Pro Talk: Does Size Matter? Medium format digital vs. DSLRs

(© Ian Plant) I recently got a question from a reader: does it make sense for the aspiring landscape photographer to use a medium format camera system? Back in the old days of film, most serious landscape shooters used medium or large format cameras (the notable exceptions to this were nature generalists who shot a mix of wildlife, macro, and landscape subjects). In fact, medium format wasn't really all that popular with landscape photographers—4x5 and 8x10 cameras were all the rage. I used a 4x5 field camera for years, along with a "backup" medium format camera for working in fast changing light, before making the switch to a 35mm format DSLR almost ten years ago.

(Note that for the sake of ease, I'm going to exclude medium format digital cameras from the commonly used "DSLR" moniker—although medium format cameras technically are DSLRs, when most people think of DSLRs they think of full frame 35mm sized cameras and smaller formats such as APS-C and the like.)

Scenes with a lot of detail could certainly benefit from the extra-large sensor size offered by medium format digital systems—but is the juice worth the squeeze? "Faerie Grove"—Olympic National Park, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, polarizer filter, ISO 100, f/11, 0.3 seconds.

These days, digital large format hasn't really emerged as a viable option for nature photographers, but medium format manufacturers have been able to (marginally) stay in the game. If you have $30,000+ burning a hole in your pocket, then you can get a whopping 80 megapixels from the latest medium format cameras. Of course, that's just for the camera, expect to pay several thousands (or even tens of thousands) more for a full complement of lenses, putting your total for a medium format system somewhere in the range of $50,000. So, if money isn't an issue for you, why not shoot medium format? Here's a list of the pros and cons of using a medium format digital system. Let's start with the pros:

  • Fantastic image quality. We're talking "holy crap!" levels of quality here. If you plan on making wall-sized prints, medium format digital is the way to go.

I love using my DSLR for night photography, such as with this moonlit scene above. Are medium format digital cameras up to the task? "Moon Storm"—Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, ISO 400, f/5, 2 minutes.

Well, that's about it for the pros. Here come the cons—you might want to get comfortable, this might take some time:

  • More weight. Expect to be breaking your back lugging around a medium format camera and a few lenses. Okay, it's not really that bad, but a medium format system will be heavier than a comparable DSLR system.
  • Less lens flexibility. Don't expect to be covering a wide range of focal lengths with zoom lenses if you are shooting medium format. You're more likely to have to get by with a few primes. You can also pretty much forget ultra-wide and most telephoto options. You won't have many options for specialty lenses either, such as tilt-shifts or wide open 2.8 lenses.
  • Poor low light and high ISO performance. At least as of a few years ago (the last time I checked), medium format sensors had a tough time handling low light and high ISO exposures. They simply were too noisy compared to DSLR cameras. So don't expect to be doing long twilight and night exposures with your medium format system.
  • Less accessories. DSLR systems are supported by a wide range of accessories which make life easier. Your options will be much less with a medium format system.
  • Less responsive to fast changing conditions. Let's face it, nothing beats a DSLR for responding quick to fast-changing light or dynamic scenes.
  • Less depth of field. Medium format lenses have a longer focal length than their DSLR equivalents. For example, a 24mm lens on a medium format system is equivalent to an 18mm DSLR lens. So you get a little less depth of field, requiring the use of smaller apertures, which means longer exposures (which can be a problem in windy conditions, for example).
  • The quality gap isn't as significant as you might think. When it comes right down to it, DSLR image quality is amazing, and more than sufficient for most uses, including making large prints. If you expect to be making billboard-sized prints, then medium format might be the way to go. Or, you can just easily stitch multiple images together with your DSLR and get even more image quality than medium format, for a fraction of the price.

And, I almost forgot: your medium format system will likely cost you A LOT OF MONEY—we're talking "holy crap!" levels of money! $50,000 can pay for a lot of trips to exotic shooting locations.

You can pretty much forget about shooting wildlife with a medium format system! "Hide and Seek"—Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS Lens, Canon 1.4x EF Extender III (Teleconverter), ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/400 second.

So, what's the bottom line? Personally, even if I were offered a medium format digital system for free, I probably wouldn't use it that much. Frankly, I've grown addicted to the speed and flexibility that a 35mm format digital system offers, and the quality is more than sufficient for the vast majority of my needs. And I'm not the only one who has come to this conclusion—I don't personally know any pro nature photographer who uses medium format digital (I know there are a few medium format nature shooters out there, but I don't personally know them). If you're super rich, then by all means, splurge on a medium format digital system. But will it really allow you to make better photos? For all of the reasons I have outlined above, I really don't think that it will. At this point in the evolution of digital camera technology, size really doesn't matter as much as it used to.

