What is a Medium Format Camera?

Unlike your typical 35mm still photo, medium format cameras use a larger image size, which can result in some breathtaking photography. At the same time, medium format imagery is smaller than 4 x 5 inches (i.e. large format). The term is flexible enough to refer to adapted medium-format cameras, as well as cameras with sensors that exceed the usual 35mm dimensions. Today, it's fairly common to see medium-format style digital cameras that capture 60 million pixels. However, these digital cameras are significantly more expensive than your average consumer model. Below, we've outlined some pros and cons of using a medium format camera, both in photography and film.

Why Shoot on Medium Format?

Since medium format uses larger dimensions, you can produce photographs with greater detail. That means if you decide to blow up a particular image, it will not suffer from the same blurriness or grain effect that you see with 35mm. In fact, medium format images can be up to six times larger than a standard film format, allowing for more dramatic effects and a more nuanced depth of field. 

However, shooting on medium format comes at a price. Since it's not nearly as ubiquitous as 35mm, you'll have to pay extra for the film, and tracking it down can be a bit more difficult. We recommend contacting the closest pro photography shop near you, as well as doing an online search to see what cameras and film are currently available (and how much they cost). Today, the vast majority of medium-format cameras use 120 film.

Medium Format Digital Photography

Worlds collided in the early 90s, when camera manufacturers like Leaf Systems and Kodak created digital camera backs (or DCBs) that could attach to a medium format camera. Inside a DCB, electronic sensors convert analog data to digital, creating an image with much more detail than a consumer-grade camera, as well as reduced image noise. Since, they were prohibitively expensive, these DCB units were primarily used by pro photographers. 

By the early 2000s, DCBs started to lose market share to the new wave of digital SLR cameras, and vendors started to transition away from the older technology. Thereafter, companies like Hasselblad and Mamiya began producing all-digital versions of a medium format camera, taking the format into the 21st century. 

Medium Format in Film

Until the 1950s, medium format film was the most popular size used in the movie industry. Today it has a small, but devoted following of professionals and hobbyists, with the most common sizes being 120, 220, and 6cm. As digital medium-format cameras become more popular and production costs go down, indie filmmakers can invest in relatively affordable models like the Pentax 645z, which costs about $7,000. That's still a huge leap from the average DSLR camera, though, and top-tier medium format options from Hasselblad and Phase One can cost upwards of $40,000.

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