If you are in the process of looking for a wedding photographer, chances are you will soon hear the terms: medium format, 35mm, and digital. Those are the three primary types of camera systems currently used by wedding photographers. We, the wedding photographers, have argued amongst ourselves for years as to which camera system is best. I'll start by sharing with you about the different camera systems and will then give you my opinion of which camera system your wedding photographer should use.
For many years medium format has been the absolute best option. A medium format camera uses film that is 3 times the size of a 35mm negative-- resulting in higher resolution images and beautiful enlargements, however, the cameras and processing costs are very expensive.
Primary advantages: high resolution negatives. Previously, the fact that a person owned a Medium Format camera was almost, in and of itself, a sign that they were a true "wedding photographer" (due to the expense of the system).
Disadvantages: expensive to operate (film costs are so high that some wedding photography books encourage medium format photographers to limit the photos they take); film can be lost or damaged during processing; slower to focus and operate.
For many years 35mm has had a bad reputation for providing poor quality enlargements -- especially when compared to medium format. However, over the past 10 years the quality of 35mm film has improved tremendously. It is now a common format used by many professional photographers, especially those who use the photojournalistic style and shoot close to a thousand or more images on a wedding day.
Primary advantages to 35mm: fast (easy to quickly focus and shoot during), much improved quality of enlargements (many people would have a hard time telling the difference between a 35mm and medium format 8x10 enlargement).
Disadvantages: processing film is becoming more and more expensive, and film can be damaged or loss during processing. Many photographers that shoot film are now having the negatives scanned so that the files become a digital file.
Professional digital wedding photography has been a viable option since about the year 2000 (although some would argue that date). The quality of digital cameras has now reached a point where I now feel digital has surpassed the quality of medium format negatives. Keep in mind there is a broad variety of cameras, and a "professional" digital camera from 2004 that cost ,500 new will not capture the quality of images that a "pro-am" (a camera targeted to advanced amateurs and also professionals) from 2010 that costs ,000 will capture. "Digital camera" covers a massive spectrum of cameras and camera quality.
Primary digital advantages: instant review of images on the back of the camera; no film and processing costs (although the savings is offset by the additional computer time required to process the digital images); more control over the images (i.e., a slight rotation or cropping of an image is quick and easy with digital but requires a custom print from 35mm or medium format). Many digital cameras surpass the quality of even medium format.
Disadvantages: technology changes rapidly over time and cameras soon are outdated (although this doesn't necessarily effect you, as the consumer). Memory cards are easier to lose than rolls of film (if your wedding photographer uses a digital camera, ask them how they make sure the photos arrive safely back at the studio).
So, which camera system should my photographer use?
No matter what you have been told - all three formats are a viable method for wedding photography. Some might be more expensive than others, but they all CAN produce good results. The fact is that all three systems can result in poor-quality photos, too. Many photographers use several of the camera systems. Some might use medium format for the formals but 35mm for the reception and ceremony coverage. Others will primarily shoot digital, but might bring film cameras as backup equipment.
This is the key: before signing a contract with a photographer, ask to see sample enlargements that were taken with the same equipment that would be used at your wedding. If you like the quality and color of the images, it doesn't really matter whether 35mm, digital, or a medium format camera was used to record the image!