When you’re a professional photographer, or hoping to make money from your photography in any capacity at all, you’ll probably be tempted to acquire one of the best medium format cameras (opens in new tab). This is especially true if you’re a landscape photographer, where capturing maximum detail has traditionally been seen as highly important, as well as for commercial applications, as clients may request very large file sizes.
Of course, as with everything in photography, such equipment comes at a price, both in terms of initial financial outlay and in terms of the increase in the storage required, to say nothing of the demands it places on the processing power of your computer system. Of course not everyone needs a big sensor, otherwise the best camera phones (opens in new tab) wouldn't be doing so well.
A former Reuters photographer and picture editor for The Times, now an acclaimed fine art landscape photographer, Paul leads photographic tours and iPhoneography courses, as well as one-to-one workshops for people with mental health issues. www.discoverstill.com (opens in new tab)
For some photographers, it’s simply their preferred way of working, as Paul Sanders (opens in new tab) reveals: “Throughout my career I have used medium format cameras; my first medium format was a Bronica SQA – I was shooting fashion at the time in the late 80s. I loved the square format and the incredible quality delivered on transparency film. From there I moved to a Mamiya RB67 and a Mamiya 7, both of which I loved. When I started as a news photographer I still used the medium format for magazine features. It’s so comfortable to use.”
The cost of medium format systems
However, there are some fairly considerable cost implications that need to be factored in when it comes to medium format in the digital world. “Since I left my job in news photography I had been looking for a medium format camera that would deliver the quality I wanted for my landscape work along with the convenience of digital.
The problem for me was one of cost; a Phase One setup was just too expensive. Having used Fujifilm cameras for five years, when they announced the GFX I thought it would probably work for me. The important thing for me about equipment is the feel – they have to be comfortable to hold, the buttons have to fall in the right places for my fingers and thumbs. Holding the GFX 50S felt like I’d gone back in time; it handled the way my beloved Mamiya 7 did, the balance and weight all felt very similar. I did of course try the Hasselblad mirrorless too, but it just didn’t work for my brain and muscle memory.”
Probably the main reason for many to switch to medium format is the resolution potential it offers. “I like to print some of my work really big – two meters wide or more, and to achieve the quality I wanted I did need a bigger file size than my X-T2 delivered.”
However, Sanders warns against becoming too obsessive about pixels and making comparisons between the resolution of one camera versus another: “The technical side of photography doesn’t really interest me; I have no idea what the array of pixels or diodes does and frankly I don’t care. Pixel-peeping is a losing game, as you always want what you don’t have – I care about how my images feel. The GFX seemed to deliver just what I needed in terms of dynamic range, tonal smoothness and detail. I can honestly say it’s a joy to use every day.
I think the best thing about medium format is the speed: I like to work slowly, and with larger format sensors you are forced to do just that. I shoot far fewer images than I would on smaller cameras, you stop the spray and pray mentality and consider every detail… there is a view that a bigger camera makes you a better photographer, but that is usually people who have no idea that photographs are generated by the photographer regardless of the kit they use.
Generally speaking the high-end advertising and magazine worlds still like higher resolution files, [but] no one has ever commissioned me to shoot something and asked what equipment I use.”
Size and weight factors
You need to consider that medium format cameras (and lenses) “are naturally heavier,” says Paul Sanders. “Although that said, my bag is no heavier than when I used two X-T2 cameras with battery packs and eight lenses. Now I have one body and four lenses, and the weight is very similar. Shooting with medium format makes you assess what you really need in your bag and what you really use – you don’t invest in kit that you know you won’t use often.”
Another consideration with medium format is that it offers a slight reduction in speed. “Shooting action is more challenging because there is a tiny delay in saving the files. It’s only small but you have to be aware of it.” There is also the issue of depth of field. “It’s much narrower on medium format cameras, and that coupled with shooting at slower speeds can lead to camera movement. However, I don’t see these things as reasons not to shoot medium format, they help me consider what I am shooting. I don’t rush my images, everything is done slowly, deliberately and with thought.”
Of course, cost is also something to be factored in. “My GFX 50S setup cost around £25K if you include the batteries, lenses, body and bits that were needed, but I don’t think there is an improvement in my work since buying it – the evolution of my work comes from within. A camera is worth the money if you enjoy using it and you get the results you want from it. My kit paid for itself inside 18 months, so it owes me nothing.”