#871. Monday Post (24 June 2019) – Battle of the Medium Formats… or?

By philberphoto | Monday Post

Jun 24
No, not a bike, a trike…

Medium format cameras are irrelevant, aren’t they? Their numbers are dwarfed by those of full frame (35mm) cameras. And the progress of said full-frame cameras has made them even more irrelevant, until their inevitable extinction, right?

Well maybe, but maybe not. 4 recent entries into that very limited space indicate that “someone” believes this demise is not inevitable. Indeed, that it might be worth investing in what could become a growth space.

Eglise St Roch, Paris

To be fair, those 4 entries do not include the heavyweights that form Canikony, or even 4 all-new cameras. Those are the latest version of the Leica S, the S3, the reincarnated version of the Hasselblad X1D into XID II, of the Fuji GFX 50S into the GFX 50R, and the novel Fuji GFX 100.

4 cameras, and 4 different approaches. With the S3, Leica MF (small MF, as sensors sizes go) gets a new, upgraded sensor. With the R version, the GFX 50 gets a smaller body and a smaller price. With the “II” moniker, the Hasselblad X1D also gets a smaller price, and improves on most of its predecessor’s weaknesses. And the GFX 100 gets colossal resolution, with a first in the MF space: IBIS.

At this stage 2 other MF players deserve a mention: Pentax, and Phase One. That they did not conveniently come out with new gear in time for this post doesn’t exactly rule them out, does it?

What do these 4 cameras tell us? Basically 2 things, and they “might” matter.

  1. That in the MF space, the race for “more” is alive and well. Everyone seems to understand that pulling away from FF camera specs is necessary, even Leica, with its 64 Mp resolution. Which is saying something, because Leica are usually the Mp-count caboose. For that matter, the race for more pixels has leveled off in the FF space when 7 years saw a mere 30% improvement since the already-old-ish-by-now Nikon D800
  2. That the reduced prices initiated by Pentax and now replicated by Fuji and Hasselblad show that some MF players are now “going after” high-end 35mm. Fuji actually dub their GFX 50R “super full frame”. Whereas until now, it was the opposite: 35mm camera and lens makers vying for the MF mantle, like Zeiss in their marketing blurb for the new Otus 100mm f:1.4.

Why is that happening? Because in photography gear history, larger meant more unpleasant to use. Barnack’s genius, as he invented the 35mm format, was not in performance, it was in ease-of-use. Now, it seems the MF crowd “get the message”, and make new and highly desirable gear easier to own (lower price) and to use (basically like a bigger mirrorless).

It also creates a new class of “prosumer MF”, around 5-6k$, very much cheaper than pro-MF, at 20k$+ (think Hassy H6, Phase One). Leica being alone in offering prosumer gear at pro prices, but that is what they do in other segments as well.

Will this be successful? No-one knows yet. But, for sure, such developments are good for us gear buyers, because it means we get to have even more options than before, some at lesser-but-still-high cost.

PS: I won’t get drawn into the controversies whether a 100Mp camera is even desirable, or of performance vs quality. I know that their are strong opinions on both sides of the fence. To each his/her own.


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  • pascaljappy says:

    Thank you Philippe, great analysis and great photos! I’m feeling that some specialisation is happening too, and that would be great news. To me, the GFX and X1D are very different animals. I hope that stays the same and that each of these players continue pushing their respective advantages and differentiation rather than merge into one messy blob. Cheers.

    • NMc says:

      I was thinking the same, the cheaper/smaller MF has more diversity than small formats. No jack of all trade compromises, no me too designs, it is a disgrace that the bigger manufacturer’s have no specialty or semi unique use case cameras in smaller format.
      Regards Noel

      • pascaljappy says:

        Yes it is. And I strongly believe that is contributing immensely to their rapid decline. Shame on them.

      • philberphoto says:

        Well, you could consider Leica M and Leica SL to be specaility FF cameras methinks…..:-)
        But I do take your point, with now 4 manufacturers aligned to the same spec for FF mirorless

    • philberphoto says:

      You could add, because I thik it is an often overlooked camera, that the Pentax 645Z is also quite unique, as is the Leica S3 in another dimension….

