A Beginner’s Guide to Medium Format Cameras

A Beginner’s Guide to Medium Format Cameras

Digital medium format cameras are specialized beasts for those looking to shoot specialized work. They’re slow and often rather heavy. They aren’t great for sports, nor weddings (though some have gone that route). For studio work, they still wear the crown. They’re known for big sensors with high megapixel counts. With a number of full frame DSLRs on the market, you might wonder why someone would elect to shoot medium format.

Pixel Count, Pixel Size, and Dynamic Range Considerations

Pixel count isn’t everything. Sure, it’s advantageous to crop to your heart’s content, but what you might not realize is that pixel size can have an impact on your final product. From a full frame sensor with 50 megapixels, you can expect to see some noise. But when you have a larger sensor with 50 megapixels, you can typically expect a cleaner image. Now, low light performance is all about collecting as much light as possible and this depends on a lot more than just pixel size. Lenses are a huge part of this. There are also some benefits to smaller pixels when exposure is just right. But larger pixels generally don’t need to work as hard to expose. The dynamic range on larger-pixel sensors allows for easier recovery of poorly-exposed shots than smaller-pixel sensors.

Field of View and Depth of Field Amplification

The sensors in today’s medium format cameras are generally 48mm × 36mm vs 35mm full frame’s 36mm × 24mm. A couple of things happen when using this larger field of view. A photographer shooting medium format will be able to capture more of a given scene than a full frame camera with the same glass. Additionally, larger sensors have an amplified effect on depth of field. While an f/2.8 lens on medium format might sound like a relatively small and slow max aperture (compared to, say, f/1.2), the depth of field is actually quite thin and a photographer can expect a portrait with a wonderfully out of focus background (and it allows for a bit more light than f/2.8 might suggest).

That Medium Format “Look”

When you hear someone talk about the medium format “look”, this increased field of view is part what they mean. There is a generally accepted opinion of a “more real-life looking” result with medium format. The falloff – both in exposure and bokeh – appear to be more gradual and natural-looking, and therefore more pleasing to the eye. Some people describe medium format as having a “weightier” look to it. A lot of this is subjective. Perhaps some of it can be disproved with a very controlled comparison that uses the right settings with perfect parity of subject-to-camera distances. But I am a huge fan of this subjective experience and feel strongly that people should try it out for themselves.

Medium format cameras are a treat when you get your hands on one but price is still a high barrier. This is how BorrowLenses can help – you can now rent medium format cameras. For most purposes, there are some amazing full frame cameras that produce incredible results. With sensor technology in a constant state of evolution, full frame and even APS-C sensors are catching up. For, me, however, there is an almost indescribable effect medium format has on a viewer.

Printing Your Work

If you’re not motivated to print your images, medium format could change that for you. The large-scale prints (and the very near distances you can view those prints at while still having a clean-looking image) have a commanding quality to them that is ideal for fine art. You get a lot more of the three dimentional feel that medium format users often boast about when you get into large-scale printing. But it’s also detectable in digital files on larger screens. For portraits, your subject appears to almost pop out of the scene – even with a higher depth of field. For landscapes, the scene will look wide without looking stretched. Vistas really shine on medium format.

Medium Format Choices

Here are 3 systems we have for rent, with some stats to help you decide which is best for your style of shooting.

Hasselblad X1D-50c ($336* for a 3 Day Rental – See More)

Medium format cameras are known for being bulkly but Hasselblad remedied that with the world’s first mirrorless digital medium format system. It has a sleek, iconic design, a deep grip, and a large 3″ touchscreen. It shoots at a slow, methodical 1.7-2.3 FPS, which is pretty typical of medium format. Thanks to the intralens shutters of the XCD lenses, you can sync strobes and flashes with this camera at shutter speeds up to 1/2000th of a second. This medium format camera also gives you the option to shoot full HD video up to 25 FPS but beware of overheating.

Fuji GFX 50S ($245 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)

While larger than the X1D-50c, the GFX 50S is super ergonomic – especially when paired with the 90º fully-adjustable removable EVF. It’s a hair faster than the X1D at up to 3 FPS but only syncs to 1/125th of a second unless you also use the EF-X500 flash, which allows syncing to 1/4000th of a second. For those attracted to the leaf shutter benefits of medium format, this is a drawback. But with file sizes up to 8256 x 6192px, this camera is ideal for large format printing and capturing landscapes and portraits alike in stunning detail. Weather sealing takes it to the next level for landscape artists. Full 1080p HD is also available up to 29.97p.

Hasselblad H4X + IQ280 80MP Back  ($1,870 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)

Phase One’s 80MP sensor is not messing around. RAW files weigh in at 10328 x 7760px and the central lens/leaf shutter system allows strobe syncing at all shutter speeds. This camera is bulky and heavy but once mounted on a tripod, the 90º viewfinder is comfortable and the 3.2″ touchscreen allows for zooming up to 400% for critical focus checks. This is a stills-only system with no video capability. It is compatible with HC/HCD mount lenses, but if you already have access to C-type lenses from Hasselblad’s V system then you can use an adapter to attach to this camera. This rental comes with a lot of drawbacks: it’s the most expensive by a large margin, isn’t weather sealed at all, and is physically the most cumbersome. But if you need a large file size and utmost detail, this camera is the tool for the job.

*All pricing is as of this writing and subject to change.

Your Experience with Medium Format

I started shooting medium format film a few years ago after being exposed to photographers like Platon and Dan Winters (who shoots a lot of large format, but also some medium format). My first medium format film camera was a Mamiya 645 AFD, an autofocus film camera that shoots a 6×4.5 frame commonly found in the digital medium format world. I was drawn to the amount of information a single frame of 120 contained, given that I was both developing and scanning color film at home.

I found the shooting medium format film was deliberate, slow and ultimately very rewarding. Eventually, I grew tired of the 645 AFD and moved on to the V series from Hasselblad, a true classic. Since then, I have run many rolls of 120 through the Hasselblad and taken many portraits with it. It’s a tool that, I believe, makes the portraits I shoot stand out. Do you have experience shooting medium format, either digital or film? Share your story with us!

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Tom Anello

Tom Anello is Boston-based and has a background in both product and portrait photography. He came to Boston for music school and landed heavily in the world of photography after spending time with commercial product photographer Eric Kulin. Presently, he is BorrowLenses’ Social Media Specialist and produces photo content for the BorrowLenses Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds. Outside of the office, he is an avid film photographer with a focus in portraiture.

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