Picture Clarity

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As a relative newcomer here, I have been surprised by more than the odd post which has asserted that Leica is not necessarily the camera to buy if one wants clarity of image. The Mamiya (645?), more than one post has claimed, would be better if one wants clear images.

Is that really so?

-- PD (pd100@hotmail.com), January 06, 2002


Are you a newcomer to photography as well? Comparing the Leica and the Mamiya 645 is not comparing apples to apples. Leica (M or R) is a system for 35mm (24x36mm)film. The Mamiya 645 produces a 6x4.5 cm image on 120/220 medium format film. As a general rule, the larger the film size, the greater the "clarity". I have experience with medium format equipment (Hasselblad) and yes, there is more information contained in the larger format, but the tradeoff is size, weight, and expense. I returned to 35mm for the majority of my work because of ease of use and quality of the result from Leica. If your need is producing large prints (although with careful use, the Leica negative/positive can be enlarged to 20x30 inches with amazing clarity), or doing a lot of fill flash, medium format should be considered.

-- David (pagedt@chartertn.net), January 06, 2002.

If absolute picture clarity was the only concern, we'd all be using large format cameras. But the trade off's of camera handeling, size and weight, having subjects that move, etc. have to be considered. I own several quality roll film cameras that have the ability to produce clearer images than any 35mm camera with better color saturation that can be enlarged to huge sizes. I still usually prefer to grab my 35mm camera for most times I am out shooting, however, with the exception of when I'm in some beautiful natural place. For landscapes, the larger negatives really make a difference. For fast shooting or when I'm traveling light, a quality 35mm rangefinder is still my first choice. Image quality is still good enough to capture a level of detail that satisfies my eye.

-- Andrew Schank (aschank@flash.net), January 06, 2002.

Thanks David and Andrew. That just about answers it; forgive the simplicity of the question.

PS Are there 35mm cameras which are known to be 'clearer'?

-- PD (pd100@hotmail.com), January 06, 2002.

I recently made a roll of pictures on XP-2s film with a Crown Graphic and 105mm f:3.7 Ektar lens (everything shot at f:16 because of a film flatness problem in the RH10 back). Developed and printed (4x6 B&W) at the local Wolf Camera one-hour horror. They were absolutely superb! Incredible detail, wonderful scale. I could hardly wait to have a closer look at the negatives. To my great surprise, the image sharpness was really terrible -- a print from a 35mm negative this bad would be laughable. I are much impressed with the advantages of even slightly larger formats.

-- (bmitch@home.com), January 06, 2002.

Terms like "clear(er)" and "clarity" don't really have much meaning in photography unless we're talking about the content of a photograph.

Most statements made about this subject should be suffixed with the phrase, "...for a given enlargement size."

There are many qualities of a photograph, but two qualities are commonly confused when referring to image quality: 1) enlargability; and 2) photographic content. Enlargabilitiy is directly related to image viewing distance. If you view a 35mm slide through a high quality 8x loupe (no enlargability), then that's pretty clear!

The larger formats (medium format and large format) have an enlargability advantage over 35mm, while the small format can have other advantages over the larger formats.

For two like photographs, one taken with a small format, and the other with a larger format, and each enlarged to a specific enlargement ratio relative to the size of the negative, the viewing distance must also be considered. Obviously, for a given viewing distance (keeping that same enlargement ratios) the larger format will appear subjectively sharper and definitely less grainy. Sometimes grain lends itself the "content" side of a photograph, and you don't see many grainly large format photographs.

So if we equalize enlargement factor and subject viewing distance so that the two photographs (one taken with a Leica, and the other taken with a Hassy or large format) both appear to be the same size when viewed, which one will appear "clearer" or sharper? I have no idea.

-- Tony Rowlett (rowlett@mail.com), January 06, 2002.


If one compares medium format (eg., Mamiya 645 and Hasselblad 6x6) vs Leica images at the same degree of enlargement and viewing distances, I have no doubt that the Leica would win by a significant margin. It is my impression that 35 mm single focal-length lenses in general, and Leica lenses in particular, are corrected to a higher standard than even the best medium format lenses.

The reason is simply that 35 mm images neede to be magnified to a significantly greater degree to produce the same size print, so lens designers compensate by designing these lenses to a higher optical standard. Even so, the over-riding factor in print quality is the degree of enlargement, so for a given print size, other factors being equal, the medium format print will appear sharper.