14 Comments

    I think it is interesting that all the author said in the “Pro” section was that “you get holy crap levels of quality” but did not go into what that meant. At the same time going into extensive detail on the “con” side. It’s not just pixels. It is a much wider dynamic range and much higher bit depth. These two things alone play a huge part in the quality dept and can mean the difference between a lost and usable photo. We shoot with both full frame sensor DSLR and Med Format. Anything from 33, 56 and 80 MP in med format. If we can ever shoot med format we do. Admittedly, I would probably recommend DSLR to most people shooting nature. But is that landscape, or wildlife? Shooting at a high frame rate, or at high ISO, the DLSR is the way to go, but in any other situation, including low light, the Med Format images will blow DSLR out of the water. If this is how you make your living, it’s money well spent.

    Thanks Chris for your perspective. The cost-benefit calculus for commercial/studio shooters with relatively high budget commercial clients – where medium format digital is very popular – is much different than for nature/landscape shooters who work primarily in the field and rely much more heavily on low-price freelance sales to editorial markets. Even when shooting primarily landscape, all of those things you mentioned (high frame rates, high ISO, etc.) are extremely helpful for making good images in dynamic natural environments and fast changing light – and lugging around a lot of bulky equipment is not always realistic when working in remote wilderness areas. Accordingly, whereas medium format digital is very popular among studio shooters, it is much less popular among nature professionals working in the field (in fact, it is extremely rare, although there are some notable exceptions). I’m certainly not telling anyone to buy or not to buy any particular system, but since I was asked about my opinion, I would personally never recommend to a nature photographer to sink $50,000 into equipment that will just slow them down and give them less flexibility in the field, especially considering the fact that for most of their end-use needs the extra quality just isn’t necessary. If I had been asked about setting up a commercial studio like yours, my answer would have been the opposite. If someone has the money and likes shooting with a medium format system, then by all means go for it – I wish I had one, although as I mentioned in the post I probably wouldn’t use it that much in the field. But no one interested in nature shooting (landscape or otherwise) should buy a medium format system merely because they think it is necessary for success (as an enthusiast or as a professional) – because it isn’t.

    Very good article, but, I think that the big discussion, these days, for outdoor photographers, is APS-C versus full frame in DSLR. In this discussion, money still plays an important role, but the figures are way more palatable.

    I’m kind of with Ian on this topic. Unless you are printing large wall fillers DSLR is almost always going to win the ‘cost-vs-end result’ debate. As for Chris’s point about dynamic range however, I think that’s an extremely important point as it can save an otherwise ruined shot. Also higher res allows for more creative cropping while still leaving enough resolution for printing. The D800E interests me in this respect. I’m only holding off buying one just in case Canon comes out with a Megapixel monster.

    I think a few of the comments seem a bit misinformed.

    “Poor low light and high ISO performance.” True, the ISO numbers aren’t that high. However, most medium format systems have 3-5 more stops of dynamic range in their raw files than their 35mm counterparts. This means you don’t need to use as high of an ISO to get amazing results. Also, the 24-bit colour sensors in medium format get you orders of magnitude more colour detail than the 16 bit sensors in DSLR cameras. We’re talking 16 MILLION colours versus 65 thousand.

    “Less depth of field.” That’s actually the opposite of the truth. The fundamental logic of longer lens = less depth of field is sound, however you’re not considering the incredible difference in sensor sizes. The larger sensors in medium format actually means a shallower depth of field than their DSLR equivalents. ??/2.8 on a Hasselblad 24mm lens is MUCH shallower than ??/2.8 on a Canon or Nikon 18mm lens.

    So in your Pro list, you didn’t mention what makes the quality so great: more and truer colour; greater detail in the shadows and highlights; the lenses that you pay more money for significantly outperform the lenses of similar focal lengths on DSLR systems. Also, the files are larger and give you more ability to crop (if you need to). The viewfinders are much larger and brighter.

    Also, you seem to be exaggerating the price a bit by choosing the top-of-the-line model for price comparisons. You can get all the above mentioned benefits of medium format without going for the largest number of megapixels. You can get a Hasselblad H5D-40 with a 24mm (18mm equiv) and a 35mm-90mm (24-70 equiv) for $31,600. Is that cheap? No. It’s also not $50,000.

    I wouldn’t say that someone shooting wildlife should be buying a Hasselblad, but if you’re shooting landscapes and are in a financial position to seriously entertain buying medium format, it seems like a no brainer. Again, if you’re not shooting wildlife.

    “The larger sensors in medium format actually means a shallower depth of field than their DSLR equivalents. ??/2.8 on a Hasselblad 24mm lens is MUCH shallower than ??/2.8 on a Canon or Nikon 18mm lens.”

    Unless I misunderstand what you are saying, you are not contradicting my point, rather you are affirming it. “Shallower” depth of field means less depth of field. In case I was being unclear, when I said you have less depth of field when working with a medium format system, what I meant was that you need to stop down more with a medium format lens to get the same near-to-far focus as with a 35mm format field of view equivalent lens. That’s why a Hasselblad 24mm lens stops down all the way to f/32, whereas the Canon 18mm lens equivalent only stops down to f/22 – you need to stop down more to get the same depth of field. This is true among all formats – large format cameras require more stopping down (so much so that many large format lenses stop all the way down to f/128 or even smaller, which is a large part of the reason why large format cameras offer movements to change the plane of focus), whereas many pocket point-and-shoot cameras have extremely wide depth of field at f/5.6.

