives.

Frank Petronio
23-Sep-2008, 04:02
It shouldn't be that dramatic a difference, although a 10x loupe is going to reveal a lot. But before condemning large format I would check/test that your film is in the correct film plane (it makes me suspect the ground glass isn't in the right place.)

A quick and easy test is to shoot three sheets of the same scene with a note included in the scene to identfy the piece of film -- one focused to the ground glass, the next a small bit (2mm) focused closer, the next 2mm further... that will tell you everything.

From there it depends on your camera how you go about shimming your ground glass and checking the position of your holders.

Jon Warwick
23-Sep-2008, 04:05
Thanks for the replies so far.

Arne ..... Yes, I wondered if it might be a contrast issue? The B&W negatives on a the LF (I'm using 5x4) look a lot more "flat grey" across the frame compared to what I'd been getting from the MF cameras (or 35mm Leica for that matter). The MF and 35mm negatives have a lot more "punch" / contrast to them.

I don't use a lens shade ..... but most of the images have been taken towards dusk (ie, little natural light), so I don't see that a lens shade would make much of a difference in those circumstances?

Re: aperture. I've used f16 for most of them. Also, f45 for some others. No other apertures used so far.

Re: tripod. I'm using a Gitzo carbon fiber 1348 and an Arca B1 head, so all good weighty stuff. Exposure times have been from 8 seconds --> 30 seconds, typically, with little to no wind.

Peter K
23-Sep-2008, 04:10
Exposure times have been from 8 seconds --> 30 seconds, typically, with little to no wind.
Also little wind during 30 seconds moves the camera, specially the LF-camera with it's big surface.

David A. Goldfarb
23-Sep-2008, 04:18
The MF and 35mm negatives have a lot more "punch" / contrast to them.

I don't use a lens shade ..... but most of the images have been taken towards dusk (ie, little natural light), so I don't see that a lens shade would make much of a difference in those circumstances?

Yes, this is why you should use a lens shade. The purpose of a lens shade is not only to keep direct light from falling on the front element. A properly adjusted compendium shade also reduces the image circle to what is necessary for making the image at hand by cutting off any non-image light, which will reflect inside the lens and inside the camera and reduce contrast. Modern MF and 35mm lenses usually have no excess image circle and use internal baffles to minimize non-image light, even if you don't use a lens shade (which you still should do).

The 110 SS-XL has massive excess coverage for 4x5" (it covers 8x10"), so there is a huge amount of non-image light bouncing around your lens and the camera reducing contrast, if you don't use a shade.

Frank Petronio
23-Sep-2008, 04:52
Those are long exposures to be judging critical sharpness by, even with good technique and gear you are still going to get some subtle movement.

Do a test at 1/30th f/22 in the daytime.

Remember most LF lenses, especially the 110 XL, have their front element "out there" right at the front of the barrel, unlike most smaller format lenses which have some recess (ie mini-shading).

Walter Calahan
23-Sep-2008, 05:08
My college professor always warned us that medium format would appear sharper than LF. He said it was a combination of things, but mostly the thickness of the film base. Then went on to say that LF ends up appearing sharper in a final print because the magnification of the negative is lower when a medium format negative is enlarged to the same size.

So what you are seeing on the light table is very well know, just a surprise to you. In the end, your LF negatives will enlarge better than your medium format film.

23-Sep-2008, 06:02
I agree with the other posters about a lens shade. It is an **essential** large format tool. I also agree that LF negs will not always have the apparent sharpness of a medium format neg, but who cares its all in the print.

Also keep in mind that with LF you have the ability of movements. This often allows you to surpass the smaller formats in sharpness, depending on the scene.

I would definitely test your gear for alignment problems. The only large format camera I have ever owned that was in perfect alignment is my new Chamonix. Both metal and wooden cameras can have alignment problems.

Ed Richards
23-Sep-2008, 06:17
I am less obsessed with a lens hood, but f16 is not the sharpest stop for some lenses, and all of them are going to be suffering from diffraction at f45. But that said, 120 is going to be a lot sharper in any but perfect conditions for LF. As Frank said, try this on a bright, high contrast day with a faster shutter speed.

