NOW WE HAVE the measure of the mirrorless digital medium format cameras from Fujifilm and Hasselblad, is it time to make the move to the bigger sensor? While both are considerably more affordable than any of the reflex-based system, they’re still quite pricey compared to the topof-the line cameras in any other format, D-SLR or mirrorless. Let’s assume, however, you’re in the fortunate position to have sufficient funds to spend on your next camera system, what then?
Well firstly, note the word “system”. If you’re switching sensor format then you’re not just buying a new camera body; you’re up for at least a couple of lenses and whatever dedicated accessories you might need. Then there’s a good chance you’ll need to upgrade your wider system to cope with the much bigger image files – memory cards and reader, computer (if you still want to maintain reasonable speeds), back-up and storage, and possibly even your monitor. One reason for desiring bigger files is to make bigger prints (much bigger), so add an A2 format or even wider printer to that shopping list. Consequently, up will also go your paper and inks costs.
Everything about a medium format camera system is going to cost more. Bigger sensors are much more expensive to manufacture, as are medium format lenses because they need to have a wider imaging circle and higher resolving power. And because we’re talking about much smaller volumes here, the economies of scale which work with the smaller formats don’t apply. This means – particularly in terms of lenses – less choice because the more specialised designs just wouldn’t sell in the numbers to justify the cost of designing and building them. Both Fujifilm and Hasselblad have worked commendably hard to deliver a selection of ‘workhorse’ lenses, but don’t hold your breath for a tilt/shift, fisheye or supertelephoto. And because of the comparatively small numbers involved, the independents simply aren’t going to get involved in the way they have with the Fujifilm X, Sony FE and Micro Four Thirds mounts.
Of course, t’was ever thus, except that there were serious attempts to make rollfilm photography much more accessible. The 6x4.5cm format, in particular, was more economical to run thanks to more frames per roll and smaller hardware, which was less expensive than a 6x6cm or 6x7cm system. But here’s the thing. Unless you’re a working photographer, you probably want a medium format camera to just dabble with… for those times when you want to be slow and serious. So it’s really going to be a secondary camera and that means you’re not really expecting to pay any more than you did for your primary camera, are you? Hmmm. This is where the idea of digital medium format photography for the masses falls in a heap. You simply can’t have a cheap camera with a big sensor. You could put one in a cardboard box with a pinhole at the other end and it would still cost more than the Nikon D850. It’s telling that there’s basically only two medium format sensors being used now – Sony’s 50 MP and 100 MP CMOS devices – because this is the only way to get the volume up and the price down. Currently, Sony is selling to everybody who makes a DMF camera in any meaningful numbers – Fujifilm, Hasselblad, Leica, Pentax and Phase One/Mamiya Leaf – and the prospect of any newcomers is slim (apart from, possibly, Sony itself).
So this is where things are likely to stay in terms of pricing, which means a $5000 camera body is unlikely to ever happen. It also means amateur photographers still need to think carefully about what they really need in terms of image quality, and also separate the romanticism from the reality. As we’ve seen in our tests of the GFX 50S and X1D 50c, both deliver superlative IQ, but if you aren’t making full use of it then it’s hard to see the point when there’s no commercial benefit.
Of course, there’s always been a ‘feel good’ factor associated with buying cameras, and it’s perfectly OK to let the heart overrule the head. But digital medium format photography demands a whole different mindset, so it’s a bigger move than many might fully appreciate. Meanwhile, the rest of us will fantasise about just how we might spend $20k on new camera gear if we could. Well, Christmas is just around the corner.