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Film formats and differences between them

I’m sure some of you are wondering or perhaps have wondered about this at some point, how many types of films are there in the market. What’s 35mm and 135, are they the same? What’s this 120 people often talk about? Medium format, what’s that?

In this article, we will try our best to talk about as much as we can, especially information regarding 135 and 120 since they are the more popular ones at the moment. We hope that we can clear up some of the confusion you may have with the information provided.

Film Format

First of all, what are these 110, 120, 127, 135, 220, Medium Format, Large Format etc? Those are actually the formats of the film, each format contains different sizes of film inside their cartridge or different size of film rolled up around the film spool for a film format that doesn’t utilize a cartridge like 120 films.

135 Film Format

For a 135 format film, or 35mm as we usually refer to it as, got its alternate name due to the fact that the width of the film is actually… yes you guessed it right, 35mm!! Now if you look at the photo below, what you’re seeing is a stripe of processed Kodak Colorplus film that has images taken by me.

The red number tells us the width of the film stripe while the blue numbers show us the length and width of an image.

120 Medium Format

What about Medium Format 120 then, is it 120mm wide? No, it’s actually not, 120 is the name of the format but the width of the film is roughly 61mm wide, almost doubling the width of a 135 format film. What’s interesting about medium format 120 is that the film allows different frame or image sizes depending on the camera. A 120 film loaded into a Pentax 6X7 medium format camera will yield images that are roughly 6cm * 7cm while a 120 film loaded into a Mamiya 645 camera will yield images that are roughly 6cm * 4.5cm. Most of the time, the name of the medium format camera tells you what size of images it will yield. Then again, here comes a different question, for 135 format, the amount of exposures are usually, 24 or 36 exposures, what about 120 medium format since each camera yields a different image size. The amount of exposures on a medium format film isn’t a fixed thing, smaller image size photo such as 6cm * 4.5cm taken on a 645 camera can yield up to 16 exposures while larger image size such as 6cm * 9cm taken on a 6X9 camera can only yield half of that which is 8 since it takes up more space on the film for each image. For more information, please refer to the table below.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Differences between the 2 formats

So now that we’ve learnt that each format yields their own image size on the correspondent camera, what are the differences?

Image quality : As mentioned previously, the size of an image taken on a medium format camera is larger when compared to an image taken on a 135 format camera, which means that the medium format camera can capture more details and due to the larger image size, the photo can be further enlarged and printed out a large size photo paper without losing too much details.

Camera build : in terms of camera size, generally a medium format 120 camera will definitely be bulkier and more heavy compared to a 135 format camera which means for traveling purposes, the 135 format camera will be more forgiving for your arms. For film enthusiasts who wish to have an even more compact camera for their holidays, there’s also half frame 135 format camera to consider. For more information, please check our other post about what’s a half frame film camera.

Cost : Films aren’t getting cheaper anytime soon in 2024 so it’s not wrong for us film users to be more concerned about the cost of shooting a roll of film. For 135 format users, usually we are getting 36 shots, as for how many of those images actually able to turn out good, it entirely depends on the camera used and our skills of course but it's definitely more manageable when compared to medium format’s 8 ~ 15 exposures, the room for mistake is smaller when using a medium format camera because of how much it cost in the end for each frame.

If shooting on a medium format camera is so much more expensive, why does medium format film photography still exist to this day? A good way to describe it would be, if you get to choose between watching 10 movies in Full HD resolution or 5 movies in 4K resolution, which would you pick? Honestly, it doesn’t matter which one you pick but you’d be surprised to see that some others would actually pick the opposite option because we all have different priorities. Some film photographers that do film wedding shoots for a living will often time go for medium format cameras and films because they need to maximize the quality as much as possible to deliver the best for their customers. For hobbyists however, it’s totally fine to use a 135 format camera because it costs way less and is easier to carry around unlike shooting with a medium format camera which turns your travel into a workout session if you do indeed travel often with a medium format camera.

Final thoughts

This article’s main purpose is to let our viewers know more about the film formats varieties. Each format has its own advantages and disadvantages. There are many other varieties that we didn’t get into in depth such as 110, 127 format because as of today, the camera that uses those film formats are becoming lesser and lesser as days go by, they are slowly becoming relics of the past. It’s quite fortunate that our most popular format, the 135 format, lasted this long.