But I would bet that the 35 mm single focal length lens, on the average, is better than the medium format lens, simply because it has to be better to produce a decent quality image. I know that in terms of resolving power, a number of 35 mm lenses can resolve > 100 lp/mm, while few or no medium format lenses have this high resolving power.

There was an article comparing 35 mm vs medium format in Popular Photography several years ago. They concluded that optically, the best 35 mm lenses were better corrected than the best MF lenses, although when it comes to image quality, MF results were usually superior.

-- Eliot (erosen@lij.edu), January 06, 2002.

Best picture "clarity" = steady camera (read: tripod) + fast shutter speed + any modern lens of reasonable optical quality + film with fine grain.

-- Hoyin Lee (leehoyin@hutchcity.com), January 06, 2002.

"There was an article comparing 35 mm vs medium format in Popular Photography several years ago. They concluded that optically, the best 35 mm lenses were better corrected than the best MF lenses, although when it comes to image quality, MF results were usually superior."

I remember that test. They were comparing negatives made with a Contax 35mm camera with a vacuum-back which held the film "perfectly" flat to those made with a Hasselblad (notorious for film-flatness problems). Their experimental methodology was profoundly flawed. The general conclusions they made about medium-format lenses vs. 35mm-format lenses based on that test have served to confuse and misinform photographers ever since. The only thing that test showed was that a camera that held the negative flat would have better resolution than one that didn't.

-- Mike Dixon (mike@mikedixonphotography.com), January 06, 2002.

Well Mike.

Where do you get your data from? You have made a number of statements criticizing Pop Photo's methods, but what is your evidence that Contax cameras hold film any flatter than Hasselbad cameras or that if there is a difference in film flatness it had any significant impact on the test results. Do we have only your word that the methodology was flawed, and why should we believe you any more than we should believe the magazine's published findings. In addition, I believe Pop Photo also stated that they have made made resolution measurements of MF lenses and found the best of these lenses were not as good as the best of the 35 mm lenses tested.

If you wish to critique someone else's test results by calling them "seriously flawed", please support your opinions with objective data.

-- Eliot (erosen@lij.edu), January 06, 2002.

Just lay out a pair of 5x7 prints side by side, one from MF and one from a Leica. The difference will be immediately obvious in analog prints, and less so in digital sharpened prints. At 8x10 the difference is hugely obvious.

-- Mani Sitaraman (bindumani@pacific.net.sg), January 06, 2002.

You got me, Eliot! I lied about the description PopPhoto gave of their methodolgoy. My assertions about the effects of film flatness on resolution are based on vicious rumor and innuendo. And my years of honors work and research at Vanderbilt and Michigan were just a front to dupe the government out of an NSF fellowship to support my heavy drug use and lawless carousing. In the future, I'll try to temper my hallucinagen-induced ramblings.

Now that I've admitted my misdeeds, could you provide a list of published references for all the claims you made in your post?

-- Mike Dixon (mike@nmikedixonphotography.com), January 06, 2002.


Pop Photo has tested several 35 mm lenses (including Contax, Nikon, Leica, etc.) as having maximum resolution numbers of > 100 lp/min. Erwin also has stated that various Leica lenses [eg., 21/2.8 ASPH, some older 50 mm lenses, etc.) and others achieve resolution numbers of > 100 lp/mm. Further more, Pop Photo routinely does resolution testing of medium format lenses from a number of different makers. To my recollection, none of them has reached 100 lp/mm and few even come close. These tests are published. You can look them up.

If you have evidence to support your position, I will be gglad to see it. I admit I could be wrong about what I have stated, but it is based on objective tests that I have read and cited. So prove me wrong. But sarcasm is not evidence. If you have data from your NSF fellowship research that is relevant to this issue, I would be happy to receive it.

-- Eliot (erosen@lij.edu), January 06, 2002.

Just to clarify. My post was just an impression based on what I've read of lab tests in Pop Photo, Modern Photo (from the old days), and photo websites such as Erwin's site. I'm not an expert on medium format lenses; I have never done medium format photography. So I will defer to anyone who is experienced in the use of Hasselblad or other medium format systems.

And as I said, I have no doubt that MF effectively produces sharper images due to the reduced degree of enlargement that is required. The only question is whether or not MF lenses are intrinsically as well corrected as 35 mm lenses. I would guess that large format lenses with relatively low resolving power (30 lp/mm) would produce "sharper" images than a 35 mm lens that can resolve > 100 lp/mm. In this case, negative size rules the day.

-- Eliot (erosen@lij.edu), January 06, 2002.

