The Pentacon Six System
by TRA

Wouldn’t it be better to use a digital camera?


That is a question that only you can answer, as it depends on your imaging requirements and your budget.  However, here is some information to consider when making a decision.

Revised November 2015

Digital technology continues to improve.  Therefore, what was true a few years ago may no longer be the case, and so this page occasionally needs to be revised to reflect the latest reality.
Many of my original observations still apply, but those that no longer do have been revised.

 There are at least  eleven key factors to consider:

  • Shutter delay Revised November 2015
  • Auto-focus problems  New (2012) Revised November 2015
  • Image quality Revised and extended November 2015
  • Focal length multiplier effect
  • Speed of turn-round
  • Cost
  • Control of the image
  • Sensor dirt
  • Dead Pixels
  • Viewfinder  New (2012)
  • Differential focus  New (2012)
A good, manual-focus film camera will give you five of these: no shutter delay, no focussing problems, great image quality, no focal length multiplier effect and reasonable cost.  For speed of turn-round you need either a polaroid back or a digital one.  But neither of these will give you the same quality as film at reasonable cost.

There are also other factors, such as

  • the type of photographs that you take
  • the enjoyment you may derive from using one system or the other
  • being able to control the process and the output
  • the time that you have available, etc.
Shutter delay

My limited experience with friends’ digital cameras (“Here.  You take the pictures for me; your pictures always come out so well!”) is one of constant frustration because of the delay between pressing the shutter and the camera deciding to take the picture.  With people shots (or any action shots), the precise moment is crucial.  If the camera fires even one second later, the image is probably not worth having, as gestures and candid expressions can be so fleeting.

Time was when all digital cameras seemed to have a delay of up to 2 or 3 seconds, which is really quite unacceptable.  Many of the newer models are much better, but there is still the delay introduced by autofocus.

Writing in November 2015 visitor to this website Paul writes, "my Nikon D810 36mp camera has shutter lag of 0.05 seconds."  In my opinion, it seems that the question of shutter delay has essentially been solved with this camera -- but it is still a factor that you will wish to check before buying a digital camera, not least because of the next problem.

Auto-focus problems

I have experienced two problems with auto-focus lenses:

  • delays while the lens hunts for the focus point
  • actual impossibility of focussing on the desired point of the image
Delays while the lens hunts for the focus point

Cameras or lenses that hunt for the point of sharpest focus often go to and fro beyond the point of focus and then back before it, then out again, possibly even repeatedly.  This is a whole new way of introducing a delay in firing the shutter, as with many of these outfits the camera will refuse to fire the shutter until it thinks that the image is in focus.

In my opinion, digital hasn’t yet reached the point where you can even be sure of capturing good candids of the children – though you will know quickly that you didn’t get the shot that you wanted!

Of course, you can have that problem with auto-focus lenses on film cameras, too, but why use auto-focus lenses?!  I realize that I may sound here “as if I had just come out of Noah’s Ark”, but there really are times when the photographer wants to be in total control of the focus.  With a manual focus lens you can pre-focus on a chosen point, and then fire the shutter when the subject reaches that point.  This could be for a horse race, a cycle race, a bride walking down the aisle or indeed for many other events.  Naturally, auto-focus lenses will not normally let you do this, as essentially you are focussing on nothing that is currently within the image frame.

Some of the top DLSRs and even some of the newer smaller digital cameras do have an AF/MF (Auto-Focus / Manual Focus) switch or option – if you can find it in the menu in time not to miss the shot!!  I am not talking from a theoretical viewpoint here, but from experience.  I do have digital cameras, but usually leave them at home when going on a trip or for an important photo assignment.

Actual impossibility of focussing on the desired point of the image

Trying to get a close-up shot at the long end of a zoom on a top-quality digital camera in 2012, I even found that the camera refused to focus, even though I was within the advertised focussing range.  The camera and lens were not faulty; it was just a limitation of the system.  No doubt the next version of the camera and/or the lens will be better.  But by then, the picture that I wanted to capture will be long gone.

