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What are they and what are they used for? And how are they different from regular SLR or DLSR cameras?

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"Format" refers to the size of the recording medium in a camera. I say recording medium because the term originated in the film era and has continued to the digital age.

There are no hard limits but medium format is typically anything larger than 35mm film up to 6cmx7cm film. Large format is typically everything from 4"x5" up.

In addition to the size of the film or sensor there are a number of features typical of medium and large format cameras:

Medium format

  • Single lens reflex design with pentaprism or waist level 'finders (which look directly onto the focus screen from above and show a flipped image).
  • Highly modular design. In additional to interchangeable lenses, medium format cameras usually have interchangeable backs (with film/sensor), and sometimes interchangeable grips, viewfinders.
  • Focal plane or leaf shutter.
  • Can be manual or fully automatic with autofocus and metering.
  • Digital backs available up to about 645 size (53x36mm). Digital backs are just starting to become affordable.
  • Were common when 35mm cameras were more primative.
  • Used by landscape, fashion and portrait photographers.

Large format

  • Lenses mounted on lensboards (instead of traditional locking lens mount).
  • Leaf shutter mounted inside lens.
  • Bellows design with no reflex mirror.
  • Allows movement and tilt of lens.
  • Relatively difficult handling, usually requires tripod and careful setup.
  • Fully manual.
  • Digital backs are available but only scanning backs cover the full format, meaning scenes have to be static or will suffer from shearing. Prices very high.
  • Favoured by landscape / architectural photographers.
  • Offers highest possible level of detail in images.
  • 1
    For a given enlargement size, prints made from a medium- or large format source will have finer grain, more detail, and richer tones than 35mm. If you blow up a 35mm frame of Tri-X to an 8x10 print, you get pretty obvious grain, and the tones will be kind of flat. A contact print of an 8x10 sheet of Tri-X will look completely different, with no visible grain, a high level of detail, and much better tonality. It will look more "real", for lack of a better term. Billboard-sized images will probably have been shot with a large-format camera. – John Bode May 9 '12 at 22:15
  • AFAIK 6×9cm and 6×17cm are regarded as medium format too, so the 6×7 seems a bit low for medium format's upper limit. I'd go with the 4"×5" as borderline between formats. – Imre Apr 5 '13 at 9:22
  • There were also a lot of non-modular cameras shooting 120 film prior to the popularization of the 135 format and 35mm SLRs. All of the Speed Graphis, for example. They shared characteristics of what we consider today to be typical LF (bellows with lens boards and possibly even view-type movements) and MF format sizes. – Michael C Mar 22 '18 at 8:45

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