My criticism of the PopPhoto test was specific to that test (reread my original comment). My education/training focused quite heavily on experimental design and analysis. PopPhoto's own description of the test makes it clear that, if testing lens resolution was their goal, they did not control for factors which could significantly affect their results. The burden is not on me to prove that the differences in film flatness between a Contax and Hasselblad do have an effect. Because it is quite reasonable to assume that film flatness affects resolution, PopPhoto should have specifically addressed this concern and run tests to confirm that this was not an issue in determining the lenses' resolution. To anyone with training in experimental design and even a rudimentary understanding of the factors influencing resolution recorded on film, the flaws with PopPhoto's test are blatant and obvious.

My sarcasm was in response to the condescending tone of your post. Believe it or not, sitting on your ass and reading everything ever published by PopPhoto and Puts does not make you an expert.

[Do you prefer my condescending tone to my sarcasm?]

-- Mike Dixon (mike@mikedixonphotography.com), January 06, 2002.

I am a newcomer here, and not even a Leica photographer (yet). Sorry for that. But I have used rangefinders all my photographic life (more than 20 years now) and also medium and large format cameras. I just wanted to give my quick comment without getting in between the somewhat heated argument that is going on. As I see it, it is a lot easier to design a lens for small format (35mm) cameras because of the need for smaller image circle, about 45 mm versus 90 mm for 6x6. So, for a reasonable expense, a 35 mm format lens should be optically better than a medium format lens. However, some MF lenses are known, and in tests proven, to be very good performers, such as the 120 macro for Contax, the 38 Biogon, 100 Planar and 250SA for blad. Zeiss has told me that the 38 Biogon, for example, has resolution well in excess of 100 lines/mm. Another interesting point of comparison would be with XPan and Leica lenses. Due to its bigger format, XPan can be considered a MF camera. In absolute comparison, based on my comment above, I can easily believe that the XPan lenses are not as sharp as Leica lenses due to the larger image circle that needs to be covered. But when using the XPan on 24x36mm, only the central part of the image is used to form the picture. All lenses, whether blad, Zeiss or Leica, have better performance in the middle than in edges. An interesting point of comparison would thus be to see if the centre of a MF lens can be as good as the edge of a Leica lens. At least for me, my XPan lenses seem pretty darn sharp enough. Finally, I fully agree with the potential shortcoming of Pop Photos method. It is a known fact that film flatness is a problem with the blad. And Contax does make a vacuum back just to prevent that problem both for their 35 mm and 645 cameras. Zeiss has also highlighted the problem in their Lens News articles (available at their website). If Pop Photo puts film in the camera and take test shots of resolution charts, then it is an undisputable fact that film flatness is an issue, and in this case makes the comparison lopsided against MF and for 35mm.

I hope I don't make another war with these comments, since I really like this excellent forum and the informative discussions.

Happy shooting! Ilkka

-- Ilkka Kuusisto (ilkka.kuusisto@poyry.com.sg), January 06, 2002.

...to those made with a Hasselblad (notorious for film-flatness problems)...

Oh really? Funny, I've been shooting Hassy for 30 years and never noticed it.

A farmer could fertilize forty acres with the BS in this post alone. Honestly, beginners should be prevented by law from reading the posts on these forums, much of which consists of what some fool said or wrote which some other fool heard or read then passed on like it was the truth.

-- Peter Hughes (ravenart@pacbell.net), January 07, 2002.

Peter - well said

I have used blads exclusively for the last 5 years and only recently bought a Leica M6.

If my blads have film flatness problems then I can live with it because I just seem to get roll after roll of extremely sharp images.

There really is no point trying to compare 35mm and MF - they do different things well. I bought the Leica because I wanted a SMALL 35mm camera (actually I prefer my Hexar RF) and I am not going to justify the ridiculous prices by claiming that the lenses are much better than other pro 35mm let alone MF.

Actually I've been looking at the prices of top of line canon & nikon gear - not so out of line with Leica M after all.


-- Tapas Maiti (tapasmaiti@aol.com), January 07, 2002.

I'm with Eliot on this one. There is nothing wrong with Hassey film flatness that I can notice, and I also think it is true that (usually) MF lenses do not have the performance of 35mm lenses even comparing Zeiss MF with Leica. You can see this from MTF graphs. Geoffrey Crawley in the BJP brought this to my attention when he reviewed the Mamiya 7 (or was it 6) back in the early 90s. He liked the Mamiya M lenses very much though - but remember they are only f4 or f4.5 designs.

