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Film Formats
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Large Format (4 x 5," 5 x 7," 8 x 10," etc.)

Medium Format (120, 220, 2-1/4," 6x6, 645, 6x7, 6x9, etc.)

35mm

Digital

APS

LARGE FORMAT    back to top

click for "A Complete Guide to Large Format Cameras and Lenses"

Tachihara 4x5 camera

Most amateurs don't realize that these old-fashioned bellows-type sheet film cameras are the dominant format for professional landscape photography in 2005. They always have been. I wish I had realized that when I started in the early 1970s and didn't waste two decades shooting landscapes on 35 mm.

These cameras use sheets of film usually about 4 x 5."

Less popular formats are 5 x 7," which is more popular in Europe than the USA, and 8 x 10," which is mostly popular with hobbyists and studio photographers shooting items requiring obscene levels of quality. Cameras as large as 12 x 20" and 20 x 24" are still in daily use by serious artists in 2005.

4 x 5" is the dominant format for serious landscape photography. The photo magazines all talk about digital cameras because their advertisers are digital. Look at the tech info behind the leading landscape photographers portrayed in Outdoor Photographer magazine or at my links page and you'll see most carry 4 x 5" cameras into the wilderness.

These were the most popular film formats from the invention of photography until the 1950s, when medium format cameras like the Rollei rose in popularity. It was replaced in the 1960s for journalism use by the Rollei medium format TLRs.

If you are concerned with ultimate image sharpness and other technical aspects, forget 35mm and step straight up to 4x5 or at least medium format. 35mm is really only for things that move quickly, like sports and wildlife. The reason people who mess with 35mm for landscapes are always worrying about sharpness is because 35mm usually leaves something to be desired when compared to larger formats. 35mm can look spectacular at 20x24" until you see what larger formats can do.

The biggest advantage is not film size. The things that set large format completely apart from all smaller roll film formats are:

1.) Perspective correction with every lens, and

2.) Tilts that allow you to bring the entire image into perfect focus WITHOUT needing to stop the lens down, and

3.) Each sheet of film is separate:

3a.) You can shoot the same thing on three sheets and develop differently after you've seen the first sheet developed, or 3b.) You can shoot color and B/W in the same camera at the same time, and
3c.) You can process just what you've shot without having to finish a roll, and

4.) 4 x 5 costs LESS than any other format.

It's been around for a hundred years so you can buy everything used. I paid $150 for my used enlarger complete with several lenses for all formats (35mm 120 and 4x5). I paid $300 for my first used 4x5 camera including lens. This $300 camera made half the photos you see on my site. This $300 used 4x5 is sharper than a new $3,000 Hasselblad and worlds beyond a $5,000 Leica or Contax. 4x5 film is also CHEAP. Sure, it costs $3 per shot instead of $0.50 for 35mm, but you never can shoot as much 4x5. I blow off a few hundred dollars in 35mm with my motor drive 35mm camera each weekend, but I still haven't finished off the $70 box of 4x5 film I bought 3 years ago. 4x5 is so far beyond 35mm that you just won't appreciate it until you shoot it.

Some folks are so impressed with the resolution of large format film that they use this as a marketing tool. Check out the folks here. Their 9 x 18" rollfilm camera is a modern large-format innovation created from an aerial survey camera.

Review of my Tachihara 4 x 5 camera

click for "A Complete Guide to Large Format Cameras and Lenses"

MEDIUM FORMAT    back to top of page

Guide to Medium Format Cameras and How to Get Started

How to Load 120 Film

Also called "120" and "220" and 645 and 6 x 4.5 cm and 6 x 6 cm and 2-1/4" and 2-1/4 x 3 - 1/4" and 6 x 7 cm and 6 x 9 cm and more. All these cameras use the same rolls of 120 and 220 film. They just space out the images differently which leads to all the different sizes. Each format makes an image with one side equal to 6 cm (2 - 1/4").

