A guide to the medium format digital cameras
Ever thought about getting a medium format digital camera? Here’s my guide on the history of these cameras and whether you still need one.
Before the arrival of digital cameras, two companies dominated the medium format photographic market, Hasselblad and Mamiya. The Swedish manufacturer Hasselblad produced a medium format digital camera that took 120 film with just 12 exposures per roll. Meanwhile, while Mamiya’s most popular camera was the RB67 and then the RZ67. Both cameras used the same 120 film, but because the negative size was 6 x 7cm took less frames per roll.
These cameras were the choice of professional photographers for portrait, wedding and fashion photographers respectively.
The 6 x 7cm format fitted the magazine market rather better than the square Hasselblad images.
The Digital revolution
Digital gradually began to erode film sales in the 35mm market but left the medium format market largely unchanged for some time due to the very high cost of producing sensors and the lower volume of sales. Digital has over a period of several years almost killed film although like vinyl there is a growing interest in shooting with it again.
As the technology has improved and production costs drop the quality of the digital sensors has leapt forward over the last sixteen years with a number of manufacturers now offering up to 50 mega pixels on a 35 mm sized sensor, 36 x 24mm. The lower sales figures and higher production costs of medium format cameras have made the advancement in sensor technology much slower until now. In the last twelve to eighteen months there has been a revolution in sensor technology with Hasselblad, Phase One, Leica, Pentax and now Fuji all offering medium format digital backs with widely differing prices.
With the exception of Phase One all these companies were active in the film market, the only company not producing a medium format camera was Leica who pioneered 35mm cameras.
It’s probably fair to say that Hasselblad dominated the medium format film market but because of continued financial problems and long lead times have failed to maintain that position in the new order of digital cameras.
The introduction of a reworked Sony compact camera at a far higher selling price than the Sony equivalent model could be judged a bit of a disaster. A change in senior management and a new backer may offer the company a brighter future. There are other problems unfortunately, the current model, the H6D, can trace its ancestry back to the H1 having retained the same physical format. The H6D is the first camera to be fully overhauled internally with much improved software and components. Sadly this product was launched several months before the software was fully implemented. Failing to learn from this they introduced the X1D in the summer of 2016, I referred to it as a “game changer” and I still believe that the compact profile body with an electronic viewfinder and no mirror could be the product that ultimately saves the company
Launched with much fanfare in a presentation worthy of Apple as a pre-production model it allowed Hasselblad to test the market and the patience of prospective buyers but I understand that the camera is now available to buy. To be fair to Hasselblad the delivery of sensors has been intermittent due to production problems following the devastation caused by earthquakes in Japan.
As a side note, the Hasselblad RAW processing software “Phocus” now in version 3 xxx leaves a lot to be desired primarily because they haven’t invested in it as much as they should have done. It is now possible to process native “3FR” files in Adobe Lightroom® so we can only speculate as to how much further development they will do on it.
The Danish company Phase One has been involved in digital photography since the early 1990s but really broke through to wider audience when they joined forces with Mamiya developing their 645 cameras into the Phase One DF and then DF+ cameras. Initially much smaller then Hasselblad they now dominate the market.
In 2015 they launched a completely new camera the XF, a new body and an all-new software platform designed from the outset to be upgradeable. To their credit since launch they have added several new features to the camera and a 100MP back is now available with an electronic shutter.
To complement the camera they have introduced several new lenses and upgraded the existing range to exceed the requirements of the 100MP back.
Capture One Pro software
Phase One has invested heavily in their RAW processing software, Capture One Pro; the latest version 10 introduces a number of new features.
I began using Capture One Pro version 6 in December 2011 now as version 10 it continued to get better and better. Unlike Phocus this is a paid for software enabling Phase One to spend more time developing the platform. Again, unlike Hasselblad, on the day they launched the XF a new updated version was available to order from dealers along with some of the new lenses.
Leica launched the S medium format camera in 2012 in the style of a large DSLR and stood next to a Nikon D5 or Canon 1DX there is little difference in size. Picking it up it immediately feels familiar because of the shape and layout of controls. It’s a pleasure to use and produces great images.
Leica has stayed with the 37MP for the latest version of the S (typ 007) also introduced in 2015. Like Hasselblad and Phase One they adopted a CCD sensor for the new camera but there is only one size of sensor and it’s not made by Sony unlike the other two.
The pedigree of Leica cameras and lenses ensured a fairly positive response to the camera but the fixed back has in my opinion prevented it from greater acceptance in the market. It’s also less widely available in the hire market and offers a smaller range of lenses, however the lenses that are on offer are all excellent. Files from Leica are in DNG format so can be processed easily in Lightroom. Leica offers a tethering software programme to interface between the camera and both Lightroom and Capture One but its not especially user friendly in my opinion. Phase One does not actively support other medium format cameras.
Pentax also offer a medium format camera again based on a 6 x 4.5 aspect ration but it does not appear to be actively marketed at the moment. Like the Leica it has a fixed back but is a 50MP Sony sensor with a focal plane shutter only. Hasselblad, Phase One and Leica all have lenses with leaf shutters, offering flash synchronisation at high speed.
The new kid on the block... the Fuji GFX 50S
In the last five years Fuji have established themselves as the standard bearer for high quality APS-C compact cameras, so much so that many photographers are jettisoning their DSLR systems and replacing them with the smaller lighter Fuji X kits. Having built a reputation for quality it was not a huge surprise when the GFX was announced at Photokina last September, it had been widely rumoured for some time.
It’s not the prettiest camera but combines a 50MP sensor with a mirrorless body and a detachable electronic viewfinder. As a new product it has required the development of a new range of six lenses all slated for availability prior to the end of 2017. This is a focal plane only camera and images seen so far look very good.
What will make this camera attractive to many photographers is the price point of £7,600 including VAT for the body and 63mm standard lens. In the medium format market this represents fantastic value for money, the Hasselblad X1D is just under £7,800 for the body only. Adding a lens increases the price by a minimum of £2,000. If you wanted the full H6D experience you’re looking at almost £23,000 for body only. Phase One cameras are more expensive and priced in Euros so the price varies. It rose sharply after the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016
So what conclusion can we draw from this flurry of activity in the medium format market?
I think its fair to say that far from being dead the medium format photography market is coming of age and the introduction of the Fuji GFX will bring more DSLR photographers into the medium format fold.
At the high end Phase One goes from strength to strength producing an outstanding product with a range of superb lenses backed up a software offering that just gets better. Driven by innovation and reactive to photographer’s suggestions it’s hard to guess what they will do next. They are without doubt the leaders in the field.
Now that a new backer is funding Hasselblad it will be interesting to see which direction they take.
Fuji will no doubt have great success with their camera and this may encourage other players into the market. There has long been chatter about Canon moving into medium format.
Leica appears to be concentrating on its core market, having recently introduced the M10. The S continues to sell well but is a long way behind the market leading Phase One XF.
Pentax, who knows?
One thing is certain the next twelve months will be just as exciting as the previous five years if the current level of activity continues. In answer to my original question then, yes. Yes! a medium format digital camera still has a place in the photography industry.
N.B. I have deliberately ignored two players, the Swiss company Alpa and Cambo as they are a different style of camera. There are others but the ones I have covered are the main players in the medium format market at the moment.