Is It Really Technological Progress?

Coney Island Beach in Large Format

As I researched medium format photography in deciding whether or not to participate , I came face-to-face with a trend I’ve seen in other fields. As the technology has “progressed”, users have actually found themselves with worse and worse results. And, just as in other technologies, it is a tale of choosing convenience or cost in favor of quality.

Near the beginning of photography, once we’d figured out how to use film (rather than glass and other technologies), we had the large format camera. Although the film can be made in various different sizes, the most common sizes that have survived to modern times are the 4×5 and the 8×10. This means if you want a print at 4×5 inches (pretty close to today’s very common 4×6), and the film was 4×5 you expose directly from the negative — there is no enlarging going on. The less enlarging you have to do to reach a certain size, the better the quality. This is pretty obvious if you take a little image from the web and then stretch it to be your desktop’s background. It looks horrible.

Ok, but large format cameras are huge suckers. You can carry it in the trunk of your car, but you aren’t going to take it all around Paris to take family photos. Plus, 4×5 film is expensive — you need to pay for film that’s really huge. So the medium format camera is invented. Using 120 film, the negative is 6cmx6cm. So this would naturally give a print of about 3.5×3.5 inches. It’s a bit smaller along one length than 4×5 film, but it’s not too much smaller along the other one. I’ve seen lots of medium format cameras that are perfectly compact enough to carry on a trip and some are even pocket-sized. So you would think this would be the end of the miniaturization. We are small enough to be carried everywhere, but not small enough to reduce quality.

But the film manufacturers wanted to be able to sell even more film which means they would need a smaller size so they could sell more film on a given size. So they cam up with 35mm film which is 2.4×3.6cm. So we’re at nearly half of medium format and way lower than large format. But even then, in the 90s they came up with 1.6cmx3cm APS format. Which is the size of the sensor in my digital SLR! In fact, most compact digital cameras have sensors smaller than this. It’s ok for viewing on a thumbnail on flickr, but atrocious for printing. In order to get a digital camera that’s equivalent to just 35mm it will cost me $2 500! And medium format digital cameras are starting at around $30 000! So in the digital world, it’s nearly impossible to get to the fidelity we have on film for much less money!

So why did we (the public) do this? Why didn’t we look at 35mm compared to 120 film and say, “Wait a minute! These are my memories we’re talking about! Let’s stick with 120 film.”? Why did medium format become the sole province of fashion while large format photography has all but disappeared? It’s something we’ve done again and again (CDs v MP3s, Betamax v VHS, etc) and I’m wondering why.

2 responses to “Is It Really Technological Progress?”

  1. I agree we let it happen, and it is because people are idiots. We don’t realize quality anymore. We just want cheaper and easier and don’t realize what we had or what we are losing. However, I would guess people look at, enjoy, and share their pictures more now that they are so accessible.

    • That is true – there IS some merit to that. As I said, it offers lots of advantages. It just sucks that it’s such crappier quality.