Join Ben Long for an in-depth discussion in this video Medium-format world, part of Advanced Photography: Medium-Format Digital Cameras.
- Film size has always been an important consideration for photographers, and the history of photography is filled with various film sizes coming into and passing out of fashion. But by the early twentieth century, most photographers were either working with 35 millimeter size film or the larger 120 film, which came to be known as medium format. Medium format film is 56 millimeters wide, but the frame length can vary. The most common medium format size is roughly six by four and a half centimeters, and for that reason, the format is sometimes called 645 format, but there are other medium format sizes.
There's six by six, which is 56 millimeters square. Six by seven, which is 56 by 67 millimeters. And six by eight, which is 56 by 75 millimeters. You can still buy medium format film, and there are even a few medium format film cameras still being manufactured, including the Holga, an inexpensive plastic camera that shoots just beautifully grungy images. Many medium format film cameras has an interesting design that allows the back to be removed. The removable back is what holds the film, so the modular design makes it simple to swap out say, color film for black and white film, or a film with a different ISO in the middle of a shoot.
Many medium format film shooters swap out a regular film back for a Polaroid film back. A Polaroid back allows them to get an instant photo of their scene to test exposure, then they can switch back to their normal film to take the final shot. When digital image sensors came along, so came medium format digital backs. These allowed medium format photographers to continue to use the medium format camera bodies and lenses that they already had, but make the jump to digital. Today, there are many medium format cameras and digital backs that are still for sale.
These bodies pack state of the art features and design, but they have no built in sensors. You must add a digital back. With their larger size, medium format sensors can hold a tremendous number of pixels. Right now you can buy a 100 megapixel digital back, though it will cost you $41,000, and higher count backs are just around the corner. With pixel counts this high, medium format cameras are able to deliver astonishing levels of detail, assuming that your lens is good enough to take advantage of all those pixels. Alongside digital backs, there have been dedicated medium format digital cameras.
These are all in one cameras, just like a regular SLR or mirror-less camera, and like a digital back, these cameras have offered massive pixel counts, and huge price tags. They've also usually been very large cameras, heavy to carry and use, slow to function, and often requiring non-standard complex post production work flows. Medium format sensors don't just pack more pixels, they pack larger pixels than what you'll usually find on a smaller sensor, and that sometimes means final images with less noise. These larger sensors also yield greater dynamic range than their smaller competitors, and that gives you much more editing latitude, which allows you to push your edits farther before you start to see visible banding or posterizing artifacts in your images.
Recently, something has changed in the digital medium format world, and it's now possible to get medium format quality for a much lower price.
- SLR and mirrorless design
- Focal length and aspect ratio
- Exploring camera options
- Workflow and tethering
- Shooting with small, medium-format cameras
- Dynamic range and medium format
- Medium format and commercial, architectural, and landscape photography
- Determining if you need a medium-format camera