From Issue Seven of Gear Patrol Magazine.
Jon Gilbert, a team leader at Phase One — maker of cameras like the 100-megapixel XF IQ3 ($50,000) — recently stopped by Gear Patrol HQ to talk to me about digital cameras. During our chat, he mentioned a fascinating point: “Back in the day, we were seeing just a few repairs on dropped cameras a year, now we’re seeing two to three a month on average.”
I don’t have any hard data on whether or not studio photoshoots, where cameras like these are normally found, have suddenly become more precarious in the age of Instagram. But after a bit of probing, I’ve concluded that more photographers are taking these cameras, at $50,000 a pop (without lenses), out of the safety and comfort of the studio and into the field where nasty things like weather, concrete and clumsy bystanders are public enemies one, two and three. Breaking a DSLR or iPhone is painful and annoying, but it’s also recoverable. Doing it to a rig that costs the same as well-specced BMW can be a catastrophe.
Crushing repair costs aside, however, a trend like this is a good thing for photography.
iPhones and digital cameras have democratized photography to the point of commoditization, just as a blog and laptop decimated the idea of pecking orders in publishing. Everyone’s a photographer. It’s pushing those looking to differentiate their work or hobbies to reach higher for higher caliber products and in turn, camera makers to respond by making that higher caliber gear more accessible.
But what sets aside a medium or large format camera from your run-of-the-mill Best Buy purchase? Well, it comes down to geometry. Let’s take exactly one paragraph to explain. I promise this won’t get complicated.
Let’s say you’re in the Tetons trying to pull off your best Ansel Adams. You’ve got your hands on a medium format camera with a 50mm lens (like the Hasselblad X1D you see to the right) and a 35mm camera with a 50mm lens (say, a Canon 5D Mark IV). On any given day, the exact same photograph out of both cameras is going to look different. The medium format image will have a certain je ne sais quoi about it compared to that shot with the 35mm camera. And the reason boils down to a lack of exaggerated perspectives that a 35mm camera requires to make an image captured through a lens fit on a sensor or film, which causes distortion. Put more simply, a 50mm medium format camera sees images closer to how your own eyes see things, giving photographs a more realistic perspective. This is why you see medium format cameras used so often in landscape and portrait photography where this “flattening” of massive landscapes or intimate portraits can be felt.
The three setups outlined here are ones our team has had the opportunity to use firsthand. None of them are cheap, but even just a few years ago, the premise of this story wouldn’t have been considered — cost and accessibility were simply beyond reality. And going forward, the medium format trend will only get more pronounced as brands like Fujifilm push their high-end offerings into DSLR territory.
At the end of the day, your iPhone is perfect for that snapshot of a double rainbow spotted on your commute home. But if you’re ready to spend a Saturday afternoon capturing falling light shadows on a Beaux-Arts building downtown, then maybe it’s time to reconsider your rig and get a little ambitious.
Pro Tip: Only have a tenth of the budget? Easy, get film. You could pick up the ever-popular Pentax 645, a manual medium format body, for just a few hundred bucks. It won’t sync to your phone, but you’ll get a fantastically priced, high-performing, actually fun alternative to these seriously priced options. The Pentax 645 is the play if you just want to try your hand at medium format photography without being pot committed.
Hasselblad has long been synonymous with medium format photography. In 2016, it released the X1D, which features a 50-megapixel sensor in a mirrorless camera body. There are also physical controls for all the essentials, an ISO range of 100–25600, wi-fi and video capture. And for the camera nerds out there, it also touts 16-bit color depth and 14 stops of dynamic range.
Lens: Hasselblad XCD 45mm f/3.5 Lens, $2,695.00
Phase One XF IQ3
At the top echelon of photography, you’ll find Phase One — it will just cost you to get there. The XF IQ3 is unabashedly pro-grade. Paired with the optional top-down viewfinder, it’s a (semi) portable powerhouse that brings back all the ground-glass joy of an old Hasselblad 500 C/M. Except there’s autofocus, a built-in meter, and, oh yeah, that full-frame medium format sensor, which is 1.5x larger than the sensors found on the Hasselblad and Fujifilm models. The IQ3 100mp sensor throws down the gauntlet with a mind-blowing 101 megapixels and 15 stops of dynamic range. If that’s not enough, Phase One also offers the recently announced IQ4 with up to 150 megapixels. Yup, 150.
Lens: Schneider Kreuznach 80mm LS f/2.8, $3,290
Fujifilm GFX 50S
The GFX 50S, which came out a year ago, may be the most accessible of the lot. Fujifilm opted to skip the full-frame morass by giving its APS-C mirrorless camera users an option to step up in a big way. The GFX 50S is built around a 51.4 megapixel sensor and a wide dynamic range of ISO 50–102400 for working in difficult lighting conditions. Roughly the size of a DSLR, it combines the handheld familiarity of a DSLR, the image-capturing performance of a medium format camera and the irresistible film-like design found in all of Fujifilm’s other cameras.
Lens: Fujifilm GF 45mm f/2.8 R WR, $1,699