The Medium Format Look: Real or Hoax?

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.

6x45, the smallest medium format size

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.

6x7. Nicknamed the ideal format for its closeness to 8x10 in ratio. Mostly marketing mumbo-jumbo, but I love it!

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.

6x7 as demonstrated by my best model.

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.

6x7 of Noelle

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.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Hans Rosemond has been known to fall down a lot on set. Thank goodness for the wireless revolution, else Hans might have to learn to photograph in a full body cast. His subjects thank him for not falling down on them.
He is looking to document the every day person in an extraordinary way.

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Previous comments

"like a 3-D medium" in what sense?

Jacques, stop being pedantic. We've hopefully all had the experience of viewing in image that just "pops" Sometimes this is because of contrast or micro contrast or sharpness or a shallow depth of field or a smooth tonality - most likely some combination of all those things. It's especially apparent in printed images. Some observations are less tangible than others and we don't always have words to precisely describe those observations so we have to use other words to get our point across. Sometimes recordings or speakers are described as sounding "warm" or "cold" - does that mean we can feel a temperature difference emanating from the music? Of course not. It might mean the treble is rolled off of the mids are pushed but really it's just a feeling that certain timbres evoke. Does it really matter why?

Yes, but if you don't understand what you're seeing and why it looks that way, you can't really say that it's specifically related to the size of the capture medium. What you call pedantry I call linguistic and conceptual precision.
For example, it's well known in audiophile circles that folks will describe one piece of audio gear as "clearer", "more dynamic", etc. when the only difference in an A:B comparison is the volume level.

"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."

so you're writing this article while fueled on ignorance. some would say that you have every reason to rent one if you're going to make claims about the output.

I'm pretty sure that saying "I imagine" is not making a claim. It's clearly framed as a hypothetical. Else, I would have kept the words out of the sentence.

Yeah the skin tones look creamier even with entry level MFs like that 50MP sensor that all Fuji, Pentax, Hassey have it ... and even nicer when you print them for a gallery

Finally, an article on this website that isn’t ‘X photographer said X on Instagram/Youtube, what do you guys think? Sound off in the comments below.’ Thanks Hans, good read.

Let's not get bogged down by word definitions. I started with film many decades ago, using 35mm for press, 6x6 for weddings...and 6x9 for fun!

The differences were obvious. Film has grain, but a 6x9 neg is approx. 4 times the area of the equivalent 35mm. The benefits clearly obvious when creating a print of the same size. Far less magnification is required for the 6x9 neg and therefore the grain is far less intrusive.

You would expect therefore much smoother "tones" from the bigger neg. And you would be right! But "resolution" is improved to as small details occupy a larger area on the film.

But now to digital which doesn't have grain! The resolution is of course determined by the pixel count, but as the author points out, chip size is also relevant. Instead of grain you have noise...usually in the shadows.

I know when I switched from aps to FF I noticed a difference in the smoothness of tones in the image. Or thought I did. Tests showed at low iso the D300s image looked pretty much like the D3 exact equivalent...

But of course, even with digital there is a difference and that is depth of field. One of the greatest joys of mf is obtaining limited dof at real world apertures and this is simply down to focal length. 35mm is std for aps, 50mm standard for FF and 100mm std for 6x9. So "tonality"? I suspect the larger image area may potentially result in smoother transitions between tone areas and smoother gradations between in and out of focus elements of the image.

And lastly, and perhaps most important, the move up to mf was more than for the format advantages alone. Diminished with digital, true, but the way we shot with mf was different. More considered...well you would with only 8 frames on a roll of film!

And here's an example. When I started weddings in the 80's we shot mf, Hasselblad...5 rolls of film, 60 pictures for house, church and reception. Every picture was tripod and fill flash...composed, posed and considered.

Never any complaints.....and now 2-3,000 jpegs are the norm. Apparently. MF (film or digital) slowed you down, made you think and perhaps there are still benefits to that style today?

Hate to be a techno bore but there are Digital Sensors out there the same size as 645 film format (actual image size 56 x 42 mm) :-)

yes, they are referenced in the article.

