Medium Format vs. Large Format Cameras
What They Are & What They're Good For
The purpose of this article is to help guide landscape photographers if they are considering any of the following: Upgrading to a bigger and better (and more expensive) digital camera, Switching from analog to digital, or Switching from digital to analog. Explore the pros and cons of each decision, and read about why landscape photographers have different preferences.
There are four format sizes for both film cameras and digital cameras: Small, Medium, Large, and Ultra-Large. Before we get into format sizes, we need to distinguish the characteristics of film cameras and digital cameras.
- Film cameras are analog cameras that use rolls or sheets of film to produce negatives. These negatives are then developed into full size photos, either in a personal darkroom or by a specialist, depending on the size of the film.
- Digital cameras use camera sensors to capture and save photos in image files such as .raw, .jpg, .png, and .tiff, which can then be printed into full sized photos.
The World of Film - A Brief Introduction
Obviously, analog cameras were invented before digital cameras. The first analog cameras were very large and their photos were developed via daguerreotype, involving special chemicals and silver-plated copper sheets in order to process photographs. When Ansel Adams first got involved in photography, he used to carry alcohol, collodion, ether, ammonium iodide, ammonium bromide, cadmium iodide, cadmium bromide, silver nitrate, ferrous sulfate, potassium cyanide, and nitric acid⁽⁴⁾, among many other technical supplies.
Eventually, this archaic and cumbersome process was superseded by sheet film, which could be carried in packs and inserted into a camera one sheet at a time. Coupled with this advancement, newer cameras became a little smaller and more portable, such that the medium format camera became the go-to camera choice for journalists and other people on-the-move⁽¹⁹⁾. Then came along flexible roll film, which greatly simplified the photographic process, as multiple pictures could be captured quickly before having to exchange film rolls, and multiple pictures could be developed at one time, both benefits providing a lower cost basis.
Originally, flexible roll film was quite large and developed black-and-white pictures only. Along with analog film cameras, flexible roll film eventually decreased in size, which greatly facilitated the rise of mass market photography. 35 mm film became the standard small format film for still photography and remained the most popular and consumer friendly choice starting from the early 1910s through the early 2000s (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. 35mm film being inserted into a camera⁽³⁾.
And Now There’s Digital
Then came the advent of the digital camera back, completely eliminating the need for film. These electronic image sensors were adapted to cover the back of analog cameras. The first iterations, called scanning backs, were very slow at processing images⁽¹⁹⁾.
After the invention of digital backs came the advent of the digital camera in the 1970s, which became popular in the 1990s. The first iterations were small point-and-shoot cameras–then that idea was refined to create DSLRs with bigger sensors and interchangeable lenses, and then that idea was refined to create even more advanced and lighter mirrorless digital cameras, which got rid of the analog view finder.
Large Format: Just How Big Are We Talking?
- Small Format
Figure 2. Visually demonstrating how 135 film got its names, and how it compares to 120 film. © B. Tornello
- Medium Format
In contrast to 135 film, 120 film does not have perforations. And unlike small format film cameras, medium format film cameras come in a variety of crop selections (see Figure 2). This means that while small format film only produces 24x36 mm frames, medium format film can produce 56x41.5 mm, 56x56 mm, 56x70 mm, and so on up to very wide 56x118 mm, 56x168 mm, and 56x224 mm frames (if a specially built panoramic medium format camera is used).
Note: The 56x41.5 mm frame (6x4.5 inches, nicknamed 645) was the most popular because it was the smallest and therefore cheapest medium format frame to develop (because it used the least amount of time and materials). The 56x70 mm frame (6x7 inches) was preferred because it enlarged almost exactly to 8x10 inch paper. And the 56x84 mm frame was preferred by some because it shares the 3:2 aspect ratio of 135 film⁽¹⁾⁽⁶⁾.
Nowadays, naturally, the term medium format also includes digital camera sensors larger than 24x36 mm and smaller than 90x120 mm.
