What is a medium format camera? How does medium differ from other digital formats? Who uses medium format digital cameras? Why do some photographers prefer medium format cameras? What is the best medium format camera?
These are all good questions. Medium format camera advantages are plentiful but these positive aspects come with a price tag. Size, weight, and monetary costs are all increased with digital medium format camera brands.
Medium Format Sizes
photo by SaintM Photos via iStock
To begin with an answer for what is a medium format camera, we look at the physical size of the sensor. Many of us are very familiar with Full Frame sensors and the crop sensors of APS-C and MFT.
A Full Frame format digital sensor is based on the pre-existing film format of 35mm also called 135. The size of that film frame and of the Full Frame digital sensors that continues currently is a 24mm X 36mm rectangle.
So, not only is Full Frame a specific size, it also has a standard aspect ratio, how tall and long the rectangle is. For Full Frame digital and 35mm film cameras, the aspect ratio is 3:2, which is why a common print size for 35mm film was 4x6 inches. To create an 8x10 inch enlargement, parts of the image frame have to be cropped out to fit the 2:3 aspect ratio into a 5:4 aspect ratio print.
Large format film or glass and metal plate cameras have existed for the entire history of photography and many of the standard sizes were in the 5:4 aspect ratio, a prime example being 4x5 inch view and press cameras.
In Between Large and Miniature
Medium format film cameras were made in sizes in between the “miniature” format of 35mm and large format cameras. Some sizes are 6x6cm (actually 56mm X 56mm or 2 ¼ inch square), 6x7cm, 6x9cm, 6x12cm, and 6x17cm. A very popular medium format size that came a little later was 6x4.5cm with an actual image size of 42mm x 56mm.
By contrast, APS-C format is 23.6mm x 15.7mm which has the same 3:2 aspect ratio of Full Frame. MFT or Micro 4/3rds has an image size of 17.3mm x 13mm with an aspect ratio of 4:3, a little more square than Full Frame and APS-C but still a rectangle.
In digital sensor cameras, medium format sizes can range from slightly larger than Full Frame to sizes corresponding to the older film medium format sizes. Not only do the format dimensions vary quite a lot in digital medium format, so do the aspect ratios.
There are also digital backs for older medium format film cameras that replace film backs, thus allowing older cameras to join the digital age. Companies like Phase One make their own digital cameras and also full-sized medium format digital backs for some modern and classic Hasselblad, Bronica, Rollei, and Mamiya cameras that feature interchangeable backs.
Medium Format Camera Advantages and Disadvantages
A primary reason for using medium format digital cameras is the same reason why they were used by so many professional and other serious photographers shooting film, improved image quality.
The larger the base medium, the higher quality final images can be made from it, speaking in general terms. There are, of course, all sorts of other things to consider, but it’s considered an axiom in photography that larger formats tend to deliver higher quality.
As mentioned earlier, that higher quality definitely comes with a price tag. Medium format cameras and lenses are larger, heavier, and often much more expensive than similar gear in smaller formats. Examples such as a Hasselblad X6D costing 3 to 4 times the price of a Canon or Nikon Full Frame professional camera.
Besides the cameras being very expensive, designing superior lenses that can cover these medium formats is a technical and artistic feat that we pay quite a lot for when that increased quality is desired or needed.
Who Shoots Medium Format?
photo by albertogagna via iStock
So that’s the basics of what is a medium format camera. Now let’s see who shoots with a medium format camera and what is the best medium format camera.
As for a definitive answer to what is the best medium format camera, you all know me better than that. They are all good. What makes some decide for one brand or model over another will depend on various things such as brand loyalty, camera size and weight, availability of lenses and accessories, and bottom-line pricing.
As to who uses medium format digital cameras, anyone who needs or wants extremely high-quality final images will consider or own medium format cameras. It’s more than a simple MB count, by the way. Pixel size, contrast levels, color fidelity, tonal range, and other factors change as you go up in size from crop formats or Full Frame format to a medium format.
Medium format cameras are fantastic photographic imaging tools. If you are desiring the advantages and can handle the costs of money and size, one of the current or recent digital medium format cameras might be your next investment.