It seems that Medium Format cameras are geared towards studio work (although it seems that there are also landscape photographers who shoot with them).

Which aspects make the other systems (DSLRs, mirrorless etc.) better for photojournalism / on location photography?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Holga is a medium format (toy) camera that people love using on the streets/casually. Medium format film camera is slow but relatively inexpensive, except for developing the film. On the other hand digital medium format camera can cost as much as a brand new car. Moreover I think it would help to modify the title to "Why is digital medium format camera rarely used outside a dedicated studio?" since this seem to be focusing on the disadvantages of using it in situations where a DSLR would excel. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gapton
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 2:49

2 Answers 2


Price: Not everyone can afford the price of a medium format camera and back. High end studios can afford them and their clients will pay for the quality.

Price: Not everyone can afford the lenses that medium format cameras use, which is often far more than a comparable lens for a DSLR. Ditto about the studios.

Sensitivity: I asked the Phase One rep directly about ISO performance. His response was that their backs "love to be shot at ISO 35." He didn't recommend shooting at ISO above 100 because of cooling and battery life issues. In the studio ISO 35 is just fine. Basically, in controlled lighting situations, ISO 35 is just fine. But for photojournalism, ISO 35 is most definitely not fine.

Weight: They just weigh more. In a backpack or around your neck are two places you don't want a medium format rig. In your hand or on a tripod. They aren't your average walkaround cameras.

Autofocus: Medium format cameras have had this for quite a while, but it's nowhere near as snappy or predictive as any of the DSLRs on the market. Again, the autofocus is fine for studio work or landscape where you have time to compose and get the shot. If you're doing walkabout or journalistic work, you're better off with a DSLR.

Frame Rate: If you come across that shooting situation where you need a consistent 3-5 FPS, medium format is not your best choice. First, they just aren't designed for high bursts. Second, the amount of data transfer is staggering when you get into one of the 40+ MP backs.

But let's not look just at the negatives. Let's examine why anyone would actually use a medium format digital camera.

A/D Converter: While DSLR A/D converters are 12- or 14-bits, medium format cameras more frequently use 16-bit A/D. That means the amount of raw data they capture is quite a bit richer, allowing you to pull a lot more detail out of shadows and highlights.

Lens Quality: Typically, with medium format cameras, you will be using high-quality lenses -- ones by Zeiss, Schneider, etc. While it's painting with a broad brush, these are not your average kit lenses from your average DSLR. They totally rock.

Sensor Resolution: This is the single biggest win with medium format. If you are serious about getting great resolution with virtually no pixel bleeding, then medium format is something to investigate. Even with the Nikon D-800 on the market, the maximum sensor dimension in a DSLR limits the pure resolution -- that is the data resolution without pollution from adjacent pixel sites. The physical size of the medium format sensor relieves some of that constraint. I think you could shoot a D-800 next to a Phase One IQ140 or Hasselblad H4D-40 in a studio setting and the difference in image quality would be apparent.

Coolness Quotient: Maybe it's just me and maybe I have medium format envy, but I think it would be so crazy cool to have a good medium format digital setup that I've had to stop myself a number of times from even thinking about getting one. These things cost as much as cars but get lower gas mileage, but it's like having a Maserati: What you lose in efficiency you get back in spades in coolness.


Size, weight, speed and price.

If you are going to carry equipment with you for the entire day you want it to be small and light enough to carry (and a price that won't bankrupt you if the camera is damaged is a big plus when you take a camera into dangerous areas).

Also, for sports, event photography and photojournalism the shooting speed is very important.

Landscape photographers like medium format because they don't carry the camera all the time (usually the camera is set on a tripod while the photographer is waiting for the light) and they need the extra dynamic range of medium format.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ If you shoot college or pro American football on the sidelines, it is only a matter of time before you are shooting in one direction when a huge lineman or linebacker runs into you from the other. You will get hurt, and you will hurt your camera. You don't want replacing the equipment to cost more than your house. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 15:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Medium format film camera is relatively light and inexpensive for landscape work. I have seen people using a digital point & shoot for metering and preview and planning of the shot, then take the final shot in medium format film. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gapton
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 2:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think size and weight are the primary concern - nor is value of the equipment. (By that logic photographers should be using compacts regularly.) - But bad high ISO performance will be an issue. \$\endgroup\$
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 8:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DetlevCM - I think this is the other way around, that is, the poor high ISO performance is due to the camera designed to be used in a studio, if enough photographers wanted medium format cameras for high ISO work the manufacturers would make them (and by the way, everything in life is a tradeoff, for a long time DSLRS were in the price/weight/quality "sweet spot" - now a lot of photographers are moving - at least partially - to mirrorless cameras because they are somewhat cheaper, significantly smaller and lighter and are - for most uses - almost as good) \$\endgroup\$
    – Nir
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 9:22

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