The key thing is simply the enlargement factor. I think that a good MF 5x7 will beat a 35mm shot, but not reliably when you bring into account depth of field (less in MF for equivalent fstop), camera shake issues and lens performance. Once you get over 11X14 (take your pick of which size it starts to become obvious) you will get a "clearer" picture with an MF camera most people agree, but it is largely due to the fact that there are more silver grains or "dye clouds" per square inch with the larger format than with the smaller 35mm format.

-- Robin Smith (smith_robin@hotmail.com), January 07, 2002.

Hasselblad is an excellent camera and produces exceptional results. But why does Contax go to all the trouble to make a complicated vacuum back for its 645 camera unless it thinks it provides some benefit for critical work?

According to Zeiss, and based on their measurements, lack of film flatness does reduce absolute achievable sharpness. The image can still be very sharp, just not as sharp as it would be if the film was flatter. The main problem is the roller on the film path. Leica and some MF cameras have relatively straight film paths, but in Hasselblad and Contax the film makes an almost 180 degree turn before it comes to the film pressure plate. Zeiss recommends to use 220 film and run the film fast through the camera to minimize the effect of bent film at the moment of exposure.

You can read more at: http://www.zeiss.de/de/photo/home_e.nsf/Inhalt- FrameDHTML/4FDEACEDCB7D0AF541256A53003923AA

As this forum is for opinionated discussion, here is my opinion: If you are happy with the results you get from your blad, then fine. I am certainly happy with the results I get from mine. But just because something is good enough for you and me does not mean that it must then be good enough for everybody, and that it can't or shouldn't be improved further. I think Leica suffers a bit from this thinking as well.

Keep shooting, Ilkka

-- Ilkka Kuusisto (ilkka.kuusisto@poyry.com.sg), January 07, 2002.

Well Mike, I actualy enjoy your sarcasm better. About the topic...I have no idea.

-- r watson (al1231234@hotmail.com), January 07, 2002.

At the risk of prolonging a somewhat tiresome and now off topic thread. It is a bit of mystery to me as to why Contax ever made a vacuum pressure plate for their 35mm cameras as no other 35mm camera has one or considers it necessary. Film flatness has been raised as an issue with the Noctilux and the Ms, and it probably is when shooting at f1, but there again so is focussing the lens very accurately at close distances. Given this difficulty the cost and size issues that would be necessary for adding this "vital" improvement are just not worth it. I think Kyocera added it because they thought it would be a big selling feature, but in reality I doubt it figures in many people's assessments of reasons why they should buy a Contax over a Canon or Nikon. I suspect the main reason for getting a Contax is the Zeiss optics.

Also only the 220 dedicated insert is vacuum controlled for the 645. The usual insert is 120/220 and this is not vacuum operated. A vacuum back is not much good with 120 film. So we are back to the Hasselblad situation. If you want a straighter film path then you can use an r/f camera (Fuji. Mamiya, Bronica) but this usually has slower lenses (so DOF covers most of any film flatness issues) and has no interchangeable backs so you loose the convenience. Personally, I think it is all a red herring. Mike's original statement that Hasselblads are "notorious" for film flatness problems is just gross exaggeration. You only need to look and operate a 'blad back to see that this is the case.

-- Robin Smith (smith_robin@hotmail.com), January 08, 2002.

PD: getting back to your questions.

Larger format cameras usually will give more 'clarity' than 35mm cameras, based strictly on the degree of enlargment required.

35mm lenses, at their best, deliver maybe 50-80% more sharpness per square inch of film than the lenses for larger format cameras. But since they have to be enlarged 210-400% more, they fall behind in the final reproduction (print or published image).

"Are there 35mm cameras that are known to be 'clearer'?"

On average, no. I don't think any 35 manufacturer can claim to have MORE 'clarity' than Leica across the board. But on a lens-by-lens basis many may equal or even surpass a given Leica lens.

Contax/Zeiss is very close, on the whole, especially the G AF/RF lenses. As are the top-line lenses from Nikon, Canon, etc. At that level factors such as tonal rendition, micro-contrast and color reproduction are the biggest differences - and usually matters of taste, not absolute quality.

If you seek the ultimate in 'clarity' you probably have to get yourself a CIA spy-satellite camera. Everything else (literally and figuratively) is downhill from there. You just keep making trade-offs in size and clarity until you find a compromise that works for you.

-- Andy Piper (apidens@denver.infi.net), January 08, 2002.

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