Medium format look on small sensors

You can mimic the look of a larger sensor on APS-C, but it will require you to tune every step of the capture and editing process. Here’s how.

Øyvind Nordhagen
8 min readAug 14, 2021


“The more colorful part of anyone’s day” Oslo, July 2021. Fujifilm X-T4 with Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R at f/2

Let me preface this by saying that I am in no way suggesting that a small sensor can replace a larger one with post production. There is a lot to shooting medium format that simply cannot be faked completely. Chief among which are depth of field, detail and tonality. Also, what “The medium format look” is might be different depending on who you ask. I am going to focus my interpretation on the tonality and how the thinner focal plane affects subject isolation.

Distilling the look

To me this look has surprisingly little to do with the edit itself, because the images I admire that were shot on medium format look that way for a lot of other reasons. The most technical contributors are the sensor/lens combination and the resulting subject isolation. I will get to that shortly.

Choice of subject, composition and light

Slow down! Medium format bodies and lenses are generally larger, heavier and slower. For this reason they lend themselves to different subjects and compositions. Fast-paced action and candid, noisy, contrasty, slanted wide angle street scenes probably are traditionally associated with 35mm. What would be better is a calmer and cleaner image. Calmer in composition, softer in lighting and with a nicely framed main subject. Overcast days can work well for this style.

“Friends” Oslo, June 2021 Fujifilm X-T4 with Fujinon XF 23mm f/2 R WR at f/2 — Not a typical medium format subject due to the fact that it’s obviously a candid street photo.

Lens choice and subject distance

What medium format gives you more than anything is subject separation in spades. This is partially because of the shallower depth of field so if your lens choice and f-stop is wrong at this point, you are going to have to work a lot harder or never get there at all.

Due to the laws of physics, the field of view and depth of field on a larger sensor is different. This gives you a thinner focal plane for the equivalent f-stop on a smaller sensor. In combination with a relatively wide field of view, the result can be quite stunning. Think 35mm with the bokeh of 85mm at f/4. You can achieve good focal subject isolation, and still have plenty, but calm environmental context.

No lens construction can completely make up for the difference in sensor size. In recent years there have been many lenses coming out with insane f-numbers, but these are generally too long to give you that crucial field of view. However by shooting with something close to a 50mm equivalent at a large aperture and woking with the subject distance to balance the depth of field, you can have people fooled to a certain extent.

“Young men passing time at blue hour” Oslo, July 2021. Fujifilm X-T4 with Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R at f/1.4

There is also a point to be made about lens character, AKA the look it contributes to the final image in terms of colors, contrast and quality of softness in the out-of-focus areas. Most modern lenses are simply too “sterile-looking”. With better sharpness comes more contrast, comes harder tones. Since lens reviews focus so much on sharpness, manufacturers strive to outdo each other on tech specs. Come one, people! Lenses were plenty sharp 20 years ago, for the most part.

What I have found is that my Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R is as good as it gets for this. It’s not weather sealed, it’s not the fastest to focus, but shot at f/2 or even f/1.4 it’s as sharp as I need it to be. I also love the character it renders with, as demonstrated by some of the images seen above and below. It’s not fully vintage (nor should it be for this exercise), but it’s not a crispness monster either.

Cropping and aspect ratio

Medium format sensors are 4:5 in aspect ratio so it makes sense to crop like that if you want your images to look like you have deep pockets. There is a better reason for doing it though: It feels different. A 4:5 image does not have an exaggerated long edge. It still has orientation, but it will often allow you to put a more even amount of space around your subject. This adds to the calmness of the image. It lets the subject breathe.

Take these two crops from the same image as an example:

Grandmother and grandson. Oslo, February 2021. Fujifilm X-T4 with Fujinon 56mm f/1.2 R at f/5

Gear and camera settings

As discussed above, choose a normal or short telephoto lens and open up your aperture to separate the subject from the background. However, don’t obliterate the frame with bokeh. Be appropriate with your depth of field!

You also want your smaller sensor to be able to resolve as much detail as possible with the least amount of noise, so an ISO of 800 or lower is where I would start. Some amount of grain can actually help produce smoother graduated color and contrast (this is called dithering). However, noise is not the same as grain so add it in post if you find it helps.

Should you shoot raw?

Probably. You will be doing subtle edits, but even these will take away more quality on a JPEG than a raw file. You should be looking to retain detail and buttery smooth color and light graduations without noise or artifacts. Shooting raw makes sense then.

The post-processing

Now we get to the part that you can do in editing. After your basic corrections you should have a 4:5 frame with a nicely balanced composition. It should be decently exposed and contain both shadow and highlight detail. What’s important here is to stay in full control of all your tones. We are going for balanced and smooth. Save your steep S-curves for something else.

One particular area to pay attention to is that you achieve a gradual, soft highlight rolloff. Take this into account when exposing as well.

Subtractive focus

Now it’s time to add focus by means of subtracting it from less important areas. Sure you have added vignetting to your images to bring focus to the main subject before and subtle vignetting can play a part here as well. However, strong vignetting only suggests cheap lenses. You can achieve focus and separation of your subject in more elegant ways. Exaggerating the focal plane difference is one.

What I typically do in Lightroom is add a radial filter around my subject and select a preset I have made for this purpose. If the feathering becomes very noticeable I might make a more precise mask with the brush instead. In the next sections I will go through the use of the various sliders. I usually tweak the specific values per image.

Texture, Clarity, Dehaze and Sharpness

The main subject should appear sharp. The background and foreground should be present, but not distracting. For that I find that decreasing these values helps a lot. Especially Dehaze, although not too much as this one is easy to overdo. Dehaze reduces contrast in a way that also blurs contours a little. I’m not sure if this is correct, but looking at images taken on larger sensors, when there is a thinner focal plane the out-of-focus areas seem to not only be blurred. They seem to also have less contrast. Slightly hazy if you will. Negative Dehaze achieves that. The reduced exposure is only to compensate for some of the brightening that negative Dehazing adds.

Suggested slider values to start with:
Exposure: -0.20
Highlights: -10
Texture: -10
Clarity: -10
Dehaze: -10
Sharpness: -20


To further add focus, take away a little of the saturation from the rest of the frame. How much depends the original photo and how much looks natural. I often start with -10.

Additive focus

You could stop here, but if you want even stronger subject separation, you will have to paint some in. That’s why I also tend to use the brush in Lightroom to paint over the main subject to essentially make the opposite adjustments of what I just did to the background; adding some clarity, sharpness and saturation to the main subject.

Subject focus is best achieved by the relative amount of these qualities, so keep an eye on the balance between the subject and the surroundings. Split the workload between additive and subtractive so to speak. Add +10 clarity to the subject and subtract -10 clarity from the surroundings instead of only adding +20 clarity to the subject. This will allow you to retain image quality and make your edits look more natural.

Here is what all this looks like before and after. Since you are probably viewing this on a small screen I have exaggerated the effect a little bit to make it more noticeable.


Do not overdo this! Every sensor and image is different, but don’t think that you really need to sharpen all that much for your image to pop. If you have good quality gear and your focus is correctly set, sharpening will quickly detract the quality that we have worked to keep. This goes for global sharpening, but especially for using the rather blunt Sharpness slider in the local editing panels in LR. No grainy faces and contours with sharpening halos, please!


If you find this technique works for you, please let me know by tagging me in your Instagram captions. My handle is @oyvindwashere. You can find more examples on my Instagram.




Øyvind Nordhagen

Photographer based in Oslo. I write about photographic technique and editing.