Can we talk about medium format? Why am I in no big hurry to grab a new Hasselblad or Fuji MF camera?

On a train to somewhere. 

There is an allure to the idea of medium format photography that a lot of us find pretty captivating. Sometimes we have trouble separating aspirational avarice from actual, technical benefits. I know that a fair number of photographers are thinking that moving to medium format will give their images more resolution and more dynamic range. Others (like myself) remember photos we took with larger surface area film medium format cameras and loved the way the sharpness fell off from our main point of focus to the foregrounds and backgrounds and we think moving to the new cameras will help us recapture that look. Some, raised in the days when most cameras had APS-C sensors, are hoping for a combination of all the above. But somehow, I'm not very excited about the whole idea. 

When we shot with medium format film we were shooting a 6 cm X 6 cm film size which is roughly 2.5 times bigger than the "pixie" medium format Sony sensors everyone is rushing into cameras the makers are aiming at a new consumer cohort that's flirting with a move up from the 24 by 36 mm "full frame" cameras most are presently using. It's not a particularly big jump. The thing that made 6X6 cameras seem like a huge jump from 35mm film was the fact that the MF film size was 4X bigger instead of just 70% bigger. You could immediately see the affects of "focus ramping" and subject isolation (comparing the same angles of view) between the two formats. Now, with pixie MF, not so much. 

Also, in the film days (and marketers are really using this nostalgia almost dishonestly here), if one was shooting Tri-X across formats there really was a 4X increase in overall potential resolution when moving from a 35mm camera to a 6X6 cm camera. That's quite different than today's situation in which the affordable MF cameras, at 50 megapixels, have no more real, observable, resolution than any number of high resolution 35mm style cameras. Sony, Nikon, Canon and Panasonic all have current cameras in the same resolution ballpark and Sony has just introduced a camera that pushes past the Fuji and Hasselblad 50 megapixel cameras; at least on paper. So it's nowhere near the same comparison as that of resolution advantages in the film days. No where close. 

If I compare cameras that I might buy with, say, the Fuji GFX 50R, I come up with a box of compromises in both directions. My choice for full frame (35mm style) would probably be the Panasonic S1R fitted out with the 24-104mm zoom lens. With the Fuji I'd be better served picking three unique focal lengths as there is no "universal" zoom for that system yet. 

The difference in resolution would be negligible. The difference in usable dynamic range would be nil. But the difference in handling would be tremendously tilted in favor of the "smaller" camera. From the body ergonomics all the way through to the EVFs. Add in the need for at least one back up camera and the system economics fall firmly into the Panasonic full frame camp. 

The only current lens choice that tempts me in the Fuji MF system is the 110mm f2.0 and that's because of my nostalgia for the fast Zeiss lenses that we used to have for the focal plane Hasselblads. Lenses like the 110 f2.0 Planar and the 150mm f2.8 Sonnar. Couple those with at about double the effective surface area of the film gate and you could get some amazing subject isolation with a glorious "focus ramp" that flowed gracefully from needle sharp to wonderfully soft. And with happy bokeh.

There will be photographers who can justify getting one of the new cameras but they'll be focused on the GFX 100S and not one of the lower res cameras. The use will probably be mostly studio work and big production imaging. I've walked around with a GFX 50S and a big lens and I'm pretty sure my favorite travel photographers (like James Popsys) aren't going to try shoving a full MF system into their travel backpacks and hike across glaciers with the added weight and size. 

So, if the logical choice for those who do need MF digital is the GFX 100 one then has to come to grips with a radically changed marketplace for providing imaging services. It's good to keep in mind that rates paid for imaging and licensing of images have been flat for years. A new camera; even in a new format, is not going to change the budgets of clients. The move up from ubiquitous APS-C camera to full frame cameras over the last decade barely budged the needle for increased $$$ when that evolution occurred, no reason to think that the evolution to a slightly bigger frame size will do it either. 

Most people in the business; including those shooting with Nikon, Sony, Canon and others, will already have an investment in their chosen camera ecosystems and the acquisition of a MF camera system will certainly be an augmentation of the existing inventory instead of a full on replacement. From an economic point of view it's a doubling of costs to service what will likely continue to be a flat market. Since I'm getting great feedback about the images we generate with Fuji APS-C cameras and lenses, and since 90% of our engagements these days are projects that go straight to the internet, you can count me out of the current MF feeding frenzy. Call me when we get back out 6x6 cm formats!

And with sharp, fast lenses from Fuji, like the 56mm f1.2 and the 90mm f2.0, as well as third party choices like the Viltrox 85mm f1.8 (currently being evaluated) you can count me out of the rush toward even full frame mania. 

This is being written from the point of view of a commercial photographer, not a well-heeled amateur. If I was an investment banker, an arbitrager, or a trust fund recipient I'd probably already have one of the Fujis. If I also had a nice sense of design and also a modicum of good taste I might select the Hasselblad instead. But since I earn money using the cameras to make videos, to shoot headshots, to make images of live stage performances, and to shoot on remote locations for large companies, I find the "all-arounder" cameras to be a much more efficient and cost effective proposition. 

To be clear, I can financially afford to snap up a MF camera but I refuse to do so because I can't see any clear benefit, currently, to doing so. YMMV. 

As to the new 60+ megapixel Sony, well that's a subject for another blog post. I won't be buying that one either but for totally different reasons.... 

Hope your day is going well and that all of you in the "heat zone" are finding ways to stay cool, and undamaged by UV. 

(please forgive any typos. I wrote this one in something like 23 minutes. I'll circle back to read more closely a bit later. I've got stuff to do right now...)