Table 1. Chart of common frame sizes, listed in order from smallest to largest frame size area. © B. Tornello.
- Large Format
Figure 3. Ansel Adams with his 4x5 large format camera⁽¹⁴⁾. Note: Original credit is J. M. Greany, however it may now be © Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
In this advanced technological age, the idea of a large format digital camera is somewhat stunted; appending a digital camera back to an already existing large format analog camera remains the preferable option because of the ability to break down the components for backpacking and traveling. In Table 1 above, I’ve provided one example of a large format digital camera back: the LS45.
- Ultra-Large Format
As for digital? Well, in 2018, LargeSense LLC released the world's first digital ultra-large format camera, the LS911, with a 9x11 inch sensor. Because the sensor components weighed around 45 lbs (20 kgs) it was too heavy to be released as a digital camera back only–a whole custom camera needed to be made. More recently, they were able to refine the idea and cut out some of the weight, and so released the LS911-M2, which is just the digital camera back, meant to fit over existing large format analog cameras.
But just how big can an ultra-large format camera get? Well, the larger you go, the more unique you will find, with individuals around the world making newer and bigger custom cameras every day:
- One Ukrainian photographer designed and built an 8x10 hybrid camera that projects its color image onto a surface which is then captured by a smaller digital camera. The resulting image has all the style and affects of large format film without having to go through lengthy and typical film color processing.
- There exists a 20x24 inch instant camera by Polaroid that needs to be wheeled around because it weighs 235 pounds.
- One American photographer converted his van into a giant camera to take 36x24 inch metal photographs.
- According to PhotographyLife.com's list of the six largest camera sensors, the highest megapixel camera in existence is The Legacy Survey of Space and Time Camera, which has a resolution of 3200 megapixels (for reference, the iPhone 13 Pro Max's camera has a resolution of 12 megapixels)⁽¹²⁾.
Why Do They Need To Be That Big?
The whole point of going larger, whether using film or a digital sensor, is to be able to take huge pictures that retain their details when enlarged to high magnifications. This is especially useful for scientific applications, advertising photos, landscape photography, and fine-art photography. A 40x50 inch print can be created from a 4x5 inch camera and still retain plenty of detail⁽¹⁹⁾.
Because of its high quality, large format film is still used by the three major U.S. National Park Service Documentation Programs to create records of historical sites, buildings, and artifacts for submission to the Library of Congress. They strictly use 4x5 and 5x7 film for on-site documentation of places and 8x10 film for indoor stills where the focus is on accurate color reproduction⁽¹⁹⁾. In regards to large digital sensors, the larger the sensor, the bigger the pixels, where more light is picked up and transmitted to the image file. This means less noise which would obscure finer details, better dynamic range, and better low-light performance⁽⁵⁾.
And there's more to large format than just delivering crazy good detail. Most large and ultra-large format cameras (both film and digital) are "view cameras" that have adjustable fronts and backs which can be separately shifted and tilted. This feature allows photographers to "better control rendering of perspective and increase apparent depth of field" and increase background blur. These magical qualities⁽⁷⁾ are highly desirable for portrait photographers, wedding photographers, and automobile photographers (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Photographs taken with large and ultra large format cameras have a 3-D like quality due to the ability for the photographer to manipulate depth of field. The resulting effect is especially beneficial for portrait, wedding, and automobile photography⁽⁸⁾.
I reached out to large format film photographer Alex Burke and asked him his thoughts on the benefits of using a large format camera for landscape photography vs using a medium format camera. He praised large format for its "incredible amount of control of depth of field in either direction," from very shallow to exceedingly deep. He goes on to explain that portrait photographers tend to value shallow depth of field and landscape photographers prefer deep depth of field:
I’ve included in Figure 9 some pictures and text created by travel photographer Dan Zafra (who specializes in landscape and night photography) to illustrate Alex’s points.
