When we look at the medium format vs. full-frame debate, we’re talking about cameras that have different sensor sizes. A medium format camera uses a bigger sensor than a full-frame camera. But is sensor size all we need to worry about?
The answer to that is no. And we’ll go into more detail about the differences in the medium format vs. full-frame debate. We’ll look at the strengths and weaknesses of both cameras. And we’ll find out why bigger isn’t always better.
[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]
What is a Full-Frame Camera?
A full-frame camera uses a 35mm image sensor. The sensor is the same size as the traditional 35mm film used in analog cameras. This sensor size is bigger than the APS-C sensor cameras that prevailed during the first decades of the 21st century.
Full-frame cameras are becoming dominant, especially at the professional end of the market. And while a larger sensor means bigger and heavier cameras, it also means increased image resolution and dynamic range.
You won’t find many entry-level full-frame cameras. The functions and features are geared toward serious enthusiasts and professional shooters. And the price tags represent that too.
But full-frame cameras are versatile machines. You can use a full-frame camera for everything from landscape and portraits to sports and wildlife. Full-frame models vary in strengths and weaknesses, but you can find one for any type of photography.
What is a Medium Format Camera?
A medium format digital camera has a larger image sensor than a full-frame camera. Traditional medium format cameras used 120mm film stock. But medium format digital cameras don’t always stick to the 120mm sensor. The sensor can be anywhere between 35 and 130mm.
The larger sensor of the medium format camera gives you a higher resolution and image quality. The medium format camera system has a larger sensor, so it can house more megapixels. This allows for higher resolutions and better-quality images.
The Main Differences Between Medium Format and Full-Frame Cameras
Camera Body and Size
Medium format cameras have always been bigger than 35mm cameras. In the days of analog, this was due to the larger film stock used in the camera. Medium format film cameras are less ergonomic and comfortable to hold than 35mm machines.
The camera body design for medium format digital cameras has improved a lot. But they are still bigger and bulkier than full-frame cameras. And with the extra size comes extra weight.
Some medium format cameras still use traditional designs. The Hasselblad 907X 50C is a prime example. But many now look like larger versions of APS-C or full-frame cameras. The Fujifilm GFX 50s II is an example of this medium format model type.
Full-frame cameras are larger than APS-C and compact cameras. But a full-frame mirrorless camera body isn’t very different from an APS-C DSLR. It might be bigger and heavier, but it still fits in your hand. And full-frame bodies are improving with every generation.
Sensor Resolution and Image Quality
The larger sensor of the medium format camera can hold more megapixels. More megapixels give you a higher resolution and better image quality. While this isn’t universally true, it does mean medium format cameras have excellent image resolution.
Image quality is where medium format digital cameras excel. They’re made to capture high-quality photos with increased dynamic range. And much like their analog ancestors, medium format digital cameras are favored by landscape and portrait photographers for this reason.
But a medium format sensor doesn’t always give you a higher resolution. While the 50MP sensors of the Fujifilm GFX 50R and the Pentax 645Z might sound powerful, we see full-frame cameras with higher resolutions.
The Sony A7R IV is a full-frame mirrorless camera with a 61MP sensor. It sits way out in front of the full-frame division. But it shows us where full-frame cameras are heading.
The medium format cameras mentioned above are at the lower end of the scale. The Fujifilm GFX 100 and the Hasselblad H6D-100c both have 100MP sensors. That’s serious firepower the full-frames can’t compete with.
Image quality isn’t only determined by sensor resolution. The larger pixels (and a larger number of pixels) of medium format sensors also give you a better dynamic range than a full-frame camera.
Dynamic range determines how much detail a camera can pull from light and dark areas. A camera with a narrow dynamic range will give you light areas that are entirely white and dark areas that are completely black. And they’ll struggle even more if there are light and dark areas in the same shot.
Dynamic range is measured in stops, and an increase of one stop equals double the brightness. A good full-frame camera has about ten stops of dynamic range. But a medium format camera system can give you 15 or more stops. That means you get far more detail from light and dark areas.
Shallow Depth of Field
Traditionally, medium format cameras make it easier to achieve a shallow depth of field. The larger sensor size made it easier to shoot with the widest aperture available on your lens. And the wider your aperture, the shallower your depth of field.