You need to think about developing - 120 film is not the same as 4x5, so you may be getting different results. You also need to make sure you are not over exposing the 4x5.

Are you scanning or doing darkroom prints? With a good scanner like the Nikon 9000, you can probably get as good scanned quality from MF as with LF scanned on a consumer scanner. (Drum scans will wipe that out.) With wet prints, the bigger negative will make a much better print even if it is not as sharp per square inch. OTOH, unless you are using movements, the advantages of 4x5 over MF are probably not worth the trouble, and if you do not do big prints and do not use movements, there is no reason other than occupational therapy to use LF.

23-Sep-2008, 06:18
If you are shooting exposures that long, use extra weight under the center post of your tripod. I've seen various methods offered, but the one that appeals is a net shopping bag filled with rocks at the site.

It's been a long time, but I read some very interesting articles on the magnitude of improvement to be gained by extra weight under the tripod center post. If you shoot 30 seconds and a mild breeze is blowing you have a potential problem that the extra anchoring will reduce.

I agree with the other posts that state running your tests with faster shutter speeds, and encourage you to consider the "extra weight trick"

The reports I read some time ago were aimed at showing the difference on medium format "mirror slap" moving the camera and the results were pretty astonishing by adding weight under the tripod.

23-Sep-2008, 06:33
It's the final print that counts.
My most beautiful B&W prints have been made with a 105mm Ektar (Heliar type), but the negatives look like mush.

John Alexander Dow
23-Sep-2008, 07:48
I'd expect 35mm negatives to appear even "better" again. Lenses for smaller formats can be designed and built with higher contrast, resolution, etc. But like one or two people have said the advantages of larger formats are in the prints - compare 20x24 prints from 35mm, medium format, 4x5, 10x8 an finally a 20x24 contact print(!) and you will get the idea.....

Brian Ellis
23-Sep-2008, 07:57
What the negatives look like is really unimportant unless you only look at negatives and don't make prints from them. I spent many years making b&w prints from 6x7 negatives and 4x5 negatives using a variety of different lenses. With 11x14 and smaller prints there was no noticeable difference between them in terms of detail, "sharpness," or anything else from any viewing distance short of using a loupe. With 16x20 prints I could find a difference when I looked for it but the 16x20 prints from 6x7 negatives would have been perfectly adequate for many people when viewed from a normal viewing distance. I never made a darkroom print larger than 16x20 but based on my observations with 16x20 prints, I believe that all other things being more or less equal, only with prints 20x24 or larger would you see a real obvious difference between the two formats at normal viewing distances. That's with b&w, I never made darkroom color prints from 4x5.

Jon Warwick
23-Sep-2008, 08:04
Thanks for all the advice above.

As I say, the 5x4 negatives are not really soft, given the detail (resolution) does seem to be there, albeit lacking that "punch" that I observe from the 120 and 35mm negatives. For all the images I've taken, I'm focusing on more distant objects (ie, at least 100 yards away).

Also, the 5x4 negatives in general look pretty "light grey" across their frame.... ie, they're not as apparently contrasty as I've gotten from 120 and 35mm formats. Indeed -- when I look directly at the 120 or 35mm negatives on a light-box, I see STRONG elements of dark tones vs. lighter tones .... the negatives from these smaller formats looks really "rich". But the 5x4s look weak in terms of tone / contrast, almost a bit washed out and "light-grey" everywhere .... not "rich" in terms of dark vs. light tones, that's for sure.

Hence, whilst I'm certainly going to make sure that everything is aligned, I'm thinking the problem could be more to do with the contrast issue that several people have recommended above. I'm a bit surprised it'd make so much difference to not use a lens hood, but theoretically it kind of makes sense due to the large glass element on the Super Symmar XL 110.

If a lens hood really could make a difference here for the Super Symmar 110 XL, I will endeavour to get one. Any recommendations on what to get (ie, brand, type, etc)??

