The Medium Format Landscape

Considering the advantages of medium format landscape photography
Medium Format Landscape Photography, Siesta Lake Sunset
This image of Siesta Lake in Yosemite demonstrates the incredible dynamic range and beautiful color rendition of the camera’s sensor and the detail possible with the system’s lenses. Hasselblad H4D-60, Hasselblad 35-90mm f/4-5.6 HCD.

In 2004, I acquired my first medium format digital camera, a Hasselblad H1 with an Imacon 22MP digital back. I remember opening the boxes from Hasselblad like a kid on Christmas day. My new camera system was a big reach financially, but I had made a decision that going medium format digital would be the best investment for my career as a landscape photographer specializing in the sale of my fine art prints, so I took the plunge. My new camera system required an external battery pack that took Sony video camera batteries and a long cable to attach the back to the battery pack and hard drive. It was a bit unwieldy and attracted a lot of attention when I was out photographing, but I was able to produce images that were of amazing quality for that era. I also found that shooting medium format helped me do a better job with composition in the field, and it still does. There is something about looking through that big bright viewfinder that makes me see better, and not just in the literal sense. Slowing down and dialing in the perfect composition seems easier to do with medium format.

Many of the images I took with that camera I still use to print very large (6 feet wide and larger) art prints today. Recently one of my prints taken with that camera, “Sunset Bonsai Rock,” was selected for the “Visual History of Lake Tahoe” show at the Nevada Museum of Art. The museum wanted it printed 80 inches wide, and the print looked wonderful at that size even though I took the photo back in 2005. This print was chosen to represent the advent of digital photography as part of Lake Tahoe’s visual history, and was likely the first published photo of Lake Tahoe taken with a medium format digital camera.

Understanding The Medium

The term “medium format” historically refers to the 120 film format that was approximately 60mm wide. More recently, with the advent of digital cameras, this term refers to any sensor larger than that found in a “full-frame” camera. Today’s “medium format” digital cameras have sensors that range in size from roughly 44x33mm to 53.7x40.4mm, which is as much as 2.5 times larger than full frame.

Medium Format Landscape Photography - Aspen Glow
This image was cropped to about half of the original frame to achieve the final print. Because of the resolution, I can still create 80-inch-wide prints of this image with no pixilation. Hasselblad H5D-50, Hasselblad HC 50-110mm f/3.5-4.5.

Because the sensors are so much larger, the physical size of the actual pixels is larger, which increases their light-gathering ability, improving their dynamic range and reducing digital noise, generally speaking. In addition, medium format-sized cameras usually process images at 16-bit, versus a maximum of 14-bit in today’s full-frame cameras. This gives medium format cameras the ability—at least mathematically—to capture more differentiated shades of colors. In 16-bit medium format files, this equates to 281 trillion color shades, which translates to smoother tonal gradations and less color banding in processed image files than 14-bit or lower cameras. That said, the practical difference in the color rendition from a 14-bit and that from a 16-bit might be minimal in a traditional photographic workflow. In short, shooting with a medium format digital camera can result in image files that have better resolution, less digital noise, smoother tonality, and more dynamic range than images from cameras with smaller sensors, all else being equal.

The best part of using medium format digital cameras for my photography is that I have no regrets with the final image quality. If I am witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime scene that I have worked hard to get to, I know I will be able to produce the best image possible with my equipment. The quality of medium format lenses is amazing. They generally out-resolve even the best 35mm lenses. Another benefit of medium format photography is the ability to have very shallow depth of field and beautiful bokeh in out-of-focus image areas. A fundamental rule of photography is that when aperture, subject distance and lens angle of view are all constant, the larger the image format, the shallower the depth of field will be. Shallow depth of field allows the photographer to work creatively to bring into focus only certain areas of the image, and to render less-interesting backgrounds as lovely bokeh. This technique is somewhat easier with the shallower depth of field and high lens quality of medium format cameras.

I have never regretted converting to a medium format camera system for my landscape photography. I have covered many miles hiking with an assortment of medium format digital cameras. Primarily, I have used Hasselblad cameras but have also experimented with the more weatherproof Pentax 645Z as well. For a while, in hopes of lightening my camera pack, I tried lighter-weight mirrorless full-frame systems to see if I could extract the same quality of files from a 42MP full-frame sensor. However, with these cameras I noticed a perceptible shortfall in the ability to make very large prints, as well as in the dynamic range and depth of color in the files.

Medium Format Landscape Photography - Tahoe Reflections
“Tahoe Reflections.” The second image I printed for the museum show “Lake Tahoe, A Visual History” at the Nevada Museum of Art. Like “Sunset, Bonsai Rock,” it was printed 80 inches in the longest dimension. Hasselblad H1D with Imacon iXpress 132C 22MP back, Hasselblad HC 50-110mm f/3.5-4.5.

