Digital medium format has previously been the preserve of professional photographic businesses; commercial concerns that can justify investing tens of thousands of dollars on a tool that offers resolution and image quality beyond the capabilities of consumer cameras (or, at least, those that can recoup the rental cost). These cameras have tended to have 54 x 40mm (essentially the 645 film format) or 44 x 33mm sensors: considerably larger than used in most DSLRs. They were also often based on CCD chips, since these are easier to build on large scales and small volumes and cleaner at low ISO settings (though with limited dynamic range by modern standards).
As full frame cameras have become less expensive, this has put pressure on the medium format market (particularly the smaller variant) but has also seen CMOS technology filter upwards. This has led to us starting to see the first sub-$10,000 medium format cameras. The first that a dedicated hobbyist might consider, as well as wider professional market. So, as we keep being asked, which of these cameras is best?
Introducing the contenders
Launched in 2014 The Pentax 645Z is the granddaddy of ‘affordable’ medium format. After the somewhat fitful development process of the original 645D, the arrival of CMOS technology brought us the 645Z. Built around a 50MP 44 x 33mm sensor, Ricoh’s flagship camera is a traditional DSLR that uses the film-era Pentax 645 mount (hence the name).
In the past year, two more companies with medium format heritage have unveiled their offerings, but both Hasselblad and Fujifilm have developed new, mirrorless systems, rather than continuing to use existing mounts. This allows the Fujifilm G and Hasselblad XCD systems to be considerably smaller with shorter flange back distances (especially in the case of the Hasselblad, which does without a focal plane shutter). As well as size, this shorter flange back distance leaves room to adapt all sorts of legacy lenses: something both Hasselblad and Fujifilm have promised.
We’ve been shooting all three cameras and look at their relative strengths in different shooting scenarios.
Landscape work – durability
One of the most obvious requirements a camera needs for landscape work is a degree of solidity and resilience. As soon as you venture into the outdoors, rain, mud and grit will all feature to a varying degrees.
All three of these cameras claim they’ve been designed with a degree of environmental sealing in mind. None of the makers go so far as to guarantee any degree of weather resistance, so it’s difficult to know whether any one of these has the edge over the others. There are plenty of stories of Pentax DSLRs surviving all sorts of mistreatment, so we’d be fairly confident of the 645Z. The Fujifilm and Hasselblad it’s harder to know about, especially since both are likely to sell in small enough quantities that it’ll always be difficult to establish a statistically useful sample size.
Landscape work – battery life
Another major factor is battery life. While it’s quite possible to carry spare batteries with you, it’s not always practical to change them in ‘the field.’ It can also be frustrating to find yourself having to worry about battery level or change batteries with any kind of frequency, especially as temperatures and battery endurance drop.
The 645Z’s DSLR design gives it a huge advantage in terms of battery life. Given you can do most of your shot setup using the optical viewfinder, the camera gains a rating of around 650 shots per charge from its relatively small battery.
The Fujifilm GFX 50S requires either the rear screen or electronic viewfinder to be active making it rather harder on batteries. Thankfully its powerpack is a lot larger, helping it to a still respectable 400 shot per charge rating. The Hasselblad does least well in this respect, despite it doing everything it can to reduce usage by constantly shutting its screen off. A smaller battery than the Fujifilm and no percentage indicators mean it’s the camera I’d most worry about staying alive, when I was working off the grid.
Operability (with gloves)
Another aspect of outdoor photography is that it can often be cold: even in summer the best light tends to come first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, which means colder temperatures in many parts of the world.
Of the three, the Pentax is the camera I’d be happiest operating with gloves. It has rather a lot of external controls but all of them are large and distinct enough to be controlled with gloves. The Hasselblad does well in this respect, too. Most of its buttons and dials are distinct enough to be operated without error and there’s no function that necessitates touchscreen control.
This leaves Fujifilm’s buttons and dials are rather small and recessed but most of its principle controls are easily operated with gloves. That said, its AF point joystick is arguably the easiest way to control AF positioning with gloves on.
To get anything like the full resolution out of these cameras, you need to keep them very steady. We’ve experienced shutter shock across a range of cameras, as higher resolutions highlight the issue in ever greater detail.
Large, high-resolution sensors are especially susceptible, since the mass of the shutter and mirror mechanisms involved are so much greater and the ability to discern any shake is that much higher. The Pentax offers a mirror-up mode, which allows you to separate the lifting of the mirror and the firing of the shutter, to allow the mirror-induced shake to dissipate (which is reassuring, given the camera’s Ikea-furniture-being demolished mirror/shutter sound). It also has a mounting point to allow stable attachment to a tripod when in the portrait orientation, however, there’s no electronic first curtain mode to reduce the impact of shake from the shutter mechanism.
