#934. My inferiority complex: it’s just too small!

By pascaljappy | Art & Creativity

Nov 29

There’s no way around it. My sensor is just too small. Super Full Frame, 44×33, small Medium Format, whatever you care to call it provides great image quality, particularly in the obsessive hands of the Hasselblad imaging team, but doesn’t go far enough in the aesthetic direction I crave.

First world problem, I know. But please let me explain.


In the South of France, the weather has been foul, recently. Floods, storms, lightning, the whole caboodle. So even the little smidgeons of blue sky you can see in the photograph above were received with relief, after almost a week of constant battering.

Naturally, I snapped. Photographically.

Not just out of relief, but also because it was a visual delight, a painting of subtle hues of grey, barely discernable outlines and traces of colour that would make for a very delicate photograph.


I knew exactly what I had in mind, the sort of large-scale print by Nadav Kander or David Maisel in which you can lose yourself for half an hour following the contours of a shape, marveling at the subtlety of a tone gradient. Something subtle but with very clearly delineated outlines. Something at which a larger sensor excels.

The X1D excelled.

But not enough. Tones are very true, colours are very true. The rendition is excellent but not what I had in mind. Not what a large format view camera (and, maybe, a larger format digital back) would have produced.

I told you: first world problems.


But a problem that matters to me because, when I do previsualise an image, on those rare occasions of conscious creation, I can’t stand gear being a limitation. In this case, the 44×33 format is. Not the X1D. I do believe that camera is wringing out every last drop of goodness that can be had from that silicon postal stamp, and from current technology. Probably better than anything else on the market.

But … not what I had in mind. Which was not a realistic expectation given the gear at hand. Drat, after all those years of claiming that gear doesn’t matter … my credibility … shreds.

But no. When you make a photograph of something perceived tenuously, every tiniest epsilon of deviation from truth degrades how the viewer will perceive the intent. Make this photograph with a phone and a grubby lens and the viewer will wonder whether you’ve gone potty: just shapeless grey clouds. Make it with an X1D and that same viewer begins to understand what it is I saw in that cloud and wanted to capture. Elusive as it was, it begins to transpire.


When I was young, with more time on my hands and less digital indoctrination in my mind, my camera was a Linhof Master Technika. I’ve already described on this blog the hours spent examining the negatives and slides produced by that wonderful camera and the Mamiya 7, through a loupe, on a light table, while the rest of the family watched a movie. Pixel-peeping prequel of the worst kind 😉

The itch never left. Every improvement in gear technology simply delayed its reapearance, simply hiding the limitations of the previous generation behind marginal improvement, for a few weeks or months. The itch is still here, as strong as ever.

Linhof Master Technika (c) Linhof

Today’s gear focuses all its energy and technology on providing a low commitment what-you-see-is-what-you-get service. No effort required, just point the camera in the right direction and click. Old gear with large surfaces of film took a different approach, possibly closer to what you feel is what you get, because of the deliberate technique it forced upon you and because of the higher subtlety or results (I dare not speak of resolution). It doesn’t get more unscientific than that sentence, but those who have experienced large format photography (and my 4×5 was really the entry level large format) will understand what this means, in subjective terms. And I believe that is why so many artists still use old large-format film today.

Well, I just cracked.

And contacted Linhof, asking for a review sample. DS probably isn’t on their radar. They’ll probably turn me down, and I’ll be happy if they answer at all, unlike sooo many other because we can manufacturers out there (those collapsing right now, btw, so could there be a link between financial downfall and atrocious customer relations, I wonder ???)

But maybe they will 🙂 If not, there’s Arca Swiss, Horseman, Toyo View, Wista, Cambo, Canham, Intrepid and probably others. I’ll pester them all until one gives in or my wallet releases me from my first-world misery.


Does that mean a return to film? Not in a month of Sundays. Life is too short. Processing film is fun. Scanning is the worst waste of time imaginable, this side of fighting French administration.

No, the plan is to use the X1D as a digital back, use the camera’s shifts to explore as much of the image circle as possible and stitch the results into a larger format image.

Nothing really new, then. And, as we well know, something doomed to failure.


I mean, when’s the last time stitching images from a small format camera gave a large format look? Larger files and greater resolution, yes. Shallower depth of field (than the small format equivalent wide angle lens) and Orton effect, yes. Large format look? Not ever.

That look comes from the rendering of old lenses, the look of film and the low amplification of the “negative”. Low resolution lenses with very large image circles produced gorgeous prints in sizes that were one, two or three times the size of the negative. When enlarged more than that, their defects became visible and pop went the magic. To me, a 20 inch Ansel Adams print always looks nicer than a 40 incher.

But anyone who’s seen a well executed contact print from an 11×14 negative knows the trembling-knee feeling and the … shall we say, discomfort … when viewing a greatly enlarged print made from a small format sensor and high resolution lens. Two different aesthetic universes altogether.


