One of the myths of medium format is that it’s a “mostly tripod-based format” and that you “can’t hand hold medium format”. It’s easy to understand why someone who hasn’t shot medium format would have this mistaken belief. In reality most of our customers shoot mostly or entirely hand-held.
An old rule of thumb for hand holding a camera is that your shutter speed needs to be at least as fast as your focal length is long (often cited as “the 1/x rule”). That rule of thumb may have been true in the era of film, but digital now resolves significantly more detail than film did, and with great detail comes great responsibility; the greater the resolution of the camera the higher the shutter speed needed to freeze all the detail of those pixels (at least, assuming you want the image to be sharp at 100%).
But the difference between hand-holding a mid-resolution small-format camera like a D850 (46mp) and a high-res medium-format camera like a Phase One IQ4 150mp is not as large as it first seems. The relevant math isn’t the total resolution (e.g. 150mp vs 46mp), but the number of pixels on one side of the frame. In the case of a D850 vs a Phase One IQ4 150mp that means ~14,000 pixels compared to ~8,000 pixels*. Simply put, an IQ4 150mp requires roughly two-thirds of a stop faster shutter speeds for hand-held shooting. The difference is less than a stop.
The best way to determine the slowest shutter speed you can use while maintaining sharp focus is to do your own testing. Everyone’s body is different and any given photographer can have a more or less stable grip. Even factors like fatigue and caffeination have a meaningful impact.
As a starting point for your own testing with the IQ4 150mp, we’d recommend a general rule of thumb somewhere between 1/2x and 1/3x, depending on how you hold your camera and how you will be using the raw files. This would mean, for example, to shoot handheld with the Schneider 45mm LS Blue Ring lens, a recommended shutter speed of 1/90th to 1/125th of a second. Given that the IQ4 150mp produces a beautiful file even at ISO 25,600 that’s possible even in fairly low light.
Notably, if you’re not using 150mp worth of output (e.g. making an 8×10 or posting to Instagram) then much slower shutter speeds are useable. For example, below is a 1/60″ shot hand held with the Schneider 45mm LS Blue Ring at f/8.
The 100% view shows this frame is an A- in sharpness. It shows the pixels that would be used for a five foot print at 240ppi. If you’re scratching your head at why I say A- instead of A+ you probably haven’t used a Phase One before. A+ sharpness on a Phase One will make your eyes bleed.
The 50% view of this 1/60″ shot shows the pixels that would be used for a 30 inch wide by 22 inch tall print at 240 ppi.
This example is purposefully extreme. Earlier in this article we advised 1/2x to 1/3x the focal length, which for this lens would mean 1/90th to 1/125th, but instead we used 1/60th. Our point was that even beyond these limits the results can be excellent. At such speeds we do not expect identical detail to a camera locked down on a tripod, but do do expect excellent results (again, depending on your personal ability to hold the camera in a firm but steady grip).
In summary, yes, you can easily hand hold the IQ4 150mp. You’ll need around a stop more shutter speed than with a small-format camera. Even slower shutter speeds can be hand-held for excellent “smaller” prints such as 30″ x 22″. Do your own testing, and don’t believe myths just because they are repeated frequently!
Complete the form below to download the raw file from this article, as well as a 1/160th exposure and tripod-based images from our other test that day against which to compare the 1/60″ raw. You’re welcome to make test prints at various sizes and play with sharpening and other adjustments to see how it handles in your preferred workflow and aesthetic. Note that we maintained the same aperture and ISO between these shots, so the 1/60th is heavily overexposed; use it to judge handhold-ability, not color/tone. If you’d like to arrange your own hand holding tests please contact us to arrange it!
*The IQ4 150mp raw file is 14204 pixels by 10652 pixels. The Nikon D850 raw file is 8256 pixels by 5504 pixels.
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You’ll need Capture One 11.3 to properly read these files (11.2 will open the files, but color/tone/corrections will not be correct).