Thanks again.

Don Hutton
23-Sep-2008, 08:18
Using f45 with the 110XL will result in negs with resolution below 30lp/mm - you will be getting nowhere close to what the lens is capable of at that aperture. At f16 (or f22), you should be getting over 50lp/mm compared with perhaps 60-90 with your MF set-up. Are you going to see that as a visible difference with a 10X loupe? No - simply not happening. To discern 50lp/mm + resolution, you'll be needing a more powerful loupe.

You're most likely observing the effects of dramatic differences in microcontrast caused by different formats. On smaller formats, because scenes are "condensed" (more to fit on a smaller frame), that has the effect of making everything look snappier or sharper because the contrast gradients are closer together on a given scene. That's why "wide angle" shots often look sharper on a lightbox - there's more detail and texture closer together than with a normal-longer shot of the same scene.

If you're concerned, get a target and test - it doesn't lie and will give you a very good idea of what parameters are observable at given magnifications.

And if you want to find out about how a hood helps - just shoot a scene with and without under "bright" conditions of a high contrast scene - you will be converted forever.

David A. Goldfarb
23-Sep-2008, 08:25
If your camera offers the option of a compendium (bellows) shade that attaches to the camera instead of the lens, that's usually the best option, because you can use it with any lens and adjust it for focal length and camera movements just short of where it vignettes, and they usually have filter slots on the rear standard. The shade will usually have some movements of its own, so that you can shade asymmetrically, if the camera movements require it.

Lee and a few other companies make compendium shades that attach to the lens with adapters.

I think it was Robert Zeichner who posted a good design for an adjustable barndoor hood around here somewhere.

Screw-in shades and rubber shades are less versatile, but better than nothing, and sometimes good options when a compendium shade is too cumbersome (in the wind or for handheld press camera use, for instance). Hama makes a rubber zoom hood with variable extension that's handy, if you go with a rubber hood.

Then there are things like the "Flare Buster," which is a card on a gooseneck with a clamp to keep direct light off the front element, or you can just use a card, your hand, a hat, or a darkslide, but this won't reduce excess image circle on all four sides of the projected image.

Leonard Evens
23-Sep-2008, 08:44
As others have said, it is the final print that counts. The short answer is that prints made from large format negatives need only be enlarged roughly half as much as those those made from medium format negatives, so the prints will appear sharper.

If you examine the negatives under 10 X magnification, you are in effect comparing what would happen if you cropped your large format images to medium format size.

Here are some facts that are relevant to comparing formats.

First, to make a comparison, you should compare lenses with the same angle of view. A 110 lens for 4 x 5 is comparable roughly equivalent to a 55 mm lens for medium format. You should also compare pcitures of the same scene taken under the same lighting.

A medium format lens will have somewhat higher resolution because the area it needs to cover is half as large and usually it need not allow for movements. The film plane is also likely to be better controlled. Finally, for the same depth of field, you can get away with larger apertures and shorter exposure times, which reduces problems of camera or subject movement.

As noted, large format lens need not be enlarged as much. If the resolution of the. medium format lens were twice as high as that of the comparable large format lens, you might end up with comparable results for both formats, but that is not true. Modern large format lenses do almost as well in resolution as comparable medium format lenses. In addition, since you enlarge only half as much, grain is less of a problem.

I spent over thirty years doing medium format, using a Rollei with a a superb f/2.8 planar lens and a Mamiya C3 with 105 mm and 180 mm lenses. I also used a Horseman 980 with t65 mm, 90 mm, and 150 mm lens. The Horseman is more comparable to my large format setup because it allows for movements and the lenses are designed for that. While some of my medium format prints are very sharp, they don't compare with my 4 x 5 prints of the same size.

