Medium Format Digital for Enthusiasts?

In case you haven’t noticed, Fujifilm has had a significant influence on medium format digital photography the past few years. Specifically, they’ve managed to lower the cost of entry by nearly half with their GFX 50S and 50R cameras. For example, the Hasselblad X1D originally hit the market at $10,000 USD. A few months later, Fujifilm released the GFX 50S at $6500. Two years later, Hasselblad dropped the X1D II for $5750 to better match Fujifilm’s permanent price drop on the GFX 50S to $5500 as well as the entry of their second body based on the same 51mp, medium format sensor, the GFX 50R for $4500. To further unsettle the market, Fujifilm has had a $1000 rebate on the 50R, bringing the price down to $3500 body only, for over 8 months straight.

Adding to the pressure of market forces on prices is the release of high resolution, full frame mirrorless cameras from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and Sony recently hitting the market, boasting over 45mp and prices starting under $4000. More importantly, Fujifilm released their GFX 100 with a 102mp, in-body stabilized, medium format sensor. Because of these factors, “first generation” medium format mirrorless bodies are starting to hit the used market en masse attached with prices below the cost of a new full frame body; some are well below the $3500, and even $3000, mark.

So, now is an excellent time to get into medium format digital. However, there are a few things you need to know about it. Ignorance to these facts can result in an extreme level of dissatisfaction and regret if you don’t know what you’re getting for what’s inarguably still a large chunk of change. You’ll also need to honestly evaluate what sort of photographer you are and your expectations. While all of the technological and photographic principles are the same, medium format is a whole different beast; it’s as different as full frame is to APS-C although the gap is closing just as it has between full frame and APS-C. Finally, medium format may also necessitate an upgrade to your accessories, like tripod, bag and computer for processing the images, but more on that later.

The question is: should enthusiasts bother with digital medium format?

Physical characteristics.

It’s bigger. Much bigger. As with the increase in size of both body and lenses from APS-C to full frame, the same applies when moving from full frame to medium format. In this case however it’s not as large because this is not “full” medium frame. There 2 types of digital medium format: full frame at approximately 53mm x 40mm, and cropped at approximately 44mm x 33mm. All of the medium format models mentioned herein are of the cropped variety and, incidentally, all use the same Sony 51mp sensor (with the exception of the GFX 100’s 102mp sensor). With a larger sensor comes larger lenses to fully cover the imaging plane. Expect your kit to get larger and heavier.

Image quality and qualities.

Where APS-C to full frame incurs a 1.5x crop factor (1.6x for Canon because they use smaller sensors), the same is true for medium format. The crop factor is 0.78x to convert from 35mm to cropped medium format. The easiest way to calculate the equivalent 35mm focal length is to take the medium format lens’ focal length and subtract 20%; for example, a medium format lens with a 45mm focal length is equivalent to a 36mm field of view, or 20% less (-9mm), on 35mm format. What you get in return is a shallower depth of field as either, or both, a longer lens and closer subject placement is necessary to achieve a similar field of view. This is what people usually are referring to when they talk about “the medium format look.”

There’s also increased color fidelity and wider range of tones as these sensors have 16-bit color depth, as opposed to 12-bit. This is what people are usually referring to when talking about digital medium format tonal quality.

Lastly, there’s an increase in dynamic range and overall light sensitivity. There’s a reduction in noise due to increased light gathering capability and simply having a higher resolution also reduces visible noise as the grain becomes visibly smaller in comparison. The result is a camera with excellent shadow recovery, highlight retention and is exceptional for low light, night time and astrophotography.

Downsides: Speed

We’ve touched on size and weight of both body and lenses. Another issue is speed. 3FPS is all you’ll get in burst shooting. One issue specific to this sensor is autofocus speed. Autofocus is supremely accurate due to the contrast-detection based AF system but is pretty slow, especially by modern standards, as there’s no phase-detection system. As contrast levels drop, autofocus speed and accuracy drops precipitously. This is not a sports camera or really for any type of high speed action. If you rely on continuous autofocus and burst shooting to achieve results, none of these sub-$9000 medium format cameras will work for your type and style of shooting.