In 2015, with a newer digital camera, I have found that the camera cant focus on interesting cloud formations, as there is just not enough contrast for it to fix on.  I likewise found this year that when I wanted to focus on damage to a kitchen work surface, the camera's focussing system couldnt see the defect, and so refused to focus.  This camera and its lenses also does not offer manual focus as an option.  Fortunately, it does allow me to mount lenses from other manufacturers, and I found that an old Carl Zeiss Jena 25mm Flektogon in M42 mount, mounted via an adapter, was ideal for the job!  The lens in question was manufactured in February 1967, and this particular focal length was discontinued in August of the same year, but the results were technically excellent!

Image Quality

If you must have ultimate image quality and the ability to make massive enlargements, using film as the originating medium is probably still the way to go in 2015.

You may choose (like me) to shoot film, but print digitally.

If you scan in a “6×6” negative (actually 54mm × 54mm) at 4800 dpi, you will get a file that is 10,488 pixels × 10,488 pixels.  This results in a 629.4MB image – about one hundred times the resolution of many digital SLR files!  Digital technology is improving all the time, but even at the end of 2012, when a few of the best digital cameras can generate a 25 MB image, a Pentacon Six frame scanned as indicated here will give you an image with over 25 times that resolution.

  • This will produce a high-quality print at 300 pixels per inch that is 88.8 cm × 88.8 cm (34.96 × 34.96 inches)!
  • Many people print at 240 pixels per inch.  The image size would then be 1 metre 11 cm × 1 metre 11cm (43.7 × 43.7 inches)!
  • In fact, images this size are usually viewed at a certain distance, and you would easily obtain perfectly satisfactory results if you printed at 150 pixels per inch, giving you a print 1 metre 77.6 cm square (nearly six feet by six feet)!
Viewed another way, should the need arise, you could produce a perfectly satisfactory A3 print (that’s 29.7 cm × 42 cm or 11.7" × 16.5") from a tiny portion of the negative – I know, because I’m looking at such a print on my wall as I (touch!) type!

If you are enlarging from such a tiny portion of the negative, I recommend a film of moderate speed, such as the Fuji 160 ISO negative films (which also have enormous exposure lattitude).  However, for normal degrees of enlargement (for me, “normal” means at least up to A3 – 11.7 × 16.5" or 297 × 420mm), you should not see any grain at normal viewing distances with correctly-exposed negatives from 400 ISO Fuji film.

Resolving power of the film and the lens  New in November 2015

Of course, scanning resolution is not the whole story.  The quality and resolution of the top scanners is so good that the resolving power of the film and of the lens is probably now the limiting factor in deciding how much it is possible to enlarge a scanned frame -- or how small is the area of the film frame that can provide an image of satisfactory quality.

The lens

Many (probably most) of the lenses that are available in the Pentacon Six mount provide a degree of resolution and correction of possible optical defects that is so high that in fact the limiting factor is usually the film itself, not the lenses.  I refer readers to the reports on this website of the results of tests of most of the lenses.

The film

The resolving power of the film is dependent on the film chosen.  The general rule is that the higher the film "speed" (i.e., the sensitivity of the emulsion), the larger the size of the grain in the emulsion, and seeing the film grain in a print (or on a screen) is not normally desirable, even though it can produce an artistic effect that may occasionally be wanted.

In recent years I have preferred to shoot with 100 ASA / 21 DIN film (ISO 100/21), when available, although for my Pentacon Six I currently buy mostly 160 ASA / 23 DIN Fujicolor PRO 160NS film, and take along a few packs of Fujicolor PRO 400H (400 ASA / 27 DIN, ISO 400/27) for those situations where the light is lower and using a tripod is not suitable for the type of photography envisaged (for instance, cityscapes, where people and vehicles will be moving around).  At massive magnification of parts of the image on a large computer screen, the difference in grain is dramatic:  the slower 160NS has much finer grain.  However, even for quite large prints, at normal viewing distances the difference between the 160 ASA and the 400 ASA films is scarcely visible, as stated above.  160 ISO film is sensitive enough to require exposures of approximately 1/125 sec at f/11 in most sunny situations.  It also enables one to use exposures that are easily hand-holdable (i.e., do not require a tripod) in overcast weather and even for moderately well-lit interiors.

