When I moved to Alaska in 2018, I sold off a whole bunch of stuff (tools, a car, furniture, etc.) and had some cash afterward. My wife and I decided to live a bit smaller for a while to invest in a medium format camera system. I researched all of the various cameras on the market, the Pentax 645Z, Fuji GFX 50R, Hasselblad X1D, Hasselblad H6, and Phase One XF IQ 3 and 4. Agonizing and struggled with what medium format camera system to invest in, I ultimately learned a lot along the way.
Why Medium Format?
The first question that you might ask is why? Why not get a high megapixel DSLR. There were several on the market at the time, and there are many more out there today. This is a great question, and ultimately you will have to find the answer yourself. But here are some common arguments in favor of upgrading your system to medium format. The first thing that many people think of right off the bat is the “Medium Format Look.” This is and has been debunked over and over as a real thing. But I feel that you shoot differently composing through a medium format camera than through a smaller DSLR or mirrorless camera; just like shooting 4×5 or 8×10 film requires that you compose differently.
To some extent, the tool dictates how you use it. And the larger camera requires a more deliberate approach to image-making. Thus it will give you more deliberate compositions. But this can be learned and adapted to the smaller cameras, so it can’t be the deciding factor.
The second argument that is often stated is that Medium Format offers you “true 16 bit files”. This is often said in low tones with a gentle assurance of the importance of this to your image-making. However, it is true; Medium Format will offer you full access to the entire container of your file type. If this doesn’t make sense, let me quickly explain. Think of file formats as containers or buckets divided into sections. If your bucket is small, you won’t get as much stuff in. This is what happens when you shoot a .JPG file. But when your bucket is large, you can fill it up with as much as you have available. All RAW file types as well as .TIFF, .PSD, .PNG, .GIF are all containers that offer up to 16-bit color and tone. The big buckets. DSLR and mirrorless sensors only offer 12 or 14-bits of data, only filling your big bucket up 3/4 or 7/8 of the way. All of this said, shooting in native 16-bit color will offer you a noticeable increase to your dynamic range and color accuracy. I will repeat myself here; this is a noticeable difference between DSLR and Medium Format, and it offers better highlight and shadow recovery.
How big is this bigger sensor? Well, it’s based around the 645 format, but it’s not a true 60mm x45mm measurement. The largest of the MEDIUM FORMAT sensors is on the Hasselblad H, and the Phase One IQ Systems. It measures 53.4mm x 40mm. The Fujifilm GFX and Hasselblad X1D II, and the Hasselblad 907X are 43.8mm x 32.9mm. So they are all significantly larger. And all of these systems will give you a greater Depth of Field-based on their sensor size. But as we know, sensor or film size is only one of four components that affect Depth of Field (aperture, type of lens, size of the sensor, and the distance to the subject).
The final argument for switching to Medium Format is you get higher pixel counts. 100-megapixel sensors are the norm in the medium format world at the moment, and Phase one offers a 150 megapixel digital back that blows the top of my head completely off. But ask yourself why there are so many cameras with all the same sensor specs. That’s because the sensors are all made by the same manufacture, Sony. Phase One worked with Sony to develop all of this great medium format sensor tech. After a brief period of exclusivity to give Phase an advantage, Sony released it to other camera manufacturers. The only medium format camera that I can find not using the Sony sensor is Leica. And they are working with their proprietary system.
But all of this begs the question; if it’s all the same sensors, why buy one over the other. And to answer that, we need to look at the features of each camera system. Before we look at each system’s pros and cons, let’s answer the question of why not invest in a new Medium Format system.
Why not Medium Format?
The immediate response is that it is too cost-prohibitive at this time to invest in what will turn out to be more expensive than buying a sports car. And to some extent, this was true in 2018 when I invested in my medium format. But now, many cameras have High-End DSLR Price points. And the more they manufacture, the more the price will drop.
