5 Fabulous Medium-Format Cameras

SEPTEMBER 13, 2013

By Michael McEnaney

It’s true that the camera is only a part of photography’s creative equation: the true artistry comes from the shooter. But when a shoot demands excruciatingly fine detail and exceptional image quality, medium-format cameras continue to help shooters consistently deliver. 

There are those photographers who will tell you there is an entirely different “look, taste and feel” present when shooting medium format. It may be more involved, and the cameras are certainly more expensive, but in an industry where there’s so much sameness, loyalists insist that the unique look medium-format cameras can deliver make them worth the extra effort and higher price tag. 

“It’s the look, pure and simple,” says Brooklyn, New York-based fashion photographer Sandy Ramirez. “There is a very definite and unique ‘look’ to medium format. It comes from the fact that you end up using longer focal lengths to get the same frame of view. This gives better subject isolation and has a wonderful 3-D look to it. Pure and simple, it just looks different.” 

“There is a certain and very distinct esthetic allure inherent in medium-format photography that this technology has always owned,” explains another New York City photographer, Jim Cummins. He adds, “It’s something special with the tonality, detail and sharpness of the image that draws you in.”  

While new product introductions from medium-format camera companies have slowed of late, Ramirez remains excited about what’s happening in this space. 

“What I really love is the fact that in medium format, DNG has become the de facto RAW standard. Right now I feel the resolution of medium format has reached all one would ever really need for the vast majority of applications,” he says. 

Renowned medium-format portrait shooter Peter Hurley agrees, and is looking forward to future innovation in the category. 

“Resolution just isn’t an issue any more and what I think would be nice is to someday get a more compact or lightweight design without affecting the quality of the images,” he adds. “Hand holding these suckers day in and day out is quite a chore. Even though I’m in my studio on a tripod 90 percent of the time, I’d like to be able to run around with it more easily down the road.” 

While we’ll have to wait to see if Hurley gets his wish, for now we’ve rounded up just a few of the cameras and backs that keep Ramirez, Hurley, Cummins and others so enthusiastic.

Hasselblad H5D medium-format cameraHasselblad H5D

Billed very matter-of-factly by Hasselblad at last year’s photokina trade show as “the latest step in the evolution of the best high-end camera system in the world,” the H5D only builds on the company’s rich photographic heritage. The design, an update to Hasselblad H System models, includes a more robust build along with new and improved weather sealing, but that’s simply the start. The upgraded True Focus II further advances focusing accuracy after recompose, and an intuitive focus check has been added. Along with shooting high-resolution RAW images, the H5D adds a new JPEG-on-the-fly feature, letting you quickly fire off JPEGs at a quarter of the resolution. Shooting modes also include JPEG + RAW.

Regarding shooting with the H5D, Hurley tells us, quite simply, “Being a portrait shooter, I’ve always been blown away by the quality and felt the skin tones in my work are better because of it.” 

The H5D series is available as models with 40, 50 and 60 megapixels as well as 50- and 200-megapixel Multi-Shot versions. And the beat goes on at Hasselblad. 

Price: $26,995 (body only)

Leica S medium-format camerasLeica S

Improvements on the amazing Leica S2 seemed like a tall order but the medium-format Leica S most certainly delivers. The camera—different from other medium-format cameras thanks to its DSLR-like design and build—boasts more than 80 improvements to be exact. The Leica S retained its predecessor’s 37.5-megapixel, 45 x 30mm-size CCD sensor but went all out almost everywhere else, including a doubling of the internal memory buffer speed that allows you to fire off up to 32 RAW DNG images before the camera slows down to catch up.   

Ultimately, the improvements in the Leica S over the S2 are about image quality. Leica S shooters rave about the extended sensitivity range of the camera’s sensor at both the low and high ends of the ISO range: It went from 160 to 100 on the low end and 1250 to 1600 on the high end. The sensor is custom engineered by Leica to work in conjunction with the S lenses, resulting in higher image quality and very accurate color renditions.

In addition to the above, the Leica S adds a built-in GPS (the module slightly sticks up on top of the camera’s left shoulder) and the rear 3-inch LCD display has 920K pixels of resolution and uses the sRGB color space for extremely crisp playback. The seemingly indestructible Corning Gorilla Glass provides a nice final touch on this beautiful LCD.

Price: $21,950 (body only)

Mamiya Leaf Credo Digital Camera BacksMamiya Leaf Credo Digital Backs

Available in three different models, the Leaf Credo 80, Credo 60 and Credo 40 digital camera backs (resolutions of 80, 60 and 40 megapixels respectively) offer an impressive array of groundbreaking features including an intriguing (not to mention stunning) 3.2-inch LCD (1.15-megapixel resolution) screen with multi-touch control that fills almost the entire rear of the back. The screen offers crisp Live View to help you lock down focus on the screen when shooting untethered. The screen also features a wide viewing angle and a built-in, bi-directional digital spirit level.

Additional drool-worthy specs include the fact that, when combined with the Mamiya 645DF camera, the backs can reach shutter speeds up to 1/4,000 of a second and a flash sync up to 1/1,600. As those that work for Mamiya Leaf will often tell you, it’s about the love of photography for this company and that love is apparently still going strong in the form of the new Credo backs. 

Prices: Starting at $19,495

Phase One IQ2 Series Digital Camera BacksPhase One IQ2 Series Digital Backs

The bottom line with the IQ2 Series Digital Backs: “Less hassle, less retouching, less color correction,” as wedding photographer Jim Garner explains. 

That may have something to do with a feature set that includes all new full-frame 645 format sensors (sensors designed collaboratively by Phase One and Teledyne Dalsa) and 13 f-stops of dynamic range. All three IQ2 camera backs (IQ280, IQ260 and IQ260 Achromatic) include built-in accelerometers, whose input helps align images perfectly at the moment of capture. An intuitive virtual horizon offers a precise visual indication of an image’s roll and pitch; that data is automatically stored with the images and can be automatically corrected in Capture One software after import.

The shooters we spoke with were quick to add that even in scenes with a wide dynamic range, the IQ2 backs reproduce incredible detail.  

The flagship IQ280 puts Wi-Fi in a new perspective, enabling remote image capture and viewing of huge 80-megapixel images on an iPad running Phase One’s Capture Pilot app. 

Regarding the versatility of the new IQ2 backs, Le Mans, France-based sports photographer David Piole tells us, “Forget the idea that the Phase One IQ2 camera system is just a studio solution. We shoot in the desert and in the mountains. We used it recently to shoot snowboarding during the X Games.” Enough said.

Prices: Starting at $39,900

Pentax 645D medium-format cameraPentax 645D

Pentax has been making 645 cameras for over 25 years and the early-2011 intro of the 645D gave the medium-format market a rare four-figure option ($9,995)—affordability being a rarified concept in this arena.

The little battleship, as it is often called, is a lower end beauty that features exceptional weather sealing—and the subsequent peace of mind it provides—along with a 40-megapixel, medium-format (44 x 33mm) CCD sensor and a highly sensitive 77 segment metering system that quickly and accurately determines exposure (even in those more complex lighting situations). 

Add to this last year’s intro of the 90mm macro lens ($4,499) for the 645D (that gives you a 35mm equivalent focal length of 71mm) and this dynamic medium-format duo combines nicely for the more budget-conscious at under $15,000 for the pair.

Price: $6,995

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