Intro to Film: Small, Medium, & Large Formats

Congratulations! You have decided to embark on a journey that will inevitably leave you frustrated, confused, but most of all, excited to take more photographs. This journey is a travel back a few decades to the era where film reigned supreme and taking a photograph involved more thought and art than reaching for the iPhone.

Now what? You are probably digging in your basement, your parents basement, or friends basement looking for a camera to start shooting with and you'll most likely find a 35mm film camera. Then you'll hit up Google and ask for some film photography advice and start reading words like "medium and large format." Googling "medium format" returns an image search for all sorts of interesting cameras and suddenly you're left wondering what all of this means.

So let's get a primer in film, why you might want to shoot film, and the pros/cons of each film format.

In the beginning....

Before we discuss the formats, lets take a quick primer in film photography. Film is a plastic covered in silver and light-sensitive chemicals. Prior to developing, any exposure to light results in  either an image or damage of the film. A film camera holds the unexposed film in a dark sleeve or roll and when you click the shutter, a portion of that film is exposed to light, rendering an image. Most photographers start with negative film (and that's what we'll discuss here). Negative film results in an inverse image- the darkest parts of the image appear lightest on the film and vice versa.

After you have exposed an image, the next step is to develop the film. Development happens either in a lab (which are dwindling in numbers) or can be done at home with some equipment and chemicals. With the right equipment, black and white film can be processed in broad daylight in about 15 minutes with three chemicals, so it's not terribly difficult.

Once the development has occurred, you have two choices. The first is to use the traditional printing method of using an enlarger to project the negative onto light sensitive paper. The more modern (and cheaper) method is to invest in a high quality scanner (I use the Epson V700) that can hold and scan negatives of all sizes, resulting in digital images that can be sent to a lab or your home printer.

Why are we doing this?

Right, that process sounded hard and cumbersome, but the end product is much more gratifying. I am left holding real images and the quality of these images is totally on me - from exposure to developing and scanning - the camera made no decisions. I find every film image far more gratifying than a digital image for that reason. There is also something very beautiful about film that digital cannot reproduce - and the quality of a nice film image is hard to replicate with digital.

Ok, what do I need?

Some film, a lens, and a camera. But we have decisions here...... what kind of subjects do you plan to shoot? Are you a color or black and white shooter? Do you want something compact, or are you okay hauling lots of equipment for a truly magnificent image? Finally, what size do you want your images to be? All of these factors make a big difference when selecting the gear and format to shoot. Let's look at the formats....

35mm (small) format film

This is the one you are probably most familiar with. It's what I saw my dad using and I briefly used as a kid. At one point there were even drive through film processing centers for 35mm! This size most closely matches the size of the digital camera sensor in a dSLR. The resulting image is about the size of a postage stamp, and is the smallest size most commonly used with photography.  

Virtually every company has made a 35mm camera at some point - Nikon, Canon, Kodak, Minolta, Leica, etc etc etc. Many 35mm cameras also accept their modern lenses - I have a Nikon 35mm body that takes my "digital" lenses, meaning less gear to buy. If you need a body, eBay is flush with options. I paid $12 for my Nikon film body.....

The pros of 35mm are that it's the most readily available, it's the cheapest, there is an abundance of 35mm equipment on the market, and they are very compact and easy to carry. There are also tons of film choices in this category! The cons? It's smaller than the other formats, so the resulting image cannot be enlarged as much and "everyone does it." The larger formats certainly have a uniqueness and lure to them based on the rarer sizing....

 Loading and unloading film can be done in the daylight with both 120mm and 35mm films - large format film cannot be loaded into the slides without being in a dark environment.

Loading and unloading film can be done in the daylight with both 120mm and 35mm films - large format film cannot be loaded into the slides without being in a dark environment.

Medium format film

If you guessed that this is larger than 35mm film, then congrats on the obvious! Medium format is a huge category - there are lots of sizes in this genre, but we'll talk about 120mm, which is the most common medium format film. Based on the numbers alone, you can tell that 120mm is almost 4x larger than 35mm. Unlike 35mm, which shoots a rectangular image, 120mm film is square. Yep, square. 