For darker interiors, rather than using higher-speed film, I prefer to use a tripod, if permitted, or to brace the camera against a pillar or other solid support.  (In churches and cathedrals, when there are few visitors it is often possible to kneel in a pew near the back of the building and hold the camera firmly on the pew in front, to get an excellent and sharp image, even with speeds as slow as 1/4 sec! -- and I have never been told off for kneeling in a church or a cathedral!!)

I would point out that even though most digital cameras offer a vast range of sensitivity settings, for most digital cameras -- even in 2015 -- the image quality deteriorates markedly above the 400 ASA setting.  I refer readers to the detailed reviews of digital cameras in the photographic press and on the internet, where they will see the truth of this (naturally, with variations of detail, depending on the camera manufacturer and price range).

Scanning resolution

When scanning an image it is wise to consider:

  • the size of the grain in the film
  • the intended print size
  • and, if appropriate, the size of the area within the frame that will be used for the picture.

In the light of these factors, it may not be necessary or even desirable to use the maximum resolution of the scanner, as many of the top scanners can easily produce massive files that occupy large amounts of disc space and slow down processing, without providing any visible improvement in the quality of the final image.

The scanning resolution numbers given above are therefore theoretical maximum-possible sizes for suitable film types.  The best way to find out what is the best resolution to set the scanner at is by experience with the film and the scanner.

The focal length multiplier effect

Also bear in mind that even Medium Format digital cameras have sensors that are not “Full Frame”: instead of a 56mm×56mm image you get something that is at most 48mm×48mm, and with many Medium Format backs substantially less than this.  This has an impact on all the lenses that you use, effectively making them appear to have a longer focal length.  This is especially a problem with wide angle lenses, where a 40mm ultra wide angle may provide coverage on a digital sensor equivalent to a 55 or 60mm lens on a full 56mm×56mm film frame – and in most cases with Medium Format equipment you will not find a wider angle lens available to give you the angle of view that you were expecting.  This is in particular a problem for shots of interiors, but can also be a problem for landscapes and other types of photography.

The same applies with the more commonly-purchased digital SLRs, which are not Medium Format.  In fact, very few even have a sensor that is 24mm×36mm, which is now commonly referred to as “full frame”, i.e, equivalent to the full frame size of 35mm film cameras.  But most DSLRs have much smaller sensors than this, with various dimensions commonly available, depending on the manufacturer.  Again, the smaller sensors especially have the effect of making your wide-angle lenses appear less wide (which is normally a disadvantage) and your telephoto lenses longer (which is normally an advantage).

Of course, to every problem there is a solution, and much wider-angle lenses are becoming available for cameras with smaller sensors – but I really would advise that you check on prices before committing yourself to a system.  One can easily end up facing a bill of over £1,000 for a high-quality wide-angle lens for a digital camera from one of the leading manufacturers.

Speed of turn-round

Digital images give you of course an almost-instant turn-round, though it is not quite as instant as you think, if you want actual pictures on paper.  It does take time to

  • transfer the image from the camera to the computer
  • convert from raw to another format
  • process the image as required (contrast, sharpness, colour balance, etc)
  • produce the print
Many people do of course avoid this: they just e-mail or upload all their pictures, regardless of the fact that even professionals know from experience that not all their photos are actually worth sharing.  So it is easy to share mediocrity, and that may suit many people who do not have the experience that enables them to develop a critical awareness of what is actually good.  I am delighted when people derive enjoyment from taking photos (however flawed some of them may be, technically).  However, this website is about a range of cameras capable of producing pictures that have an extremely high technical quality, and for this, Medium Format film cameras still beat smaller formats (whether film-based or digital) in many situations.

Cost

A digital back for a Medium Format camera such as the Hasselblad would currently cost you in the region of US$20,000, and even with this the image quality would be way below what you can achieve by shooting fine-grain film in a Pentacon Six and then scanning it into your computer.  Using the mixed film/digital route is not a zero cost alternative, but you probably already have a computer and a printer.

