35mm or 120 film format ?

35mm or 120 film format ?

If you’re a beginner the wonderful world of film photography, you might get lost between all the different film format that still exist nowadays. Let’s continue our guide to film photography. In this short article, we will introduce you to two different formats: 35mm and 120. Let’s start with the most popular one: 35mm. 

35mm film

35mm film format would be the equivalent of full format sensor in digital camera bodies and is also the most used one throughout the world. It is the most compact and flexible format you’ll find in this article. It is basically available in every shop. Introduced in 1934 by Kodak, it was a real revolution at the time as it came within a cartridge. It allows you to load the film inside of your camera in bright daylight. 

film format
A Kodak Portra 160 roll in 35mm format

Nowadays you will mainly find two types of length: 24 or 36 exposures. The first one is slightly cheaper than the other but is also more limiting as you can only take 24 pictures with it. As you can see in the picture above, each side of the film has perforations allowing your camera to advance the film, those are the sprocket holes. 

A 35mm roll generally produces an image of 24x36mm. However, the size of the frame slightly changes depending on the camera you use. As 35mm film format gained in popularity, the half-format was introducing in the early 60’s. It allows to take up to 72 pictures within a roll, dividing the length of each frame by two. One of the most half-frame camera, the Olympus Pen is shooting frames of 24x18mm. As 35mm is considered the standard format in film photography, you will find it your favourite lab for sure.

120 film format

Medium format, or 120 film format used to be the most used film format before the introduction of the 35mm cartridge. It was then mostly used by professional photographers. The main difference is the size of the exposed surface. Medium format film offers a surface from two to six times compared to a 35mm film. Thus, the resolution of the pictures is largely improved. Because of its size, it allows photographers to print bigger without being afraid of grain. It comes loaded around a spool, the film is attached to a piece of backing paper longer and slightly wider than the film, protecting it from being exposed. 

film format 2
A 6×6 negative (left) vs a 35mm negative (right) – Source: RR Alexander

Medium format offers a real advantage when it comes to image quality. While 35mm mostly offers 24x36mm pictures, the 120 films produce a wide range of size: 6×4,5cm ; 6×6; 6×7 and 6×19. Some incredible and really expensive camera can give you a panoramic photograph of 6×17. That said, the number of photograph you can get from a roll will change depends on the format, from 15 with the 6×4,5 format to only 8 with the 6×9 format. You will sometimes find rolls of 220 film, which is 120 format big brother. These films are twice longer than the 120 allowing you to takes two times more photographs with a roll. However, it is not protected by a layer of protecting paper. 

Sadly, for us, the improved quality comes with few disadvantages inherent with its size. First of all, as the film itself is a lot bigger than a 35mm cartridge, the medium format camera is a lot bigger and often heavier. The second disadvantage might be the price of the film and its supply. As it is way less used, you might not find it in every shop or might just have a small selection. The price of the roll itself is almost the same as a 35mm roll, but you have to keep in mind that you will only have up to 15 photographs… 

Which one to choose? 

This is a question I can’t answer for you. As each type has its own advantages and disadvantages. Choosing between 120 and 135 will be mostly dictated by the use you have of it. If you’re shooting exclusively in the street, then I wouldn’t recommend you to shoot with 120 for few reasons: bigger cameras, more difficult focusing system, low number of frames, etc. However, if you want to have a camera to shoot portrait in a studio or landscape photography, 120 is what you need. Shooting with 120 format will really slow you down in your creative process. But if you’re just starting film photography, I’d recommend you to shoot with a 35mm camera. It is more affordable and flexible than 120. 

In the next article we will see all the different types of camera you can use! 

Grain Viet Nam

Grain Viet Nam

Born and raised in France, living in Viet Nam for the last 3 years. Silver halide is running in my blood. I'm the guardian of this collaborative film photography space.

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