The next response to the question why not medium format is you will have to upgrade your computer and hard drive space. I am still running a 2012 MacBook pro with 16GB of RAM, and yes, it’s a bit slow; it’s not unmanageable for a landscape photography workflow. And my hard drive system is always in a state of being upgraded. Medium format will cost you more in hard drive space, but I am also slowing down and taking fewer bad photos due to a more deliberate approach to image-making. Computers and hard drives will always need to be upgraded. This is just the lot of all digital photographers.
The greatest cost comes at the extreme high-end, where the old or used lenses just aren’t sharp enough for the 150-megapixel camera sensors. Investing in an entirely new lineup of glass can be quite an expense. This, along with the XF system’s modularity, is one of the primary reasons I invested in the Phase One system. I chose to get the IQ3 50 megapixel digital back so that I could immediately purchase new and used Phase One FP lenses (which are rated for up to the 100-megapixel system). Over time, I can upgrade my lenses and my digital back to a 100 or 150 megapixel back. But if you jump into the mirrorless systems like the Fuji GFX 100, you might have enough left over to invest in premium glass for that system. The mirrorless systems are just too new to have an abundant selection of used lenses and accessories on the market.
The final reason that you might not want to purchase a medium format system is that it’s heavier than the high megapixel DSLR and mirrorless systems. And believe me, I get it, especially on rugged trails when you are hauling it to the top of a mountain peak in the dark. It can get heavy. I haven’t ever weighed it, but I would guess that my standard hiking backpack with my camera, a couple of lenses, filters, tripod, raincoat or puffer, snacks, first aid kit, etc. weighs around 45 lbs. or 50 lbs. But if this is a concern, then the Fuji GFX 100 and the Hasselblad X1D are only slightly heavier than comparable DSLRs. It’s a drawback but manageable.
What should I know, and how much should you budget?
To start answering this question, we have to decide what type of medium format camera system we want to invest in. There are three types of medium format camera systems. The first and most cost accessible is the DSLR or Mirrorless system. This includes the Fujifilm GFX, Hasselblad X1D, Pentax 645Z, and Leica S series; These cameras have a sensor inside the camera body like a standard DSLR or Mirrorless camera. And the entry price point high ($4499.00 for the Fujifilm GFX 50R Body only) but close to the highest end 35mm Full Frame DSLR or mirrorless cameras. (The new Canon EOS R5 Mirrorless body only is $3,899.00.)
The next Medium format option is the modular system, such as the Phase One XF IQ system or the Hasselblad H System. These costs vary, and most of the expense is in the digital back. But the modular nature of it allows you to upgrade just the back and still use the body and the lenses. The entry prices point for this is high, somewhere above $40,000 (Bodies run about $8,000, lenses about $4500, and digital backs are about $29,000).
The final setup is to put a digital back on a Technical Camera (Cambo, Phase One XT, Arca-Swiss), a 4×5, or an 8×10 camera. These setups are all equal to, if not more expensive than the system above, with most of the costs in the digital back. But for both of these modular setups, you can bring the price tag down if you are willing to buy used. Let’s cover that next.
There are a lot of older used medium format digital camera systems available on the market right now. And this is an affordable way to spend your money. For instance, I saved money on my medium format system because I bought an adapter ring to convert my Hasselblad 500 series lenses for use on my Phase One XF Body. And while it’s not ideal, this allows me to use lenses that I purchased twenty years ago. Another thing to consider is to invest in an older DSLR medium format system like the Pentax 645z. You can pick one of these bodies up on eBay for around $3,700 or a complete kit for approximately $5,000. The third option is to purchase an older digital back like the Phase One P45+ for under $1900. This is a great digital back, and if you are pairing it with the Mamiya 645DF or a technical camera, you will be able to use this as a stepping stone for the next purchase. One thing to remember with buying an older digital camera or digital back, like the Pentax 645d or Phase One P45+, is that there are some drawbacks to the CCD Sensor. Below is a breakdown of the CMOS VS CCD argument.
