Best Second-hand Digital Medium Format Cameras
November 1, 2021
Take a step up with our guide to the best Second-hand digital medium format cameras available. If you’ve been put off by the price of medium format cameras, then perhaps it’s time to take a look at what’s available in the second-hand market. Fujifilm’s introduction of the GFX system has made medium format digital more affordable than ever, and that’s had a knock on effect to the second-hand market! Here Damien Demolder takes us through the options available!
Fujifilm’s low-cost GFX system has put pressure on the secondhand market for digital medium format cameras, so there are some bargains to be had, says Damien Demolder
The digital age almost did away with the medium format camera. Sensors with a larger surface area and more pixels, as well as the processing power needed to run them, made the early models extraordinarily expensive to the point that hardly anyone could afford them. However, just as the APS-C sensor is now giving way to the reasonably priced full frame sensor, medium format models are gradually coming down in price – thanks in no small measure to the Fujifilm GFX system. New models are still quite costly though, so it can pay to investigate the second-hand market if you are looking for a lower entry point.
While an ability to resolve more detail has almost always been the main driver for larger formats, an equally desirable characteristic is their power to direct the viewer’s eye through a reduced depth-of-field. In the current digital world, however, the ability of medium format sensors to produce superior resolution and/or a more dynamic depth-of-field are somewhat undermined by the current range of 45-50MP+ full frame sensor cameras and the range of modern fast-aperture lenses.
There are still advantages
Even though there are full frame sensors that can match the pixel counts of medium format models the same number of pixels on a medium format sensor will have a little more room to breathe on the larger chip and will be able to be larger themselves. Pixels with a greater surface area generally collect more light and produce less noise – though the relationship between larger pixels and lower noise fluctuates with advancing technology. Many older medium format sensors are of the CCD type. These are much loved for their film-like characteristics – when used with plenty of light – but they tend to have a limited useful ISO range. More modern CMOS sensors have much better noise performance and a wider ISO allowance, but are said to produce images that look more ‘digital’.
A further significant advantage, for some photographers, is the handling experience that comes with shooting on a medium format system. The larger body and lenses may slow the photographer down, and the file sizes bring into consciousness a need to shoot less and to make each shot count.
While most medium format sensors are not as big as a frame from a 645 film camera they will still be significantly larger than the sensor of a full frame camera. A 645 frame from of film uses an area of 56×41.5mm while most modern medium format sensors have an imaging area of 44x33mm. A full frame sensor measures 36x24mm, so the digital medium format sensor is 22% wider and 38% taller – an average of 30%. That’s quite a lot less than the 43% relationship between the edge dimensions of an APS-C frame and full frame, but an advantage that’s still worth having.
Hasselblad Medium Format
- Range of body shapes
- Interchangeable backs
- Backs for classic V system
This old classic of medium format photography offers a nice range of different options for the digital photographer – a range that encompasses alternative experiences rather than a suite of resolution options. The second-hand possibilities across the Hasselblad brand include the H-series of heavy duty studio models, the X1D handheld and highly portable ‘compact’, as well as digital backs for the V-series film bodies.
The first of the H system bodies fully compatible with digital backs is the H1D which took a 22MP CCD back, but even the film-based H1 can take a range of backs with different resolutions. You will often find these models paired with Phase One P30 and P45 backs, both of which also use CCD sensors. The same backs will also be found on the H2, H3, and H4 bodies, while the H5 is often paired with Hasselblad’s own 50C CMOS sensor back. The H-system is very business-like and designed to be worked hard every day by professional photographers. The lenses are extremely good, but you should be warned that they are also extremely costly.
The newest digital body you are likely to get secondhand is the original Hasselblad X1D 50C. As the name suggests, this is a 50MP body that uses a CMOS sensor. The camera is relatively small and relatively lightweight – for a medium format system – and it takes the actually small and lightweight XCD lenses. An adapter will also allow X-Pan lenses to be mounted, another will take the H lenses and a further lets us mount the classic V lenses to it. Although superseded by the X1D ll the original model is still nice to use and produces images of an excellent quality. Even secondhand though it has retained a good deal of its value, and as the lenses are current don’t expect them to be a steal either.
Best Hasselblad: Hasselblad CFV-50 (Approx. £3000)
- Fits the classic V cameras
- Up to 50MP
Perhaps a little more exciting, if less practical, are the CFV Hasselblad backs that can be used with the V-series film bodies. There are three older models; the CFV-39, the CFV-50 and the CFV-50C – each of which will fit almost any V system camera since 1957. These are a little slow to use, but fun all the same, and they allow us to use those lovely Hasselblad film bodies in the modern age.
