Has the Time Come for Enthusiasts to Consider Digital Medium Format?

Now, I know I’ve addressed this subject a year or two ago when I first transitioned to medium format, but with the recent additions to the market and shifts in the pre-owned market, I feel like it’s high time to address this more in depth.

If you don’t already know, Fujifilm recently announced the GFX 100S, a more compact, price-sensitive version of their highly capable GFX 100 released a year ago. With a body that’s more reminiscent, in both size and weight, of the GFX 50S, and a price reduction from $9999 USD to a much more wallet friendly $5999 USD, the digital medium format market is really starting to heat up. Fujifilm has begun to seriously address their G-Mount lens lineup, filling up holes in their range for the general market, even beginning to address more niche photography.

Obviously $6000 bucks isn’t pocket change. It’s a price that’s solidly in the range of other professional, flagship cameras like the Canon 1DX Mark III, Nikon D6 and Sony a1. It’s a steep drop in price from the GFX 100 but it’s still a price that means you’d better be serious about your photography and/or have a business that can support that sort of purchase.

Now that the 6000 pound elephant in the room has been addressed, let’s talk about who should even consider medium format, who shouldn’t, and who should file this idea for a later date. If you make it through this next section unscathed, I will then discuss what the GFX may have to offer for the enthusiast/hobbyist photographer. If you’re a professional, I have little to offer you. Besides, you should know if your business could benefit from a medium format camera, however, I do have some technical information later that could help you decide if both your workflow and your clientele are able to tolerate your addition of, or switch to, medium format.

Who medium format digital is NOT for:

  • Sports and action photographers, from football to runway fashion
  • Wildlife photographers (specifically birds in flight, deer in motion)
  • High speed documentary or photojournalists
  • Group and event photographers (ok for bridal and wedding party, no for receptions)
  • Any other photography where you are not in complete control of at least 2 of the 3 aspects of photography (for beginners, those aspects are: light, subject and composition). To be even more precise, a sports photographer is in control of none of those, making medium format a bad decision at this time; in contrast, a group photographer photographing the team should consider it, as they control all 3.

But we’re not done yet. Who else shouldn’t consider it?

  • Pixel peepers
  • New-ish photographers, no matter their level of fascination
  • All-purpose photographers
  • “Natural light only” photographers
  • Newly minted professionals
  • Self-proclaimed professionals
  • No access to a rental house
  • If your current gear is on credit
  • “More money than brains” crew

I’ll address these individually, and provide my recommendation, if you may fall into one of these categories since the bullets are primarily written in a sort of shorthand. “Pixel peepers” need not apply and here’s why: in an unending quest for perfect individual pixels, even medium format will not satiate your desire to find, and document, the imperfect ones. You’re better off with one of the latest, high megapixel, 35mm format cameras.

New-ish, all-purpose, and “natural light only” photographers all sorta fall into the same category, and are poor candidates for medium format, with one exception: nostalgia. Maybe this was your way in to photography and you want to use the 21st century version… by all means, go for it. However, if you’re new to photography (you can easily tell if you are if you’re unable to name less than a single hand’s worth of niches you especially enjoy, name more than a handful of photographic niches, or tell others you only use natural light instead of admitting you don’t know how to use strobes), you’ll only be let down by the results as you haven’t yet learned the skills necessary to take advantage of medium format’s capabilities or avoid its pitfalls. Everything about medium format is slow and if you’re impatient enough to jump into it before understanding the exposure triangle, the nature of medium format and unrealistic expectations will only fuel failure.

Self-proclaimed and newly minted “professionals.” If you’re not getting paid for your photography, you’re not a professional. Sorry for the double negative. The only professional photographers are the ones who get paid for it; no exceptions. Even if you’ve bestowed upon yourself the title of “professional” because you’re totally an expert, you’re still just an enthusiast/hobbyist. If you use the word “professional” without knowing what it means, your impatience will have you listing a medium format camera, “like new, no box or manual,” in the Facebook classifieds. Sure, people like me would benefit from that, but I want you to manifest a lifelong hobby and contribute to the photographic and art worlds, not necessarily rebuild the used camera market.