While the enlargement factor explains a great deal of what you observed, other factors such as contrast also played a role. Another factor might be focusing. A medium format camera may have a focusing aid built into the focusing screen, and its infinity setting is likely to be pretty accurate. Also, the focusing (wide-open) aperture is larger, which may yield more accurate focusing,depending on how you focus in the two cases. To get comparable results with your f/5.6 110 mm Super Symmar XL, you should probably be using a 4 X loupe. Even so, it takes a while to learn proper focusing technique in large format.

23-Sep-2008, 10:10
The printing work of LF is also different from smaller formats in terms of local contrast. You can play much more flexibility. This was what LF charmed me even if I print small. Equally bad negatives I made with LF, MF and 35mm, LF can save better print.

Eric Leppanen
23-Sep-2008, 11:21
The links below document resolution tests performed on a variety of MF and LF lenses:


In comparing the two formats, aperture makes a big difference, at least theoretically. A Mamiya 7 50mm f/4 lens at f/11 resolved 96 lppm at the center, whereas the sharpest SS110XL tested resolved 60 lppm at f/22. (A Mamiya 7 65mm better matches the angle of the view of the SS110XL, but it was not included in this test). My Mamiya 7 chromes used to have noticeably more "snap" than my 4x5 shots (as long as I did not stop the M7 all the way down to f/22), but typically not enough to offset the much larger film area of the 4x5.

Also, when shooting long exposures the 4x5 will be far more vulnerable to wind shake than MF, so I suspect your 8 - 30 second exposure times are impacting your results, even with only a slight, occasional breeze. I suggest trying another comparison in broad sunlight using a lens hood and shutter speeds of 1/60 or faster.

Bruce Watson
23-Sep-2008, 14:56
Using a 10x loup, the "sharpness" of the medium format negatives seems to literally jump out at me and is much more apparent than it is for the LF negatives.

It's not that the LF negatives are particularly soft or out-of-focus in themselves .... there is good detail there ..... but they seem to be lacking that overwhelming sharpness that I'm seeing in the medium format negatives.

Is this normal?? Am I doing a fair comparison?

IMHO no, you aren't making a fair comparison.

A 10x enlargement of a 6 x 7 negative is a 60 x 70 cm print. A 10x enlargement of a 4 x 5 negative is a much larger 100 x 125 cm print.

Said another way, a 60 x 70 cm print from a 4 x 5 negative is a bit less than a 6x enlargement.

So a fair comparison would be to compare 60 x 70 cm prints from both negatives, or use a 10x loupe on the 6 x 7, and a 6x loupe on the 4 x 5.

Or, you could reverse this comparison and make it between a 6 x 7 and a 35mm negative. Under the same 10x loupe, the 35mm negative will look sharper than the 6 x 7.

As long as you remember that there's a hell of a lot more to a good photograph than perceived sharpness you should be OK. Just don't let the testing get in the way of your photography!

Andrew O'Neill
23-Sep-2008, 15:08
Like someone stated earlier...make prints of same subject and composition from both negs sizes and then make your comparison. 8x10 prints should suffice. Even though the medium format negs will hold up very well, the LF neg will win.

Tony Karnezis
23-Sep-2008, 18:06
I think it was Robert Zeichner who posted a good design for an adjustable barndoor hood around here somewhere.


I bookmarked it when he posted a link to it on a previous post. Negatives taken with the barn door shade have noticeably more contrast than those taken with a round rubber hood.

24-Sep-2008, 02:32
So it seems contrast and not sharpness is the problem?
If you after scanning/printing your LF negs feel you need more contrast its back to the finetuning of exposure/development to suit your needs.
Kind regards

Ken Lee
24-Sep-2008, 08:29
As logical as we would like to be about this subject, there are many secondary factors, and certain intangibles, which arise when shooting, processing, and printing. These cannot be dismissed. If we isolate one factor alone, we can easily ignore the others.

If you don't have the time and resources to compare for yourself, then it's best to find some finished prints that someone else has made with a particular set of equipment and methods, and make your best personal judgment.

I'm sure that many of us have had the experience of seeing some Ultra Large Format contact prints - or some Minox images for that matter - and just knowing: that's the way I want to go.

