FILM PHOTOGRAPHY FORMAT
35mm, Medium Format, and Large Format Film Photography
Whether you’re starting with 35mm film cameras, medium format cameras, or large format cameras, the various film sizes can be found in color print film, black and white film, and also black and white and color reversal film.
In this chart below you can see some of the most common film format in the last century, plenty of them are not survived to the digital revolution.
f you're just getting into shooting film, one of the first decisions you'll have to make is what format you'll be shooting. If you ask around, you'll get many varied responses as to the advantages and disadvantages of shooting 35mm, medium format, or large format, but I wanted to make an article that shows some basic advantages and disadvantages of each medium as well as a photo test to give you some concrete comparisons of the same subject.
35mm, Medium Format, Large Format: Which Should You Choose?
Basic Photography Tips for 35mm Format Film
35mm film is the most popular film photography type.35mm film, or 135 film, was introduced by Kodak in 1934. Fitting 35mm cameras, including single-lens reflex (SLR) and range-finder cameras, basic 35mm film photography is named after the size of the film – 35mm wide. Individual rolls of 35mm film are enclosed in a single-spool, light-tight, metal case that allow it to be loaded into cameras in the daylight. Therefore, when the roll of film is used, it must be re-wound back into the spool before opening the camera. In the case of disposable cameras, the film is kept in a light-tight casing until opened by a lab technician in the dark. Both sides of a 35mm roll are perforated to allow mechanisms within the camera to advance and rewind it.
The standard image size on a 35mm film roll is 24 x 36 mm with a perforation size of KS-1870. This standard ensures that the film properly advances eight perforations to allow a two millimeter gap between frames and eliminate overlapping of images on the film. Of course, there are other 35mm film types that have different image sizes, but these are rare and will likely only be found in specialty stores. The 35mm film standard will be found in any common convenience store and all camera shops. Most 35mm film is found in 24-exposure or 36-exposure counts. However, with most cameras and proper film settings, you will be able to squeeze out an additional two or three photographs.
Since the 1960s, 35mm film has been the most popular film size. While the quality of 35mm film cannot match that of larger film sizes, the ease of use and flexibility it offers is unmatched. As a result, a large majority of film cameras, including single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras, support the 35mm film size. And because 35mm film has the most support in the photography industry, is available at most retail outlets, and is typically much lower in price than the larger size film equipment, 35mm film is often the starting point for beginner photographers.
35mm is by far the cheapest way to go when getting into shooting film. You can pick up a used camera for a few bucks, and they're so ubiquitous that some people just give them away. Older manual lenses can be had for pennies on the dollar of their original price as well. Here are some other advantages and disadvantages of 35mm film that you may or may not have thought of.
Why is it Called 35mm Film?
35mm film is known as such because the width of the film is 35 millimeters (mm). Running along both sides of 35mm film are perforations that have been standardized to a Kodak Standard pitch – KS-1870. With this standardization, cameras advance each frame by 8 perforations, or approximately 38 millimeters, to create perfectly spaced images that do not overlap. The image size of each image on film is 24×36 millimeters, with a 2 millimeter gap between each frame.
35mm film typically comes in 24 or 36 exposure rolls. Individual rolls are enclosed in a light-tight metal container, allowing film cameras to be loaded in the daylight without risking exposure. Inside the metal container the film is wrapped around a spool, allowing the film to advance frame to frame. The film is clipped or taped to the spool and the other end exits a slot lined with small fiber particles (called flock) that ensure the film can exit the container without risking exposure from light. A cut piece of the film, known as the leader, is manufactured to stick out of the container and facilitates loading the film in a camera. For assistance with loading film into your camera, please see loading and unloading 35mm film.
Printing with 35mm Film
Because of the smaller size of 35mm film, photographers are somewhat limited in the quality of print that can be achieved. Depending on the subject, film speed, lighting, and other factors, 35mm film can be enlarged up to 16×20 inches. Please note that 35mm film can be enlarged as much as you would like but most prints larger than 16×20 will show noticeable grain and suffer from a lower quality look. However, the personal preference or desired look the photographer wishes to achieve will play a role in how large the image can be printed. Some photographers using 35mm film may not go beyond a 5×7 print, while others may try to push beyond the 16×20 size.