A digital camera – even a 35mm one – may give you the quality that you need, but that won’t be in the same league as what you can get with film.  And even a 35mm digital SLR with a full-sized sensor will also cost you a lot more than a Pentacon Six.

Who is in control?  and What is the frustration factor?

In 2012 a neighbour and good friend of mine enthused about his new digital camera, and insisted that I try it out.  Naturally, I was delighted to do this.  It was the latest model of one of the top-name digital compacts, with a 10 point something megapixel sensor and an 18× optical zoom.  I took a series of pictures in my studio with it, and here are my conclusions: 

1) It is capable of some good results, so long as the image is not displayed or printed too large, and subject to the other factors indicated below. 

2) Getting the right framing is difficult because: 

  • controlling the zoom exactly is impossible: press the lever to the left or right, but when you release it the lens keeps on zooming a split-second after releasing the lever, thus changing the framing, and making various attempts necessary; 
  • the image in the viewfinder does not exactly match what is recorded; in fact, the recorded image shows slightly less!! than the viewfinder image!  (The Pentacon Six safety factor gives slightly more, which can easily be cropped off if required, but if you have the edge of an item or of a person missing, there’s nothing you can do afterwards to correct that.) 
3) Controlling the aperture and shutter speed varies from difficult to impossible – and I did spend hours studying the 160-page operating manual!  (As you may imagine from the fact that I run this website, I am reasonably computer-literate.  I also cope well with video recorders, DVD players, microwave ovens and other electronic devices!)  Struggling with the menus, sub-menus and greyed-out options on this camera is at best frustrating and at worst stressful.

4) Because of the tiny sensor and the extremely short focal length that is consequently necessary for the lens, differential focus is impossible.  For instance, in a portrait, the background will be as sharp as the face, which is usually the opposite of what is desirable. 

5) The manual says that at some settings, “straight lines near the edge of the image may appear curved, or unexpected colours may appear. This is not a fault”!!  Well, that’s what experienced photographers call barrel distortion, pin-cushion distortion and chromatic aberrations or colour fringeing

6) Down-loading the pictures to the computer and converting them from raw is complicated and tedious – no batch conversion from raw is available, and following the on-screen instructions generates error messages.  There are work-arounds, but they do not appear to be documented.  Doing this processing is definitely not an enjoyable experience.

7) The main difference between this up-market state-of-the-art digital camera and a Pentacon Six is that with the Pentacon Six the photographer is in control and can easily control framing, shutter speed, aperture, focus, depth of field/differential focus and other factors that are crucial to the final image.  Of course, the Pentacon Six is bigger and heavier, and you have to wait until the film is processed to see your results.  But in most situations what counts ultimately is the quality of the image.  And here, the Pentacon Six wins hands down.

Conclusion: Not only do I enjoy the results I get from the Pentacon Six, I also enjoy the process of using it.  Neither could be said of my experience with this expensive digital camera, so why use it?

Sensor dirt

For the flexibility and quality that you seek, if you do buy a digital camera, you will probably want a “DSLR” – a digital Single Lens Reflex.  After all, only an SLR will enable you to change lenses and build up a system that will enable you to go from extreme wide-angle to powerful telephoto, not to mention tilt, shift and macro work.  Many point-and-shoot digital cameras do not even let you see through the lens.

But after you have bought your DSLR you will discover a new problem: dust on the sensor.  No matter how carefully you change lenses, dust – and sometimes remarkably large bits of fluff and muck – will get into the throat of your camera, and when they are there, the electrical charge on the sensor will draw that dust, fluff and muck onto the delicate and highly-expensive sensor, where it will stick!  You can dust the rear of the lens before putting it on, point the camera downwards while changing the lens, only change lenses indoors – or anything else! – but sooner or later, dirt will settle on your sensor!  Some experts explain that the action of changing the focal length of some digital zoom lenses acts like a powerful pump to pull dust into the lens and from there into the camera.  If (sticky!) pollen gets onto the sensor, getting it off is going to be a big problem.  Like me, you may never have experienced this problem with a film camera, but with a digital SLR it will appear.