Figure 9. Examples of Shallow Depth of Field and Deep Depth of Field for Landscape and Portrait Photography⁽²⁵⁾.
Why Not Get An Ultra Large Format Camera?
There's a clear superiority to ultra large format photography--or, at least, there appears to be. But hold tight to your large format fantasy, because it's about to feel heavy--real heavy.
Maybe you're a landscape photographer who wants to use the best equipment in existence, regardless of price, and you know after reading this far that bigger is certainly better. You have dreams of using an ultra-large format camera to create larger-than-life sized prints that would rival The Great Picture. You want to shoot the most amazing locations imaginable-- "Deep Cave Exploration", "North Pole Aurorae Borealis", and "Mount Everest Snow Leopards" are on your To-Do list. Okay, sure, that's admirable. But the reality is, unless you have a crane, a few mules, and possibly a small village available at your service, there’s no way you’re lugging that 235 pound 20x24 Polaroid up to the summit. Even Ansel Adams owned a pack mule to help carry all his equipment, and he was working with only a 4x5.
You'll think, "Okay, I'll go digital and invest in that $90K LargeSense LS911-M2. A 40 lb⁽⁸⁾ digital sensor back is...manageable...or maybe I'll go with the $26K LS45. Even less weight, and it comes apart in a few pieces for extra portability." Brilliant! You do have a 40 mile long extension cord, right? Actually, you can just carry the battery powered base that lasts about 2 hours⁽²¹⁾, so I guess you don't actually need that extension cord, but do keep in mind how big either base is:
Figure 5. LargeSense LLC founder and owner Bill Charbonnet presenting the two base options for the LS45 digital sensor back⁽⁹⁾.
With LargeSense's large and ultra large format cameras, there is also the issue of megapixels. Their new LS911-M2 has 26 megapixels and their LS45 has only 6.7 megapixels⁽²¹⁾. Why carry all that weight and get way less resolution when you could instead carry a 4 lb medium format camera with 50 megapixels (see Figure 6)?
This confusion has led LargeSense to receive mixed feedback on their YouTube demo video. One commenter asked,
"I don't get this camera. I mean, no doubt the photos are sharp and larger pixels is something good, I think, but isn’t shooting [9x11] all about resolution? Not getting the resolution with this camera isn’t worth the hassle nor the money."⁽⁹⁾
To which LargeSense acknowledged that this market is indeed quite niche, made for photographers who desire a special, soft portrait look "similar to a big Polaroid". In other words, these large and ultra large format digital cameras were never meant to be taken out in the tundra and jungles, and are best used for portrait photography and video...for now.
Let's Be Real
As large format film photographer Spencer Cox confesses, "[a]n unavoidable fact of ultra-large format cameras is that they are large and heavy...Even the lightest 11x14 cameras on the market...weigh about 13 or 14 pounds, body only." Adding the tripod, lenses, film holder, and accessories brings your travel pack to around 40 pounds⁽¹¹⁾.
So, if you don't mind trekking a few miles from your car with 40 pounds of equipment, going out for a large-format landscape shoot is exhilarating and well worth the brutal workout. (Just make sure there's no wind, as Spencer advises "the whole camera is basically unworkable if there's more than a light breeze. The bellows act like a sail and make the camera pretty unstable.")
Bigger is Slower
"It's a very slow to operate format, but the total creative control is hard to beat!" -Alex Burke, Large Format Film Photographer
Large format, no matter film or digital, takes a long time to do. For film, you need to lug all your heavy and bulky equipment to your shoot location which of course will slow you down. It's also going to take a lot of patience to align the rear and front standards to achieve the desired depth of field and sharpness, and get everything else in order. Then there's the lengthy process of getting your film developed. And digital comes with its own troubles: the massive resolution of larger sensors and larger pixels inhibits capturing perfect moments in time, such that large format digital cameras are not made for fast action scenes in sports or wildlife.