A medium format digital camera still gives you excellent bokeh when shooting at wide apertures. But their lead over full-frame cameras is shrinking with each generation of new cameras.
Full-frame mirrorless cameras now have excellent depth of field capabilities. They can give you excellent bokeh with a 50mm lens, which is something cameras with smaller sensors struggle to achieve. Today, full-frame mirrorless cameras aren’t far off medium format for achieving the bokeh effect.
Video and Continuous Shooting Modes
Medium format cameras are lagging behind when it comes to video and multimedia features. While they race ahead in the field of image quality for stills, they barely put up a fight when it comes to video.
Some models like the Fujifilm GFX 100s do have a video mode. And this camera records 4K quality at 30fps. That doesn’t sound bad at first glance. But this is a professional-grade camera with a heavy price tag. Users expect more than one 4K video option in that price bracket.
Full-frame mirrorless cameras are moving forward in leaps and bounds in the field of video. The Canon EOS R5 and the Sony A1 both have 8K video recording as standard. That’s cinema-quality video footage from a consumer full-frame model. They also give you options for different frame rates and shooting modes.
The medium format cameras are also way behind in burst modes. You’ll be lucky to find a continuous shooting speed that hits 5fps. That rules them out for sports or action photography.
The high resolution of the images means the image file size is very large. And this means they take longer to process than images with a lesser resolution. That said, there are many full-frame cameras that produce high-resolution images that also have a fast burst.
If we look at the same mirrorless models, the Canon EOS R5 gives you 20 fps. And the Sony A1 gives you 30 fps with a 50MP sensor. Mirrorless cameras have the advantage of using an electronic shutter. It puts full-frames way out in front for burst shooting.
Who Should Use a Medium Format Camera?
Medium format cameras produce images of the highest quality. They’re practically unbeatable for image quality, including low-light performance and dynamic range. But they don’t do much besides taking fantastic stills. So who are medium format cameras for?
Medium format cameras are for photographers who put image quality above all else. They’re for photographers who can afford to take their time with each shot. They’re machines used for precise and considered photography.
Landscape photographers love medium format cameras. The exquisite detail and dynamic range of medium format cameras are perfectly suited to the landscape genre. The extra weight is a downside when reaching locations. But landscape photographers often use tripods, so weight isn’t an issue when shooting.
Medium format cameras are also popular with portrait photographers. They love the image quality for rich and intimate portrait photos. The capability for a shallow depth of field is another bonus for portrait artists. And they also use tripods in their studios.
Fine art photographers are another group that utilizes the power of medium format in their photography. Everything they do is planned and considered. Their work is about the beauty of the image. And that philosophy suits medium format cameras perfectly.
While those groups often use medium format cameras, the limitations keep other photographers away. They’re no good to sports photographers because of the weight and slow burst speeds. They’re too big and heavy for street photographers. And they don’t have the necessary features to please wildlife photographers.
The Verdict on Medium Format vs. Full Frame
We’re seeing incredible resolution stats from modern full-frame cameras. Some have sensor resolutions topping out at 40 or 50 megapixels. The Sony A7R IV even has a 61MP sensor. But they still can’t touch medium format cameras at the higher end. The Fujifilm GFX 100s has a 100MP sensor.
But is that level of resolution necessary? Most of the time, it isn’t. And medium format cameras focus on resolution and image quality above all else. They have a high resolution at the expense of other features, making them limited cameras.
Medium format cameras are specialist machines. You can’t question their abilities for image quality. And they’re loved by landscape, portrait, and fine art photographers. But they are useless for photographers in other areas, like sport and street photography.
The battle of medium format vs. full-frame boils down to what you need. Do you need that kind of resolution? And are you willing to spend big money on it?
Full-frame cameras are far more well-rounded machines, with features to please nearly everyone. They don’t come cheap either. But full-frame cameras are versatile machines with excellent features for different kinds of photography. Medium format cameras are specialist equipment for photographers in specialist fields.
If you’re looking at medium format cameras for landscape photography, check out our Simply Stunning Landscapes course for awe-inspiring shots every time!