Small, large and medium format photography explained

Following the announcements of the Hasselblad X1D and Fuji GFX 50S there’s been a lot of talk about medium format photography and a few people have asked what it means and how it relates to full-frame and APS-C format photography. Here’s our take.

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 film rolls and box

Although other film formats exist, most medium format film cameras use 120 or 220 film which 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.

35mm film in camera

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 Fuji GFX 50S and Hasselblad X1D (which use the same sensor as the Pentax 645Z) it 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.

A key benefit of a medium format sensor is that the pixels can be made larger than on small format sensors and this means they gather more light. More light means, less noise and higher quality images.

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