One other thing to keep in mind: Long Exposures
There are many sub-genres of landscape photography, including long exposures. If you're using a large format film camera to take long exposures, be advised that "film can dramatically increase the contrast when taking a long exposure...the brighter parts of the image will get recorded much faster than the darker ones...[and] it gets worse the longer the exposure."⁽²⁴⁾ And if you're using a large format digital camera, "long exposures will be limited" because of battery life, power consumption costs, and sensor noise build-up over time⁽¹⁰⁾⁽²³⁾.
Medium Format: What's The Hype? & Its History
Medium format film cameras started to appear in the 1950s, with the first digital model released in 1992 by Leaf Systems Inc⁽²⁰⁾. Like large and ultra large format cameras, medium format analog cameras have a bellows that permits lens shifting and tilting, which enhances apparent depth of field. The first digital medium format DSLR camera, introduced in 2004 by Mamiya, had 22 megapixels. In 2006 the record megapixel count was upped to 39 by Hasselblad+PhaseOne. In 2016 Hasselblad released the first digital compact mirrorless medium format camera (no bellows)⁽¹⁸⁾, changing the portability for an otherwise clunky genre. And in 2022 Fuji released the astounding 102 megapixel digital medium format camera. 100+ megapixel cameras like this can beat the level of detail from a 4x5 large format film camera. And some 100 megapixel cameras have sensor-shift features which allows the camera to capture up to 400 megapixels at a time⁽¹³⁾.
On top of these exceptional specs, the top-tier modern day medium format digital camera has better sensor technology and a smaller body than either DSLRs or mirrorless cameras, is weather sealed, and is capable of hi-res video⁽⁶⁾.
Figure 6. Comparing the resolution of the LS911-M2 to the GFX-100S. © B. Tornello.
Is Medium Format Really Better For Landscape Photography?
For this part of the article, we will be discussing the Fuji GFX-100S as an example of a popular medium format digital camera, as this make and model directly relates to Jeff’s own photography. See Jeff's article on the GFX 100S here.
Esteemed landscape photographer Gavin Hardcastle did a few detailed reviews of the Fuji GFX-100S medium format digital camera on his Youtube channel fototripper:
- Can You Really Tell The Difference? Medium Format Vs APS-C For Landscape Photography
- Is Medium Format Any Good For Landscape Photography? - Fujifilm GFX100s Review
- Night Photography With A 100 Mp Fuji GFX100s? Ridiculous!
Hardcastle’s Results, Summarized
According to Hardcastle, if your main goal is to take gorgeous pictures and post them online, there is no reason to purchase anything higher quality than an APS-C camera; the difference in details captured and recorded by a crop sensor and any higher class camera just aren’t going to show up on a digital screen, especially on Facebook or Instagram. If, however, you are a landscape photographer looking to develop your images into huge prints (and you’ve got the budget) getting a medium format camera is the best thing to do⁽¹⁵⁾ (see Figure 7).
Figure 7. A quick look at comparing ISO settings and dynamic ranges proves the superiority of the GFX 100S. Despite these differences, you will see no difference in online image quality (unless maybe if you squint really hard). See a bigger view of this chart and make modifications to it here.
The smaller body was easy to carry for longer periods of time without feeling too heavy (though there is no doubt, it is heavier than an APS-C). For night photography, photographers like to use f/2.8 but the Fuji can only go to f/4 with the available lenses; in fact, currently, there is a limited selection of lenses available for the GFX-100S. Despite this supposed drawback, he was able to take a great looking long exposure night photograph:
Figure 8. A long exposure night photograph taken by Gavin Hardcastle using the GFX-100S⁽¹⁷⁾.