    Also, as I pointed out, some of the advantages of medium format digital can be easily achieved with a 35mm format DSLR, a few extra exposures, and a few extra minutes on the computer. Multiple image stitching and multiple exposure blending allow DSLR users to create image files with extremely high resolution and dynamic range. This is not merely idle speculation – plenty of photographers (including myself) do it all the time, at a fraction of the cost of medium format. And while it is not always a perfect solution, it is much easier than most people might realize (especially stitching).

    And if you want to quibble about price, I think your $30,000 estimate is a bit low considering it only gives you lens options in the 24-70mm (35mm format equivalent) range. My basic landscape kit is a 14-24mm lens, a 24-70mm, and a 70-200mm. So I think you need to up the price estimate a bit to get something reasonably equivalent (of course, as I pointed out, medium format doesn’t even offer an ultra-wide option like the Nikon 14-24mm or Canon 14mm). Although I could survive with only the equivalent of my 24-70mm lens, I’d be walking away from a lot of shots if that’s all I had. Furthermore, if you buy the “lower end” medium format cameras, then you are beginning to erode the quality gap between medium format and the high end 35mm format DLSRs – but you are still at three times the cost. So yes, you can buy medium format for cheaper than my $50,000 estimate – all I was really doing was pointing out the cost of a new, state of the art medium format system – but in any event the price is still much more than a 35mm format DSLR system.

    And the point you make at the end – that if you have the cash, buying a medium format camera for landscape work is a “no brainer” – is something that I strongly disagree with, for all of the reasons I mentioned in my post. As I’ve pointed out, whereas many studio/commercial/portrait pros these days are shooting medium format, most nature pros (including landscape pros) are not. While medium format certainly has a quality advantage, there are many downsides to using these systems when you spend most of your time shooting in uncooperative and dynamic wilderness environments. And let’s face it, the cost of medium format digital can be very prohibitive – making it completely unrealistic for many (if not most) photographers, and further making this whole discussion mostly academic.

    And let’s not forget what I consider to be the most important point: top-end 35mm format DSLRs are producing images files of stunning quality. I’m able to print gorgeous 30″x45″ prints using my Canon 5D Mark III camera, which at a mere 22MP doesn’t even represent the current high end of the DSLR market. Although some landscapes pros make most of their living selling big prints, these days most do not. Simply put, a top end DSLR will give the vast majority of users all the quality they will even need.

    To be clear, I was not seeking to do a comprehensive comparison of medium format vs. 35mm format DSLRs. I’m merely responding to a reader who seemed to think that shooting medium format was necessary if he wanted to get serious about shooting landscapes. It’s not, and I was trying to get that point across without too much fuss. Medium format digital cameras are wonderful pieces of technology and they are especially useful for certain kinds of work. But they are by no means necessary for success as a nature pro, and I’d never recommend someone sink a lot of money (whether it be $30,000 or $50,000) to get medium format quality for landscape work – it is a huge investment which is unlikely to pay off for most shooters. If you have some money to burn, and you want the extra quality, then by all means get a medium format system – but just realize that it will come with some significant limitations for field work.

    Great article except you forgot the Pentax 645D, all weather camera, 40mp, built on a long history of medium format equipment and glass. Current price $7,000. Only the Nikon 800e approaches this camera in image quality.

    Hi Tim, thanks for bringing up the Pentax, it is an interesting option for medium format on a budget. I wasn’t seeking to do a comprehensive review of medium format camera options – my price estimate was for the current state of the art medium format systems only – but you are correct that you can get medium format for much cheaper than the 80mp monsters that have recently been released. Of course, as Fotoripper points out, the quality difference between the Pentax and the top-end DSLRs isn’t huge, and I suspect the next generation of DSLRs will narrow that gap even further (if not eviscerate it altogether). But a weather-sealed medium format camera that doesn’t cost a huge amount more than a high-end DSLR system is certainly more realistic as a field camera than most other medium format systems.

    I’d say that the large file size is also a con for medium format. Tough to handle for your average enthusiast. As most photographers figure out eventually, how you use your equipment has a lot more significant effect on the quality of your shots than what kind of camera you use. Even so, I’d love to play with medium format in some situations.

    Hi Ian first time here looking for your opinion. I’m looking to buy a new camera and would like to know what you think about the Sonys a99 taking a 3wk trip to Africa next july with my two teenaged girls i just bought them the Rebel T3i . thought I had it down to d800 until I looked at the Sony a99 would really like your thought on the two. Thanks for your time. Thomas P.S I do have Nikon F100 and the fuji 6X9 fixed lens I’m new to the DSLR’s 🙂

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