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Exploring Medium Format, an Outdoor Perspective

Writing here for MediumFormat.com offers a different venue than my usual reviews and how-to approach. In the coming months I will discuss how to achieve peak image quality on medium format, because the 35mm format is already nipping at the heels of medium format—a perfectly executed shot with 35mm can easily compete with a medium format image in which mistakes were made. I also intend to discuss choosing a medium format system and when and where to skip medium format and choose another solution.

My general approach to everything I do is to ignore assumptions and instead ask “why?” and “how?”, and that will be my approach in my articles. The medium format market is growing, so it is worth justifying when and why medium format makes sense, easing readers along the path of deciding for or against medium format, and then how to make best use of it.

Is medium format the new full frame? That remains to be seen. Just as the full-frame 35mm digital cameras took over from the APS-C format, an open question is how much medium format can take over the high end in a similar way. Many 35mm format cameras are so good today that the medium format market needs at least one more player for the competition to drive prices down and features forward, thus enlarging the medium format market. Whether that will come to pass remains an open question.

Continues below.

Lone Pine at Sunrise, Lundy Canyon Area
f2 @ 7.5 sec, ISO 100; 2017-07-28 04:51:53
GFX 50S + Fujifilm GF 110mm f/2 R WR @ 87mm equiv (110mm)

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What is medium format?

Medium format refers to capture area (sensor size) larger than the 36 X 24mm size of the 35mm format. Here in 2018, it generally means a digital sensor at least 2/3 larger in area than the 35mm format. The Hasselblad X1D and Fujifilm GFX cameras offer 68% more capture area than a 35mm format sensor. As of 2018, it appears that the medium format market will standardize on the 44 X 33mm sensor size in terms of unit numbers for medium format cameras?

A 68% larger capture area means either 68% more light for the same number of pixels, or 68% more pixels with the same pixel size (and thus the same per-pixel quality), or any combination between. The benefits of this large area are:

  • For the same pixel-count, more light captured per pixel, resulting in lower noise and truer color.
  • For increased pixel-count, much more detail with the same per-pixel quality as the lower resolution 35mm sensor.

Of course it is not the sensors alone; the imaging pipeline is critical so as to make the best use of the data off the sensor and the imaging pipeline is well-tuned in medium format cameras.

Relative sensor size

Why consider medium format

The camera not taken (because of size/weight/hassle) doesn’t make any images. Consider the omnipresent camera phone—quality is marginal but the image gets made. Moreover “inferior” cameras sometimes make images that far more expensive ones cannot (easily) make—consider instant and easy iPhone panoramas

Juxtaposing the iPhone against medium format should drive home the point that cameras are tools, with some well-suited and some poorly-suited for any particular task. Shooting a difficult climb with an iPhone or compact 35mm camera makes a lot of sense because of physical constraints, speed of operation, etc. Yet the same terrain is ideal for landscape shooting and thus medium format where peak image quality and resolution is a priority.

The defining characteristic of a medium format camera is image quality, which derives from its sensor size. A secondary defining characteristic has been increased image resolution but as of 2018 this is a nil consideration e.g., 50 megapixels vs 45.7 megapixels is not meaningful. That might change with 100-megapixel medium format cameras.

* Image quality means: noise and dynamic range, color accuracy, tonal discrimination. The best 35mm cameras are hot on the heels of medium format, but the 68% sensor size gap remains a distinct step up in quality.

Thus if the very best image quality is a key consideration, medium format should be considered. The catch? As of late 2018, image quality of medium format remains a tradeoff for reduced functionality, and this is not likely to change quickly. Tradeoffs include:

  • Increased bulk and weight—compared to cameras like the Nikon Z7 and the Sony A7R III, medium format mirrorless is relative bulky and heavy.
  • Slow lens speed of medium format makes it more difficult to shoot in dim conditions handheld and/or even to focus accurately. Higher ISO doesn’t compensate enough; the lens speed differences are too large as well as advantages of 35mm like image stabilization.
  • Slower and far less sophisticated focusing.
  • Reduced frame rates, reduced battery life, slower operation in general.
  • Sufficient depth of field is more difficult to achieve.
  • Restricted lens selection (lens speed choices, range of focal lengths, specialty lenses such as tilt/shift, etc).

A person with a well-developed skill set might have many different tools, each applicable to the job at hand. This is true in sports such as cycling, and it’s certainly true in photography where more than one camera system is needed for different challenges. Why should a camera system be shoehorned into a usage scenario for which is it poorly suited?

Thus it is my view that anyone considering medium format should also be thinking in terms of a 2nd system, be it a 35mm camera system, or a Micro Four Thirds system. For many users, medium format system is best chosen as a 2nd additional system, because medium format is less versatile.

Medium format makes a fine system for outdoor shots—not so quick and agile, but terrific dynamic range and image detail. Only a desire for high image quality need be considered—“pro” or not is irrelevant.

Contemplating Nature
f4 @ 1/45 sec, ISO 100; 2018-08-17 19:04:09 [altitude 9980 ft / 3042 m]
Hasselblad X1D + Hasselblad XCD 21mm f/4 @ 17.9mm equiv (21mm)

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Choosing a medium format camera system

Choosing a medium format system (or other camera system) gets very much into personal likes and dislikes, shooting scenarios, etc. I offer one-on-one consulting to help with such decisions which I prefer to do interactively as it often ferrets out important considerations. I don‘t take a position on which system is best, because that makes too many assumptions.

Mirrorless technology is a major advantage, so much so that here in late 2018, the two leading contenders in medium format are the Fujifilm GFX and the Hasselblad X1D. There are many other medium format system including the Pentax 645Z system, but the market is excited about mirrorless (price, performance, size, weight, etc), and so those two systems are a key focus.