Two major cons of medium format digital cameras: They are expensive, and the reality is, every scene needs to be focus-stacked⁽¹⁶⁾. This extra step is not just for landscape photography nor is it a ‘must’ for solely the Fuji. Product advertising photographer Karl Taylor did a detailed review of Hasselblad’s X2D (Hasselblad’s equivalent of the Fuji GFX-100S) for a product shoot on his Youtube channel and had to focus stack his advertising images to get the “absolute maximum sharpness and crispness” for his final image because the depth of field on a medium format digital camera just wasn’t wide enough to capture all the targets in his scene⁽²²⁾. And, like large format, medium format digital sensors are just too big to capture fast action scenes. For example, if you wanted to capture crisp wave crests, you would want to maybe switch over to a smaller sensor, or you just won’t capture all that detail⁽¹⁶⁾.
Medium Format or Large Format: There's No Wrong Answer
Hopefully by now you can agree with me that there's no single right answer as to what's the best camera to use for landscape photography. With all the pros and cons of film, digital, and each increasing format size, it all comes down to what you like, what you can afford, and what you can accept. If you absolutely hate focus stacking, steer clear of any medium format digital cameras. If you plan on going to highly remote places, traveling far from your car, and you don't hate yourself, for goodness' sake stay away from large format entirely. If you love the unique hands-on process and creative control that film offers, stick with it.
Thanks for reading!
Published March 10, 2023.
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⁽⁶⁾ Adorama. “FAQ: What Is a Medium Format Camera? - 42west, Adorama.” Adorama, Adorama Camera, Inc, 31 May 2022, https://www.adorama.com/alc/faq-what-is-a-medium-format-camera/.
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⁽⁹⁾ Charbonnet, Bill, director. LS45 Intro Video Ver 1.0. YouTube, YouTube, 6 July 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xyr_cPcAMTA&ab_channel=LargeSense. Accessed 11 Jan. 2023.
⁽¹⁰⁾ Charbonnet, Bill. “The LS45.” LargeSense, LargeSense LLC, http://largesense.com/index.php/products/4x5-large-format-digital-back-ls45.
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⁽¹⁶⁾ Hardcastle, Gavin, director. Is Medium Format Any Good For Landscape Photography? - Fujifilm GFX100s Review. YouTube, YouTube, 12 Dec. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDQUMPPYk10&ab_channel=fototripper. Accessed 9 Jan. 2023.
⁽¹⁷⁾ Hardcastle, Gavin, director. Night Photography With A 100 Mp Fuji GFX100s? Ridiculous! YouTube, YouTube, 9 Jan. 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2btR9SWuZI&ab_channel=fototripper. Accessed 9 Jan. 2023.
⁽¹⁸⁾ “Hasselblad.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Jan. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasselblad.
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⁽²¹⁾ Schneider, Jaron. “Largesense Launches the LS45: A Full-Size 4x5 Large Format Digital Back.” PetaPixel, PetaPixel, 8 Dec. 2022, https://petapixel.com/2021/07/09/largesense-launches-the-ls45-a-full-size-4x5-large-format-digital-back/.
⁽²²⁾ Taylor, Karl, director. Hasselblad X2D - 100 Megapixel REVIEW: In-Depth with Some Shocking Results! YouTube, YouTube, 7 Sept. 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5GjcpJeKUs&ab_channel=KarlTaylor. Accessed 9 Jan. 2023.
⁽²³⁾ Vila, Adrian. “Camera Gear and Equipment for Long Exposure Photography.” Aows, Squarespace, 8 Aug. 2018, https://aows.co/blog/camera-gear-and-equipment-for-long-exposure-photography. Accessed 11 Jan. 2023.
⁽²⁴⁾ Vila, Adrian. “Long Exposure Photography, All You Need To Know: How to Take Long Exposures on Film.” Aows, Squarespace, 29 Aug. 2018, https://aows.co/blog/how-to-take-long-exposures-on-film. Accessed 11 Jan. 2023.
⁽²⁵⁾ Zafra, Dan. “Which Is the Best Depth of Field in Photography for Portraits.” Capture the Atlas, Capture the Atlas, https://capturetheatlas.com/depth-of-field-photography/. Accessed 11 Jan. 2023.