Going from full format to medium format: what you need to know

Travel back ten years or more and medium format cameras were the gold at the end of the rainbow for many photographers. Large, high resolution, and prohibitively expensive for all working shooters, but top performers, names like Hasselblad and Phase One were synonymous with high end fashion and magazine photography.

A quality medium format camera body, digital back, and exclusive lens set would easily cost you between thirty and forty thousand pounds, so you had to be sure that the benefits they offered were critical to your business. Back then, however, the large sensor was the only way to access the pixel count north of 30 MP, so for advertising photography purposes there really was no competition.

Things are different today, however, and not only are medium format cameras much more portable and affordable, there are other more common options on the market. The Sony A7R IV, Canon EOS R5, and Nikon Z7 II mirrorless cameras introduced ultra high resolution photography to the full frame playing field. Indeed, some of these options actually exceed the resolution of mid-format offerings, so it’s clear that the once untouchable system has its work cut out for it to stay on top.

Modular vs compact

Future

(Image credit: Avenir)

The medium format comes in different shapes and sizes. Models like the Hasselblad H6D-400c MS follow a modular concept with interchangeable sensor units (back) and sights and offer the largest sensor sizes and resolutions, at a premium price. The compact medium format, like the Fujifilm GFX series, uses slightly smaller sensors, but offers near DSLR-style operation.

As we’ve seen before, pixels aren’t everything, and if you really want a mid-format model, there are some great options. The Fujifilm GFX system, for example, worked the other way around and brought full-frame portability to the MF market. Its line of mirrorless cameras is no heavier than a professional DSLR and comes at a similar price point.

Of course, for every benefit there is a potential downside. While some medium format cameras take up space previously occupied by flagship full-frame SLR models, such as Nikon’s Single Digital Line (D3, D4, D5, D6) and Canon’s 1D Series (EOS 1D and 1Ds Mark I, II, III, etc.), there are significant differences in the marketing of the two formats. We will take a look.

Advantages and disadvantages of medium format

Hasselblad cameras, such as the X1D II 50C, offer a sensor significantly larger than the full frame, allowing for larger pixels, higher resolution and a wider dynamic range. (Image credit: Hasselblad)

What makes the medium format unique

Images shot in medium format have characteristic appearances, including a shallow, creamy depth of field, which is perfect for portraits. This now extends to video, with many MF cameras offering motion capture.

Medium format resolution

Bigger sensors mean more space for the pixels. Currently, the largest full frame resolutions are between 50 and 60 MP, while the medium format offers 100 MP and above, providing large amounts of image data.

Medium format noise and dynamic range

The size of the photosites is also larger on medium format sensors, allowing better light capture and slower photon saturation. This means a higher signal-to-noise ratio and wider dynamic ranges, despite the resolution. That said, the same arguments apply as when upgrading from the APS-C to full frame – with a medium frame camera the same resolution as a full frame model, you can expect a lower noise and at a high dynamic range, OR at a higher resolution with the same noise and dynamic range.

Build Quality: Due to the already inflated unit cost, medium format cameras often offer superior build compared to enthusiast level full frame cameras, making them suitable for working in harsh conditions. (Image credit: Peter Fenech)

Medium format cameras are slower

With larger data capture comes slower processing in the camera. It may take longer to write images to the card, and continuous frame rates are slower than full frame or APS-C mirrorless cameras.

Medium format offers shallower focus

Often cited as an advantage, it can also be a hindrance. When you need a deep depth of field, it is necessary to stop at at least f / 16 and carefully monitor the background sharpness. Objects that are only a few millimeters apart may exhibit differential focusing.

Higher resolution images require more processing power

The increase in image data can be overwhelming at first and may require investments in more capable computers for image editing. Higher capacity storage options will also be required.

Upgrade examples

Medium format is probably not for everyone, but for landscape and portrait photographers, these cameras can still offer a unique perspective. Here we take a look at a full frame mirrorless camera that has a representative specification for professionals and a potential upgrade step.

Sony A7R IV

(Image credit: Sony)

The A7R IV is one of Sony’s leading pro mirrorless cameras and has a high resolution 61MP full frame sensor. It rivals or even beats the medium format for megapixels, but this camera also offers 10fps shooting, 4K video, and light (665g) but sturdy build quality. It will be a camera of choice for studio and event shooters.

Fujifilm GFX100

(Image credit: Fujifilm)

Priced below some full-frame DSLRs, the GFX100 offers similar handling to these cameras and has a compact design to rival the Sony in portability. However, it does have a 102MP medium format sensor, which offers a lot more detail and cropping capabilities. The build is on par with the Sony, and the Fujifilm also retains 4K video with F-Log, while taking only 235g in weight.

Similar upgrade cameras to consider: Fujifilm GFX 50R, Hasselblad X1D II 50C

Read more:

The best medium format camera of 2021
Fujifilm GFX 100S review
What is the “look” of a medium format camera – and does it even matter?


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