Gear

Medium Format vs Full Frame: What To Consider

There used to be enough division between high-end DSLRs and medium-format cameras for each to appeal to a different crowd. Based on your budget, style of shooting and requirements, one would clearly make more sense than the other.

Slowly the division grew narrower, and with the arrival of more affordable, lighter and smaller medium-format bodies, people who may have ordinarily been drawn to one may now see the other as a more viable alternative.

Given that you can now get the same kind of pixel count across both DSLRs and medium-format systems, this isn’t really the issue it used to be. But what else should you think about? For the benefit of anyone on the fence, here are the main things.

Lens options

New medium-format systems always seem to arrive with the reassurance that companies will quickly fill out a stable of compatible lenses. No matter how great a camera is, they’ll only be so much appeal in it if the user doesn’t have the glass to help them achieve what they want.

Here, full-frame DSLRs very much have an advantage over relatively new medium-format systems. Not only will there typically be a wider range of optics from the camera’s manufacturer to choose from, but there’ll also be more third-party offerings too.

This potentially gives the user a number of options at different prices, making it easier to expand the system in the way that fits best. The same applies, albeit to a lesser extent, to the likes of Sony’s full-frame Alpha line.

If you need a lens for a Nikon camera, you're probably sorted
If you need a lens for a Nikon camera, you’re probably sorted

However, it’s worth remembering that many older lenses can be used on either format through the use of an adapter. Second-hand lenses with an imaging circle large enough to cover medium-format systems can often be found cheaply online, and while these may not be as technolgically up-to-date as more modern designs, this may not necessarily be an issue for your intended application.

So, just because a system is new to market doesn’t mean it can’t in some way already work with a number of existing lenses outside of the still-developing native range.

Focusing systems

Recent advances in autofocus systems on compacts, mirrorless bodies and DSLRs have spoiled us.

Many full-frame systems now feature fast phase- and contrast-detect AF systems, together with better tracking capabilities and more densely saturated arrays than ever.

Quite which you end up using depends on whether you’re using a DSLR conventionally or with live view, or a mirrorless camera, where you don’t have that same division.

Furthermore, lenses intended for sports and other action photography with mirrorless and DSLR systems will typically have more refined focusing motors and constructions, and these allow them to focus promptly. Even if you’re not using these systems for sports or anything demanding, you’ll still appreciate being able to focus without delay.

The Sony a9 AF system features a mammoth 693 AF points over 93% of the frame
The Sony a9 AF system features a mammoth 693 AF points over 93% of the frame

It’s fair to say that medium-format systems are not exactly intended for this kind of photography. Not only do current models lack these kind of focusing technologies, but the lenses they will typically be partnered with have heavier elements that take more effort to move when using autofocus.

That said, the fact that these cameras tend to use more straightforward contrast-detect AF systems means that they’re likely to focus more accurately, given that they’re using the main imaging sensor at all times (unlike a DSLR, which uses a separate phase-detect AF module when focusing conventionally).

Video

It’s fair to say that video is not a focus for medium-format systems in the same way as it has now become for more mainstream systems.

While it’s possible to get 4K video on medium-format systems such as the Hasselblad H6D-100c and Leica S (Typ 007), these two are unlikely to be the models that anyone torn between full-frame and medium format would opt for – particularly the former, which would leave little change from $33k.

The Leica S (Typ 007) shoots 4K UHD video
The Leica S (Typ 007) shoots 4K UHD video

That said, Full HD video is available on both the current breed of “affordable” medium format cameras, such as the Fujifilm GFX 50SHasselblad X1D and the Pentax 645Z. The Fujifilm even offers both headphone and microphone ports, so it’s likely we’ll see more progress here as these systems expand.

Weight

Just as the weight of full-frame cameras varies between different lines, the same is true of medium-format models. Indeed, with the advent of mirrorless medium-format cameras, we’re now seeing these bodies easily rival full-frame DSLRs for weight.

Whereas the Pentax 645Z weighs 1550g with its battery and SD card in place, the Fujifilm GFX 50S weighs just 825g. The Hasselblad X1D shaves even more off this figure, weighing an even lighter 725g with its battery on board.

Compare that to the likes of the Nikon D750 (840g), Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (890g) and the Sony A7 II (599g) and you can appreciate the overlap between the two.

The Hasselblad X1D is remarkably compact and lightweight for a medium-format model
The Hasselblad X1D is remarkably compact and lightweight for a medium-format model

Of course, this tells only half the story; it’s important to also factor in the weight of comparable lenses too. Depending on the medium format system in which you’re interested, you may only have one native option at a particular focal length, and its aperture will have some say as to how heavy it is.

By contrast, you may have a handful of options of an equivalent focal length for a full-frame system, and these may each have a different aperture which will have some bearing on weight. This is easy to imagine if you’ve ever picked up a 50mm f/1.2 lens knowing how differently a 50mm f/1.8 lens feels.

Burst shooting and speed

Medium-format sensors typically pump out a lot of information, and this affects their ability to shoot at very high frame rates.

Fujifilm's GFX 50S offers 3fps burst shooting
Fujifilm’s GFX 50S offers 3fps burst shooting

Current medium-format models typically offer frame rates of around 3fps. Full-frame cameras designed for general use may offer 5 or 6fps, but those targeted specifically towards sports photographers may between 10-20fps.

Naturally, you may not need these kinds of speeds for many subjects. Then again, there may be times when you need something faster than 3fps, even if you use a medium-format camera.

Flash-sync speeds

If you use flash, you may already be aware of this point. Mechanical, focal-plane shutters can only sync up with flashes to a certain shutter speed, typically around 1/200sec or 1/250sec. Use anything higher and your image won’t come out quite how you expect it to – unless you use a high-speed sync mode, which uses pulses of flashes at a lower level of illumination.

Hasselblad lenses designed for the X1D camera have leaf shutters, which allow them to offer fast flash-sync speeds
Hasselblad lenses designed for the X1D camera have leaf shutters, which allow them to offer fast flash-sync speeds

Medium-format systems with focal-plane shutters are typically limited to 1/125sec sync speeds; the Fujifilm GFX 50S and Pentax 645Z are two examples. Those with leaf shutters inside their lenses, however, can go much higher.

It’s possible this situation will change in the future, as manufacturers release new cameraslenses and adapters, but if flash use is a priority, this is something to consider.

Battery life

Here, full-frame DSLRs typically have the advantage over other formats, especially when using the viewfinder rather than the LCD.

This is particularly the case with DSLRs designed for sports and action photography, such as the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, but it’s perhaps more helpful to draw comparisons with their more junior full-frame siblings.

On a full charge, Canon’s EOS 5D Mark IV promises 900 shots with the viewfinder (but only 300 when using live view), while Nikon’s D750 an even higher 1,230 shots with the viewfinder.

Pentax’s K-1 only manages 760 frames per charge but that’s still roughly double what you can get with the average mirrorless camera. For example, Sony’s current A7 line of cameras promises between 290-350 frames – the exact figure depends on the camera – when using the viewfinder, although these figures do rise if using the LCD screen or power-saving settings.

Battery life varies considerably between different formats
Battery life varies considerably between different formats

Figures vary between medium-format systems too, with the Fujifilm GFX 50S promising around 400 shots per charge and the Pentax 645Z a considerably greater 650.

Of course, you could argue that a camera designed to be used indoors and for studio work does not need to have the same kind of long battery life as one destined to be used out on the street, but these differences should still make you think carefully about having a spare to hand, or how easily you can charge it up to avoid running out of juice.