The point is that lots of people will believe shit and start repeating what they heard and consequently believe it to be true.
One of these hoaxes is the supposed superiority of Canon colours.
Tony Northrup (some of you don't like him but I do) posted some blind pictures and asked people which were the best colours. Most of the Canon users declared Sony to have the better colours in this blind test. People see what they believe to be true.
I suppose if you print really big sizes or make pictures for high-end commercial work, you will see the difference.
On social media or on the internet, I don't believe it.

I hope the editors here will rapidly post a blind test with the following pictures:
Nikon, Canon, Sony, Panasonic FF and APS-C and m4/3.
Medium format.

Tony's test is not good. He compared the jpeg outputs of the cameras. Most of the people who even know what color science is shoot raw. I certainly don't care at all about which camera processes jpegs the best.

Have you actually seen the test and what he did with the brand names. It was hilarious. Canon shooters chose Canon when the labels were correct but afterwards he falsely changed the labels and Canon shooters chose all the Sony colours which were labelled as Canon.
This has nothing to do with jpeg or raw but with human psychology.

Yes, I have seen the test he shot using in-camera jpeg processing. Not interesting to me because I don't shoot jpeg.

Neither do I but that is not the point, is it? Did you really read my comments and really understand what happened in the test. It seems you missed the clue entirely.

Absolutely incorrect, I understood perfectly. If people on average tend to choose jpeg pictures they *think* are their own brand as the best, even if the pictures are actually from another brand, that has nothing to do with the differences between color filter arrays on differing image sensors.

Mostly a MYTH in present is dead.

I'd beg to differ. :) Niche, definitely. But hardly dead.

When shooting film, the size of the negative has a direct impact on the resolution, and therefore 'tonality' of the image. This is not the case with digital sensors. You could have two sensors with identical resolution and bit depth that were very different sizes, but both would have the same tonality.

You seem a little confused about how sensors actually work.

Hi Hans!

First of all I do not agree with the theory that sensor size has influence on DoF. Photosites size has, because they have influence on Circle of Confusion, so is not the size of the sensor but the photosites (all this talking about digital).

Of course normally if you have a bigger sensor, you can have bigger photosites because you have more space, and this will have an "influence" on DoF, but this is not a rule because you can have bigger photosites on a smaller sensor compared to a bigger one... And as photosites are really small, the end of this is that the difference on DoF is almost insignificant.

And of course, at the end of the day, we still having equivalence...

I have an extensive article about this with lots of pratical demonstrations and comparisons here:

(it's in portuguese but anyone can translate it on google and will have a good result with the translation)

All that said: I have to say that your video is AMAZING. For the first time someone has an nice and good argument to convince me that larger sensor has one really important difference, that is Tonality scale.

As Rk K said, resolution, bit depth and chroma subsampling has a lot of influence on this too. But is nice see that you really have a convince point about the sensor size importance too.

Your explanation was clear and was really nice to understand that "fullframe digital sensors" in fact are NOT that big hahahahaha.

Thanks a lot for this video!

The reasoning in the article makes no sense. The physical size of the sensor, by itself, has nothing to do with tonality. Tonality comes from the number of pixels and how accurately each pixel is recording light.

If you're going to say medium format has a "look" you're going to have to say it's due to resolution, or technically describe how/why the sensor gathers light more accurately than a full frame sensor.

If technology levels were equivalent, the medium format sensor would easily win just by having larger pixels for a given resolution. But it seems like more r&d goes towards smaller format sensors, so the smaller ones might not actually have less accurate pixels.

First, my disclaimer: I have been shooting digital aps-c for 6 months. 24mgp Sony ILCA68 with Minolta 30 year old lenses. Other than that, film shooter since 1970's in 35mm, 120 and 4x5 and to this day. What I see missing in the equation concerning "tonality" in film speak compared to digital speak is contrast index and film curve vs. histogram and Tonal Curve. B&W photographers and zone aficianados will know what I mean by the comparison. My experience so far with digital is Yeah I like the convenience of seeing the images right away and post processing capabilities, but that is as far as it goes. Just my 2CW. Any corrections to my reasoning are most welcome.