I want to recapture that first vibe which, once experienced, leaves an indelible mark on you. Observe a sally Mann original for 20 minutes and you’re cursed forever. Forget your digital printer, forget MTFs, forget 100Mp, all of this becomes, not just meaningless, but nonsensical. True large format is beauty on a whole other – different, rather than better – level.

So, I want to capture that and fail trying. I’ll pester some poor manufacturer into lending me a camera or will buy one. I’ll find one of the all time great lenses of ye old view cam days. One with atrocious MTFs and soul-lifting rendering. And I’ll meticulously scan the image circle with what I consider to be one of the best “affordable “digital backs in existence, the X1D.

But, of course, a digital sensor isn’t a wet collodion plate. The tone curve and grain of digital have nothing to do with that of film. The look of Phocus or Lightroom is a but a distant cousin of the look of Ferrous Sulfate. And then, there’s the deeply philosophical notion that, in moving skies, one global long exposure and a matrix of shorter ones can’t even capture the same reality.


It can’t work. It won’t work. But I’ll have so many giggles trying 🙂

Before you leave, and since we mention beautiful processes, may I remind you that Ctein’s big Dye Transfer Sale on TOP starts at noon PST today and will probably end minutes after that. Chance of a lifetime to own a dye transfer print before the process goes extinct for good (or bad, really). No, I don’t get free prints or anything from Ctein. I love, therefore I share, is all.


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  • Philberphoto says:

    Pascal, if what you posit so eloquently were true, why aren’t all of today’s finest artists shooting LF? Because they don’t « get » it? Because they don’t care? Because they are « low commitment »?
    Secondly, in comparing their results and yours (or ours FTM), there is a flaw. You compare only their finest, time-and-market curated work with the totally un curated results of each instance when your fertile imagination titillates your index finger. Not apples to apples.
    In my case, rather than « looking for a look », I will continue on my quest to the Great White Photographic Satori. The blessed and oh-so-blissful moment when subject, camera system and moi stop being a ménage à trois and meld/blend into one, and the universe briefly suspends its course. When you enjoy a perfect moment, the details of how and by which means it is achieved cease to matter. Seeking the fun factor, finding the joy. No more to it IMHO.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Well … many of them do (use LF).

      Also, as the benevolent genius I have been described to be so eloquently by Paul in the previous post (still hiding under the sofa, btw) *all of my work is my finest*. By definition. By essence. Even my bad one is my best and vice versa. Because I am now so full of art that I have transcended it and become art-less. I amaze myself 😉

      • JohnW says:

        There, there. Mon pauvre garçon. Keep that up and you’ll need a cast for that dislocated shoulder. Can you explore an image circle with one hand???

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    SNAP – I had a Linhof Technika too, for a while – I loved it! – no stupid tilting of the table, to get the verticals straight – HUGE images.

    But then I suffer from a genetic problem. On both sides of my family, I had photography pioneers out there with FAR larger cameras, making their own collodion wet plates on the job, and – what was it you said? – 11×14? – was that centimetres? Theirs were either 10×12, 12×16 or 16×20. INCHES, not centimetres! Somewhere between A3 and A2.

    You are just being difficult. The rest of us have to potter around with FF and smaller – your monster gives you far more detail in the highlights, and a significant increase in detail in the shadows, and it’s rated perfect for clouds etc. As your own photos clearly demonstrate. There is nothing wrong with them at all. Perhaps your real issue is with the RGB colour gamut, and the limitations ANY pixel based sensor imposes on recording the incredible variations in colours & tones that exist in nature.

    The inventor of our modern sensors has invented one that we’ll none of us live long enough to see in our cameras – which can record individual photons, putting an end once and for all to “pixel counting”. In the meantime, we all have to make do as best we can.

    I do like your suggestion of using the panorama technique to building yourself a bigger image – four shots, one image, and all of a sudden your piddly little 44×33 is a presumptuous 88×66 monster, with pixels dripping all over the page.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ha ha, no 11×14 inches. Big indeed. I cringe to calculate how many 44×33 frames would be needed for that ! Even tiny 4×5 would require 12! Poor LightRoom 😉

      Our sensors are good enough, with a quantul efficiency close to 80% in some parts of the spectrum. They are just no big enough to allow a large lens to sing.

      I’ll try, fail and report 😉

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Bam! Another post I trash before completing it (why do I keep writing them?)… at last you write much better than me (aah, that title :D)
    Another topic where I am on the same track as you, and the *exact* reason (on top of the budget they now ask for) why I never purchased super high-end digital.
    Decades ago, my best friend, a Swiss professional photographer, was already using mostly his large Sinar, even for my products… I keep one contact just to marvel at it…Was 2000,00 for a *single* picture, took him days, and was worth every cent.
    Sometimes I would make a print with my – still owned – enlarger, with its carefully chosen Rodenstock APO-Rodagon… unmatched even today.
    My quest was already about what’s *subtle*… never got it after with the new trends, even looking at Phase images and the like…
    And the reason I am so obsessed about possible future non-Bayer large sensors… at affordable prices (so original, isn’t it? :D)
    It’s the same in my activity, high-end audio; I you forget about the 99,99% overpriced crap out there for pure mercantile reasons, once you taste “real” high-end it is what is the most *subtle* in music that touches you… strongly and deeply; removing those little things removes the very essence of the experience…

    And yes, that’s why I like “drawing” optics, like some Leica, Zeiss or Voigtländer. or my old Zuiko… they offer a different path, with a different enveloppe, but a wonderful world nonetheless… a “lateral” quest, very satisfying too. And then the “small” formats, for the spontaneous and non-intrusive feeling… yet another world (even in old days’ I loved my small Olympus OM-4 so much that I still have them!).