Photographers looking to make large sized prints will likely want to move up to a medium format or large format camera, which use negatives much larger than 35mm and allow for bigger prints.
- Familiar format: if you've shot full-frame digital, getting used to framing a shot is easy as it's the same viewfinder you're used to (albeit it's usually easier to manual focus on film cameras than digital).
- Speed: loading and unloading film, even on completely manual cameras, is pretty intuitive, quick, and easy. Shooting is speedy as well, as the viewfinder shows you almost exactly what your shot looks like in real time. Rangefinders are an exception to this, but once you get used to the mechanics of one, it can be even faster than shooting with an SLR. Leicas are popular street cameras for a reason!
- Availability of lab development: if you're looking to use a local lab to cut down costs, you can still find the occasional drug store that will develop 35mm film on the cheap. Almost any mom and pop camera store will develop it along with national labs.
- Did I mention it's cheaper? From the film to the development to the cameras, if you're looking to keep the budget tight, it's hard to beat 35mm.
- Resolving power: 35mm is a small format and hence has much less resolving power than medium or large format. If you plan on regularly printing above 11x14, you might want to take a serious look at the other formats. That said, photojournalists have been making poster and larger sized prints from 35mm negatives and slides for years. A little grain never hurt!
- Greater depth of field: If you're looking to get shallow depth of field, especially at wider angles, it's much more difficult with a smaller format. When you're dealing with telephoto distances or closer shots, this is less of an issue.
- Cropping: The 35mm frame does not lend itself as well to typical crops such as 8x10 and 11x14. You will lose a bit of the image or end up with negative space.
Basic Photography Tips for Medium Format Film
Medium format film is much larger than the 35mm counterpart, and is preferred by many professional photographers. Of course, due to the size of medium format film, a medium format camera will be needed to use it. Most often, medium format film is 6 x 6 cm square or 6 x 4.5 cm rectangular (commonly referred to as 645). Today, medium format photography utilizes the 120 film format and, in some cases, the 220 film format. These formats are nearly identical except that 220 film is twice as long and allows twice the number of exposures. With 120 film, you can get either 12 or 16 exposures and double that amount with 220 film. Medium format film is still readily available at most camera shops and online distributors.
There are no perforated edges to medium format film, but instead the camera takes the film from one spool to another. When the roll is finished, the roll wraps around the second spool, making the film light-tight, and allows the photographer to open the camera and remove the film. There will also be a sticky tab that can be used to tape down the film and prevent it from unrolling. Additionally, the film will now be labeled exposed to indicate that the film has been used and is ready for processing.
From 6x4.5 to 6x6 up to 6x17 panoramics, medium format probably has the most versatility in choosing your frame. 6x4.5 (that's centimeters, not millimeters) is the easiest to shoot, as many of the cameras are similar in form factor to 35mm SLRs. Square format 6x6 cameras are a lot of fun as well, with Hasselblad being the big name in the bunch. 6x7 cameras (one of my favorite sizes) can be a bit bulky and heavy, with tripod use becoming more of a necessity for stability, although some 6x7 cameras feel great in hand as well! The Pentax 67 and Plaubel Makina 67 come to mind.
- Resolving Power: the jump from 35mm to medium format greatly increases the image fidelity you can achieve in your prints. When you look at scans from a medium format camera compared to 35mm, the size difference really starts to add up.
- Shallower depth of field: there's a reason portrait and wedding photographers from the 70s to 90s were all about medium format. There's something magical about the falloff and depth you can get, making them a natural for portraits.
- Cropping: some of the formats, especially 6x7, lend themselves to magazine layout much better than 35mm.
- The Goldilocks factor: medium format cameras inhabit the Goldilocks zone of cameras, with much of the speed of 35mm and a taste of the quality of large format. Many medium format cameras even have autofocus.
- Variety: the 120 film size can be used with most cameras, so you don't have to switch to a different film type every time you switch medium format sizes.
- Modularity: a lot of medium format cameras are modular, so you can separate the film back and the prism from the body. This represents a huge advantage as you can switch films in mid-roll simply by changing the film back.
- Easier to scan than 35mm film: with a larger negative, the film doesn't curl quite as much, making flatbed scans easier.