The other two cameras don’t even have mirrors to worry about. On top of this, the Fujifilm offers an electronic first curtain shutter mode, which means there’s minimal mechanical movement before the exposure starts, all but eliminating the risk of shock and with no delay added before the exposure. The Hasselblad takes this philosophy one step further by containing no moving parts in the camera body at all (though there’s still a little clunk and click as the leaf shutter moves and we’re hearing reports of shutter shock from this).
Landscape work – Portability
Perhaps the greatest benefit for a landscape shooter, though, is any reduction in size and weight makes it easier to work with. For all the internet bravado about real men liking big cameras, most people having to lug cameras around on a regular basis will appreciate any saving in size and weight they can get.
The Hasselblad X1D has a clear edge, here. It’s significantly smaller and lighter than any of the other cameras here (it’s lighter than most full frame DSLRs). The Fujifilm is only 200g (7oz) heavier but will demand a considerably larger bag to house it. Then there’s the Pentax 645Z, which is the size of some European cars and, at over twice the weight of the X1D, is about as easy to carry. I jest, of course, but I’d still rather not have to hike any great distance with one.
Studio shooting – Operability
In the studio, there’s more time to consider and control your shot. The Pentax’s proliferation of direct controls takes sometime to learn, but there’s a control for just about everything. The Fujifilm, meanwhile, takes after its mass market cameras: direct controls for most exposure settings, then a handful of customizable buttons and an editable Q menu for less frequently changed options.
The Hasselblad takes the most minimalist approach and consequently is the one most likely to require menu diving. It does give direct access to most core features though.
All three cameras can be shot, tethered, using proprietary software or third-party plugins for Adobe Lightroom (the 645Z was the first camera we encountered to include a USB 3.0 connection, for exactly this reason). Sadly we’ve not yet had time to try them all.
Studio shooting – AF Coverage
Even if studio work buys you a little more time, as soon as you include a human subject, that luxury is curtailed. The more complex the pose, the less time you have to shoot it (assuming you’re not a monster to your models). Similarly, that perfect facial expression that you’ve been coaxing out of your subject with increasingly fanciful invocations won’t necessarily last long enough to switch to live view, zoom in and manually focus.
What you need is the best possible AF coverage which give you high precision AF points exactly where you need them. Fujifilm does best in this respect, giving you choice of 117 or 425 very fine AF points across a large area of the image. The Hasselblad offers slightly less coverage and only 35 fairly large AF regions.
The Pentax’s phase-detection system offers a very limited coverage, but in live view allows the AF point to be moved into 2030 positions. This number of positions means it takes a fraction longer to position your AF point but does mean you can be certain of being able to put the AF point where you need it.
Studio shooting – Manual Focus
No matter how good autofocus is, there’ll be times when you’ll have to fall back on manual focus. This is an area in which the cameras behave rather differently.
The Pentax gives the most traditional experience, with physically geared manual focus rings and a huge optical viewfinder. We wouldn’t generally take the hardliner’s approach that the old ways are best, but it’s not just a question of familiarity: the requirements of this combination have been fine-tuned since pretty much the dawn of photography, so it’s unsurprising that it can work pretty well.
And, of course, in live view mode, the Pentax can also offer the magnified view and focus peaking that the other two cameras offer. It also has a flip-up screen, which is useful since it’s difficult to hold the 645Z still enough to fine focus in magnified live view.
The Hasselblad does reasonably well in this respect, too. Its focus peaking isn’t selective enough to provide perfect focus but it lets you get very close, at which point it’s easy to then punch-in to magnified view to finish the job. The camera magnifies the currently selected AF region or wherever you double tap the screen. The lack of flip-up screen limits tripod work but the camera is small and light enough with most lenses that, with a bit of practice, you can magnified manual focus, hand-held.
The Fujifilm seems like it should have most of the best of most approaches: the two-way tilting screen is great for tripod work and the AF joystick makes it quick to choose where you want to punch-in for critical focus. However, like the X100 series, Fujifilm’s speed-sensitive manual focus can be frustrating. Particularly at close-focus distances, I found it hard to get the camera perform anything other than minuscule focus changes when I was trying to casting around to find the approximate region of focus. In good light, like the Hasselblad, you can hit a button to perform a quick AF acquisition to get you close to the right focus distance, but in poor light, this wouldn’t work, which made it a maddening process.