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Great article, Philippe.
    While waiting for my dreamed non-Bayer square sensor (if it ever comes…), my main hope is that these prosumer MF manufacturers will now focus even more on a personal “esthetics” rather than on pure performances… it is nice to be able to choose the brush we find suitable for our canvas…

  • immodoc says:

    Hi, looking back to my experiences with “real” MF (ROLLEI 2.8 GX, Fuji 645) another main advantage of digital super FF cameras are the media.

    Today, you simply slide in the same cards you use with FF (“Kleinbild”) cameras. Film on spools in the past gave you very few pictures,
    and was fiddly to load and unload.

    That was why I used my Leica M6 (and my ROLLEI 35s) much more often: slide film came in cartridges.

    It is good that manufactures are working on their “super-FF” offerings. When IS becomes more pervasive, they become even more usable,
    and more attractive for me … —

    Perhaps even a compact fixed-lens super-FF with IS will come —

    • pascaljappy says:

      At the risk of appearing biased, may I suggest you give the X1D a try? The leaf shutter is not IBIS but its lack of vibration makes it possible to shoot at really low shutter speeds. I regularly use the 45mm lens at 1/15s with 90% success rates 🙂 And the MkII makes the first version an incredible bargain (if you are a patient shooter 😉 Cheers

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Depends. When I’m travelling, I am handicapped by the lack of a tripod – it’s simply impractical for my purposes, to take one with me – so I am stuck with “hand held”. And a VERY short shutter speed does wonders. On the other hand, one of my all time great photos involved a 135mm on the front of a 35mm, at a 1/30th, in the cold grey pre-dawn light, while I was balancing on top of a fence post about 30cm in diameter, about 1metre off the ground. Of course I was younger then, and years of alcoholism hadn’t given me shaking hands – and the camera itself, even with a standard lens, was solid & heavy, which gave me a different form of inbuilt stabilisation.
        But I do take your point. Leaf shutters – smooth trigger action – steady hand – and shots down to a quarter of a second are on record, as successful.
        I’ll ignore your bias towards the X1D – yes we’re all jealous – make do with that! 🙂

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    I like that cat!
    Rum Tum Tugger?

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Thank you Philippe, for an interesting and thought provoking article, favouring not one side nor the other – as you say, “on ne discute ni des goûts, ni des couleurs”.
    Around about the age of 8, I made a conscious decision that I would do my own growing up. Since then, I have always done my own thing, with only passing interest in anyone else’s. I do derive pleasure from looking at everyone else’s photos – and from reading the discussions on who’s using what, and why. But 70 years of bad habits are rather hard to overcome, and I am still doing my own growing up, my own thing.
    Thanks for the bicycle – the tricycle was an even better touch – capped off by the fact it was from an épicerie! Uber is probably having convulsions, now, because of it!
    Better by far, of course, is the trademark Philippean photo of a flower – did you take that with your new 100MP medium format cam, Philippe? There’s a cast of thousands out there, telling us all we must use artificial light to photograph flowers, but yours have a magic quality, Philippe, which would wither and die under the blaze of artificial light.
    If I can ever afford one, I want to try one of those Foveon sensor jobs that SIGMA make. It fits perfectly with my maniacal urge to be different. I’ve seen a large number of photos of all sorts of subjects, taken with their current line of Quattro. They’ve publicly announced their intention to introduce a full frame Foveon sensor camera with an L mount, which should raise the eyebrows of the L mount afficionados, because it comes with a sensor they rate at 69MP but, of course, being a Foveon sensor that probably means it’s equivalent to more than 100MP compared with conventional sensors. I’ve been told all sorts of negatives things by people who see their role as criticising anyone who dares to be different, and the Foveon is certainly that – but I’ve also seen photos taken with these sensors, and they’re mindblowing, so to hell with the pundits.
    When I was young and carefree and could afford whatever camera I wanted, I had quite a collection of them. Suffering from withdrawal pains, as one does, it’s hard not to be attracted to the Hassy – and the Fuji – as well as the super Foveon.
    Never mind – I’ll stick with the gear I’ve got, and continue to admire everyone else’s photos, instead.

