Size Matters

Generally speaking I don't go for the whole "gear head" thing. I believe that it's the person behind the camera that's creating the image, and not the tool in his/her hands. After all, that's what a camera is... a tool. You wouldn't compliment a sculptor on his amazing chisels, or tell a painter that his brushes paint beautiful paintings, would you? That said, I do believe that having the right tools for job is important, and having the best tools, whilst not making you a better artist, will help you achieve your full potential.

I've always owned 35mm DSLR cameras, and I love them for their ease of use, and the features they put at my fingertips. The problem with them is that in order to have all these great features, they've had to compromise... and usually the first thing to suffer is image quality. Now for a lot of things, this drop in quality doesn't matter, and in many cases isn't even noticable. Unfortunately, for some of the jobs I do, it is noticeable, and it does matter!

So what's the answer? Before the 35mm small format camera (and I'm talking film here) was invented, the primary film type was medium format 120 film. People criticised the 35mm film as being too small to get any decent picture resolution from it, and many considered it to be a toy format. Nevertheless, the 35mm format took off, although many high end professionals refused to step down in quality, despite the easier to use cameras. I say to many people, digital photography is no different to film photography in most respects, and most digital cameras are a compromise in some way.

I've just got myself a new Hasselblad medium format digital system, and thought I'd share a few of the reasons why I love this camera. Obviously the 31MP resolution is huge compared to the 10MP I get from my Canon 1D Mark III, but the image size is almost a bi-product. The image quality is far superior to the Canon. Don't get me wrong, I love my 1D, and there are loads of jobs I do which it kills the Hasselblad stone dead (low light/high iso, action shots etc), but on pure image quality, the 'blad' rocks!

So why is that? What makes it so much better? Well unfortunately, size matters! I'm not talking about the length of your lens or even the size of the camera body. What matters is the sensor size. 35mm sensors are based on the size of 35mm film. Top DSLRs have what's known as a 'Full Frame' sensor in that it replicates the 35mm size, but most have a smaller or 'cropped' sensor size. I did a little comparison between sensors below using a Canon 500D. I used the 500D because it has a 1.6x cropped sensor which is the most common sensor size in modern DSLR cameras.

As you can see, there's a significant difference in size! The advantages of the larger sensor are simple. The bigger sensor allows more light to fall across it, which in turn means it can capture more of the varying tones and colours in any given scene. It's like trying to capture raindrops in a skip versus a bucket. The skip is going to capture far more raindrops than the bucket. Well the Hasselblad sensor captures far more information than the 35mm sensor, which produces a far superior quality image.

Of course, there are downsides. The Hasselblad is slower, a lot slower! My Canon 1D can shoot at 10fps, compared to the Hasselblad's 1 shot every 1.1 seconds or so. Also, it can't go over ISO800 because it's simply too much power to push through a sensor that size. Like I said, all cameras are a compromise somewhere, and it's up to you where you want to compromise. These are all just tools at the end of the day, and I have many jobs where the Hasselblad isn't suitable, and some where it's just overkill, but the important thing for me is to have these tools at my disposal and knowing which one to use for which job.

Here's a couple of shots I did on the Hasselblad yesterday...