Worse, you are unlikely to see the dust, muck and fluff when you view the images on the camera’s screen; you will first see it on all your pictures from a given session, once you have downloaded them onto your computer.  Then you can have many happy hours, trying to clone them out!

Why haven’t you had this problem with film SLRs?  Well, each time you advance the film, you effectively get a brand new “sensor for the next image!

Of course, if your camera has dust in it, this can scratch the film, but:

  • this is rarely a problem with Medium Format cameras, as 120 film has protective backing paper the whole length of the film
  • this is more common with 35mm film, especially if using re-loadable cassettes
  • in the worst-case scenario, any in-camera scratch marks are usually too small to be visible on images at most degrees of enlargement.  (This is unfortunately not the case with dirt on a digital sensor.)
Naturally, for every problem there is a solution.  I can confirm from experience that the built-in sensor-cleaning technology via sensor vibration in the top-of-the-range digital SLR that I have tried out doesn’t dislodge the larger particles of dirtI suggest that you research the costs of sensor brushes, swabs, liquids, blowers, vacuums and other cleaning accessories before taking the plunge with a digital SLR.  By all means, go ahead, but don’t let anyone convince you that with a DSLR there won’t be on-going costs, because there will be, and sometimes quite high costs.

 
[dirtysensor1.jpg]
Full frame image of a clear blue sky.
Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No; it’s a bit of muck on the sensor!

[dirtysensor2.jpg]
Cropped image, with sensor dirt arrowed

In these two images, the dirt can be cloned out, but in other images where it was on a person’s face or another area of detail, correcting the damage was time-consuming, difficult and sometimes not entirely satisfactory.  Don’t be surprised if each time you fire the shutter on your digital SLR you find yourself asking, “Will this picture be spoilt by muck on the sensor?”
 
Dead Pixels

I am grateful to a visitor to this website for bringing this to my attention (in February 2011).  He writes:
my [digital] camera’s unfortunately under repair.  There’s another paragraph here for your “MF vs Digital” page, dead pixels as clear as day on long (20s) exposures.
I won’t name the camera brand, to protect the guilty - but it is one of the top two digital camera manufacturers! 

As indicated above with regard to dirt on the sensor, dead pixels will affect every picture.  I could say that a film fault would only affect one image - but I don’t remember ever experiencing such a film fault, in decades of photography.

Not surprisingly, this visitor has recently bought a Pentacon Six and a range of lenses.

Viewfinder

Perhaps up to a third of digital cameras by model have a viewfinder, but by number of cameras sold - if we are to judge by observation of people taking pictures in public places - over 90% do not have a viewfinder.

“So what?  Why do you need a viewfinder?” you may ask.  Here are a few reasons.  No doubt you will be able to think of more.

Composition
To compose an image properly, you need to be able to see it as near as possible as you will see the final picture.  This means that you need to exclude from your field of vision everything that will not be in the final image.  It is impossible to do this if you are composing on an LCD screen on the back of the camera - as the vast majority of people with cameras are now forced to do.  As you try to concentrate on the little screen, your eyes are simultaneously seeing the whole of what is in front of you, making an evaluation of the actual contents of the image area anything from difficult to impossible.  No wonder so many users are disappointed with the images that they end up with, and surveys tell us that most images taken with digital cameras are never printed and a high proportion of them are never viewed again more than once or twice.

Visibility of the image
In bright surroundings it can be anything from difficult to impossible to see the image on the LCD screen on the back of the camera.  That means almost anywhere outdoors in daylight, most of the year, in most parts of the world.  No wonder so many wonky pictures are taken - it’s often impossible to see the horizon clearly on the screen!