    Now, about the lenses, I agree that large surfaces allow for lesser resolution lenses, but my friend’s Schneider still offered a gorgeous look *and* finesse…. to be seen to feel it… as you say 🙂

    Now, one small disagreement with you (in fact, it is refreshing :D): I consider scanning *does* make sense; I kept my old Nikon dedicated slide scanner; well, the triple CCD scanning from my slides still gives me some *subtlety* in the colorimetry not achieved with the same investment in a purely digital path…

  • JohnW says:

    Once upon a time, in a lifetime long gone, I lusted after the baby brother of you heart’s desire – the Technika 6×9. Even found a used one in Montreal with the fitted case and matched set of three Zeiss lenses and roll film back; all for the princely sum of $1800Cd. Pounced like a starving Leopard on a sleeping Springbok. A masterpiece of the art of camera design.

    Instantly HATED it!!! The back controls were stiff and completely unusable in cold weather (It gets brutally cold in Ottawa – second coldest national capital in the world. I’ve gone to work in -40F/C. Was never quite sure whether that was dedication, or cruel and unusual punishment for a kid from the sunny tropics.). Some affairs of the heart should not be pursued … sort of like meeting your heroes.

    Seriously though; I’m in the early stages of exploring Capture 1 Pro. My photo buddy Bob is a confirmed member of that church and I’ve always marvelled at the depth and quality of the results he gets from his RAW files. I’m astonished at the capacity of Capture 1 to wring detail and tonality out of an image file. I found out the hard way that Adobe is not the best choice for all RAW files. DXO for example does the best job on my Nikon V3 files by a noticeable margin and Iridient did the best job on the Fuji files. Before committing yourself to what may well be a fools errand, why not have a look at your software choice; it’s a lot cheaper and lighter than a new camera.

  • Michael Fleischer says:

    Hi Pascal,

    Quite a stir around you these days…for some good reasons! 😉

    I’ll say go for it, follow your dreams – silly they may be in others minds. So what!
    I’m with you on improving image quality/subtle feel of a picture and being stopped in
    ones track or seduced by a fine print that transcends reality into a new one (breathing life)
    is allowed – even for seniors…! Yep, Sally Mans prints does that.
    I have seen some fine Ansel Adams prints (he kept some different darker toned ones for himself).
    True, the smaller prints often worked better – more subtle and compressed & intimate.
    I also have several books by Ansel A as well, specially printed by Little, Brown & Company – they often
    show the glory of sky and clouds that my FF + Photoshop + skills can’t reproduce…no where near!

    Though your clouds seem vivid, fine toned and evasively fluffy they still can’t quite be touched like
    I’ve seen them in some LF slides…sigh!
    Ah well, they still look gorgeous to my eye – even at web size.


  • Pascal, I know how to fix your problem remember “Portnoy” I’m not suggesting that of course. Just stump up the Euros for a Phase One XT and the 3 lens, job done. Divorce will follow methinks so this maybe not be a good idea.

  • NMc says:

    Did you ever see this- https://fiddleoak.wordpress.com/2017/12/29/large-format-video/ .
    Not what you are looking for in terms of IQ but that may be more about the lens used and the general over complications. I know this is not helping your condition but still interesting anyway.

    Regards Noel

  • PaulB says:


    It is too bad we don’t live closer. Like on the same Continent.

    You have a medium format camera. I have 3 large format (LF) cameras with a few lenses. And we both want to try the same thing.

    If there wasn’t a lot of water between us, we could plan to meet in the middle.

    So allow me to send you some temptation. These are LF cameras at shops near me at give away prices.



    For the price of the camera and FEDEX to your place, you would save enough to get a pretty nice adapter.

    The unfortunate thing for me is, you reminded me I want to try this and one of these shops has a used MF camera.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, temptation. The universe is testing my will power. Of which I have none.

      Thank you, Paul. Let’s give the brands I called upon a few days to decline my offer and I will take a look at yours 😉 I’d happily send the X1D your way but my trust in our postal system has been shaken quite badly by … strikes, you guessed it. 1970s France still doing well for itself 😉

      Thanks again, much appreciated!

  • PaulB says:

    PS. I would be happy to evaluate them for you to select one with smooth movements and a good looking bellows. 😉

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