Some may remember the slogan from an old TV campaign in the States, "Only YOU can prevent forest fires !". Well, here I would say "Only YOU can decide about format size".

Brian Ellis
24-Sep-2008, 09:14
Like someone stated earlier...make prints of same subject and composition from both negs sizes and then make your comparison. 8x10 prints should suffice. Even though the medium format negs will hold up very well, the LF neg will win.

I don't think so. See my earlier post.

Arne Norris
24-Sep-2008, 17:13
There is one other quality that is perhaps a bit alusive, but quite a part of the look of 4x5 and larger format film vs. smaller formats.

This is something beyond resolution and contrast. This is the subtle differences in modeling and three-dimensionality that larger formats give the image. To my eye with small formats like DSLR and 35mm the image looks "flat". MF images look more dimensional, and large format looks even more dimensional and natural.

This might have to do with the increasing range of tonality as you go up in film/image size, but I'm beginning to think the difference is in the increasingly larger sized lens/image area for a given angle of view.

Every format, film or digital, has it's strengths. I am most interested in photographing people, and I'm not all that concerned about camera movement. So for me this somewhat subjective quality is the draw of using a larger-sized image capture. If they made large format digital and if (in my wildest dreams) I could ever afford it, I think we would see similar qualities.

By the way, this is the first time I've read that lenses with larger image circle such as the SS 110mm (that aren't shaded with a compendium) could contribute to a loss of contrast, but it makes perfect sense. Thanks for the info!

james zhou
24-Sep-2008, 20:34
This could be due to the fact that you see relatively a larger part of a medium format slide compared to that of a 4x5 or 8x10. I have compared all sorts of negatives and transparencies under a microscope, the difference is not obvious.

Jon Warwick
9-Oct-2008, 02:06
Something of a follow-up ..... As a newbie to LF, thank you the multitude of ideas and advice above that you gave in response to me querying why my "medium format negatives apparently look sharper on a light-box than my 5x4 negatives?"

I have now had a pro lab produce two hand-printed 24"x20" B&W photos from 5x4 negatives using the SS 110 XL lens ........ suffice to say, they are extraordinarily sharp. At that print size, to me at least, the critical definition appears at least as good as what I achieved with Mamiya 7 .... but the significantly greater "smoothness" and total lack of grain is what makes the 5x4s look much sharper overall than the 120 format, even against the fantastic rangefinder lenses on the Mamiya 7.

So, my conclusion is basically what you guys said .... don't just rely on looking at the negative, it's all about the final print! As yes, Bruce, you are right ..... now that I compared them all on a light-box, for whatever reason, the 35mm negatives do indeed look apparently sharper than the 120s, and the 120s look sharper than the 5x4s!

The second conclusion I've made as a newbie? ..... I went into LF photography with the primary reason of wanting a big negative. That aspect is still crucial to me, given I hope to make prints up to 50"x40".

But what I've learnt is that the biggest change to the "look" and overall quality of my photos owes to the camera movements that are possible in LF. The importance of camera movements in improving the final image was something that I'd not previously considered would be anywhere near as beneficial as I do now, now that I'm using the camera and seeing the results that can be achieved.

Already, I've had various people basically say "These photos you've taken with the large format camera look amazing! ..... they look completely different to what you were creating before". So whether it's the benefits of the LF camera's movements that they're unconciously responding to, or whether it's the extra "sharpness" and smoothness of the print, I can already tell from people's responses that these technical aspects are favorably working somewhere, somehow, in the final image.

Bruce Watson
9-Oct-2008, 04:55
Addicting, isn't it? Welcome to the club!

Eugene van der Merwe
9-Oct-2008, 05:32
One of the best threads i've read recently! Lots of interesting and well informed views, and very generous sharing of information! Thanks to all who have contributed. I'm just wondering where i will find an appropriate barn door type attachment for my new lens shade...

13-Oct-2008, 01:54
While there are many variables....Lens resolution, film, processing, camera shake,
mirror slap.....on and on.

As the drag racers say" theres no substitute for cubic inches"