Medium Format

A Big Year for Medium Format

June 5, 2017

By Aimee

The Pentax 645D DSLR, hit the market at about $9,000 in 2011. In 2014, the 645D was followed up with the 645Z, shown here. Both cameras continue to sell well—and for well under $10,000.

The resolution wars may be all but over, but a price war has just begun. We have the arrival of an innovative breed of digital medium-format cameras that are notably affordable and compact to thank for that development. Hasselblad’s $8,995 X1D-50c and Fuji’s $6,499 GFX 50S promise to capture images with greater dynamic range, detail, and color depth than smaller-format cameras, but without the equally stunning price tags that are usually associated with all things medium format.

The model that blazed the trail to this (relatively) affordable, easily portable medium-format category, the Pentax 645D DSLR, hit the market at about $9,000 in 2011. “At that time, the market was mostly comprised of professionals who were renting either a Phase One or a Hasselblad,” says Marketing Manager Jodi Palm from Ricoh Imaging. “So the solution allowed them to migrate to a lower-cost system and take advantage of a larger assortment of lenses.” Even more significantly, non-professional photographers also snapped the camera up. “It allowed more enthusiasts to go into medium-format photography,” says Palm. In 2014, the 645D was followed up with the 645Z, and both cameras continue to sell well—and for well under $10,000.

Hitting a price point under $10,000 turned out to be one of the keys to opening up a whole new enthusiast-driven tier of the medium-format market. Hasselblad discovered as much when it gradually dropped the price of its 50-megapixel CFV-50c digital back for V system cameras from its original price of over $15,000. “We had three times the sales of the CFV-50c when we brought it underneath $10,000,” says Michael Hejtmanek, president of Hasselblad Americas.

At the same time, Hasselblad noticed a new crowd appreciating the portability of its pricier H6D system. “We found users that were not professional photographers buying the camera and taking it out into landscape and travel environments,” says Hejtmanek. Hasselblad rubbed those two bits of market feedback together, and voilà: the X1D-50c, a sub-$10,000 50-megapixel medium-format camera with a mirrorless design that allows it to be as compact and consumer-friendly as a small-format DSLR.

Both the X1D-50c and Fuji’s GFX 50S feature weather-sealed mirrorless bodies to cater to those nonprofessional landscape and travel photographers who are driving the market. Fuji sees the 50-megapixel GFX 50S as an extension of its successful APS-based X series, and the camera’s controls are designed to be familiar to X-series shooters. When it comes to convincing photographers to take the step up, says Yuji Igarashi, general manager of Fuji North America’s Electronic Imaging Division, “pricing is important, but I think it’s more about usability.”

Both companies seem to have hit the mark, with sales quickly exceeding initial expectations. “Our demand for this camera was much, much larger than we had expected,” says Hejtmanek of the X1D-50c. “For North America, we actually sold out our first 12 months’ product forecast the first day the product was launched.” The company has retooled its manufacturing process to meet the demand. “It’s more than we’ve ever seen or even imagined before,” says Hejtmanek. Both Fuji and Hasselblad are also launching new service programs to support their medium-format mirrorless cameras.

Enthusiasts may have been the major impetus behind the market expansion, but pros stand to benefit from the new options. Fashion, portrait and commercial photographers have been among the early adopters, with wedding shooters showing interest as well. The new portability and pricing means those who are already shooting in medium format can pick up an affordable second camera or stick with medium format when they need a compact, weatherproof model for location shoots or travel. And the drive to cater to consumer tastes may push manufacturers to exploit the possibilities of mirrorless design so that they can offer faster performance and broader feature sets than have ever been available in medium format.

Still, some pros may consider this new crop of cameras to be neither here nor there, since their sensors are smaller than those of top-tier 100-megapixel models; cameras like the Canon EOS 5Ds and Sony a7RII offer as much or nearly as much resolution in smaller, faster, more broadly compatible and less expensive packages; and the feature sets on the new compact medium-format models aren’t geared toward professionals as much as the upper tiers of digital medium-format. “There’s still a pretty big difference between a Phase One camera and one of those cameras,” notes Stefan Sandor, Phase One’s vice president of marketing and product management.

Nevertheless, the market expansion looks like good news for everyone, as camera makers meet the increasing demand and competition with innovations and improvements at every level. “We’re quite happy with seeing medium format expanding its market,” says Sandor. “We have newcomers into the market and we also see our business growing.”

This article is part of a larger series of trends and challenges in the photo industry. To read more articles in the series, check out The Ups/Downs of the Year Past and Year Ahead.