If you’re not very familiar with photography terms and concepts, the question of what’s better in medium format vs full frame might sound utterly foreign for you. Fortunately, with a bit of background information, it’s easy to compare the two structures. In this article, we’ll walk you through the similarities and differences between medium format and full-frame cameras, as well as which one might be better for you.
What Is a Medium Format Camera?
A medium format camera is, by definition, a camera with a sensor size larger than 36mm by 24mm but smaller than 100mm by 130mm. On the other hand, a full frame camera is another name for a 35mm camera – they always use a 35mm sensor.
Because medium format cameras can fall anywhere in the above range, they come in a wide variety of specifications and sizes. Some on the small end of the spectrum might be very similar to a traditional 35mm camera, while larger versions might perform noticeably better.
Contrary to what the names suggest, medium format cameras are more sizeable than full frame cameras.
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Medium Format vs Full Frame Overall Comparison
For many years, medium format cameras eclipsed full frame cameras significantly in terms of price. Aside from the apparent size difference, this was the primary identifier between the two types. However, as technology continues to evolve and improve, medium format cameras have continued to become more affordable.
Today’s highest-end medium format cameras are still incredibly expensive, but they’re somewhat comparable to the highest-end full frame cameras. However, because medium format cameras are fundamentally better (for the most part), they will always be more expensive to an extent.
We’ll dive deeper into the differences between medium format and full frame cameras below.
The first differences you’ll notice between medium format vs full frame cameras are the physical ones. Because medium format cameras have a larger sensor, they also tend to be larger on the whole. As you might expect, this means that they tend to be heavier, though this can also change depending on your lens’s size.
The larger sensor in a medium format doesn’t just mean that it has a larger body. That also means that the device takes in more light. Among other differences, such as clarity and color range, this means that the final picture will have more detail, too.
That same larger sensor means the total depth of field that your camera can capture is more significant, too. This depends partially upon the resolution and lenses you use, of course, but a medium format will be able to store much more detail about your environment in one picture than a 35mm full frame. To get the same level of detail in a 35mm, you would need to adjust the focal length.
As you might expect, because of this larger sensor, medium frame cameras tend to fall a bit short in terms of battery life. While the number of frames you can capture on one charge varies depending on the camera, full frame models overall tend to get more than medium format models.
Image by Christian Wiediger licensed under Unsplash
Based on what you’ve read so far, you might already be making assumptions about the performance differences between medium format vs full frame cameras. While medium frame models are excellent for collecting precise detail in one image, their speed-related performance is also limited by that detail.
The first place where medium frame models fall behind in this regard is with burst images. Most medium frame cameras can only support three frames per second or less with burst settings. However, modern full frames – especially those designed to be used for speed, such as sports cameras – can capture up to 20 frames per second. Medium frames also shoot slower in general than full frames, and they take much longer to auto-focus, too.
However, medium frame cameras do have an advantage when it comes to flash-sync speeds. Full frame cameras must synchronize with their flash to provide a still image, and most can only achieve rates of up to 1/250th of a second.
On the other hand, medium format cameras don’t need to fully synchronize with your flash due to the presence of an internal shutter. A good medium format can capture an image in as little as just 1/2000th of a second.
However, while medium format cameras excel at taking photos with high image quality, they’re not usually specially-designed for video. While some medium format cameras can shoot in 4K, much of the detail and range present in a still image could end up lost between capture and the screen when capturing video. You might be better off looking for a full frame camera designed to maximize your video quality instead.
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Image by Alexander Dummer licensed under Unsplash
There’s a reason why many professional photographers dream of owning a medium format camera. While they can be pricey, you can see the exact differences between medium format vs full frame when you look at the resulting images. It’s all due to increased light (and, to a lesser extent, the medium format’s larger size).
Because the larger sensor on a medium format lets in more light, the final picture shows a greater color and light range. Not only are colors more true to life, but the resulting image has a much better dynamic range, too, which results in things like:
- Better tonal transitioning
- Higher resolution (and better detail)
- Tonal and color accuracy
Finally, because of the tonal flexibility and flash-sync freedom of a medium format, you can use it more creatively than your typical full frame model. Not only can you take fantastic studio photos, but that same camera can take incredible outdoor photos, including low-light shots like sunrise or sunset.
Compatibility and Flexibility
Of course, one of the main drawbacks of cameras medium format is their compatibility. Because they come in many different sizes (and because of the lower demand due to their high price tags), there are not as many compatible accessories for them on the market.
In particular, if you have a stockpile of lenses from a full frame camera, you may end up having to buy brand-new ones for your medium format, and you may not be able to replace all of them with similar versions. While this gap is evened somewhat by the medium format’s flexibility, the compatibility of the full frame brings it back in line.
When it comes to outdoor compatibility – i.e., weatherproofing – medium format and full frame cameras are about identical, at least in a physical sense. However, if you expect to take good pictures in bad weather, you may want to go for a medium format model. The medium format will bring you more color and clarity on dark, gloomy days, and the flash-sync bonus means you can isolate falling rain and snow better in your photos.
Image by Hunter Moranville licensed under Unsplash
As you have likely deduced, both medium format and full frame cameras have their own strengths and weaknesses. As such, which one we would recommend to you depends on a variety of different factors – there’s no concrete “yes” or “no.”
For example, if you’re looking for a high-quality camera on a budget, the best place for you to look is definitely within full frame camera models. There are impressive options available at budget prices among full frame models, but prices tend to start near those of high-end full frame models for camera medium format. However, it’s essential to keep an eye on these prices, too, as they may change as time goes on.
However, if budget isn’t your primary concern, it’s a bit more challenging to give you the right recommendation. If you’re willing to pay any price for the best possible image quality, then obviously, a medium format digital camera is for you. However, if you fall somewhere in the middle, you may need to conduct a cost-benefit analysis.
Some things we can recommend with certainty, though: if you already have a stockpile of full frame camera accessories, you may want to stick with another full frame model. In most cases, you’ll need to buy all new accessories for a medium format camera, which can increase the price significantly. The blow to your wallet that can come from purchasing a new camera is significantly lessened when all of your old accessories are still usable.
Additionally, if you need to (or want to) take a lot of burst shots, a medium format setup likely isn’t the best option for you. While it can take burst shots, medium frame models simply don’t have the speed to take lots of bursts as a full frame does.
In the end, is a medium format camera better than a full frame model? If you consider the final product only, then yes – a medium format produces a better photo by virtually every metric. That being said, though, there are specific areas where a full frame camera can outmaneuver its more powerful brethren, like the ones we looked at above.
However, for the vast majority of people, a full-frame camera will be the logical choice. Unless you’ve recently won the lottery or come into an inheritance, a top-of-the-line medium format is something you spend years saving for. While the performance upgrades that medium format cameras provide are undeniable, they still remain nothing but a dream for many at their current price points.
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