Explaining the "Medium Format Look"

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In photography vernacular, there’s something called the “medium format look.” This distinctive but hard-to-describe look is commonly associated with medium format cameras (hence its name) and refers to aesthetic qualities in an image, such as pronounced smoothness, more blurriness in shallow-depth-of-field images, more accurate color rendering, and so on. It’s difficult to pinpoint because it’s somewhat subjective and varies from shot to shot. Also, despite its name, it’s not an effect relegated solely to medium format cameras, although some of the reasons this effect exists are due to some of the technical differences between medium format and smaller format cameras. So, let’s look a bit more into what the medium format look is, how you can achieve it, and how to work with it.

Characteristic medium format look with high sharpness, realistic tones, and a smooth transition from in-focus to out-of-focus areas.

Sharpness and Resolution

The two clearest signifiers of a medium format look are sharpness and resolution, mainly because they are the two factors that tend to be objectively different, compared to smaller format cameras. Medium format cameras tend to have sensors that range between 50MP and 100MP in resolution, which, with some notable exceptions, is higher than most smaller format cameras. This greater number of pixels contributes to greater clarity in an image—it’s the ability to discern smaller, finer details at greater distances. Assuming you’re viewing an image at an appropriately large scale, the higher resolution of medium format cameras is quite visible just due to the sheer amount of detail and information recorded.

More than detail and higher counts of pixels, medium format sensors are also physically larger, measuring anywhere from ~44 x 33mm up to ~53 x 40mm, compared to the ~36 x 24mm of full-frame or ~23.5 x 15.6mm of APS-C. What this means, in practicality, is that the actual sizes of the photosites or pixels on medium format sensors are also larger, and this contributes to a number of beneficial factors for how an image looks. Just as important as a higher resolution, larger pixels afford better efficiency with light gathering, a better signal-to-noise ratio, and they contribute to improved color and tonal rendering, as well as greater edge definition, dynamic range, and they limit the effects of diffraction. That’s a lot to take in and is really just summarizing the benefits of larger sensor sizes and larger photosite sizes in general; medium format sensors are more efficient with light gathering and, in turn, produce imagery with greater clarity, more acuity/sharpness, and (often) higher resolution.

Deep color rendering offers a natural and appealing aesthetic.

Color and Tonality

The two other chief signifiers of a medium format look are color and tonality, along with how they affect dynamic range. While separated here for discussion, it’s worth mentioning that color and tonality are also consequences of the larger pixel sizes afforded by the larger sensor size but are maybe the most perceivable benefits of the sensor’s design. Just as a higher resolution in pixels is expected with medium format, so is a greater bit depth. Whereas smaller format cameras tend to be 12-bit, maybe 14-bit, medium format cameras will usually begin at 14-bit, and some have higher 16-bit capabilities. Beyond just these numbers, the cameras can, again, make use of the larger photosite sizes to record more information and make use of this higher bit depth to achieve more exacting colors and, subsequently, smoother transitions from color to color.

More than just color accuracy, this also translates to tonality and contrast, and explains the smoother rendering and gradient from a highlight area to a shadowy area. And this is where dynamic range is factored in; it’s a bit of a misnomer that medium format cameras have an objectively wider dynamic range than smaller format cameras. Especially compared to some of the new full-frame flagships coming out, medium format cameras may have a smaller overall range when measured in stops. However, the smoothness in transition from tone to tone (or stop to stop, or zone to zone, if you want) is what separates medium format cameras (no pun intended) from their smaller counterparts. This is one of those indescribable points of contention when talking about a medium format look, but the smoothness and natural look of a gradient from extreme tones can be a key tell for the larger sensor size.

Medium format film strips.

Medium Format Film

One additional point worth referencing is medium format film, and how It compares to medium format digital. The photosite size and sensor dimension advantages are all respective of a digital workflow, obviously, but the same descriptors can be used to talk about medium format film. Even without the pixels, the large film area of these larger cameras contributes significantly to a distinctive look, especially when compared to 35mm. Another aspect of the film era that made a significant difference between the formats was enlargement—maybe more so than digital, the difference in clarity from an enlarged 6 x 7 negative compared to a 35mm negative is quite noticeable in terms of resolution, acuity, clarity, and smoothness. Even though a 35mm negative might be equally as sharp, its graininess and lack of focus would be magnified exponentially compared to the much larger medium format film area.

Medium format portrait makes use of shallow depth of field, smooth tonal transitions, and realistic color.

In Practice

Armed with all of this information, how do we make use of a medium format look? What kinds of photography does it benefit most? Well, that’s obviously subjective and ultimately up to you. Historically, though, medium format has been used for portraiture and landscape applications with great success. Both of these genres lend themselves to medium format mainly because they are slow-moving and predictable subjects that you have time to photograph. Especially with portraiture, you are able to make the most of medium format’s benefits to produce realistic and natural renditions of your subjects. The depth of field advantages of the larger sensor size, too, along with the ability to work with longer focal lengths while retaining a wider field of view, also play into why medium format can produce such flattering results in portraiture. It’s no surprise that one of the most desired traits of smaller format lenses is to have faster designs to control focus and depth of field more efficiently; with medium format, you’re able to achieve a similar look in terms of depth of field from a greater distance and, since you would be using a smaller aperture, apparent sharpness will also likely be greater.

In terms of landscape, resolution, color, and tonality are the stars of the show subject-wise and are also the highlight capabilities of the sensor format. The large photosite sizes and more efficient light gathering help to render tonal transitions smoothly and more akin to how our own eyes might see a scene.

What are your thoughts about a “medium format look"? Do you think it’s noticeable enough to seek out? Do you think it’s possible to get the same look and feel from smaller format sensors? And what are your favorite examples of this aesthetic? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

2 Comments

It's film and my RB67 gear for me.  Always has been.

The problem with the article is that there are no direct comparisons.  Had you taken the time to shoot your subjects with both sizes of cameras and perhaps film too, and compared them side to side, doing so would have made for a much more interesting article.  We, your audience, have no idea what kind of equipment the images were shot on because it's not detailed at all.  But without the side-by-side comparisons that could have been presented, there's no way to see if what you referred to is actually true.

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