As long as photographers keep in mind that cameras are just the tools they use to capture light the way they want it to be, we can give a lot of credit to those tools at some point. Photography has been evolving since its appearance with to inclusion of faster and more portable artifacts.
Long story short, after photography was born thanks to some hard work of people like Daguerre, Niépce and Fox Talbot, it became a viable thing for the masses. First there were large cameras that relied on wet plates, then large view cameras (also known as large format cameras), then things shrunk a bit and the medium format appeared and after that the “teeny-tiny” 35mm. It is funny how 35mm (what we now call full-frame) was diminished by photographers due to its size, to the point to even get pejoratively called “a post-stamp” for crying out loud!
But let’s stick to Medium Format for this one.
We can intertwine Medium Format’s legacy back to a huge milestone in photography, the Kodak Brownie. This camera made for the masses used 117 and 120 format film, both are considered to be “medium format”.
Basically, medium format is a film or sensor larger than 35mm but smaller than 4x5" format (which is the smaller member of the the Large Format family). Back in the days of film, medium format was usually available in squared 6x6cm or slightly rectangled 6x7cm film.
What are the benefits of Medium Format?
People making their living out of photography are aware that there are certain photographic situations in which better image quality is needed. These, of course, are highly limited situations that usually leave a good revenue to those photographers. Therefore they should be seen as an investment rather than a luxury. Commercial photography usually used in huge billboards is one of these situations. Larger sensors (formerly films too) are capable of handling more information within a specific area as well as more generous depth of field capabilities. This can be traduce into quality for some photographers and clients.
How is it being redefined?
Here comes the good part. Until the appearance of this bad boy, digital medium format was exclusively reserved to a few luxurious brands. This seemed like a pretty direct impact on those brands by shortening their prices by 1/3th to even 1/4th of their prices. Interesting indeed, but at it’s introductory price, it was still pretty far from the majority of photographers.
One can’t talk these days about Medium Format cameras without thinking about Fujifilm. I’m not here to talk about the brand itself, but how they are opening a traditionally exclusive format to a broader scope of photographers; it all started in Photokina 2018, and they have 3 medium format options by now.
They weren’t interested in full frame cameras at all, they were aiming at medium format all the way. And with the recent introduction of their latest medium format camera, there is an interesting thing going on. This is a direct hit on both sides of the field, traditional medium format manufacturers with ridiculous price tags, and full frame camera manufacturers still silent about developing medium format cameras like Canon, Nikon and even Sony.
Tearing apart a prejudice
Simply because digital medium format was so expensive, many photographers weren’t even slightly interested in those cameras. Photographers themselves built the prejudice that since they aren’t highly paid commercial photographers, it was pointless to invest in such a brobdingnagian thing.
But now medium format is reaching 1/8th of the price of those folks; and it has turned to be interesting for many photographers that were thinking about rising their bar from APS to full-frame, or thinking about their new full-frame.
The difference between both formats is little now.
But wait, there’s a trick, it always is a trick
Do you remember what I said above about what is considered to be Medium Format? Well, there is the trick, which is more of a marketing thing. Medium format has it’s “full-frameness” as well, because even the largest digital sensor on a purchasable camera is 5.3 x 4 cm (100Mp), still pretty far away from the classic 120 format (the most popular medium format film available today).
They are not cheating on us since they are truly bigger than 35mm, therefore are medium formats, but is not a true medium format experience yet.
So, is there a true Medium Format Experience?
Yup, there is, and fortunately, it is cheap and fun, of course, and of course, I am talking about film. The great thing about this is that you can acquire high quality cameras like something made by Rolleiflex or even Hasselblad at still decent prices if you compare it with their luxurious digital counterparts.
- Film: There are still a couple of companies manufacturing 120 format film, which is the standard thing if you want to shoot medium format on any analogue camera:
- Instant Film: Polaroid was the instant film by choice, until it was discontinued. You can still get your hands around some expired Polaroid instant film, but unless you want some quirky results, it isn’t a thing. Fujifilm on the other hand is still offering their Instax film. Both solutions are medium format, but in a different way since they are attached to very limited cameras, especially the ones from Fuji.
So, if you want to enter the world of medium format photography at a low cost, second hand TLR cameras, to even some mint Hasselblads could work just fine for you. Shooting film is a great experience in order to build a more resource-conscientious mind-set when shooting with any digital camera nowadays. Therefore, I’m not saying to switch over to film, but to experience it as a thing for becoming better with digital.
Film is still an amazing way of getting the medium format experience, but digital is approaching to make it even more accessible to the masses. I’m sure we’ll be able to see it in a few years because is the most logical milestone here. After that, should the race for viable digital large format cameras would begin? Who knows, but I hope to be alive to see it happen.