120 film was introduced about 1902 and is still very popular today. 120 film is a black paper roll with a strip of film taped inside which is drawn through your camera as you shoot. The paper has markings on the back so you could advance the film by looking through a red window in the old days before rapid wind levers. These markings were for 645 (16 shots) , 6 x 6 (12 shots) and 6 x 9 (8 shots) formats. The black paper lets you load the film in daylight. To load a new roll of film you move the empty spool left from the previous roll to the other position and put the new roll in its place. You thread the roll onto the empty spool, wind the camera till the arrow on the backing paper aligns with an index on the camera. Close the back and wind till you get to frame one. Some cameras even have automatic indexing so you don't need to fiddle with aligning arrows.

In the 1950s a smaller spool was used for the same roll of film for snapshot cameras called 620. 620 is no longer made, and you can respool 120 onto 620 spools.

220 film has no backing paper. Instead there is twice as much film with only a paper leader and tail. You get twice as many exposures. 220 film can't be used in all cameras.

120 was the most popular film format in the 1960s. It was replaced about 1970 for journalism use by 35mm with the rise in popularity of the Nikon 35mm cameras.

Medium format gives far better technical quality than 35mm and is just as easy to use, since the film comes in rolls you can load in daylight like 35mm. Mamiya and Pentax and Contax make autofocus motordrive cameras and zoom lenses, so you have no excuses.

Medium format is great for everything. You can get away with it for landscapes, and shoot sports the next day with it.

I personally prefer the Mamiya 6 and Mamiya 7 systems for their superior optics and portability. I have used all of the lenses for both of these systems (except for the 50mm and 65mm lenses for the 7) and they are all just about perfect. If you knew me, you'd know just how much I love these cameras for what I do.

Larger, klunkier SLR systems like Hasselblad, Rollei and Mamiya can give almost the same optical quality, but are very heavy to have to carry anyplace in nature. These are popular with rich amateurs. They give worse results handheld due to the vibration of the SLR mirror as compared to the Mamiya rangefinder cameras.

120 film is pretty easy to find at any decent camera store, and every city has a professional lab that can process it. I just order here from the Internet. You may or may not be able to drop it off at your drugstore since this is a professional format.

The Various Medium Formats (6 x 6, 6 x 7, etc.)

The various formats (645, 6x6, etc.) are all simply how many images of what size fit on the same roll. People used to argue to the point of stepping outside over which was best.

Ansel Adams' favorite medium format was the square 6 x 6 cm format. He cropped as he needed to horizontal and vertical. He preferred the flexibility of not having to rotate the whole camera to change the orientation. Ansel saw no loss of sharpness from the slightly smaller cropped 6 x 6 negative compared to a larger uncropped 6 x 7 image. Personally I prefer 6 x 7, and won't argue with Ansel.

Here's a rundown of sizes:

645

Also called 6 x 4.5 cm.

Actual image size is about 56 x 42 mm.

16 shots per roll 120, 32 shots per 220 roll.

Used where size and film economy is important. Some smaller cameras like the Pentax and Mamiya even have zoom lenses and autofocus. Often sold to compete against 35 mm for speed and ease of use, with a huge improvement over 35 mm.

Not used seriously where image quality is paramount.

Some cameras, like the cute Fuji zoom rangefinders, are dedicated to this size, while other cameras have 645 backs or masks to allow this as a film-saving measure in a camera that usually runs at 6 x 6 cm.

6 x 6 cm

Also called 6x6, 2-1/4 x 2-1/4" or simply "Two and a Quarter."

Actual image size 56 x 56 mm.

12 shots per roll 120, 24 shots on 220.

This is the most popular size. Even amateur snapshot brownie cameras used this in the 50s and 60s. Today you can buy all the Hasselblads you want and Rollei makes autofocus SLRs in this format.

Ansel preferred it for easy cropping and no need to rotate a camera for vertical shots. He saw no loss of performance with a cropped 6x6 image compared to an uncropped 6x7. Then again, in his day the Hasselblad's lenses were much better than the Oriental lenses others used on Mamiya 6x7s. Today all the lenses are as good since Mamiyas are now as good as the Zeiss.

Contact sheets line up 3 x 4 images to fit neatly on an 8 x 10" contact sheet. File pages easily fit in binders.