“No access to a rental house.” Obviously not referring to your abode. Medium format gear is really, really expensive. Fujifilm is the cheapest and yet their bodies start at $4500 USD, prime lenses start at an artificially low $1000 but a more accurate $1700 USD, zoom lenses start at $2300 USD and their 3 portrait primes are listed at $2299, $2799 and $3299 USD. The new sensor format is going to require you to experiment to normalize yourself with the wider field of view the larger sensor creates. It may also spark long smoldering creativity. There are few third-party lenses for the G-mount, and while you can adapt Canon EF and Nikon F-mount lenses to the G-mount, their vignetting can limit the field of view and force the use of “35mm crop mode” to gain an acceptable result. To rely on this is really no better than shooting with a Canon 5D Mark IV, literally: the cropped frame is 31MP, same as the Canon 5D Mark IV, cropping away every creative reason you had for moving to medium format. And just like how hyperfocal distances are changed with APS-C, you’re doing the same to out of focus areas when using 35mm crop mode on medium format and losing precious bokeh. Long story short: access to a rental house will help you find the lenses to invest your money in, be it Fujifilm glass or potential adapted glass, since some 35mm lenses will cover a medium format sensor.

Lastly, there’s the financially irresponsible. Just don’t do it. If you can’t afford it now, you won’t be able to afford it later and people like me will gladly take the gear off your hands, at a steep discount, to ensure your credit card payments continue.

Now that that is out of the way, the only people left should be portrait, still life, nature, travel, landscape, astro, fine art, and archival photographers. We are the ones who control at least 2 of 3 photographic aspects in a shot and can tolerate, or even welcome, a far slower pace between exposures. It is that which is medium format’s Achilles heel. It’s just a matter of time before technology catches up, but the benefit of higher image fidelity is unable to outweigh speed and portability to this day.

Myths, facts and reality. Why even consider medium format?

After this section, I’ll be covering some cameras in more specific terms and what you’re getting for your money from an engineering perspective. If you don’t see it yet, I’ve ordered this essay in a format that should cause less and less readers to eventually reach the end; after each section, another group of readers will hopefully say to themselves, “nope, this is not for me,” and the result is only 2-3% of readers who began this journey will reach the end to make a decision for themselves. Maybe I’m just hopping around to disparate topics to frustrate you. Or worse, maybe Hasselblad paid me to do it this way to frustrate you while talking about Fujifilm cameras, to diminish their competitor. There’s an example of fact, reality and myth, specifically in that order.

Now that I’ve whittled the readership down to those of whom would truly benefit from medium format, why should you even bother adding this to your arsenal beyond a really expensive case of G.A.S.? Well, let’s get to the point at start with what it WON’T do: you will not notice a dramatic change in your photographic ability, digitally displayed photo quality or an overall increase in “cinematic look.” If you’re aiming for a “cinematic look,” get your nonsense, saccharine hyperbole out of here and take your stupid presets with you. Unless you can define “cinematic look” without referencing motion pictures or video, you’re full of shit.

Ok, now that the room is full of serious people…

You can get a 35mm camera with 50+ megapixels of resolution, and the high quality glass necessary to not make that sensor a waste of effort, for a lot less money. 4 years on since the Canon 5DSR, it’s no rarity, with even the Leica M10 now pushing over 40 million of these triplets. So what’s the big deal? It’s somewhat about the pixel size… when cropped to 35mm size, the 51MP medium format sensor, found in the Fujifilm GFX 50S and 50R, Hasselblad X1D and X1D II, and Pentax 645Z, is left with 31MP. That’s nearly identical to the 30.1MP Canon 5D Mark IV, a camera famed for its image quality and tonal range, highly regarded despite a “crippling” lack of dynamic range when compared to even contemporary competition. Dynamic range truly isn’t everything as it’s merely one factor in a range that make up the true capability of a camera to take great images. With a 51MP medium format camera, you’re getting 99.9% of what the 5D IV has to offer plus 20 million more pixels. Larger pixels, capable of gathering more photons with greater sensitivity resulting in a greater tonal range and detail, and more of them to tease out a wider view, for greater fidelity when recomposing in post or even greater fidelity when compressing the physical dimensions. That’s the non-technical version of the sensor’s true capabilities.