The CFV-39 and CFV-50 are especially interesting as they use a slightly larger sensor than modern digital medium format bodies, and both use CCD technology. The 49×36.7mm sensor is less short of the 56x56mm traditional Hasselblad image size than the modern 44x33mm medium format sensor, so focal lengths need only a 1.1x conversion factor when we shoot in the oblong format.
Pentax Medium Format
- A pair of bodies on offer
- Nice straightforward handling
- Lovely image quality
Pentax was due to be one of the first consumer brands to produce a medium format digital camera, but it took five years from the initial announcement for the 645 D to actually go in sale. With the newer 645 Z the company has now produced two digital 645 models – both based squarely on the company’s 645 N film body so they take the same lenses and accessories. Using a CCD sensor the Pentax 645 D offers a 40MP resolution while the 645 Z has a 51MP CMOS sensor, and as both sensors measure 44x33mm all lenses become a little more telephoto than originally intended.
The CCD sensors of the day when the 645 D was built didn’t make shooting in low light especially easy and the ISO range of this model is limited to ISO 200-1000, though it can extend to 100-1600 with some degradation in image quality.
In common with the Pentax medium format film bodies, this 645 D digital camera doesn’t offer interchangeable backs, so you can’t update it with a better sensor from a third-party back manufacturer. The camera’s 40MP sensor though was ground-breaking when it eventually went on sale in 2010, and even by today’s standards the camera performs very well in good lighting conditions.
Despite being eleven years old the 645 D still goes for a decent price so expect to pay in the region of £2500 for a nice example.
Best Pentax: Pentax 645Z (approx. £3700)
- 51MP CMOS sensor
- Live View shooting
As nice as the 645 D is, the newer 645 Z is a much more flexible camera, and while technically still a current model its exceptionally long shelf-life means there are plenty of examples for sale on the secondhand market. The main advantage of the Z model over the D isn’t so much that the Z has 51MP instead of 40MP but rather that the sensor is of the CMOS variety rather than a CCD. The 645 D has that very attractive, CCD film-like look but is a poor performer in low light when the ISO is pushed upwards. That’s fine if you always shoot with plenty of light, but the CMOS sensor of the 645 Z makes it a much more useable camera for those pursuing a range of photographic interests in a variety of conditions. The newer sensor also allows Live View operation as well as the chance to shoot video – though only in FHD and 60i/30p.
What makes the Pentax 645 Z an attractive proposition still is the quality of the file it produces whether you shoot in Adobe’s DNG RAW format or Pentax’s own PEF. Even though the camera was launched in 2014 it creates a lovely-looking picture that betters many of today’s full frame models.
Fujifilm Medium Format
- The largest range of modern cameras
- Lovely operating system
- Great value for money
Despite being something of a late-comer to the digital medium format market Fujifilm has not only caught up with the competition, but has become something of a front-runner with its comparatively prolific launching schedule. The company kicked off its GFX medium format system with the GFX 50S in 2016 and has introduced a further four models since – far more than any other brand.
Helpfully one of Fujifilm’s aims was to make digital medium format photography more accessible and declared its first camera would be available for less than £10,000, but with the latest GFX 50 S ll currently priced at £3500 body-only the secondhand price of the previous models has nowhere to go but down. This has impacted the whole medium format market in a positive way for the prospective buyer, and has made used Fujifilm bodies especially affordable.
We have two basic choices to make – 50MP or 100MP – and if we determine that 50MP is enough we have the option of a DSLR style body in the S series or a flat-topped rangefinder style body in the GFX 50R. Either way, you will get a camera that has thoroughly modern menus and none of the delays and slow operation of most other secondhand systems. You will also get outstanding image quality whether you opt for 50MP or 100MP, as well as the friendly and varied colour controls that allow a good many Fujifilm photographers to shoot JPEG-only.
Best Fujifilm: Fujifilm GFX 50R (approx. £2400)
- Rangefinder style with good EVF
- Compact dimensions for medium format
As tempting as 100MP is from the GFX 100 my preference of the models most likely to appear on the secondhand market at the moment is the GFX 50R. I like the interchangeable viewfinders and the handling of the GFX 50S but the more compact dimensions of the GFX 50R make it a neater solution for the street, travel, documentary and portraiture that I like to shoot. It’s also nicely suited to studio work and pretty much any other type of photography, but it doesn’t ‘look the part’ as much as the GFX-50s because of its flat top.