6 x 6 is a magnificent format. Of course crop every film format for each image, and if you prefer using the square image, artists consider the square image to be a more intellectual composition compared to the ordinary rectangle.

6 x 7 cm

Also called 2-1/4 x 2-3/4, 6 x 7 and "Ideal Format."

Actual image size 56 x 72 mm. Many cameras vary the long dimension anywhere from 68 to 73 mm. Frame count stays the same.

10 shots per roll of 120; 20 shots per roll of 220.

"Ideal Format" was coined by a marketeer during the great medium format wars of the 1960s and 70s. It refers to the fact that you can pull an 8 x 10, 11 x 14 or 16 x 20" etc. print with almost exact cropping without losing any of the film image. By comparison, Ansel had to crop off some of the top and bottom from his 6 x 6 images to print an 8 x 10, and likewise folks using 6 x 9 have to crop off some of the sides.

Today the Mamiya 7, Mamiya RZ and RB 67 and Pentax 67 are the leading cameras in 6 x 7.

Contact prints and file pages are a bear. I use extra wide file pages to fit three images on each row. They stick out a bit from standard 3-ring binders. Contact sheets require some fooling around and rotations to fit 10 frames on an 8-1/2 x 11" piece of paper. A contact sheet won't fit on an 8 x 10. So much for "Ideal Format!" 6 x 7 is the only medium format that doesn't really fit the 8 x 10" file page or contact sheet.

6 x 7 is my favorite all around format.

6 x 9 cm

Also called 6 x 9 and 2-1/4 x 3-1/4."

Actual image size: 56 x 84 mm. Different cameras may vary the long dimension a couple of mm either way.

8 shots per roll of 120; 16 shots on 220.

It's easy to file and contact print 6 x 9. Instead of four strips of three as with 6 x 6, you simply get four strips of two. They fit standard file pages and contact print a full roll easily on an 8 x 10" sheet.

6 x 9 was used on some older 1950s and 1940s folding roll cameras. Today there are a few dedicated 6 x 9 rangefinder cameras like the Fuji series. Likewise today one finds 6 x 9 film backs made available for view cameras.

6 x 10 cm

Actual image size: 56 x 92 mm.

7 shots per roll of 120. I know of no 6 x 10 cameras or backs taking 220.

6 x 10 is an odd format. I've only seen it used on the Brooks-Plaubel Veriwide 100. It was designed as the biggest format of 120 that the 47 mm f/8 Super Angulon lens would cover.

These are easy to file and contact print. I fit them in the same pages I use for 6 x 9 and 6 x 6. I fit two images per strip, four strips per page. The last strip will only have one image. Simple.

6 x 12 cm

This is a special panoramic format.

Actual image size: 56 x 112 mm. I've seen the length vary anywhere up to 120 mm. The Horseman SW612 back gives 56 x 114 mm images.

6 shots per roll of 120, 12 shots per roll of 220.

People use special holders attached to a view camera, or even more specialized cameras like the Horseman SW612 or Linhof Technorama 612.

These are easy to file and contact print. I use pages that hold three strips. I fit two images per strip, thus six images fit perfectly per page.

5 x 12 cm

This is almost the same as 6 x 12 and my comments above apply.

This is the format of the Noblex 150. It's slightly wider than 6 x 12 and crops a little bit from the top and bottom.

A nice thing about this format is it gives the identical aspect ratio as Panavision "scope" motion pictures, 2.40 : 1. Moviephiles still call Panavision 2.35 : 1, however we actually measured it a couple of years ago in Hollywood and discovered that what we were calling 2:35 : 1 really has been 2.40 : 1 all along. No big deal; anyone who worries about this probably doesn't spend much time photographing.

6 x 17 cm

This is a special panoramic format, just like 6 x 12.

Actual image size: 56 x 168 mm. The length will vary several mm from one camera to the next. The Linhof is about 56 x 172 mm.

4 shots per roll of 120, 8 shots per roll of 220.

People use special holders like the Canham attached to a view camera, or even more specialized cameras like the Linhof Technorama 617 or Fuji 617.

These are easy to file and contact print. Use the same four-strip pages you do for 6 x 6. Instead of three square images per strip you get just one. Four images fit perfectly per page.