File Handling and Computing Power

Then there’s the file sizes. A 51mp image is obviously double the resolution of 24mp, but the resulting RAW file size is actually much higher. Landing in the neighborhood of 100-160MB each, depending on your settings and details in the composition itself, the file size growth also comes from the increase in color depth, from a 12-bit file to the medium format’s 16-bit color depth. Unless you’ve upgraded your computer recently, you may have to consider purchasing a new PC, especially if you have a traditional spinning hard drive and/or less than 32GB of RAM. If you’re the type who keeps a backup of their images, you’ll also need to triple your backup space. For those that keep an off site backup, either co-located or in the cloud, your upload bandwidth will be tested. Most cable internet upload speeds are capped at 5Mb/s, making backup uploads torturous without synchronous connection speeds. For those with monthly data caps, you may want to limit yourself to local backups.

Video shooters

At 1080/30p max with line skipping and really slow readout speeds, forget about it. Hasselblad claims their X1D II does 2.7K but even that looks horrible compared to your smartphone. Simply put, output is extremely soft and smeared while the rolling shutter is the worst you’ve ever seen. If you need video recording, get a hybrid or budget for a second body. Personally, I have a Fujifilm X-H1 for shooting video, stills with fast action and use with extra long telephoto lenses, to supplement my photographic needs while owning a GFX 50S.

Cost

Yes, I know this is all about how the cost of medium format has fallen dramatically, but there’s more than just the cost of the body. Lenses aren’t cheap, but Hasselblad’s XCD lenses are shockingly expensive due to their inclusion of the shutter mechanism in each lens. Fujifilm uses a focal plane shutter in the body, reducing lens complexity and cost. The GFX also has another benefit: lens adaptation. Of course you can also adapt lenses onto the X1D, but the lack of a focal plane shutter means you’ll have to rely on the electronic shutter; as mentioned above, that readout speed is slow so any subject movement will result in distortion that cannot be fixed in post. So, while there’s a cost to be paid for supplemental gear, you can claw some of it back by adapting far cheaper full frame glass.

Then there’s the effect of increased mass. The body alone weighs about 2lbs. The lenses weigh another 1 to 4lbs. If you bought a tripod that’s designed for small, lightweight mirrorless or entry level bodies, you’re probably going to need an upgrade to something beefier. Once that’s addressed, you’ll need to carry your gear. If you utilized the same foresight on choosing a bag as you did on a tripod, you’ll need something larger and more robust to carry the camera and accessories, depending on what you normally carry with you into the field.

Age. This is an older sensor.

Tech moves quickly and accelerates exponentially. Today’s 35mm mirrorless cameras are able to compete closely, if not exceed, many of the specs on this generation of medium format sensors. Despite this, there’s no replacement for size… larger sensor, larger photosites, larger lenses, wider tonal and color gamut. The 51mp Sony sensor used in these medium format cameras are over 3 years old now and there’s no getting around it. Despite that, the quality of the images produced still exceed the quality of most contemporary 35mm cameras. Even missing today’s technological benefits like stacked sensors, copper interconnects, backside illumination, AI image enhancement and IBIS, the GFX and X1D produce photos that stand out; images are objectively better with better tones for more depth and dimension, precise, lifelike colors with less gradation, finer details in shadows, mids and highlights, wider dynamic range, greater sensitivity and less noise. It’s a testament to how great the image sensor truly is in spite of its age.

Conclusion

There is nothing inherent about digital medium format that makes it solely a tool for professional photographers. Until recently, that dividing line was mostly because of price. Because of specific, and costly, features built into most bodies, medium format cameras were better suited for professionals who required the higher resolution and image quality and could justify the cost of purchase or lease. Mind you, until the X1D and GFX 50S appeared, digital medium format camera bodies started well above $10,000 USD (with the exception of the Pentax 645Z). They were also studio queens, most lacking the sort of ruggedizing and weather sealing offered in cameras aimed at working pros, as they were too heavy and too slow to be used much out in the field.

Now, with offerings available that are rugged enough, and compact enough, to be usable for even more working pros, we see the prices coming down and becoming a realistic option for enthusiasts without a clear path to recoup high acquisition costs. If you’re into landscape, still life, macro, fashion, portraits or astrophotography and want the biggest possible step up in image quality and wide latitude for cropping, recomposing and post processing, digital medium format could be the answer for you. If you depend on speed and autofocus to get the shot, medium format really isn’t for you.

For me, photography is like meditation. I go out into the wilderness, often staying out all day or even a few days. Once I find my composition, I set up my camera and tripod, sometimes a chair, lock down my ideal composition, exposure and focus, then wait for the ideal conditions. I work slowly and enjoy the surroundings, paying more attention to what’s around me rather than what’s in my viewfinder. I’m never in a rush when I leave the house with my GFX. If this sounds like you, digital medium format is probably right up your alley.

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