  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    The medium format images, in this post, to me, have been crafted in a way that makes them very pleasing to the eye. The above images each project an individual quality that is both tactile and emotive – which, I’m sure, are qualities secured and promoted by employing the medium format. They’re impressive representations of just what the medium format can deliver, and it appears, deliver in abundance.

    • philberphoto says:

      Fact is, Sean, that 35mm images have progressed to the point that they easily match what was considered to be MF quality of a few years back (with exceptions of course). This had led to the quasi-extinction of the MF market, basically limited to studio use for pros. Hence the revival, which pretty much started with the very nice Pentax 645D, where instead of retreating away from FF cameras by pushing ever higher, they are on the contrary attempting to take over the high end of the FF market….

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    As the
    Laowa 100mm F2.8 2x APO Macro
    interested several DSers:

    Dustin Abbott has published his review:

    • philberphoto says:

      Many thanks, Kristian!

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Keith Cooper
      gives additional info on this lens
      from another perspective:

      • philberphoto says:

        Thanks, Kristian! However, this is why I do’t buy a lens based on just any reviews: Dustin Abbott makes a point of saying tha tthe Laowa’s focus throw is too short, at 150-160, most of which is devoted to the ultra-macro shooting range. He lists difficult focusing as the one lens’ shortcoming. Keith Cooper indicates the focus throw is 120°, and does not mention that focusing might be a bit difficult. What gives? Can’t they get simple facts like these straight? Because “difficult” or not is a matter of personal opinion, but focus throw? Whom would you trust, Kristian?

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          Right !
          But don’t forget their different perspectives, Keith Cooper concentrated on extreme close-ups (which is probably what he might want this lens for) – where you first set the lens and then move it up to the subject – and just mentioned manual focus, whereas D. A. has more to say on photographing distant subjects.

          120° or 150°-160° ?
          Would you, lens in hand on camera feel a *great* difference? I don’t think I would.
          Now, I guess they just judged the focus throw.
          ( And these are pre-production items, as D. A. mentions, so the final lenses might be different.)

          As you imply Philippe, no review can be complete, and judgements are subjective. Lenstip.com measures a set of parameters fairly consistently, but their significance depends on what and how you photograph.

          Of course one shouldn’t buy based on single reviews – I judged that to.be common knowledge, at least on DS…, 🙂 .

          Who I trust? No one until I’ve read a lot to see what they find important and also can guess at their experience and at their attitude to photography.

  • Michael Fleischer says:

    As a comment to the above exchanges “whom to trust in reviews” between Philippe and Kristian –
    I think the real test should come out of your own findings trying out the lens to see if it meets
    your needs/expectations! Nothing like trying it out for real…

    Getting to know different reviewers strengths is also important such as Roger Cicala at Lens Rentals
    recently published “Just MTF Charts” for various lens companies since he normally tests 10 samples on his optical bench.
    Or Diglloyd’s findings of field curvature/focus shift and other behaviours on various lenses…

    This however I regard only as an indicator/aid!

    I would also add that sample variation is a big deal, as I have seen some pretty
    unhealthy sample variations over the last +35 years both from Zeiss, Nikon, Sigma and others.

    That’s why I always try out any lens I’m intending to buy, preferably 2-3 samples
    or more from different shops if possible.
    Having micro adjusted my growing arsenal of 8 Sigma Art lenses…I hereby publicly admit 😉
    on my 3 different Nikon-camera-sensors (each camera sensor is placed slightly offset from factory – off course)
    is a task like being a funambulist walking across the Niagara Falls on a breezy day –
    takes more than one encouraging smile from my wife!
    But it is very satisfying when you get all 4 distances right on each lens-Oh Boy,
    suddenly it dances!!


    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Good points, Thanks Michael, especially as they come from personal experience!

      Only, once one has enough experience to test lenses, one doesn’t need reviews…
      – – –

      I’ve always thought it strange that the micro adjusting is done with the lenses when the need for adjusting really lies in the cameras – probably simpler, but bad with more than one camera body!

      One reason I prefer mirrorless…

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