Medium Format: Why Did Fuji Get It Right and Pentax Get It Wrong?

Leica pretty much took the world by storm with the 35mm camera, and manufacturers haven't looked back since. In the film and digital realms, 35mm has been the mainstay for any serious photographer, however, it is also true that those who wanted a little bit "more" went medium format. This tended to be the mark of certain professionals with a price tag to match. So, why then is Fuji capitalizing on a digital market that Pentax seemingly had at its feet?

In the beginning, there was large format with the invention of the Daguerrotype and its 6.5x8.5 inch full plate. This not only gave you great image quality but allowed you to view the image directly and — with the Calotype — contact print at full size. It was the patent of the roll film holder in 1881 and its exploitation by Kodak, through the invention of 70mm roll film, that moved the industry to medium format and lighter weight cameras that produced good images. This was in the form of Kodak's first roll film camera, which was eventually superseded by the Brownie in 1900 (and the arrival of 120 film in 1901). However, it was the movie industry that eyed 70mm film with interest and led to the establishment of the 35mm format (using 18x24mm frames) before subsequently being re-purposed by Leica for its new stills camera which eventually surfaced as the Leica 1 in 1924. The 35mm format took the world by storm, and while both 120 film and plate cameras remained popular past this point, the scene was set for massive expansion. The rationale was simple: good image quality and small cameras which meant reduced costs and, through Kodak's business model, the democratization of photography.

The Medium Format Years

And so, through the advent of roll film and via the formative medium format years of Hasselblad, Bronica, Mamiya, Fuji, and Pentax among others, we fully entered the digital world in the 2000s. As in other parts of the camera world, digital had already arrived and in some ways, it was an easier transition. Cameras tended to be modular, which meant simply producing a digital back. Leaf entered the market in 1992, followed by a number of other vendors. It was Nikon's seminal release of the D1 in 1999 that catapulted digital to the forefront and impacted the success of medium format film sales. There needed to be a transition to a fully digital system; however, the costs were high and sales low. Mamiya brought its ZD camera and back to the market in 2004, but technical difficulties caused delays which then made it outdated. In the 1990s, Hasselblad sold the Fuji-made XPan, and this collaboration continued with the production of the H-Series. Unfortunately, Hasselblad's digital division was shuttered at the peak and subsequent demise of medium format film. The latter led to the closure of Bronica and Contax, but Hasselblad survived and subsequently bought camera back manufacturer Imacon to make up for its digital deficiency. Hasselblad earned its survival by dint of being one of the few left standing, with Mamiya sold to market leader Phase One, who had, by this point, already acquired Leaf.

What is interesting about Phase One and Hasselblad is that they both produced digital versions of traditional modular medium format systems. But was this what the market wanted? The history of the medium format camera has seen experimentation with 35mm style SLR (such as the Pentax 67) and rangefinder (such as the Bronica RF) formats, along with the integration of automatic shooting modes, although it can be said that Hasselblad, Mamiya, and Bronica all built out popular systems. Maybe the success of the DSLR in the 2000s shifted the style of shooting for many professionals, so it's perhaps surprising that a similar medium format system took so long to appear, particularly with the emergence of mirrorless cameras. By 2010, Leica had rejoined the medium format elite and was soon accompanied by Pentax. The former offers true DSLR-style shooting, with the latter bringing the budget digital medium format to the party.

There was clearly a revival going on, so would any other manufacturers be tempted to push the format? It took a few more years, but within months of each other, both Hasselblad and Fuji released new mirrorless medium format systems. These were truly svelte by medium format standards and broadly inline with full frame DSLRs. Perhaps surprising of all was the competitive pricing of both systems, taking them dangerously close to full frame territory.

Where Is Medium Format Heading?

Let's start with Pentax, which had placed itself in an almost ideal position in the 2000s. It had a small but loyal customer base coupled with a heritage for making good quality products at competitive prices. Perhaps of most interest was the fact that, of all the manufacturers, it has filled out a complete lineup of camera systems from APS-C and full frame DSLRs, to two mirrorless ranges (the Q and K-01), and its medium format digital 645. It genuinely has the capacity and capability to service an expansive range. Of course, this hides the hideous failures from the ill-fated MZ-D that should have competed with Nikon and Canon to the poor reception to its mirrorless models. It's left with its well-rated DSLRs and the lonesome 645Z, which dates from 2014. This approach is in stark contrast to both Nikon and Canon, who have solidly pursued a dual APS-C//full frame DSLR sensor strategy, with their original mirrorless ranges intended to overlap compact offerings. It's now mirrorless all the way.