Focussing your eyes
Using the LCD screen on the back of a digital camera, your eyes need to switch from infinity focus (for most outdoor scenes) to extreme close-up - the distance of the camera from your eyes - then back to infinity when referring to the scene you plan to photograph.  For some people this just results in eye strain, which of course can soon trigger a headache for many people.  For others it is impossible, because they just can’t focus their eyes that close.  There are of course two solutions:

  • put on your reading glasses - but then the scene will be out of focus to your eyes!
  • hold the camera at arm’s length - something that we can now observe people doing everywhere - but then most of the stability has gone, and even built-in stabilization won’t fully overcome this in low-light situations.
“Easy”, you say, “I’ll buy a camera with a built-in viewfinder.”  That is a great idea.  It will help you in all the ways suggested above.  Now you are back to all the decisions that people were faced with 50 years ago when choosing a camera:  “Shall I buy a camera with a separate viewfinder above the lens, or a camera in which the viewfinder actually sees through the lens? (In most cases, a DSLR)”

The camera with the separate viewfinder has a couple of advantages and a couple of problems:
 

Advantages
Problems
  • It’s likely to be smaller than a DSLR.
  • It’s likely to be cheaper than a DSLR.
  • Parallax: what you see is not what you get!

  • Especially when shooting close up, be prepared for pictures where the tops of people’s heads - or the entire heads! -are cut off.  Also definitely no good for close-ups of flowers, pets, etc.
  • Focus:  depending on the model, the viewfinder may or may not give you an accurate indication of focus.

The digital SLR (Single-Lens Reflex) has all the advantages of SLR cameras.  It has a viewfinder that looks through the lens and enables you to check composition, focus etc.  Many of these are great cameras, but have you noticed a couple of things?

  • These cameras will cost you a lot more than a Pentacon Six.
  • If they have a high-resolution sensor, they might be about the same size as a Pentacon Sixby the time you have added a zoom lens – and virtually none of these cameras are sold without a zoom lens.


Differential focus

One of the superb advantages of Medium Format cameras is the possibility of differential focus.  This means concentrating the attention of the viewer on that part of the image selected by the photographer as the intended focus of attention, by skillfully throwing other parts of the image out of focus.  To achieve this, the lens needs to combine two characteristics:

  • it must be somewhat longer than normal;
  • it must have a very large maximum aperture.
This is just about possible with a full frame 35mm film or digital camera, with a very small number of lenses.  The 80mm f/1.8 Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar would be an example of such a lens.  There are some equivalent lenses available from Carl Zeiss for some full-frame digital SLRs - but expect to pay more than £1,000, in many instances around £1,500, for such a lens.

The problem is this:

  • The smaller the film format (or digital sensor size), the shorter the focal length of the lens must be for it to give a standard angle of view.
  • The shorter the focal length, the deeper the inherent depth of field.
  • With digital cameras (including many DSLRs) with a sensor size that is much smaller  than a “full frame” size (24mm × 36mm), the extreme short focal length that is required to include in its range a standard angle of view results in a lens where differential focus is impossible.
  • Add to this the fact that - to keep weight, size and cost down - the maximum aperture of most of these lenses is quite modest, perhaps f/4 or f/5.6.  At these apertures the depth of field is greater with any lens, and this is massively more the case with the short focal lengths that are required for most digital cameras.
You can read more about these problems here.

Differential focus under the total control of the photographer is virtually essential
for most portraits, and also for many other types of photography.  (You can read more about differential focus here.)

So, you could solve all these problems by going out and buying a medium format digital camera.  But have you seen the price of a Hasselblad H4D lately?  I can see one “on offer” right now for GBP27,666.00 - not including a lens!  Or you could buy a Pentacon Six - with most of the lenses you could ever need or want - for less than a tenth of this price!

I am not anti digital, per se, but even at the end of 2015 there are still times when a good, manual-focus, medium-format film camera like the Pentacon Six can give you images that are difficult or frequently impossible with most digital cameras.

The move “back” to film

We might speak of a move “back” to film - but there is a whole new generation of young photographers who have never used film, who are now discovering the joys and advantages of this medium.  Even on a digital photo forum I have seen in recent days requests for information on how to process film, and the suppliers are still out there, selling chemicals, thermometers, developing tanks, etc.  Alternatively, of course, you can do what the majority of photographers have done for more than a century: shoot film and let a lab do the processing.

Pentacon Six and digital!

So perhaps you should go for a Pentacon Six and digital.  This could be the best way forward.  Please see the next page.

To go back to the Frequently-asked Questions front page, click here.

To contact me, click here.

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© TRA November 2005 Latest revision: August 2016