There are currently many options available for photographers interested in medium format camera systems. The 51.4MP Pentax 645Z is an excellent integrated medium format camera very suited for use in the outdoors and is a pleasure to use. Pentax lenses are available at reasonable prices (by medium format standards), and numerous lens focal lengths are available for this system. The 645Z is probably the most weatherproof of the current medium format cameras. In fact, there is a YouTube video showing someone burying one in sand and then rinsing it off in the shower!

Another great option, of course, is the Hasselblad H6D, the modern-day equivalent of that first medium format system I purchased in 2004. With a choice of a newly designed 50MP or 100MP sensor, the H6D is one of the premium medium format systems on the market. Another big player in the medium format market is Phase One, which has a number of different medium format systems, including its state-of-the-art 100MP CMOS XF system, which offers photographers advanced features such as automated focus stacking. Phase One also offers its well-regarded Capture One RAW processing software, which can work with files from many different camera manufacturers. I have not personally used the Phase One cameras but look forward to reviewing this system’s functionality for landscape photography in the near future.

For photographers who want to consider lighter medium format cameras for landscape and nature photography, the future holds great promise with the planned introduction of lighter-weight mirrorless medium format systems. Just this year, Hasselblad announced a mirrorless body, the Hasselblad X1D, that’s both diminutive and powerful. While it hasn’t arrived in the hands of reviewers, the camera packs the 50MP sensor in from the 50 MP version of the H6D and puts it into a body barely larger than a full-frame mirrorless. Fujifilm also showed off prototypes this year of its upcoming medium-format GFX 50s camera. Jumping directly from APS-C in its X-series to medium format and skipping over full-frame sensors, the new Fujifilm system has gotten the attention of a lot of full-frame shooters looking to upgrade.

Medium Format Landscape Photography - Harvest Season
This is an example of the lovely Bokeh and shallow depth of field possible with medium format. Hasselblad H4D-60, Hasselblad HC 50-110mm f/3.5-4.5.

After trying other camera options, I decided that I personally was most comfortable with the Hasselblad H-series cameras due to my many years of experience with system. I also prefer the quality of the leaf-shutter Hasselblad lenses, which help avoid issues with shutter-induced vibration on longer exposures or with more extreme telephoto shots. While I’m happy shooting with my 60MP H4D-60 camera, Hasselblad has twice updated this system since 2009. The new H6D uses a redesigned 50MP or 100MP sensor, and state-of-the-art processing, faster autofocus, higher ISO and better metering. The 100 megapixel version of the H6, H6D-100c, will have the added benefit of 4k video recording functionality. That means that photographers embracing medium format cameras today have incredibly sophisticated tools at their disposal. Given Hasselblad’s excellent upgrade programs for its older cameras, I look forward to eventually upgrading to a new medium format camera and am waiting for the new Hasselblad X1D so that I can compare it to Hasselblad’s current H6D system.

Weighing The Medium Format Options

For anyone who is interested in working with medium format cameras for landscape photography, I can offer the following advice based on over 10 years of experience with these cameras.

First of all, assembling a system will cost much more than going the full-frame route, but the quality can’t be matched. However, there are ways to reduce the costs. I have purchased most of my medium format lenses used from various online sources, and have never had a bad experience doing that. Used lenses can go for a fraction of what new ones cost; however, one never knows how used lenses have been previously handled, so buyer beware. Make sure you can return a used lens if it is not acceptable after testing it. The Pentax 645Z system also makes getting into medium format world relatively less expensive than it used to be a few years ago, and the Fujifilm GFX-series promises to do the same. The lenses for the Pentax medium format system are less expensive since they do not contain a leaf shutter, and the Fujifilm glass promises to be relatively affordable as well.

Secondly, with medium format you will have to make carrying compromises because of the weight of the system. My go-to system for multi-day hiking is my Hasselblad H-system camera and one lens; my 28mm is all I can bring if I am also carrying a backpack for a trip in the backcountry. I carry it in a Clik Elite telephoto chest carrier, which can accommodate the larger medium format body. I rig it to attach to my backpack straps so it is somewhat comfortable and can be adjusted up or down. If I am just day hiking, I will add in a few more lenses, usually a 35-90mm zoom and a 300mm lens for telephoto landscapes. For car-based photography I bring my entire system with seven lenses and the Hasselblad HTS Tilt Shift adapter in a large RPT backpack—what a luxury!

Medium Format Landscape - Bonsai Rock
“Sunset, Bonsai Rock, Lake Tahoe.” This image and “Tahoe Reflections” were selected for a museum show that required huge prints of 80 inches in the longest dimension. Even though they were taken in 2004, because they were captured with medium format I was able to process them with current technology to create large, beautiful prints. Hasselblad H1D with Imacon iXpress 132C 22MP back, Hasselblad HC 50-110mm f/3.5-4.5.

