Medium Format Guide for Weddings and Portraiture

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With medium format shedding many of its niche associations and becoming a more viable and mainstream format, now might just be the time to begin incorporating this larger format into your working repertoire. When film was still king among working photographers, medium format cameras, particularly 645, was seen as an ideal balance between image quality, weight, speed, and number of frames per roll. Once the shift to digital occurred, weight and speed became the primary differentiators in which cameras and systems were being considered for the event and portrait photographer’s bag. With the recent transition to mirrorless, medium format can now, too, tick the weight and speed boxes, along with the image quality box for which it has always been known.

In more specific terms, though, how do current medium format systems stack up for wedding, portrait, and event shooters? Surprisingly well. Considering that the mirrorless systems from Hasselblad and FUJIFILM are only a few years old, they’ve quickly acquired a feeling of maturity and include features and lenses that working portrait photographers require. In a general sense, the benefits of medium format mainly revolve around the larger sensor size and the image-quality benefits it provides. Even though most digital medium format sensors (44 x 33mm) aren’t as large as medium format film sizes (roughly 56 x 42mm and larger), they are still noticeably larger than the 24 x 36mm dimensions of a full-frame sensor. What this objectively gives you is a topic/debate for another time, but I believe there definitely is a certain “look” to medium format files; a clear separation of subject and background, and a distinct handling of colors, tones, and depth of field that provides a unique look that is especially well-suited to portraiture.

FUJIFILM

One of the most popular makers of medium format gear right now is FUJIFILM, and it is also the newcomer on the block in regard to digital medium format. However, this company is a veteran of medium format during the film era, and has made quite an impression on the industry with its first three camera releases. The GFX 50S was the first, and was followed up a couple of years later with the GFX 50R. These two cameras share the same 44 x 33mm 51.4MP CMOS sensor, along with a handful of other features, but are notably different. The 50S is a more versatile camera, with its removable viewfinder and ability to use the EVF-TL1 EVF Tilt Adapter, which really enhances working from high and low angles when shooting in the vertical orientation. The 50R, on the other hand, uses a “rangefinder-inspired” profile, with an integrated viewfinder in the top corner, and has a slightly sleeker overall profile. And then there is the GFX 100; the 102MP monolith of the series that, beyond resolution, also features sensor-shift image stabilization, a higher-resolution 5.76m-dot EVF, improved DCI/UHD 4K video, and, according to our own Cory Rice, who called this camera a thing he loves, has some of the best color handling available.

FUJIFILM GFX 50S Medium Format Mirrorless Camera

At the lens end of FUJIFILM’s system, it has built a well-rounded optical lineup, ranging from ultra-wide to medium-telephoto, with a few useful zooms thrown in for flexibility. For portrait shooters, though, the key lens of the system is likely going to be the GF 110mm f/2 R LM WR, which is a perfect short tele prime with an impressively bright design. This lens offers all the selective focus and depth-of-field control you could need when shooting wide open and has a linear AF motor for quick and silent focus. Some other standouts for portrait and event shooting include the GF 100-200mm f/5.6 R LM OIS WR, a zoom covering a really effective portrait-length to medium-telephoto range for everything from half-length shots to headshots; the GF 63mm f/2.8 R WR, the simple normal-length prime that is compact and versatile enough to be a perfect prime for even shooting; and the GF 250mm f/4 R LM OIS WR, which is the longest lens in this class and is perfect for headshots or fashion and event shooting from a distance.

