Understanding the Differences between the 35mm DSLR and Medium Format

Originally published: July 17, 2011

Examples, Leica M7 and 24mm Summilux f/1.4 and Mamiya 645AFD cameras

(Left) Leica M7 and 35mm f/2.5 Summarit Lens, (Right) Mamiya 645AFD with 55mm f/2.8 Lens

In my last post, I started to divulge into a deeper understanding over the differences and advantages between 35mm and Medium format cameras. My following comments apply for film and digital cameras. However it should be noted that the images above for comparison of quality were taken on film cameras. Specifically the Leica M7 and 24mm Summilux with Kodak Ektar 100 (Left) and the Mamiya 645AFDiii and 45mm Sekkor f/2.8 with Kodak Ektar 100 (right).



Medium format has the distinct advantage of being significantly larger and consequently more detailed then 35mm, which is smaller. As you can see by comparing the two test images above the medium format option clearly shows that I has superior detail and color rendition when compared with the 35mm photo. Medium format cameras have considerably more technical capabilities then 35mm cameras. Medium format cameras include panoramic cameras like the Linhof 617 panoramic camera and the ALPA SWA, which uses large format lenses and can be used for very technically difficult images. Also in my opinion 120mm film is considerably easier to handle then 35mm film is. This is because it is significantly less technical in the way it is created. 120mm (Medium Format) film is essentially film (paper backed) spun around a spool. Consequently for me it is much easier to handle. The type of camera I will refer to for the rest of this review, as medium format is the 645 formats since this is the most common format. This is also one of the most interesting components of the medium format offering. There are different cameras that capture different format images. The most common format is 645, which is similar in aspect ratio the common 35mm format. Then there is the 6×6 format, which is of course square as its dimensions denote, this format is also very popular and is the standard in the Hasselblad line-up of V series cameras. Cameras like the 503CW and 905SWC use this 6×6 format. Then there are other cameras like the Mamiya 7 and Fuji GF670 which use the slightly wider format of 6×7 and other cameras which use 6×8 and 6×9 formats. Each of these offers a slightly different perspective, which allows you to get more in the frame and consequently achieve different effects. This is one of the best things about medium format versatility. Digital Medium Format Cameras typically cover the 6×45 and 6×6 offer considerably more then there smaller 35mm brethren. Medium format digital just like medium format film uses a larger sensor and consequently has more megapixels. The standard right now is 40mp with some backs offering more and less then this. PhaseOne currently offers a 80mp version of their latest IQ series lineup. Of course with greater megapixels comes greater cost. However what you get with this cost is of course more pixels. More pixels mean many things. First it means you have the ability to crop the image meaning you if you were further away then you wanted to be you can easily correct your vantage point without sacrificing in final quality. Because of their larger size they also have a higher dynamic range, which is also another attractive quality. Of course all of these advantages come at a cost, which I will outline below.



Yeah so there are also a few disadvantages that might deter some people from entering into medium format. The biggest limiting factor is the price. Making a piece of silicon that is 6×45 (please note all but a few backs are not full frame so they are not all this size) is quite difficult especially when the margin for error is something crazy like .001% or something. If any more imperfection then this exists typically the chip is useless. There are a few medium format digital options that are less then this of course. Typically (sans Leica S2 and Pentax 645D) medium format digital cameras are digital backs. These can be attached to multiple cameras, in exactly the same way film backs could be. This gives greater versatility to the user theoretically being able to use film and digital on the same camera as well as mounting their back on other cameras. I however would be hesitant to do this because doing this means exposing your sensor to the environment where it can get dust on it, which is very hard to remove. So while this is a great selling point for the camera that “you can use film and digital on the same body” in practice its not that particle.  The cheapest digital back on the market right now is the Mamiya DM22 digital back. This is simply a rebranded Leaf back so there is an equivalent Leaf digital back for the same price and so on.  In this price range however, I would ask myself if I really needed medium format because the Nikon D3x or the Canon equivalent (1Ds Mrk III?) are formidable and are around the 8k range for the body only. It should be noted that almost every medium format system particularly when quoted at a price is without a lens. Although Pentax’s beleaguered DSLR and Point and Shoot lines are the butt of many jokes, their medium format offering should not be scoffed at. Many forget that Pentax was a venerable contender if not market leader for the past 30 years. They created the very successful 645 lines culminating in the 645n, which is the closest film substitute to the 645D as well as widely popular Pentax 67 camera.  I mention these cameras because it should also be noted that all of the Autofocus (late 645 line lenses) and manual focus (many 645 series lenses as well as all of the 67 lenses) could be used on the 645D, so if you have these lenses already this option is attractive. Although the 645D does not offer the changeable back option, but if you already have all of these lenses, that’s probably a non-issue for you.

Some other considerations involve functionality (I know right? I thought it was all about the price man).  Namely 645 medium format cameras lack the fast autofocus capabilities of the 35mm cameras. This is why 35mm has been the preferred choice of the sports shooter for decades. Autofocus is important for some photographic applications however these are times when 35mm is the most important. Medium format has select applications. It can sometimes be pushed to the limits, most of the time its applications are not situations where fast function is the most important function. Another issue is their limited ISO range. This is an issue that is that is delegated to the digital side of medium format photography. 35mm and medium format are on equal footing in the film market. However because of the limitations these digital backs have limited ISO ranges typically going up to 1600. PhaseOne has a function called capture plus where the sensor is scaled down and the ISO range is extended to 3200. However for most backs the ISO range is limited. This is because they are typically used at the lowest native ISO setting because this is where the quality should theoretically be the best. Also they are typically used in situations where studio lighting or strobes are accessible if extra light is needed. These are probably the two largest disadvantages. Another slight disadvantage is that they are typically larger and bulkier and heavier then 35mm cameras. This is simply a consideration when deciding which camera to get or when to take it out into the field. Also they are usually less ergonomic then 35mm cameras. This is largely subjective and a matter of personal taste. That said 35mm DSLR’s typically have the same form and ergonomics, medium format cameras are generally much more creative in their design and have significantly different grips and feels which might be more attractive to some users.


Medium format like other formats (ok fine threes really only 35mm and large format) has its advantages and disadvantages. These are often defined by limitations. Limitations define what item you invest in. However before the investment is made, it is important that they understand what they want and what the camera they are looking at can do. I hope this article has helped to clarify the advantages/disadvantages and abilities/limitations of medium format.


One Response to Understanding the Differences between the 35mm DSLR and Medium Format

  • K.M.S says:

    I enjoyed the article. I have a better understanding of the differences between the 35 and medium format cameras. I do have one small criticism you need to take time to understand the difference between then and than. Then is something which follows, than is a comparison. Then and Than are not interchangeable. I thought you might want to know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>