I would stack up the Fujifilm GFX and the Hasselblad X1D against these 35mm cameras: Nikon D850, Nikon Z7, and Sony A7R III. That’s about it in a nutshell—Canon is not competitive in the general photographic space as of August 2018.

Fujifilm GFX and Hasselblad X1D

Technical challenges

Is shooting medium format easier or harder than shooting a 35mm camera or Micro Four Thirds camera? Yes it is! It is easier because the image quality is very high and there tends to be more wiggle room for things like exposure mistakes. It is harder because any number of shot execution mistakes can quickly eliminate any medium format advantages. Medium format offers greater potential quality, but top-notch shot discipline is required to achieve it.

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Conclusion

Medium format intrigues me, because I’m always looking for the best possible image quality, something that bumps it up over my 35mm camera systems. In the months ahead, I’ll explore technique, market developments, and how-to while I keep my fingers crossed for a 100-megapixel mirrorless medium format system.

Addendum — what I shoot and why and how

I shoot a variety of things (more than I publish), but my first love in photography is the outdoors because I love being outdoors. IMO photographers who shoot what they love do their best work—so for example while I like macro images, I am bored to tears with extensive shot setup, so macro shooting for me is mostly serendipitous.

Similarly, I don’t do 'street' both because I respect people too much to intrude, and because I hugely dislike cities (a brain-wiring thing, and more troublesome after my concussion). I don’t do portraiture much although I like it a lot and do it when I can, and I don’t do studio because I have a cramped small house and it’s like doing macro work—though a studio would sure be useful at times for product photography! I like wildlife photography (see my eagles images) but wildlife photography is too time consuming and hit-and-miss to be viable for gear evaluation which I have to complete quickly.

My main constraint is that I cannot possibly buy all the gear I shoot, so that the work I show is often shot in a compressed time frame, which requires strict focus on getting the core work done and often leaves little ad-hoc creative shooting time—rigor first, then ad-hoc later if time allows.

What readers will get from me is my perspective from decades of outdoor shooting going back to 4X5 and 6X17 and experience with nearly every significant camera system of the last decade. Since I am well aware that some camera and lens features and characteristics can be significant for sports/wildlife/portraiture/street/etc, I try to at least touch on points that might be of concern for those areas.

Gear preference

Since I own or have owned many of the major systems (Leica M, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Zeiss) I don’t have an axe to grind about which system is “best”, which is itself ambiguous, since it lacks context. I see cameras and lenses as tools and if a better tool comes along, then I want it—the brand name doesn’t matter to me (excepting the service and support aspect).

With cameras in particular, there are so many sub-optimal design decisions made that there is ample room for improvement. The regrettable state of affairs is that when I criticize faults in a camera system, it bruises the egos of those who meld their choice of camera system with their sense of self worth. Hence the many ad-hominem attacks on me out there on the internet (google “diglloyd”). I just ignore such things and I never read forums for years now.

How I go about evaluating gear

Rigor, honesty, integrity, domain-validated opinion: rigor is required to defend findings as valid, honesty means praising what is good and calling out what is badly done and integrity means no sins of omissions and no currying favor with the camera vendor by downplaying or omitting issues. A domain-validation opinion is most valuable of all: did the camera or lens deliver in the shooting context, and are there better alternatives.

I apply a rigor to my evaluations that stems from a decade of doing it. Every mistake that can be made I’ve made—but I apply a discipline: when I make a mistake, I work out a change to my approach that precludes (or at least greatly reduces) the odds of making that mistake again. Over the years this has been so effective that it is now rare for me to make a mistake in execution. Still, stuff happens, so if I suspect an error, I re-shoot. That is why I shoot many more things than I publish.

For lens evaluations: I frequently shoot a comparison several times with different subject matter in order to obtain one that I deem satisfactory: matched focus, matched lighting, no variables like wind, different distances and subject matter so that I can confirm a lens or camera behavior. So called “quick tests” are often misleading or invalid, and accordingly I shoot a variety. The most frustrating thing: my compositions must be reasonably interesting but first and foremost (for lens comparisons), I must arrange the subject matter in a way that lets me demonstrate lens differences in a clear-cut way. That combination can be frustrating to arrange at times. And often the best light is too fleeting to make a comparison viable

Landscape photography is the only type of photography that is consistently viable for objective evaluation and validation of imaging performance (lenses)—it can include extremely close range to distant scenes, moving subjects, night shooting, etc. Other forms of testing slice the apple too thinly, and almost always involve variables that are indefensible versus actual system performance: lab testing at fixed distances, brick wall and test target shots, AF errors, subject movement, etc—those all make lens evaluation dubious.

My approach in evaluating all gear boils down to how how well it lets me achieve my purpose (ergonomics, haptics, risk of error, efficiency of operation), and whether the image quality meets my standards (very picky). I also consider support and service and warranty, and the medium-long term value. I prefer to ignore pricing since everyone has their own budget; value judgments and rankings involving it serve no one well.

Lloyd’s photography blog is found at diglloyd.com; it covers many brands, lenses, cameras including diglloyd Medium Format. To get the most out of any format requires perfect execution; see diglloyd Making Sharp Images. By subscription. Other areas Lloyd covers are cycling at WindInMyFace.com and computers at MacPerformanceGuide.com.

Lloyd Chambers, November 2011, White Mountains of California, Patriarch Grove
f8 @ 1/500 sec, ISO 80; 2011-11-07 12:52:56
M9 Digital Camera + Super-Elmar-M 21 mm f/3.4 ASPH

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