Outdoor fashion – Flash Sync
Outdoor fashion photography combines many of the demands we’ve already seen in landscape and studio shooting and then adds some more. Away from the controllable lighting of the studio, a battle between ambient and supplemental lighting breaks out, a battle for which the best weapon is a high flash sync speed.
Sure, there are High-speed sync options that provide lighting for a long enough duration that they can successfully light an image even though the camera’s shutter is never fully open, but these tend to require increasing amounts of power the higher your shutter speed, which is not what you need if you’re using large lights and heavy battery packs. You may even hit the limits of your strobe’s capability, which then limits your ability to separately control ambient and subject exposure. Also, the relatively slow-moving shutters implied by the low sync speeds on the Pentax and Fujifilm cameras may limit even the use of some high-speed sync systems.
The Hasselblad is the clear winner here. Its use of leaf shutters gives greater control over ambient light without having to resort to specialist lighting and keeps control of light sources decoupled. Fujifilm has built an adapter for using its own leaf-shutter Fujinon HC lenses, allowing flash sync at up to 1/800th but there are no native leaf shutter lenses on the roadmap at present. Until that time, the Fujifilm tops out at 1/125 sec, as does the Pentax, unless you can find one of the seemingly discontinued 75 or 135mm ‘LS’ leaf shutter lenses. Meanwhile the X1D can sync all the way up to 1/2000th of a second, giving it a huge advantage.
Outdoor fashion – AF Coverage and speed
For outdoor posed shooting the urgency of capturing the moment before your model gets frustrated is made more pressing by the additional risk of pneumonia and heatstroke. Or just the need to catch the light you want, if you’re shooting away from the poles or equator. This requires fairly swift AF.
Try to shoot dynamic poses, dancing or action of any sort and the need for fast autofocus becomes even greater. None of these cameras excel in this respect. The Hasselblad is currently the slowest of the three, with the Fujifilm being the fastest in CDAF mode. The Pentax is a little quicker when shot through the viewfinder using its dedicated phase-detection AF system, but this limits you to focus right near the center of the image and introduces a degree of inaccuracy and imprecision that tends to come from secondary-sensor AF. And we wouldn’t exactly recommend focus and recompose in studio setups or with the shallow depth of field and high resolutions of medium format.
Realistically, none of these cameras is great for fast-moving subjects, so the photographer’s technique for working around these limitations is likely to play just as much of a role.
The value of good JPEG/TIFFs
More so than the general consumer audience, the audience for this camera is likely to shoot Raw, with the expectation that post-processing will be a necessary part of the final image. So why would we care whether these cameras produce good JPEGs?
For a start, a good-looking JPEG can be used as a proof for a client almost as soon as you shoot the image.
Clearly this puts the Pentax and Fujifilm at an advantage, since these companies have more experience of delivering customer-friendly JPEGs. However, the GFX benefits further, not only gaining the results of Fujifilm’s well respected color response in JPEG, but also in that some of that color knowledge has been shared with Adobe, meaning that Film Simulation-simulating profiles are available in Lightroom and Camera Raw, to provide an attractive starting point for processing.
Ultimately, the nearer you can get to your preferred output at the start of the process, the less post-processing you need to do; saving time and money on every image.
Overall, there’s little to choose between these cameras in terms of image quality. This should be no great surprise, given they’re likely to be using sensors with similar underpinnings (even if we know some of the specifics of microlenses and ISO behavior differ).
However, that isn’t to say there’s nothing to choose between them, just that the choice very much comes down to what you’re shooting and how.
The Pentax 645Z is the immediate choice for anyone who wants an optical viewfinder. It also exists as part of a longer-established system (though some of the lenses significantly pre-date the demands of high-res digital), which means it’s potentially more flexible if you need to shoot before the other makers make good on their promised lenses.
Somewhat perversely, for all its compactness, the Hasselblad X1D’s high sync speeds and limited battery life mean it’s more comfortable in or around the studio whereas, despite its greater bulk, the Fujifilm’s faster focus and greater endurance makes it more tempting for shooting in further flung locations.
Some of these strengths and weaknesses aren’t set in stone: leaf shutter lenses for the Fujifilm would greatly extend its capability, as would updated firmware for the X1D (especially if it could result in faster and easier to position autofocus), so there’s still room for the new cameras to distinguish themselves rather more.
Overall, of course, these are exotic pieces of kit. Expensive and, despite the mass-market roots of the Pentax and Fujifilm’s interfaces, still more complex to shoot with than the full frame cameras that are probably the more sensible choice for most mortals (given the price, image quality and performance offered). That said, there’s something special about shooting with such daunting machines, and something that’s likely to immediately impress most would-be clients.