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Do You Really Need a Medium Format Camera?

Digital medium format cameras offer bigger sensors and bigger prices
Photo of Medium Format Camera questions

(Editor’s Note: Ryan Hill is a product specialist at Lensrentals.)

The appeal of a medium format film camera is relatively clear: a larger film frame means sharper images and the option for larger prints. That’s a concept just about anyone with a basic knowledge of photography can understand. The benefits of a medium format digital camera, on the other hand, are a bit more nebulous.

A medium format sensor can have higher resolution than a full frame sensor, but in practice the difference depends on what two sensors you’re comparing. Similarly, medium format sensors are larger than full frame sensors, but exactly how much larger depends on the manufacturer, and almost none are the same size as a medium format film frame.

That’s not to say that the benefits to medium format digital cameras aren’t there, they’re just a lot less clear-cut than comparing 35mm to medium format film.

The Advantages of Medium Format

Photo of Fujifilm GFX 100

With that in mind, how do you decide whether a medium format digital camera is a worthwhile investment? They are, after all, typically at least twice as expensive as comparably featured full frame digital cameras.

As with any purchase, it depends on your priorities. Some photographers will find that the subtle differences between medium format cameras and full frame cameras are worth the extra money, and some won’t. It’s certainly not an objective “x is better than y.”

What’s important is understanding what the change in format does to your image and deciding for yourself whether or not that change is a substantial enough improvement to make the jump. So, then, what are the differences?

First and most obviously, sensors on medium format cameras are physically larger than the sensors on full frame cameras. Again, this usually means higher resolution, but not always. Canon’s full frame EOS 5DS camera, for example, features a 50.6-megapixel sensor that puts it right in line with most of the medium format options on this list.

What even the highest-resolution full frame sensor can’t replicate, though, are the optical effects of shooting on medium format. With the larger sensor comes more pronounced bokeh and a wider field of view, allowing for a shallower depth of field and more pronounced background compression when shooting wide. These effects make medium format an especially popular option for portrait photographers.

Medium format sensors also tend to be slightly more technically impressive than full frame sensors. More space on the sensor means not just more photosites, but larger photosites. Those larger photosites let in more light, leading to improvements in low light performance and dynamic range.

Again, though, whether or not this appreciably affects your images will depend in large part on which camera system you’re switching from and to. Plenty of full frame cameras, especially low-resolution options like the Sony A7S series, are just as (or even more) capable in low light.

And nearly any camera manufactured in the last five or so years will provide plenty of dynamic range for most photographers. At a certain point, improvements start to offer diminishing returns, especially when they come at a high cost or with performance sacrifices to other features, like autofocus.

The Disadvantages of Medium Format

Photo of Pentax 645Z

As cons go, in addition to the already mentioned high cost of entry, medium format cameras and lenses are often bulkier and heavier than their full frame or smaller competitors. Also, because demand for medium format is so much lower than other systems, lens and accessory selection tend to be smaller, with what options are available typically being in only the most popular focal lengths. You’re unlikely to find many medium format super telephoto lenses, for instance.

In short, these are niche tools for niche use cases. The majority of photographers will likely be better served by full frame.

However, some portrait, event, or landscape photographers, especially those with large print demands, might just find that medium format allows them to produce images that they just can’t get with full frame. If you’ve decided you have an interest in medium format, either as a purchase or as a rental for a particular job, your next decision will need to be which system is the best fit for you.

The market for medium format digital cameras has grown about ten-fold in the last five years but it still remains in somewhat specialty territory. None of the big three manufacturers currently offer a medium format solution, so it’s come down to some of the smaller companies to fill that niche.

What follows is a guide to the current offerings on the market, which features come along with which models, and which are the best options for certain types of photographers.

Hasselblad 907X 50C and Hasselblad X1D II

Photo of Hasselblad 907X 50C

While it might not be the best camera on this list, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first camera I’d recommend to someone looking to break into medium format digital, the Hasselblad 907X 50C is the most interesting camera I’ll cover here. If you’re looking for the closest digital equivalent to medium format film shooting, for better or worse, this is the camera you want.

First, you’ve got the 907X camera body, which, with its body style, rear tilting LCD, and button placement, is very consciously designed to mimic classic Hasselblad medium format film bodies like the 500C. In fact, it fits in so well with the classic Hasselblad system that, by separating the 907X body from the from the CFV II 50C sensor module, you can use the “sensor” portion as a digital back for most of Hasselblad’s exiting medium format film cameras. This makes the 907X the clear choice for Hasselblad film shooters who are looking to make the transition from film to digital as smooth as possible.

The Hasselblad X1D II offers the same sensor and resolution, but with more modern trappings. Its body is similar to the Fuji GFX 100S, with a rear (though not tilting) touchscreen, an EVF, and all the buttons and dials that Hasselblad removed from the 907X. This is the version you want if you’re not interested in any film to digital handholding. Again, though, the strength of the Hasselblad system seems to be in enabling that transition.