Elsewhere in the medium format market, Hasselblad and Phase One have taken markedly different paths. Hasselblad has been intent on building out three solid systems that target different sectors of the market. The V-system continues the heritage of their original system that dates to the 1950s. The H-system is a complete redesign of the V for a digital world, while the X-system is the first medium format mirrorless. Meanwhile, Phase One has the XF and XT systems. The former, like the H-system, is a studio camera and not something you happily hoof around town with you, while the latter is stripped down and intended for field use, although not necessarily ergonomic in the same way the X-system is. Quite how much profit comes from sales to professional photographers remains to be seen and highlights a key sales strategy for both Hasselblad and Phase One: industrial applications.

Perhaps the most obvious area is aerial imaging for surveying, where image quality is of the utmost importance, pairing metric cameras with the highest quality lenses in a market where prices  — and margins — are much higher. However, the biggest change has come from the introduction of UAVs in the industrial space and the need for camera systems designed from the ground up to exploit this potential. Both Hasselblad (A6D) and Phase One (iXM) have been successfully pushing their medium format credentials, so much so that DJI now has a majority stake in Hasselblad. Selling an integrated UAV camera system is clearly a whole lot more desirable. That said, Phase One is advanced in developing camera systems, such as an 880-megapixel unit, which has a 280-megapixel vertical camera paired with four 150-megapixel oblique cameras.

At the top end, it would be remiss not to mention Leica, which has a medium format range in the form of its latest incarnation, the S3, which, as with anything Leica, is in a league (and price) of its own.

Finally, there is Fuji and its GFX medium format models. It's worth remembering that Fuji has a long heritage with film medium format, having produced both traditional modular systems as well as more compact rangefinders. The GFX is perhaps the natural digital culmination of this past, and when it arrived shortly after the Hasselblad X1D, it became the most affordable medium format camera. Fuji had a more fragmented approach to their digital cameras, which was initially based around a broad (and successful) range of compacts and bridge cameras, alongside their Nikon rebadged Finepix Pro DSLRs. It wasn't until the arrival of the X Series in 2012 that they reimagined their camera system. It's quite possible that, pending the success of the system, a medium format model was always going to be in development.

This brings us back to Pentax and the digital 645. When this arrived, it was on the back of a long heritage of the 645 with a suitable range of lenses to match. Not only that, but the quality of the digital imagery was high and the price point, in typical Pentax fashion, highly affordable. In short, it was a desirable camera and sold healthily. However, the 2014 645Z remains the pinnacle of its digital medium format achievements, and both Hasselblad and Fuji subsequently released mirrorless models around the same price point. In fact, reviewing the prices at B&H is instructive, because Fuji remains the cheapest, followed by Pentax and then Hasselblad. There is clearly a medium format market, and it remains to be seen how much it will overlap with full frame, which Nikon and Canon are betting their money on. As Hasselblad and Phase One have shown, industrial applications have the potential to drive investment and so profits, but at the consumer end, Fuji has pitched an enviable product.

Does Pentax have a response? That remains to be seen, but it's worth remembering that the inflow of products occurred after it was acquired by Hoya in 2008. The imaging division was subsequently sold to Ricoh in 2012.

Body image courtesy of Jacopo Werther via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons.

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Matt Williams's picture

"However, it was the movie industry that eyed 70mm film with interest and led to the establishment of the 35mm format"

I assume you mean 35mm, not 70mm? The Lumieres set 35mm as the standard in the 1890s and while 70mm did exist prior to Leica releasing the Leica I, it wasn't used until the 1950s ("Oklahoma!" being the first film to use it) and became more popular when Panavision developed their own 70mm (or 65mm) format.

I really hope Pentax releases a new MF camera. The market is open for someone to jump in there - Fuji is the only real competition, as I don't see Hasselblad coming down to quite the same prices... plus their lenses are more expensive. I do love the X1D bodies and UI though and Hasselblad's color, though.

Pentax could even easily develop and release a new MF mirrorless mount - which is what they'd really have to do to compete. Just sell an adapter for legacy 645 glass, which is easy enough. Medium format is one of the only areas, if not THE only area, where someone could jump in with a brand new mount and still be potentially competitive.

But I'm also not sure how much wind Pentax has left in them for photography. Kind of feels like they're doing what they can to keep what they have alive, but any aspirations beyond that may be out of reach.

I certainly hope they do. They started the entire "affordable medium format" movement, after all. And they make excellent cameras and lenses.

Jujuba Digital's picture

We bought a 645D on release, maybe 2011. What bring every professional down was the poor software and firmware, the inability from Pentax to update the system and most important: it really didn't work tethered. We really gave Pentax a try, but a stone block is more useful that this cam.