I like the fact that it can be made into a small package with compact lens, and that it offers both a flip-out rear screen as well as a 3.69M-dot viewfinder. The AF is certainly not as quick or decisive as the newer models, and the read-out speed of the sensor makes the silent mode impractical for fast moving subjects, but the image quality is first-rate and the camera is very easy to use.
Leica Medium Format
- Unique sensors
- DSLR-style handling
- Exceptional lenses
Leica’s medium format camera system didn’t really start until 2008 when it announced the Leica S2. The S1 that came out 12 years before it is really an interesting piece of history rather than a proposition for a secondhand useable camera – it uses a scanning back and needs to be tethered to a computer.
The S series has hopped along since the S2, and we’ve had the sillily named S (Typ 006) and S (Typ 007) before the current S3 was launched last year. The system is as expensive as you’d expect from Leica, but they are very nice to use and offer more of a DSLR experience than most medium format digital bodies. Their shape is more upright than deep, and their handling feels immediately familiar. The stand-out feature of the system though is a quality of image derived partly from the company’s astonishing lens system but also from its unique choice of sensors. Leica S cameras don’t use the same sensors we see in the rest of the market and this not only gives them a point of difference but also something of an edge.
Best Leica: Leica S (Typ 007) (Approx £6000)
- Exceptional dynamic range
- Beautiful look to the images
Bond is of course on our minds at the moment with the recent release of No Time To Die, and it was too at the time of the launch of the Leica S (Typ 007) as it coincided with the 2015 film Spectre. The events I’m sure were unrelated, but Leica certainly made the most of the implied connection at the time. It has to be said, I was much less of a fan of Spectre than I was of the new Leica S and it remains one of the cameras I’ve most enjoyed using – or at least, looking at the pictures it made.
This model marked the switch from CCD to CMOS which didn’t please everyone, but the added flexibility the technology brought with it makes the (Typ 007) a much more useable camera and in reality a much better camera than the previous S (Typ 006). The pixel count remained at 37.5 million and the sensor features the same unusual 30x45mm measurements, but the dynamic range is claimed to reach 15 stops – which really shows in the pictures. The sensor’s ability to record colour and detail in extreme tones is pretty astonishing, and skies that appear blown-out can be pulled back with little effort or degradation. A new mirror system also makes this a much quieter and less clunky camera to use.
Inevitably the (Typ 007) is still a pricey bit of kit and they aren’t easy to come by, so expect to offer up an arm and a leg for a good one.
Phase One / Mamiya Medium Format
- A wide range of digital backs
- Sensors up to 53.7×40.4mm
- Nice modern bodies
Danish manufacturer Phase One started life producing a series of independent digital backs to fit other brand’s cameras, but when it purchased a majority stake in Mamiya it began selling cameras as well. The company is still very much a digital-back brand, but now it has cameras of its own design and has transformed itself somewhat.
The P and P+ series of backs that were produced between 2004 and 2008 are still very much in circulation and can be mounted to the cameras of that time – such as Hasselblad H and Mamiya 645 AF models. There is a range of resolutions from 16MP to 60.5MP and a collection of physical sensor sizes. The IQ series is more modern, with the IQ3 the newer of the systems no longer sold new. A major attraction of some of these backs is that they offer sensors of up to 53.7×40.4mm – which is close enough to the same imaging area of a frame of 645 film.
The first bodies were the Phase One 645AF, 645DF and 645DF+ which were Mamiya 645 film bodies in disguise and which all showed their age even when they were current. They are all certainly useable but unsurprisingly have the air of being film cameras with digital backs attached. They all use the standard Mamiya 645 lens system, so there is no shortage of new and old lenses, and Phase One has introduced quite a number of significantly upgraded optics – designated with a blue ring.
Best Phase One: Phase One XF (approx. £2500 body only)
- Thoroughly modern interface
- Great range of features and upgrade program
While the Mamiya 645-based cameras work they lack a sense of integration with their digital backs. This issue was fixed in dramatic style when Phase One introduced its own camera in 2015 – the Phase One XF. Still very much based on the Mamiya framework this new body offers far more control of the back from the front as well as a modern menu and modern features to go with it. It was designed to be updateable, and true to their word the company has released a series of firmware versions over the years to bring new functions and new compatibility to the camera.
It is still officially a current model, alongside the XT landscape camera, but as it has been on the go for over six years you can, if you look hard enough, find a used one for sale. Remember though that while a body for £2500 might seem decent enough you’ll need to add the back of your choice to your basket as well, and you can pay up to £15,000 for a used IQ3 back if you want the 100MP model.