Is Sony’s New 1″ Sensor Really as Good as Medium Format Film?

I highly doubt it is, but the new Sony 1″ sensors are indeed very capable

It’s no secret that the 1″ sensors Sony has been producing for years have been winning awards left and right. But on top of that, photographers in major contests have won awards using their cameras with the 1″ sensor at the heart. Further, photographers who still shoot film have held out not on 35mm film necessarily, but more so on large format and medium format film. Indeed in my eyes, medium format film, when well exposed and processed, still has a look that can outdo digital. We’re not talking about scans here–because that’s essentially taking a digital photo of a film photo and that’s all; no, look at prints. However, The Online Photographer thinks differently.

The Online Photographer starts out by citing how younger folks on YouTube are now his competition when it comes to time spent. Specifically, he points us to a video of a “pretty young woman” whose video is above. She’s talking about the camera and how it’s apparently the best option for vlogging. Then he goes into more specifics and even finds great images taken with the camera. His post reads:

“My readout, from my brain I mean, is that while there are differences, 1” sensors are now virtually as good as medium-format film was in 1991.

Back then, my friend Jim Sherwood, an art photographer who did a lot of shooting of major storm damage in 6×7, switched from a ISO 100 speed film (Kodak Vericolor 100, I think it was, a low-contrast negative film beloved of 1980s art photographers who shot in color) to an ISO 400 speed film, which had just gotten good enough. While RX100V captures might not be quite as enlargeable in prints as Jim’s 6×7 cm negatives were, it certainly beats the pants off it for color correctability and low light sensitivity, and for detail and image quality as long as you’re looking at it on a screen. Of course, it does cost $998—but then, that was about $560 in 1991.”

I encourage you to click on over and read a bit of his thought process.

Now, let’s step back for a moment; because in the eyes of some, those are clearly fighting words. With all due respect, Mike’s comparison doesn’t really give us a truly in-depth thought process on the film vs digital debate. Medium format film is still highly capable in so many ways. For starters, the imaging area is significantly larger than that of a 1″ sensor.

 

So look at this chart above. It shows you how much larger medium format digital is. Full frame 645 sensors like those of many Phase One 100MP backs, are a considerable amount larger than full frame 35mm sensors. As a reminder, full frame 35mm sensors are found in cameras like the Sony a7r III, Canon 5D Mk IV, etc.

Now look at this chart, the largest is a full frame sensor. The Nikon CX sensor is a 1″ sensor. So when you compare a 1″ sensor to the larger full frame 645 sensor, there is no competition at all. But now let’s look at film.

Graph done kindly by Bryan Minear

When you look at this chart, relate the size of 6×4.5 film to that in the full frame 645 sensor in the first chart. Then look at the much larger film formats that there are. See the 6×7 film plane area? Yeah, that’s your sensor. It’s that much larger than 6×4.5 and that much larger than a little 1″ sensor. It will give you better bokeh, more emulsion, etc. The grain is bound to be finer, the color gradation is going to be significantly better, and the only thing that might be worse is high ISO output but that is due to what is going on with the BIONZ X processor that Sony uses. Lots of that stuff is typically done on the processor side of things.

And to be honest, it’s not like that can’t be done with film. Take for example these images from reader Kelly-Shane Fuller. Granted, Kelly is shooting at large format; but if he’s able to push Ilford HP5 to ISO 51,200 then he’s surely done something special. It takes a great processor for sure. And digital will allow the masses to get good enough images for sure, but I genuinely cannot believe they’re medium format film quality even if they’re saying that it’s from more than 20 years ago. Even if that’s true, after the Fujifilm Frontier system made its debut in 1996, it’s still almost irrelevant. Today’s film processing methods haven’t really changed in a while, but they’re pretty amazing still.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.