There are many choices of cameras for medium format, but they are less abundant than 35mm. Common brands are Rollei, Hasselblad, etc. In a future blog post I'll discuss my choice in medium format, which is a twin lens Rolleiflex T. Most medium format cameras are larger than 35mm, but still small enough to tuck into a small camera bag (my Rollei is about the size of a facial tissue box). 

The pros of 120mm are the image size is larger, resulting in bigger prints that can be made from the negatives without introducing grain. The film is harder to find than 35mm, but it is still relatively economical. We'll talk about large format in a minute, but for me, medium format was a good "compromise" between the small size of 35mm and the high costs of large format. For the films I use, it's about $0.10 per image on 35mm, $0.50 per image on 120mm film, and $2 per image on large format! I can afford to make mistakes on $0.50 an image film and the economics and cost benefit made this my preferred "larger than 35mm" format.

Unlike my large format camera, which cannot be loaded or unloaded in the daylight, I can load and unload the 120mm camera in light, making it better for travel. 

The cons of 120mm are the availability of film and camera equipment. There are many specialty film stores in the UK and the USA that sell these films for competitive prices and free shipping. The films are available in both color and black and white, but the price differences start to become more apparent between color and black and white at this size. 35mm film is almost equally priced, but color 120mm film runs about $1-2 more per roll (each roll is 12 images). There is a nice range of films made in this size too. 

 Shooting 120mm medium format film in my Rolleiflex T camera

Shooting 120mm medium format film in my Rolleiflex T camera

Large format film

This category, like medium format, encompasses many film sizes, with the most common being 4x5, 5x7 and 8x10. Those units are in inches..... that's right.... a piece of film that is 4 inches by 5 inches in size. That's incredible! The resulting negative is the size of my hand! The quality is unreal - I've scanned some of these on the highest resolution and been left with the equivalent of an 800 megapixel photograph. Think about that for a second..... with my 36megapixel D800 I would need to stitch 22 images together to get 800 megapixels of resolution. Wow.

You have probably never heard of any companies that make these cameras - they are specialized and not the sort of item you find just anywhere! I have a Zone VI camera that was made about 20 years ago, but there are many great choices on the market. 

The cameras for this are often called "view cameras" and are great for architecture and landscape photography because the lens and film planes can be aligned to a different geometry. The camera consists of two parts connected by a bellows between them - the film side and lens side. Moving knobs allows the lens and film sides to be adjusted until a sharp image is rendered on the focusing screen. This sounds very complicated and it is, compared to the point and shoot 35mm, but it also offers more creative possibilities and opportunities! Most large format photography is done from a tripod, so it's not the best camera to carry around a busy city center.

The pros of large format are the huge film size and quality compared to the other formats. The camera designs also offer more creative freedom compared to some of the smaller formats, but at the cost of having to haul more gear! 

The cons of large format is the cost of the film (in color it can run almost $7 an image!), the bulky equipment, and availability of cameras and film. Film for large format is also pre-loaded in a dark environment into slides that are inserted into the camera to create an exposure. Unfortunately, these slides must be loaded in total darkness (I use a dark bag that I insert my arms into and load "blind"), which means you can't pull out more film if you run out on a trip without needing even more equipment handy. I normally only pack a few sheets of film in slides and hope that I don't see something terrific to photograph the moment I'm out of film!

 My large format Zone VI camera accepts 4x5 inch sheet film

My large format Zone VI camera accepts 4x5 inch sheet film

So what do I use?

All three! Seriously, for me there is a time and place to shoot each of these formats. 35mm is the camera that can be tossed into a small purse and carried through London on a date night or for street photography. Medium format is perfect for a "photo mission" but where I still want to be more mobile than large format. For me, large format is best for scenes I have already scouted and am going with the intention of taking 1-2 pre-determined photographs. My trips with large format are usually very dedicated.

I will be posting more about each of these formats, cameras and photos taken with each in the coming weeks.... stay tuned!