Then there are the myths about medium format, how the compression creates a certain look, blah blah blah. Sometimes, with the right setup, you’ll be able to see a difference, just like you can between APS-C and 35mm sensor cameras, but more often you won’t. The sensor plays a part, but only by affecting the focal length you choose in a lens to create the composition you desire. Having to use a longer focal length to create the same composition on a 35mm camera will result in changes to the hyperfocal distance because of the distance between you and your subject having to be adjusted. In general, if comparing a 35mm camera with a 50mm lens and standing 10 feet from your subject, a medium format camera will need a 63mm lens to obtain a similar subject size if no other factors are changed. The result of that more telephoto focal length will be a background that’s slightly more compressed and out of focus at the same aperture setting. What changes more is your distance to the subject and that’s what contributes more to the overall look.

Another big impact, which is far greater IMO than the change in focal length, is the color and tonal range. 35mm is based on 14-bit color and tonal capture, with some even compressing it down to 12-bit, like Sony’s lossy RAW compression scheme. Medium format systems capture 16-bit color, resulting in colors and tones more true to life. Where you really see it is between shadows and highlights, colors and the transitions between in and out of focus areas. If you don’t know what to look for, it won’t stand out as it’s very subtle. Once you do see it, you’ll never un-see it; it’s like watching a 3D movie for the first time. You begin to notice subtle details you hadn’t seen before and subjects begin to display just the subtlest hints of three-dimensionality, as if it’s just beginning to break the surface of the screen or print. It becomes more effective with longer lenses in portraiture, where the difference between critically focused points is in millimeters, you begin to see exactly where marks on the skin transition through the focal plane. A more exaggerated version of this is in old portraits taken with large, view cameras; the subject’s eyes are in perfectly sharp focus but their cheekbones are ever so slightly out of focus, the nose even more so, etc. and you’re able to really see every detail on their skin where those transitions happen, the lines as they fade in and out of relief without a single consideration for the subject’s vanity. THAT is where the mythical “magic” of medium format becomes fact and reality.

Don’t expect your prints to suddenly become “museum quality” or look like “gallery prints.” The difference is there and it’s due to a combination of factors, but it’s tangible.

What you’re getting for your money

The quick, snarky answer: not speed.

For those not in the know, there are 2 types of digital medium format, much like how APS-C and 35mm are related. The most common is 44 x 33mm medium format, also referred to as “645” and less commonly known as “cropped” or “mini MF.” This is the general dimensions of the 4:3 ratio sensor and it is the smaller of the 2 formats. The “645” shorthand is a historical carryover of the old 6×4.5cm “cropped” format available for 120 film… a smaller 4:3 ratio shot that used less film, giving you more shots per roll, in a compatible camera system. Both the aspect ratio and cropped perspective are what’s being referred to when referring to the smaller medium format as “645.”

The larger format is based around a 53.7 x 40.3mm sensor that’s much closer in size to the original 5.5 x 5.5cm exposure on 120 film. Sensors of this size are only found on systems cameras, like the Hasselblad H6D and PhaseOne XF, and their associated “digital backs,” where the actual sensor is housed and can be swapped amongst system bodies. Beyond this one paragraph, all references to “medium format” will be specifically about the smaller, 44 x 33mm medium format sensor and the cameras that use them.

