The Fujifilm GFX 50R is one of the most affordable digital medium format cameras and naturally, its arrival has triggered a lot of conversation about medium format photography. A few people have asked what it means and how it relates to full-frame and APS-C format photography. Here’s our take.
What is Medium Format?
In the heyday of film, photography was roughly divided into large format, medium format and small format depending upon the size of the image frame of the camera.
Large format cameras used sheet film, that is individual frames of film, or plates that were anything from 5×4 inches (127 x 101.6mm) or larger. Both 5×4 and 10×8 inches (254 x 203.2mm) were popular sheet film sizes.
Many older cameras used plates covered in photographic emulsion instead of sheets of film. These plates were available in a wide ranges of sizes, but the term ‘whole plate’ is used to describe plates that measure 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches (215.9 x 165.1mm), while half plate is 6 1/2 x 4 3/4 inches (165.1 x 120.65mm).
120 and 220 Film
Although other film formats exist, most medium format film cameras use 120 or 220 film. This is often referred to as being 60mm wide, but is actually nearer 61mm or 2.4-inches wide.
It came in rolls that were loaded into the camera in a similar way to 35mm film, but there were now cassettes to protect it from light so you had to do it the dark.
The only difference between 120 and 220 film is that 220 is twice the length so you get double the number of exposures.
While they take 120 film, medium format film cameras capture negatives in a range of sizes. Square format was popular, with Hasselblad’s cameras being the aspirational models for many photographers. Cameras like the Mamiya RZ67 and RB67 and Pentax 67 shoot 6x7cm images, often known as the ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ format.
However, 645 cameras like the Mamiya 645, Bronica RF 645 and Pentax 645 variants were very popular because they were a little smaller and you could squeeze more frames onto a roll of film.
Cameras that accept 35mm film are known as small format cameras. The standard frame size is 36 x 24mm, the same as the sensor in a full-frame digital camera. Because this sensor size is larger than the popular APS-C format (also named after a film size), it tends to be thought of as large, but traditionally it was considered small.
What is digital medium format photography?
Digital medium format cameras have image sensors that are larger than those in so-called ‘full-frame’ cameras, but the actual size of the sensor varies.
In the new Fujifilm GFX 50R, Fuji GFX 50S and Hasselblad X1D (which use the same sensor as the Pentax 645Z) the sensor measures 43.8 × 32.9mm. Meanwhile, the Hasselblad H6D-100C and Phase One XF 100MP have a 53.4 × 40.0mm sensor while the Leica S (Typ 007) has a 37.5Mp 30 x 45mm sensor.
For ease of comparison, the surface area of a full-frame sensor is 864mm². The Fujifilm GFX 50R/S sensor’s is 1,441mm². That’s over 66% larger.
A key benefit of this is that the pixels can be made larger than on small format sensors. This means they gather more light. More light means, less noise and higher quality images.
Advantages of Medium Format Cameras
The biggest advantage of using a medium format camera is that the pixels on the sensor are bigger than the pixels on a full-frame sensor. And they’re much bigger than those on an APS-C or Four Thirds type sensor. Consequently, every medium format sensor pixel captures more light and this enables the sensor to generate a stronger image signal. This means that less gain needs to be applied to signal and the image has less noise.
As most medium format cameras also have a high pixel count, the level of detail is also very high.
Medium format sensors also capture more dynamic range. This means that images have a greater range of tones and they can withstand more adjustment post-capture. That’s especially helpful for landscape photographers who need to capture detail in the brightest parts of the sky as well as the darkest.
Disadvantages of Medium Format Cameras
The biggest disadvantage of medium format cameras for most people is their price. As the sensor is the most expensive component of a camera, increasing its size sends the price shooting up. However, prices are coming down. For example, Fujifilm has managed to reduce the price of the GFX 50R in comparison to the GFX 50S by streamlining it a bit and making it less modular.
Another issue is that the large sensor needs a larger camera body to house it. And naturally, the lenses have to be larger to get a big enough image circle. This makes the kit less portable. But again, manufacturers have been working on this and the Hasselblad X1D and Fujifilm GFX 50R are smaller than past digital medium format cameras.
Traditionally, medium format cameras are slow to use, but technology moves on and the AF systems are much faster these days, while the processors let means there’s much less delay between taking shots.