How Are Medium Format Cameras Different Than Regular Cameras?

If you’ve always shot with a smaller format camera, like an APS-C, you might have spent a lot of time daydreaming about shooting with a full-frame camera; and for obvious reasons. But full-frame cameras aren’t the last word in photography. Medium format cameras are what many professional photographers crave. In this video, photographer Karl Taylor clears up many of the misconceptions surrounding these cameras and justifies why a medium format camera is a better buy in the longer run, even with the stiff price tag:

Camera Size

Pick up any medium format camera and the first obvious thing you’ll notice is the size of the camera. Medium format cameras give off the feeling of a Humvee parked near an SUV. Comparing with a smaller format camera, well, actually there is no comparison—period. The reason for the bulk is the larger sensor that sits inside the camera. Larger sensors, in turn, require larger lenses to fill up the larger area with light.

lenses for medium format cameras

Medium format lenses are optically superior.

Advantages of a Larger Sensor

A larger sensor has a larger area to gather light and the pixels are not so tightly packed as in a smaller format sensor.  The larger sensor area means the individual pixels can be larger, too. For example, on a 50 megapixel Hasselblad CMOS camera, the pixel size is about 5.3 microns. Compare that to the pixel size on a standard high resolution DSLR and the size is about 4.14 microns. Thus, low light performance is much better, because the signal to noise ratio is favorable. In plain English that translates to 28 percent greater light capturing capacity.

medium format sensor size

Medium Format vs. Full-Frame DSLR Sensor Size

But that’s not all. A larger sensor provides much greater dynamic range, which gives a larger transitional tonal value, greater tonal accuracy, and better color accuracy. The dynamic range on a medium format camera is 14-stops more than that of a DSLR! The images shot are true 16-bit.

dynamic range, medium format camera

Dynamic range on a medium format camera is 14-stops higher.

A larger sensor provides room to produce larger lenses, which are easier to make, and thus the optical quality of such lenses is superior. Add to this the benefit that medium format lenses can deliver a shallower depth of field when compared to full-frame DSLRs at the same aperture settings. Even at smaller apertures the quality of the images produced are sharp and devoid of diffraction, thanks to the superior optical quality.

depth of field, medium format cameras

Medium format cameras produce greater depth of field.

Weather Sealing

The medium format camera is an absolute dream to shoot in a studio environment. But what about outdoors and in inclement weather? Taylor reassures us that these cameras are made to be all-weather tools. He takes his Hasselblad to some of the most testing environments.

weather sealing in medium format cameras

Taylor’s Hasselblad is a all-weather camera.

Flash Sync Speed

A problem studio photographers have to work their way around on a regular basis when shooting with full-frame DSLRs is the flash sync-speed limitation. You’re pretty much limited to what you can do without any extra tools. With an internal leaf shutter inside a medium format lens, this limitation no longer weighs you down. Meaning, you can be a lot more creative shooting with strobes or flashes.

sync-speed, medium format cameras, flash photography

The leaf shutter in the a medium format lens means there’s no flash sync-speed limitation.

Low Light Performance

The Hasselblad Taylor shoots with has incredible low light performance. The images shot are devoid of grain whatsoever. The image below was shot at ISO 800 and then printed at 6 meters tall with no evident grain.

noise signature of medium format cameras, low light photography

Images shot with a medium format are practically noiseless.

Pricing

The biggest drawback to upgrading to a medium format camera is pricing. You can’t deny the fact that these cameras are anything but cheap. However, these cameras are designed to deliver images that are truly off the charts. They’re meant to be tools for the professional who needs the ultimate system for delivering the best quality images day after day.

What’s your dream camera?

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5 responses to “How Are Medium Format Cameras Different Than Regular Cameras?”

  1. Horqua says:

    I was a film Hassy shooter for a number of years. As digital was rolling out I held on to my Hassy’s in hope that one day someone would bring out a digital back. I believe Leaf finally made them available for around $10 -15K. Waaayyy out of my league! So I dumped my Hassy gear for a song and bought Nikon. I really do love my D3s but I wish Hasselblad made digital bodies and lenses that I could afford. I miss square format!

    • Wendy says:

      Miyama made a switchable-back camera for a while. Guess you’ll just have to hope that GoFundMe for the camera pods is big enough to support a mid-format one.

      (Kodak actually made a digital back for a standard 35mm, but Marketing decided that would kill the market for digital bodies, and most of the other manufacturer’s marketing departments agreed.)

  2. mike penney says:

    Lenses Sharper? I don’t think so. Pro level 35mm lenses from nikon, canon, leica and zeiss are probably most of the time resolving more pairs of lines per millimeter than 4×5 or 6cm sized lenses. They have to to make up for lack of film/sensor size.
    More depth of field? NO… the bigger the camera’s film or sensor the less depth of field you have. If you want everything sharp in a large camera shot you have to employ tilts and swings plus stop down to 22, 45, or 64. F11 will do that most of the time with a tiny 35mm sensor/film. Yes technically 150mm lens stopped down to f11 has exactly the same depth of field on any camera… but you can see the fall off much quicker in large format.
    Noise? Of course if you are using a brand new CMOS 100 meg sensor the noise is going to be the same or lower than the newer 35mm cameras. But not long ago (3 years?) the medium format sensor was a CCD and it was only good for ISO 100 or maybe 200 before it became so noisy it was unusable. the “apparent” lack of noise just goes to the smaller enlarging ratio… and, of course, the amount of light used to make the photo. Up until the new Pentax, phase one, hassy CMOS conversions from CCD for sensors there was no such thing as low light photography with a digital medium format camera. And the lenses… there are no f1.4’s or 1.8’s and f2’s in medium format…. very few 2.8’s and most are f4 and smaller.
    Dynamic range: The DR of a medium/large format camera back is absolutely NOT 14 stops “more” than a DSLR. Nikon, Sony, and Canon are pretty close in the their DR numbers at around 12 stops. Phase One’s new 100meg back is 15 stops (they say). That’s 3 stops better… not 14.
    Color Depth: If anyone can tell the difference or make use of the difference between 14bit and 16 bit color let me know. I know there is a difference… more makes life easier if you are shooting critical fabric, or scientific stuff. But lighting is more important.

  3. Michael says:

    Nice article yet ditto Mike Penney said.

  4. Wendy says:

    “SLR” (“D” or otherwise) is a reference to the mechanics of how the camera deals with view-finding and image-taking lightpaths, NOT the size of the film/sensor. You are comparing “medium format” (which is likely an SLR, but possibly a TLR, or–if you’re into historical cameras–even a TTL view) and “small format” cameras, not medium-format and “DSLR”

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