Matt Williams's picture

The Z is a big step up, as were most of the transitions from CCD to CMOS. Never spent a ton of time with the 645D or tethered with it, but the 645Z never gave me any issues.

Peter House's picture

Pentax really dropped the ball years ago. Fuji is the example of what Pentax could have been if they played their cards right. I think Pentax diluted their resources by trying to pursue full frame years ago. Had they stuck to APSC and Medium Format like Fuji, and used the resources they poured into full frame for further medium format development, they could have been a big player currently.

I would love to see a new 645 from Pentax, I just think its highly unlikely at this point given their position and the current state of the market.

Matt Williams's picture

I agree that in hindsight, pursuing FF wasn't a great move for them. Especially because it meant they also had to pursue a sufficient line of FA lenses in addition to their DA lenses.

They really could still pick up a serious % of the market if they came out with a competitive MF mirrorless camera (with autofocus adapter for their 645 lenses). But I'm not sure they have the resources at this point.

Not only is competition a very good thing for everyone, but I have a ton of great 645 lenses that only get used with my Pentax 645 film camera. Would love to put them to other use.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

Serious photographers didnt go to medium format, they stayed there.

Trevor Langevin's picture

Another article putting down Pentax?

The 645 has been available for sale for over a decade with upgraded cameras and lenses over that time. Pentax even announced new lenses for it. How many other manufacturers have had camera equipment available for sale for over a decade?

What is obvious is the downturn in the camera economies in the last three years, loosing ground to cell phones. Ricoh hasn't wasted resources like Nikon or Canon has. Once the Covid nonsense is past, they will put out a larger sensor camera to fairly compete. But competing larger sensor cameras have had their fair share of unacceptable problems too, such as Sony's being unable to weather seal themselves, and Fuji's rolling shutter problem.

Each Pentax camera is designed around a purpose. Each is not intended to be a successor to the last, so there is no race of one upmanship with the brand. That's where camera reviewers all error in their opinions.
The K-70 is for beginners and amateurs. The scene selection software is amazing to help new photographers understand camera settings. The K-1 is for landscapes, and the K-3 is for action and sports. Weather sealing is what makes Pentax's stand out above all others.

Matt Williams's picture

Another article putting down Pentax?

"How many other manufacturers have had camera equipment available for sale for over a decade?"

That's.... the point. Seven years later and there's nothing but the same body - at what is now a way-too-high price point. Fuji has released four GFX models in less time than the 645Z has been out - two of them featuring an entirely new sensor.

I don't see the article as putting down Pentax at all. Though I think it should give Pentax a bit more credit for ushering in the era of affordable medium format, which was unheard of (at prices below $10-15k) before they came along. But the fact is, they haven't done anything with it - and announcing a new lens doesn't count.... announcing the development of a new camera would count. They're in a great position to capitalize on a piece of a market, which isn't a position they've been in for a very very long time.

Igor Sotelo's picture

Pentax 645Z uses the same Sony sensor as Fuji GFX 50 cameras. The sensor is still great for low light and dynamic range. The downside is that the shutter is not based on the lens limiting flash synch speeds and is also rated for 100.000 actuations if I recall correctly. It's much heavier than Fuji too. Pentax has some newer lenses for it that are very high quality and can keep up with the high resolution.

Pentax should have gone with full frame from the start, although the K-1 brings a lot of innovations to DSLR's. IBIS, star tracker mode and high resolution modes. I think they will bring EVF/OVF hybrid finders in the next K-1 iteration, that will give Pentax huge advantage over Canon that abandoned the EF-system and Sony that doesn't make DSLR's, and Nikon that has yet to integrate a lot of mirrorless tech to their DSLR cameras, and it's unclear they will continue to support their F-system.

I think Pentax should partner with Sony or other manufacturer to make a full size 56mmx42mm 645 sensor to leapfrog the Fuji GFX and full frame 36mmx24mm mirrorless/DSLR's alternatives, now that sensors aren't that expensive. Introducing leaf shutter lenses would suppose major changes though. The actual crop 645 format doesn't offer a huge advantage over FF, the advantage is much less than going from APS-C to FF.

Matt Williams's picture

This is actually a very interesting idea I hadn't considered for what they could do.

I've always said they should make a new mirrorless MF camera (with an AF adapter for legacy 645 lenses). But releasing an affordable 54x40 MF camera (which would the sensor size in the more expensive Hasselblad/Phase Ones) OR do as you suggest with a full 645 sensor - though the difference is very minimal, it's like a 1.1x crop. Near enough to not matter and the 54x40 sensors that already exist would probably be easier to use.

That's not a bad idea.

Make it mirrorless while they're at it.