FUJIFILM GF 110mm f/2 R LM WR Lens

Hasselblad

The other key player in the contemporary medium format mirrorless scene right now, Hasselblad is also one of the giants of the industry and is squarely known for being a medium format innovator. Its digital medium format lineage stems from the H series of SLR cameras with digital backs, of which the H6D is the current model. The H series has been a standard of the studio photography industry for a very long time, used for some of the highest end fashion, advertising, and portraiture campaigns around. The issue for wedding and event photographers, and out-of-the-studio portrait photography, is the size and weight of these modular SLR systems. This is where the Hasselblad X1D II 50C comes in. One of the sexier cameras around, this second-generation 50MP mirrorless body improves upon its predecessor, the X1D-50c, with faster operation, an improved viewfinder, and a larger rear LCD. What it keeps is the 44 x 33MP 50MP CMOS sensor and the highly coveted and distinct body design, which is a total joy for all-day shooting.

Hasselblad H6D Medium Format Camera

Beyond the X1D II body, Hasselblad also caters to portrait and wedding shooters with an enticing lineup of lenses, including the standout XCD 80mm f/1.9. It’s a bit of an odd focal length, being a bit wider than your typical portrait-length lens, but the impressively fast f/1.9 design will give ample depth-of-field control. Not quite as bright, but the XCD 90mm f/3.2 is another awesome portrait-length prime that is a bit sleeker than the 80mm, and there is also the XCD 135mm f/2.8 that is perfect for mid-length work with good background separation. Additionally, a lens perfect for events and more frantic shooting scenarios is the sole zoom of the system, the XCD 35-75mm f/3.5-4.5, that covers wide to normal focal lengths with optical performance akin to the company’s prime lenses.

Hasselblad XCD 80mm f/1.9 Lens

One of the key distinctions Hasselblad XCD lenses and their X System have in general, over FUJIFILM, is the incorporation of leaf shutters. These in-lens shutters, opposed to in-body focal plane shutters, give substantially more flexibility when working with strobe lighting, which is something to take into serious consideration as a portrait photographer. Working with a leaf shutter means that flash sync is supported at all mechanical shutter speeds (up to 1/2000-second, in this case), which allows more flexibility for pulling off fill-flash techniques or freezing motion in conjunction with on and off-camera flashes.

Pentax and Leica: the SLRs

While I praise the benefits of mirrorless cameras, especially in relation to medium format, sometimes there is no getting around the experience of working with an SLR and its optical viewfinder. And if you’re one who truly prefers this traditional viewing means, then Pentax and Leica are still catering to these desires (as well as Hasselblad, with its H6 cameras, as mentioned above). Pentax was one of the first fully integrated (meaning no removable back) digital medium format cameras on the scene, and the second-generation 645Z was also one of the first to use the now widely known 44 x 33mm 51.4MP CMOS sensor. It’s heavier and a bit larger than the mirrorless options, but it has reliability and familiarity that make shooting a pleasure. Also, one of the benefits of the 645Z’s direct relation to the film era Pentax 645 cameras is the compatibility with some of these older lenses, including the smc FA 645 200mm f/4 IF and the smc FA 645 150mm f/2.8 IF; both of which are apt lenses for portraiture. For a more updated optical design, though, there is also the stellar D FA 645 90mm f/2.8 Macro ED AW SR.

Pentax 645Z Medium Format DSLR Camera

The other integrated SLR system of the digital medium format world comes from Leica, with the S (Typ 007), which features a 45 x 30mm 37.5MP CMOS sensor, and the forthcoming S3, which will have a 45 x 30mm 64MP CMOS sensor. These cameras have the look and feel of a traditional SLR, and come fit with a bright pentaprism viewfinder and intuitive handling. The main selling point for the Leica cameras, though, has to be the impressive line of S-series lenses, six of which feature a “Central Shutter”—or a leaf shutter—for flash sync up to 1/500-second. Some standouts from this lineup include the normal-length Summarit-S 70mm f/2.5 ASPH. CS, the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5 CS, and the APO-Tele-Elmar-S 180mm f/3.5 CS.

Leica S (Typ 007) Medium Format DSLR Camera

What are your thoughts on working with medium format gear to photograph a wedding or event? Are you a portrait photographer currently working with these larger format camera systems? Let us know your thoughts, in the Comments section, below.

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