Let me talk specifically about the GFX 100S and then the Fujifilm GFX range in general. How did Fujifilm manage to drop the price so much? We’ll, they did what any other company would do and that’s by starting with removing features. I’ll compare it to the GFX 50S as that is its closest counterpart in form factor. They began with removing the removable EVF and stuck with the older 3.2 million dot OLED within. This is a known quantity, used in Fujifilm cameras across the range, and while it’s not the 5.76 million dot EVF from the GFX 100 or competing cameras like the Panasonic LUMIX S1R or Sony a7R IV, it’s still a good EVF and won’t interfere with your ability to take great photos. The permanently mounted EVF does take away the ability to use the body without an EVF for a more compact solution, or use with the tilt adapter for aggressive ground level or waist level shots, but for most users, the lack of this ability will go unnoticed. Also tossed out is the ability to add a battery grip for more endurance, and I’ll address that next.

What they DID do is manage to reduce the size of the IBIS unit by using a fully electromagnetic solution that is just as rugged but small enough to fit the new form factor. They also switched to the new NP-W235 battery, first seen in the X-T4. This does 3 things: it allows for a slimmer form factor than the GFX-50S, with its brick-like NP-T125 battery, lowers the operating voltage to allow power delivery (PD) charging over the USB-C port, and most importantly, manages to deliver CIPA rated battery life comparable to the GFX-50S. By shrinking the battery and putting it in the grip, the large “cooling box” in the back of the GFX-50S is gone, giving the GFX 100S a much slimmer profile and overall lighter weight. The total weight of the body plus the GF 80mm ƒ/1.7 lens is less than 100g heavier than the Fujifilm X-T4 and 50mm ƒ/1 combination. This is a huge accomplishment in and of itself, but the real success is that none of the photo or video features in the GFX 100 were dropped for the GFX 100S, meaning the changes in power and size have no net negative effect on the performance. It really is just a “compact” GFX 100 with less buttons.

That’s right, there’s less buttons. What’s there are customizable, but the knobs of the GFX-50S are gone and replaced by a top plate that’s more like the GFX 100. To exacerbate the issue, the directional pad has been removed, reducing the number of customizable buttons by 4, and 5 in total. In return, you get a larger top display and are forced to operate the camera with button combinations and command dials, much more like the bodies from competing brands like Canon and Nikon. Also new: a much larger thumb stick for AF point and menu navigation.

For those who bought in to the GFX-50S and became accustomed to the optional capabilities like the removable, tilting EVF or battery grip, those will never be available for the GFX 100. Extending battery life will happen through a PD capable external battery pack and cable, which is a non-starter for people who shoot in inclement weather, so battery swaps will be necessary instead. It will, however, make it much easier to find an external battery pack that can power the body compared to the GFX-50S. Despite these losses, what you get in return is the highly lauded, 102MP, 43.9mm x 32.9mm, medium format sensor with stabilization.

The cost of switching to the GFX 100S is not limited to the camera body. Aside from transitioning to G-Mount lenses, there’s all of the ancillary costs, starting with SD cards. It accepts UHS-II V90 SD cards but can take slower cards at the risk of slower performance and being locked out of video recording in formats that exceed the speed of the cards you’re using. Top spec UHS-II V90 SD cards with 250-300MB write speeds, like from Sony, SanDisk, Lexar or ProGrade, will cost you about $100 for a 64GB card; you’ll want 2 if you want backup capability.

Unless you’re a gamer or love bleeding edge computing, you’re probably going to need a more powerful computer to process these files at the same speed you currently enjoy in Capture One or Lightroom. After that, you’ll need space to put these RAW files, if you archive your photos. If you want to go cheap, you can buy large hard disks for pretty cheap. Because these RAW files will likely be 100-200MB each, file access will be slow if drawing from a platter, and you may want to consider an SSD for first and second tier file storage, using platter drives for third tier, aka archiving. A 4TB SATA SSD, the slowest kind at ~500MB/s, will cost you around $500 USD.