6 x 24 cm

This is a panoramic format for nuts.

3 shots per roll of 120, 6 shots per roll of 220.

There are no holders of which I know for 6 x 24. The only way to shoot 6 x 24 is to have a bizarre specialized camera like the Gilde.

These are also easy to file or contact print. Use three-strip pages and fit one image per strip. Instead of four square images per strip you get just one. Three images fit perfectly per page.

35 mm    back to top of page

35mm is the world's most popular film format. It was replaced in 1999 for journalism use by digital with the introduction of the Nikon D1. The journalism formats of digital and 35mm are so popular that unfortunately many amateurs never consider other formats that could be better suited to their work. In fact, to most people 35mm is the only format they know.

35mm is a strictly amateur format. The only legitimate professional use of 35mm was for newspapers and sports, and they've already gone digital.

35mm film, processing and equipment are available everywhere, and for images not reproduced bigger than 8x10" on paper it's a fantastic format.

35mm cameras are best suited to things requiring small portable cameras that need to be expendable, as well as sports and wildlife subjects that benefit from instant autofocus and very long lenses available only in 35mm. It's best skipped entirely if you want to do publication level and fine art landscapes.

Unfortunately this will need to be a big section in my reviews section (and take forever to write) because 35mm lenses and cameras vary so wildly in quality from one to another. Unlike professional formats like 120 and 4x5, even a lot of "professional" 35mm equipment leaves a lot to be desired, while others are wonderful.

Also 35mm cameras are often designed by camera marketing departments to sell more cameras to non-photographers by adding more features you don't need, and removing the ones you do need (like conventional cable release sockets and mirror lock-up). This means I have to spend time whining about this in my reviews, unlike the larger format cameras that are usually bought by professional photographers and almost always have the right features.

Canon and Nikon compete heavily here. They are essentially similar, which is why sillier people waste so much time arguing which is better. I use Nikon, but if I had to start over I'd just as likely go Canon. Nikon has a superior metering system which I find very important, while Canon has many reasonably priced lenses with useful features for manual focus control of AF lenses, images stabilization to free you from having to haul around a tripod and great AF performance. You just can't get many of these features from Nikon, and when you do they come with four-figure price tags.

Digital     back to top

Digital cameras today are a little like using Polaroid cameras: fast results, fun, expensive, but not the camera to use if you want the very highest technical quality for huge prints of landscapes, which is what I do.

The images you see on this site are from film and scanned to digital.

Digital is a ton of fun and it's wonderful for everything else others do and often my first suggestion to people photographing people, action and sports.

APS (Amateur Photo System)     back to top

New: Separate RIP APS page.

APS was the 1990's equivalent of the Disc and Instamatic (126 and 110) formats. It was also called"Amateur Photo System," "Advantix," "Nexia," "Nuvis," "Pronea," "Vectis" etc. by the people trying to sell it.

Today (1999 when I wrote this page) it's either dead or dying depending on the manufacturer. It was a stupid idea to begin with invented mostly to help Kodak, Fuji and maybe Noritsu sell mini lab equipment to photo finishers.

It had poorer quality and cost more and was tougher to get processed than 35mm. Yes, Rollei and Leica other top-quality camera makers also made 126 and 110 format cameras in the 1960s and 1970s, and people who paid many hundreds of dollars for those excellent cameras now are lucky to fetch $10 for them at a garage sale. Likewise you were able to buy nice APS cameras, too.

Don't buy APS. It's a smaller film format than 35mm that gives poorer quality images than 35mm, and costs MORE for film and processing, if you still can find it. Do you really need me to go on? Just get a 35mm camera if you are tempted by APS. Several years ago I posted this, and true to my predictions APS is evaporating.

Nikon and Canon also made tempting APS cameras. Ignore them if you want to make serious images. In all of these cases these cameras are limited by the small film format and limited choice of film types, regardless of camera quality.

You also can't get slide film for APS in the US.

The only advantage is that some of the cameras are very cute and small. The images are fine for memories so these cameras can be great for snapshots, but skip them for the fine art about which this site is written. Get digital instead.

Just say no to APS.

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