With the release of the Fujifilm GFX 50R, the Hasselblad X1D II 50C, as well as a burgeoning used market, digital medium format has become more attainable than ever by professional photographers wanting to step up to the next level in image quality. However, the full frame market is firing back on all cylinders, producing cameras that claim to rival medium format, such as the Sony a7R IV. Many medium format users are quick to point out that there is a medium format look that these high-end full-frame cameras are lacking. So, what is the medium format look? Is it real? Why, yes. Yes, it is.
Marketing Mojo Versus Real Life
Perhaps the best place to start with this topic is to look back at an earlier technological marvel: APS-C. Why? Well, back when digital SLRs first started becoming popular, making full-sized sensors was cost-prohibitive. In order to have a shot in bringing this new product to market, the cost could not be astronomical. APS-C, or cropped sensors, were born as a compromise between economy and quality. Even the Nikon D1, back in 1999, equated its new cropped sensor product to the F5 and F100, their 35mm film flagships at the time. Nikon was eager to sell bodies, and marketing the new cameras as cropped sensors wouldn't have helped their cause. Of course, as time went on, sensor technology became cheaper, and the first commercially available full-frame DSLR was born as the Contax N. It was a flop, but immediately after it came the Canon 1Ds. From then on, digital sensor size fever has run rampant. We can see it on this site every day! Some say full frame has a look that APS-C can't touch. Some say APS-C is just as good as full frame.
Fast-forward a few years and "medium format" digital backs begin to show up for commercial photographers. Of course, in the nineties, there were scanning backs, but they were so different they barely factor into this discussion. "Medium format" backs are so named because they work by attaching to medium format film cameras. However, up until recently, the sensors have always been significantly smaller than a film-sized medium format frame. To obtain a sensor that is close to true medium format size, you can expect to pay north of $50,000! The new GFX and Hasselblad cameras, although amazing, do not have true medium format size sensors. Not even close. However, "Full Frame Plus" just doesn't have that same ring to it, does it? So, here we are.
The True Advantages of Medium Format
Back in the film days (let me pull out my cane and wag my finger for a bit), the advantages attained by jumping from 35mm film to 120 film formats were huge and obvious. When you needed a step up in quality, typically in portraiture and landscapes, moving to medium format was the logical step up. Even 6x4.5, the smallest medium format size, showed smoother tonality and a large jump in resolution when compared to 35mm.
Notice I haven't said anything about depth of field. Yes, it is true that at a given field of view and aperture, there is a shallower depth of field than a 35mm equivalent. However, 35mm formats, digital and film, have access to faster glass, easily able to compensate for a smaller sensor/frame size if you want shallower depth. And here is the point a lot of photographers get hung up on: they believe that the medium format look is solely a function of that shallower depth of field. That simply isn't true.
The advantages of medium format are greater resolution potential and better, smoother tonality. Sure, we can say that shallower depth is an advantage as well if that's your bag, but that never really was the purpose of medium format. In the grand scheme, this whole shallow depth thing is a fad. Shallow depth was mainly seen as a liability. It was something to overcome by stopping down. Now, bokeh mania has taken over and medium format has been equated to that shallow look. If you define medium format by that shallow look, then yes, you may believe that the idea of a medium format look is a hoax.
Resolution is an easy advantage to overcome with digital. As the pixels get smaller, more and more can fit in a given space. That's why you can have 40+ megapixel cameras in cell phones. Loads of resolution, garbage image quality. But what about tonality?
Tonality is the big one that photographers seem to forget about, and yet it is the greatest strength of larger formats. Because the frame is larger, there is more space to make a tonal transition than on 35mm. Therefore, the transition can be smoother. Period. The larger the format, the better the tonality can potentially be. That's not my opinion. That's science. Think about it this way: You have to go from white to black within 2 inches. Now, make the same transition from white to black within 6 inches. You can place more tones in 6 inches than in 2. It's that simple. This greater space for tonal changes creates truer, more lifelike images.
It's All Relative
Of course, there are a few potential pitfalls stopping us laypeople from readily seeing the difference on these fancy new cameras. First is print size. The human eye is only so perceptive, and trying to discern smoother tonal changes on Instagram just ain't gonna happen. You really need to print large and be close to see the difference. And before you bring up the viewing distance argument, go to any museum and watch normal people look at art. They look from close, far, and everything in-between. They couldn't care less about appropriate viewing distances.
Next, because most of these medium format sensors are nowhere near true medium format, it's much more difficult to see the difference from full frame. For example, going from full-frame to the GFX sensor, there is a 1.7x increase in size. That's actually less than the difference between APS-C and full-frame. If most people can't tell the difference between APS-C and full-frame, how in the world would they be able to tell between full-frame and digital medium format?
Film is a much easier medium in which to see the difference. The smallest true medium format size, 6x4.5, is a full 2.7x larger than full-frame, while 6x7 has an astounding 4.76x more area! That's why you can easily see the difference in tonality on film. I imagine if I was using a Hasselblad H6D I'd also be able to see the difference, since it's full-frame medium format digital, but I haven't got 50K lying around to purchase one and I have no need to rent one.
Does It All Matter?
In the end, what truly matters is the preferences of the photographer, their needs, and their ability to justify the purchase of the camera they use. If they work in an environment where having a big medium format camera is part of their image as a professional, great! If they want to be able to show maximum tonality with large, in your face prints, also great! If you don't need it, that's fine as well. But distilling the medium format look down to depth of field is just silly, and it doesn't reflect the true reasons that the format exists as an option for photographers.
What do you think? Still not convinced? I can't say I blame you! As technology gets better and better, it's easier for full frame to catch up to the advantages of medium format. But that doesn't mean the differences aren't there.