Last Updated on 02/23/2023 by Chris Gampat
There are excellent cameras out there. In fact, no brand is making a bad camera. However, very few can do what medium format does when it comes to portraits. Since way before digital, medium format has done a better job than 35mm full frame. Part of the reason for this has to do with physics. Here’s a primer on how to shoot medium-format portraits.
Before you get into this, know that we’re talking about a few technical things and some skill-based findings. But, like all things, gear isn’t the be-all and end-all. Owning gear is great, but knowing how to use it is what makes your potential fierce. This guide on how to shoot medium format portraits is meant to be approachable for beginners, but also tailored to those who have portrait shooting experience. Want to spend less time in post-production? Well, lots of modern day medium format cameras have features like skin-smoothing that lessons the need to retouch. Of course, your subject also needs to take care of their skin and on-set applications need to be done. Coconut oil, vaseline, and hydration can do wonders for anyone. Medium format can do that because of how their lenses render.
With all that said, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Photoshop. But after a while, the work doesn’t really become an image anymore. This is one of the biggest problems with “AI Photos” as they’re called. So let’s get into it.
Lens Focal Lengths
For this tutorial on shooting medium format portraits, we’re focusing on cameras like Fujifilm’s GFX lineup and Hasselblad’s X2D lineup. By nature, medium format sensors are larger than 35mm full-frame sensors. So that means there is less distortion at equivalent focal lengths. A typically 50mm lens in full-frame 35mm is approximately a 63mm lens in medium format in terms of rendering and viewing potential. However, the lenses are what they are: a 63mm is still a 63mm lens, it just looks different. Think of it as the opposite of a 35mm full-frame to APS-C.
With all this said, you can get longer focal lengths to render wider fields of view. That ultimately means you can use wider-angle lenses for medium format portraits. Combined with good methods, it can eliminate most of the problems that occur with full-frame wide-angle lenses too.
“For me, what I realized with time is that the primary difference between the two formats is in the quality of the light. I’m not talking about the characteristics or the properties of the light, but the way medium format camera (the ones I use) renders/exhibits light in the photos.”Jack Ronnel in his guest blog post
In the same vein as lens focal lengths rendering a wider frame than the full-frame 35mm equivalents, so too do apertures. In this type of medium format, an f1.7 lens can be like an f1.2 full-frame lens when it comes to depth of field. That means the reverse of Micro Four Thirds (where you’re getting a bright aperture with deeper depth of field). In the case of medium format, you’re getting a darker aperture with a shallower depth of field when compared to full-frame 35mm.
All this translates into either needing to shoot at lower shutter speeds or higher ISO settings. Alternatively, you could use off-camera lighting. Indeed, some of the most legendary medium format portraits have used off-camera lighting. A while back, we interviewed the famous Platon about his work, and he’s big on medium format. But he’s not alone. A lot of fantastic portrait photographers use medium format. Similarly, there are lot of documentary photographers who use medium format as it encourages them to slow down to make better work.
Here’s the really fun thing about medium format portraits: composing. With wide-angle lenses, you often need to keep subjects away from the corner or not get very close in 35mm full-frame. But those guidelines have far less impact with medium format. You can break all sorts of rules here while also not needing to do as much post-production. Here are some examples from our previous reviews.
Additionally, that means if you’re keeping your subjects in the center, they’ll look even better than they typically do in 35mm full-frame at equivalent focal lengths. Part of this is due to how apertures render in medium format. To get equivalent looks in medium format, you have to do something called the Brenizer effect. We explain that in this article, but here’s a quote to get you started:
Essentially, think of it as a panoramic portrait method. You’re taking a bunch of photos and stitching them together in Photoshop or Capture One. You’re creating the look of a super-fast aperture wide-angle lens. In 35mm full-frame photography, it isn’t really possible. But you can create this look with medium format film straight out of the camera.
Be Creative. Create, Don’t Just Capture
Lastly, to make the most of shooting medium format portraits, you should be creative, striving for more than just capturing a scene. You should have multiple layers of effect on how the scene is coming together and this should be a creative vision that uses imagination. It doesn’t have to involve Photoshop, but it can involve set design.