Along with the weight of the system, you also need to consider the weight of the tripod needed to support a medium format camera. I have found that a lightweight Acratech ball head can support medium format, and with a carbon fiber tripod, I can have a decent lightweight tripod system. My favorite ballhead is the Arca-Swiss d4 ballhead, but this is too heavy for anything beyond a day hike.

In addition to the cost and weight, there is also the consideration of what your photography “end product” is. If you are shooting primarily for web-based or smaller print format (less than 20x30-inches), it might be difficult to justify the expense of a medium format system. However, if you want the ultimate in dynamic range or need to produce very large prints, medium format cameras will provide the best quality files for that purpose. In addition, there is the ability to dramatically crop an image file if needed and still maintain enough resolution to create a large print.

The lens selection for medium format camera systems is less robust than those for Canon or Nikon systems, so shooters who need super telephoto or other specialty lenses may find shortcomings in this department. If I made my living photographing wildlife, I would likely be using another system.

Medium Format Landscape - Bear Claw Aspen
This image, taken in an Eastern Sierra aspen grove, shows an aspen that has been marked by bear claws. It demonstrates that it is possible to shoot very wide angle with medium format. I rented the lens from BorrowLenses.com since the price to purchase is $6,000 and they are difficult to find on the used market. Hasselblad H4D-60, Hasselblad HCD 24mm f/4.8.

My camera backpack is heavier than ever with my Hasselblad H4D-60 and assortment of seven lenses, but there is hope on the horizon with the mirrorless Hasselblad X1D, which I am eager to evaluate. The specs show that the X1D will be about 1.6 pounds, whereas the H series cameras are about 5 pounds. In addition, the new lenses for the X1D system will be slightly lighter in weight than current Hasselblad HC lenses.

While I longingly yearn for the lighter weight of the Hasselblad X1D, I’m also keenly interested in all of today’s crop of digital medium format cameras. With massive resolutions, massive pixels and massive image quality benefits over full-frame cameras, it’s a bright time for medium format photography. It’s a great time to upgrade your camera system with the confidence that your images can be captured with the most precision and dynamic range possible.

Elizabeth Carmel is a professional fine art photographer specializing in unique, expressive landscapes and "waterscapes." Elizabeth’s fine art prints combine dramatic photography, vivid colors and artistic touches to create new, captivating visions of the natural world. Using ultra-high resolution 50-megapixel digital photography, she’s able to capture the subtle details of the natural world and transfer them to large prints with stunning clarity and color. She does her own printing on fine art paper or canvas with long-life pigmented inks. Her award-winning images are in numerous galleries and private collections throughout the United States. Her prints have been displayed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., at the California Museum of Photography and the Nevada Museum of Art. Elizabeth published a book of her photography, Brilliant Waters, Portraits of Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and the High Sierra with a foreword by Robert Redford.

3 Comments

    Hasselblad has a nightmare situation on their hands. The X1D is months overdue. Details about its functions are lacking and a demo of the unit in Chicago was a fiasco with the demonstator not having a clue about it’s functionality.
    I have repeatedly contacted Hasselblad about its roadmap for new lenses and accessories and I receive no full answer.

    In the past the upgrade from H1 -> H5 has not been good as suggested. It has been fraught with extreme cost. Less than 3 weeks after I upgraded to the H5D-50 they released the C model and literally laughed when I told them that I expected consideration on upgrading to the C version.

    They cannot be trusted. Their secrecy, much like Apple and other companies, makes it impossible for any of us to plan for the future. Screwed once is too often. I’ll never again do business with Hasselblad (after they pocketed over US$100,000 of my money since the release of their first digital cameras.

    I agree with the premise of this article, but I demoed a Hasselblad 50 mp and was very unimpressed. I shot all over Yosemite for a week with it, in inclement weather and at night. What a disaster! A tiny viewer on top of the body for settings displays, buttons very small, and not at all weather sealed. All this for a mere $32,000! The images were good, but not $32,000 good.

    The Pentax 645Z was very well laid out, easy-to-see buttons, displays were adequately illuminated and on the back of the body rather on top. The Pentax output was spectacular, especially for the money! I got 4 lenses covering 28 to 300mm and a body all for about $17,000. I stood out in driving rain, freezing cold and snow and the results were incredible. Also, Capture One does not recognize Hasselblad raw images. Almost no raw converter except Camera Raw and the Hasselblad software (it’s decent, but lackluster) will process the raw images. Yet for the Pentax, DxO Optics Pro will process the raw images for ridiculous results. And all with ZERO noise, and I mean ZERO noise. (Capture One will not convert any other brand of MF camera except Phase One)

    Yes, medium format is the way to go, but a Hasselblad system is an indoor studio system, not made for outdoor run-and-gun shooting in a variety of weather.

    And this little aside, the Hasselblad rep gave me attitude when I gave the demo back to him and didn’t buy it. Freaking argued with me about the shortcomings of landscape work.

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