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A New Digital Age

Twenty-two megapixels you can hold in one hand? Medium-format photography pulls off the impossible.

When you look at the great works of early photography—Matthew Brady's Civil War images, Carleton Watkins's American West portraits—what's most striking is the extraordinary detail and tonal nuance, qualities achieved only by printing from a large negative. Back then photographers used a single sheet of film or a glass plate measuring between 4 by 5 inches and 17 by 22 inches. Today's studio photographers and photojournalists still prize such fidelity, choosing to work mainly with medium-format film—many use a version measuring 6 by 4.5 cm, more than twice the size of a 35mm negative. Considering how intricately light and shadow are captured on film that size, a medium-format digital camera was virtually unthinkable—until now.

Hasselblad (www.hasselblad.com) and Mamiya (www.mamiya.com), the leading innovators of medium-format film cameras, both recently introduced the first fully integrated medium-format digital single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. It's a mouthful and a major achievement: In the past, engineers experienced great difficulty creating a digital sensor that could translate visual information into tens of millions of pixels and yet remain portable. For around $25,000 you were able to buy a medium-format sensor that attached to the back of a film camera. What you usually ended up with, however, was an ungainly box that needed a laptop on which to store the images.

The new Hasselblad model, the H1D, eliminates the extra equipment, but it is still a bulky and exotic tool best suited to the studio. (And it's nearly as expensive, at $22,000, including one 80mm lens.) The Mamiya ZD represents the bigger breakthrough. It looks and handles like a standard 35mm-style digital SLR camera, but its 22-megapixel sensor, at 36 by 48 mm, completely overpowers the sensors of typical digital cameras. What's more, the ZD's body costs $10,000 to $15,000 and is compatible with Mamiya's excellent 645AF-series lenses—good news if you already own a 645AF-film camera.