Thanks for the article Hans!

Question though, what about the relationship of perspective? Doesn't a MF camera let you get a wider view with the equivalent focal length (and thus perspective)?

I've always associated the large/medium format look as not being about quality so much (while that of course can be true) as photos that give a wide perspective but don't look like they are from a wide angle lens.

I think it stands out most in indoor photos and photos with people in them because we have a expectation on what's possible with 35mm.

Love to hear your thoughts!


Anything that is larger than 36x24mm sensor is medium format, until you get to 4x5" large format.

35mm is not full frame, it is the small format. Something that 35mm fans do not want to hear as anything smaller than medium is small format (35mm, APS, 110 etc) until going to microfilms.

Full Frame means that you do not crop image after you have taken it. Meaning you will frame the shot with focal length and camera movement and you show your skills of framing by producing prints that even shows the film edges so everyone knows you show the full frame. Full Frame means no cropping after taking the photo, it is format agnostic. 4/3" is as much full frame as 35mm is as much 6x7 is, as long you do not crop image after taking it.

It is better that 35mm is become to be knowledged that it is a Small Format, among all other smaller ones. And anything larger than 35mm is medium, until talking those few large format with 4x5 and 8x10 sensors.

As too many naive and dishonest has coined 35mm to be "Full Frame" and anything else something "inferior" by not being "Full".

Thank you for pointing out on of the technical aspects for medium format DSLRs. The manufacturers should label their cameras as cropped sensor medium format DSLRs since no manufacturer has a 6x4.5 digital sensor.

"The Medium Format look: Real or Hoax?..."
99% of our clients don't have a clue or don't care.

Medium Format camera's are the kind of portrait photography. Thats why famous photographers like Jose Villa and Elizabeth Messina choose to use Medium Format cameras. Obviously most photographers are probably hobbyist and not famous wedding photographers. If 35mm is all you need to be happy then capture images using 35mm. From my experience Medium Format camera's do produce images that are consistently superior to anything I have seen consistently produced on any 35mm digital camera regardless of the megapixel difference. Additionally can we please leave "Instagram" out of these conversations...that platform is a 1080 x 1080 resolution display and has no place in a serious discussion about Medium Format vs 35mm especially since most digital photographers have cameras that have a megapixel count that is at least 10+ at this point making the "Instagram" augment asine since "in theory" any camera 2 Megapixels or greater is having its "resolution wasted" when being posted to Instagram. :-)

From the film perspective, I consider the size of film grain (natural agglomerates) relative to size of the smallest detail. As the format size increases (using the same film, say FP4+) the size of the smallest detail physically increases, so many more grains can be used to define it. More tiny dots can define more detail with smoother gradient (think k of pointillist painting). Ironically, with digital, unless the pixel count is increased (which often is the case), pixel size grows with format size and no benefit from that perspective is seen. Also larger pixel size in digital potentially balances in low light situations by increasing sensitivity (this also plays into depth of field control), and there are optical considerations, etc.

There is one medium format benefit that isn't mentioned here.

It applies more to film than digital given digital medium format is smaller. Film medium format on 6x7 has a perspective that is much closer to how the human vision spatially renders subjects using a 75mm lens (equiv to 35mm on 35mm). Of course you can match it using a longer lens on 35mm but if you want the field of view and the spacial relativity you need to use medium format. When you add that to things like less grain, more resolution, and better tonality which I define as more nuance and smoother hues then it's easy to see why on film is a big difference.

With digital MF you'll get a difference over full frame too but not as much. Debatable as to wether it is detectable. And you'd only have to go one focal length up to match it. Really I think MF digital is good if you need the resolution to be able to crop in. Maybe you won't but a client will, it just gives you more wiggle room which is a big deal if someone is paying and you have a reputation to protect and enhance. For amateurs if you'e not cropping, it's probably more psychological but there's nothing wrong with that. We are humans, we should take into account what makes us happy and work better even if it's not technically accurate. Shoot whatever makes you feel go as long as you can afford it.