- Size: medium format cameras tend to be larger than their 35mm counterparts, and with that size comes weight and inconvenience. There are exceptions to this as well, but when you decrease the size, you may lose some advantages the format offers, such as modularity.
- Speed - From the autofocus (if it exists) to loading the film, using a MF camera is inherently slower. If you have a waist-level finder, the viewfinder image is also laterally reversed, so that does take some getting used to. Many people see the speed issue as desirable, however, because of the need to slow down and really focus on the scene.
- Higher cost: with less exposures per roll and less variety of films available, cost may become an issue. It's also typically more expensive at labs to develop 120 film. Scanning is also more expensive. The cameras can also get pricey as well, especially since many are sold used with the body separate from the finder/back/prism.
Large Format Beginner Photography Film Tips
Large format film works a little different than both 35mm film and medium format film as there are no spools used. Instead, large format film is individual 4’x5’ sheets that are loaded into a special film holder that locks into the back of a large format camera. The holders will hold two sheets of film on both sides, and must be loaded in the complete dark. When loaded into the back of the camera, the light protective sheet is removed and will allow you to release the shutter and expose the film. The protective sheet is then returned to the holder before your film is removed. The film will remain in the holder until ready for development.
With bodies ranging in size from a few pounds to the size of a truck (literally), large format cameras are the big daddies of the photography world. Pumping out negatives that makes 35mm cower in fear, they rule the roost in the image quality department. Not only do they offer superior film resolution, but many other processes, such as tintype, make the variety of images you can create unparalleled. But with that quality and variety there is a cost.
- Image quality: nothing else in the film world comes close. Looking at a slide of even 4x5 film may make you cry. You've been warned.
- Perspective correction: with most large formats, movements are offered which can correct keystoning in images, render everything in focus from top to bottom and left to right of an image, and even selectively focus on parts of an image.
- Ease of scanning: with a larger piece of film, it tends to lay flatter and be easier to scan on flatbeds.
- Alternative processes: because of the size of the medium, it's easier to introduce different processes from tintypes, pinhole, to shooting directly onto paper.
- Cool factor: not only do the cameras command attention, but if you're into shooting portraits of strangers, the wow factor of the camera itself will often help subjects become more agreeable.
- Size: the cameras are pretty massive and heavy in many cases, although many of the field cameras are made of lightweight wood to keep weight to a minimum. That said, with that weight comes the necessity to use a sturdy tripod, adding even more weight to your kit. Some press cameras were made to be shot handheld, but they are the exception.
- Complexity: although it can be said that large formats cameras are the simplest in terms of parts, there are also many more opportunities to mess up, completely ruining your exposure.
- Cost: although the cameras can be had cheaply, the film and development is very expensive. Many labs won't even offer flatbed scanning, and you'll have to spring for drum scanning. Although drum scanning is nowhere near as expensive as it used to be, it ain't cheap.
- Cool factor: although the cameras attracting attention can be advantageous, if you're looking to concentrate on your photography, strangers walking up to you to chat may not be desirable.
Yeah, but what do the photos look like?
Ultimately, the image that the camera produces will be the most important consideration. I set up a shot of myself (with my lovely wife on camera duty) and took a photo in 3 formats: 35mm, 6x7, and 4x5. Hopefully the images above will give you an idea of the differences. I will say that this particular comparison is much more useful if you shoot portraits, but hey, I'm not a landscape photographer! Take a look at the way the depth of field falls off as well as the differences in size. I tried to keep the focal lengths and exposures similar. Here are the lenses, settings, and films used:
35mm: Nikon f100, f/5.6, 1/60 s, Kodak Portra 160
6x7: Mamiya RZ67, f/5.6, 1/125 s, Kodak Portra 400
4x5: Shen Hao 4x5, f/5.6, 1/30 s (bellows compensation), Kodak Portra 400
Try not to focus much on resolution and more on how the feel of the image strikes you. Do you like the depth of the larger formats? If so, is it enough for you to deal with the inconveniences? What was your preferred format when you were starting out? Again, resolution and sharpness shouldn't be judged from this quick test as running back and forth and lack of control will cause shifts in quality of focus. Any advantages or disadvantages that I missed? Questions about the formats? Sound off below!