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—4×5 and 8×10 cameras were all the rage. I used a 4×5 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.