The lenses, too, will help that. Hasselblad’s XCD line of lenses are the only new “leaf shutter” lenses available for the cameras I’m covering here. While the specific mechanics and advantages of a leaf shutter are too complicated to cover here, suffice it to say that they offer higher shutter speed options to photographers using flash lighting, which comes in very handy for outdoor portraits. That may sound like a pretty niche use case, but some dedicated portrait photographers, especially those used to working on film, are willing to pay for it, and it’s great that the option is there in the XCD line.

You can try the Hasselblad 907X CFV II 50C out for yourself at Lensrentals here or the Hasselblad X1D II here.

Pentax 645Z

Photo of Pentax 645Z sensor

Despite the alluring “645” in the model name, the Pentax 645Z has approximately the same sensor size as the rest of the cameras on this list, which is about halfway between 35mm “full frame” and 6cm by 4.5cm 120 film. Like a few other cameras on the list, it features reasonably good autofocus and 51.4-megapixel resolution. It’s also, unfortunately, the easiest camera on the list to eliminate as a recommendation.

It’s not that the Pentax 645Z is bad, necessarily. It’s just that it doesn’t do anything that other cameras don’t do cheaper or better. The mirrorless Fuji GFX 50R and 50S have a better lens selection. The GFX 100S, while it is more expensive, has far higher resolution. And the Hasselblad line works with their leaf shutter XCD lenses.

Simply put, while the 645Z was an industry leader when it was introduced in 2014, it has since been surpassed by numerous other models, and Pentax doesn’t seem ready to release an update. Unless you can find one used for relatively cheap, I’d recommend looking elsewhere.

You can try the Pentax 645Z out for yourself at Lensrentals here.

Fujifilm GFX 50R & 50S

Photo of Fujifilm GFX 50R

Spec and hardware-wise, the Fujifilm GFX 50R and 50S are essentially the same camera. They share the same sensor, processor, mount, and autofocus system, and there aren’t any major features on one that aren’t shared by the other. Let’s start, then by talking about what the two cameras have in common.

Like every other camera on this list, the 50R and 50S have a “crop medium format” sensor that’s larger than a 35mm full frame, but smaller than the 6cm by 4.5cm 120 film used in most medium format film cameras. That sensor, combined with Fuji’s X-Processor Pro Imaging Processor, allows 51.4-megapixel shooting and contrast-detection autofocus. While autofocus on a medium format camera will never be as fast as the state-of-the-art systems on full frame DSLRs, the system on the 50R and 50S is just about the best available, which is to say that it’s perfectly capable.

The differences between the 50S and 50R are almost entirely down to design and ergonomics. The 50S, Fujifilm’s first foray into the digital medium format camera market, is quite a bit larger, but the added size includes some added touches. 50S users will find a detachable EVF, more substantial grip, slightly larger rear LCD, and a top LCD that allows for a quick glance at settings such as shutter speed and ISO. The 50R, meanwhile, is a more stripped down, “rangefinder-style camera.” The detachable EVF has been removed in favor of a smaller fixed EVF. The grip is nearly flush with the rest of the camera body, and the top LCD is gone.

Between the two, I’d personally go with the Fuji 50R. In my mind, if there’s a reason to go with either of these cameras over the 100S, it’s that you want something smaller that’s easier to pack and move around with handheld. If that’s the case, the 50R has the clear advantage.

You can try the Fujifilm GFX 50R out for yourself at Lensrentals here and the GFX 50S here.

Fujifilm GFX 100S

Photo of Fujifilm GFX 100S

The standout feature of the Fujifilm GFX 100S (and its larger predecessor, the GFX 100) is its 102-megapixel sensor resolution, which is as high as you’re going to find in a sub-$10,000 medium format camera. In fact, the only readily available medium format options with higher resolution are the $50,000 Phase One XT and XF.

In short, unless you’re a rental house or a very successful commercial photographer, the GFX 100 is likely your only affordable digital route to 100-megapixel delivery. That’s not to say that $10,000 is cheap, but it’s certainly more affordable than any of the other super high-resolution options.

The Fuji 100S also boasts internal image stabilization, which is a feature not yet shared by any other camera in the medium format digital space. While the studio photographers who have traditionally made up the market for medium format may not need IS, landscape or wedding photographers might consider it an indispensable tool. After all, the barely noticeable blur that can sometimes come from handheld shooting or shutter movement can be a lot more noticeable if you’re taking advantage of the high megapixel count by printing or cropping.

Given the combined advantages of high resolution, internal IS, and some of the nicest medium format lenses on the market, I’d say the GFX 100S is the best digital medium format option currently available for most people. Some photographers might have specific needs that would be better served by other cameras, but for those who are generally interested in medium format photography and are willing to spend the money, the GFX 100S offers the best bang for your buck.

I know that’s a strange thing to say about a $10,000 camera body but shooting with a medium format sensor feels most like a completely new experience when combined with a super high sensor resolution, and $10,000 is a bargain compared with other bodies in the same resolution class.

You can try the Fujifilm GFX 100S out for yourself at Lensrentals here.

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