Tossing a pebble into a lake

Maybe this isn’t for you? The greatest benefit of the GFX 100S is not the camera itself, but the ripple effect it will cause in the market, in general, to include the pre-owned market. As some dive in, head first, for the new camera, many of them are current GFX owners and are selling their kit to obtain the new camera. Most of them are professionals, both independent/freelance photographers as well as studios, with more than a few enthusiasts/hobbyists like myself in the mix. The GFX-50S, with a retail price of $5500 USD, or the GFX-50R with a price tag of $4500 USD, are now easily found pre-owned, in excellent or like new condition, for well under $4000. Combined with the GF 50mm ƒ/3.5 lens for ~$750 pre-owned, you could be shooting in medium format for $4000 USD or less.

To make the argument for the GFX-50S or -50R, you’re obviously giving up IBIS and are getting only half the resolution at 51MP, but you’re getting a highly reliable, highly capable medium format camera body. With less resolution comes smaller file sizes, with RAWs ranging around 100-150MP. Despite that, you’re getting a sensor with much larger pixels. The new 102MP sensor may have excellent low-light sensitivity and dynamic range due to a more modern BSI design, but the older sensor has much larger pixels capable of both shadow recovery and exceptional highlight retention. It has a full 12 stops of dynamic range and ISO invariance. It has an actual photographic dynamic range greater than the Canon EOS-R and 5D Mark IV, Nikon D850, Panasonic S1R, and Sony a7 IV, as measured by Photons to Photos (photonstophotos.net). This sensor is no slouch, and if you have no desire to deal with 102MP RAW files, you’ll give up IBIS but, depending on the system you’re migrating from, you’ll get a huge increase in resolution, cropability, detail, and dynamic range, not to mention all that medium format offers in the look of photos taken on a larger sensor.

In conclusion…

There has never been a time like now to get into medium format. Something I’ve discovered in my photographic journey is that, for me, photography is deeply personal. I’m fortunate that I can have a relationship with photography in this way as I’m under no financial constraints to “go professional” or highly consider the “when” “why” or “how” when it comes to buying gear. If I get just one shot per year that’s truly worth printing, with no excuses, I’m a generally happy as long as I know I’ve been afforded every opportunity to physically go and make that image happen. I’d rather spend a week camping and get zero great photos than to go out once and get the shot on the first try. If you’ve ever hunted or fished with a full freezer, you’ll know what I feel. In the end, my point is not to make the decision for you but to ask you to consider an option you may not have considered before, be it due to historical cost or lack of imagination.

Medium format can have tangible benefits for the right photographers and it’s become cheaper than ever to make the switch or add it to your kit. Along with price, less and less compromises are needed to make it happen as technology works to overcome those historical hindrances. As a new generation of medium format cameras begin to hit the market, second generation cameras are seeing precipitous price drops, especially as the cycle of evolution in medium format is far slower than that of the more mainstream 35mm and APS-C formats.. and it’s not the only thing slower about medium format as operation and the whole image making process is slowed by the camera itself and the post-processing workflow, depending on your computer’s capabilities.

There are also fewer choices as you fall into any niche, especially one with so few users. Less diversity in lenses is one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to medium format adoption. The counterpoint to that is a long history of lenses that can be adapted successfully; unlike a format like 35mm having a wide range of price and quality to suit the masses, medium format has always put image fidelity above all else and at any cost, with all lenses being made at the highest levels of quality available for their day.

If “spray and pray” is one of your mantras, medium format is definitely not for you. The type of personalities best suited to make the switch are those who revere history or simply love the whole photographic process. Photographers who show up early so they can enjoy the setup process and enjoy the whole experience as a form of meditation, these are the ones who won’t be frustrated by the shortcomings. Even those who have never shot with film before but are interested in giving film a try may find medium format an exercise that helps bridge that gap and offer a less expensive was to recreate much of the joy of shooting film but without the expense or hassle of it.

Price, size and speed will all work to convince you that the format is still impractical, and for most of you it will be. None of us really needs more pixels… what we do need, and want, is better pixels. Despite these things, there’s no better time than now to give medium format a serious look. It may be prohibitively expensive, bulky, heavy and slow, but it has those better pixels you’re looking for.

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