CMOS VS CCD
|CCD – slower and more heat||CMOS – Lower power requirement|
|CCD – Cleaner images less noise||CMOS – Higher noise because pixels are being amplified|
|CCD – Bucket-Brigade type pixel processing – one at a time. Not good for long exposures||CMOS – Parallel pixel processing for faster write times – one column at a time.|
|CCD – Uses a lot of battery power for large sensors||CMOS – Rolling shutter (if you shoot video)|
Is it suitable for Landscape and Wildlife photographers?
Simply put, medium format is excellent for landscape work but not good at all for wildlife or extreme sports.
Landscape photography on a tripod works great, but more camera weight means handheld photos need higher shutter speeds, which means that you need higher ISOs. This isn’t as bad as it used to be with medium format. Now, most sensors can handle ISO 800 and ISO 1600 with no problem. I regularly hand hold my camera at ISO 800 and 1/250 of a sec. Anything below that, and I will see the camera shake. And because of this and the autofocusing speed (or lack thereof), in my opinion, medium format cameras aren’t great solutions for wildlife or extreme sports photography.
What do I need to know about updating my RAW Editing software for a medium format system?
Essentially you will be using the same computer system for your medium format camera, but you might want to update or convert to a different RAW processor. Speed, flexibility, and fit into your existing Digital Asset Management (DAM) System are the three keys to choosing a photo editing system.
Personally, I’m not too fond of the catalog editing required by Lightroom. The RAW processor is great, the workflow within the various software programs is exceptional, but I don’t want to have all of my photos in one place. So I end up creating a catalog for each shoot. I know I’m not using it how it’s meant to be used, but I like a straightforward file folder based (date, name, image number) DAM System. So when I switched to medium format, I looked into Capture One. Capture One is a RAW processor build by Phase One for Phase One cameras. It was built to handle the large files of medium format digital cameras, and it allows for the use of Sessions. Sessions are designed to handle one shoot at a time. This is how I like to work and organize my images.
Capture One vs Lightroom
| Where Lightroom Beats Capture One
|| Where Capture One Beats Lightroom
What’s the takeaway?
And finally, here are a few final rambling pieces of advice. Whether you decide to buy a digital medium format camera system or not, always remember to do your research and know what you are getting into. Don’t just take salespeople’s advice. That includes people like me. I have found a system that is right for me, but you will need to make the judgment of whether it is right for you. Try renting one of these high-end cameras. If you don’t want to do that, call and ask for a demo. Most major cities have camera stores that will love to talk to you about the medium format camera they sell. As always, Invest in quality glass. Cameras come and go, but good glass will last a lifetime.
If you want to connect with photography, pull out an 8×10 or 4×5 camera. These big cameras will require you to slow down and think through every movement. And that’s a good thing. Shoot film and scan it in. We take millions of images each year that we don’t think about, and they just sit on the shelf in a hard drive. Try printing a few and give them out to your friends. Photography is a print medium. It is meant to be read, not scrolled past while you are waiting to board your plane.
See you in the field.
Tom Turner is an artist and educator based in Eagle River, Alaska. Turner has taught at the Art Institute of San Antonio, Northwest Vista College, Saint Mary’s University, Texas Tech University, and The Creative Light Workshops in San Antonio, Texas.
Turner’s artistic practice, which is principally in the medium of photography, focuses chiefly on the landscape, how we perceive time, and how our memory alters that perception of the natural world. His fascination with image-making began during his undergraduate studies at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. He continued this pursuit at The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. After completing his education, he spent the next seven years working as a photojournalist. He worked for newspapers and magazines in Michigan, Southern California, Central, and East Texas. In 2010 Turner began his graduate studies at Texas Tech University, where he completed an MFA in Photography.
Turner, known for landscape imagery, which uses color and time to abstract the scene, his subjects range from national parks to appropriations of scientific imagery. He has exhibited locally, nationally, and internationally. Turner feels honored to have his work seen in Wired Photo, 4th International Photography Annual (INPHA 4), Juxtapoz Art and Culture Magazine, and most recently in Fraction Magazine. Check out Tom Turner’s website at https://tomturnerphotography.com.