The absolute beginner’s guide to film photography: Common film formats & types


Common film formats & types

Just as digital photography has multiple sensor sizes, film photography has multiple film formats and sizes, some of which are easier to find than others (and some of which are nearly impossible). In this article, we’ll review the most common film formats; we’ll cover ‘uncommon film formats’ in an upcoming article.

And for more primers on film photography, check out our entire Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography series.

Photos by Dan Bracaglia except where noted

35mm (also known as 135 format) roll film

35mm/135 is the most common film format today, and it’s has been that way for many decades. With a negative size of 24 x 36mm – the size on which full-frame digital camera sensors are based – 35mm film strikes a balance between good picture quality and small camera size. 35mm format film is rolled in sealed canisters, usually with 12, 24 or 36 exposures per roll. Loading a 35mm camera is generally easy, but not entirely foolproof.

Kodak started producing 35mm before World War II and it gained popularity in the 30s and 40s; by the 1960s it surpassed 120-format roll film (see below) in popularity.

35mm Advantages

  • 35mm cameras tend to be compact
  • There are plenty of affordable cameras that use the format
  • Easy handling and loading
  • Low price
  • Lots of film choices

35mm Disadvantages

  • Lower resolution than medium and large format film
  • Visible grain on higher-speed films

35mm film today

Then and now, 35mm remains the most popular type of film and offers the broadest range of emulsion and speed choices. 24 and 36 exposure rolls are most common, and some black and white films are available in 100 ft rolls that can be wound onto reusable cassettes by the photographer.

120 (also known as medium format) roll film

120 is the most common film for medium-format cameras (there are other formats, but they’re fairly obscure or discontinued, see below). With a ~61mm wide negative, it provides better resolution and less visible grain than 35mm. 120 is a roll-film format like 35mm, but instead of a sealed canister, the film is wound onto a plastic reel with a black paper backing that provides protection from stray light. Since the film has no canister, there is no felt light-trapping material to potentially scratch the film, and no need to rewind – the camera winds the film onto the take-up reel, which is then removed from the camera, and the empty reel is moved into the take-up position next time the camera is loaded.

A 120 roll of film is 82cm (roughly 32 inches) long, and the number of exposures each roll provides depends on the camera format. 645 cameras shoot a 6×4.5 cm negative for 15 shots per roll, 6×6 (also known as 2¼” square) takes 12 pictures per roll, and a 6×7 camera will take 10 pictures per roll. Similar formats include 220, which doubles the length of the roll and has no backing paper, and 620, a Kodak proprietary format that uses a different size spool.

120 advantages

  • Higher image quality
  • Less visible grain
  • The film doesn’t have to pass through a cassette light trap

120 disadvantages

  • Fewer images per roll than 35mm
  • Trickier to load
  • Higher film and camera costs
  • Fewer camera options

120 film today

120 film is still quite popular, though it offers fewer emulsion choices (particularly with color) than 35mm. Lower-cost ‘consumer’ emulsions like Kodak ColorPlus and Gold are not offered in 120 format. 220 format has been discontinued. 620 can be made by transferring 120 film to 620 reels, and several retailers sell pre-spooled 620 film.

Large format sheet film

Film for large-format cameras (such as view cameras) comes in the form of single sheets which must be manually loaded into film backs that fit the camera. The most common sheet film sizes are 4×5”, 5×7”, 8×10” and 11×14”, but smaller and larger sizes are also available. Sheet film is slower and less convenient to work with, but its resolution is unparalleled and it allows the photographer to fine-tune developing for each individual frame.

Large format advantages

  • Ultra-high resolution
  • Ability to tailor development for individual frames

Large format disadvantages

  • Difficult to work with
  • Expensive, fewer emulsion choices
  • Large format cameras tend to be pricey

Large format today

Large-format photography is alive and well, though as with 120 film, available film types are generally limited to ‘professional’ emulsions.

Image courtesy of Ilford

Instant film

Instant film (used with dedicated cameras) is packaged in cartridges of individual sheets of film, each housed in a packet with developing chemicals. After the picture is taken, the camera ejects the photograph, using rollers to break open the developing chemicals. Within a few minutes, the image appears. Instant film was developed in the late 1940s by Edwin Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation, as a way to eliminate the wait between taking and seeing photos.

Instant film is available in several sizes, each tailored to an individual camera type, with choices of both color and B&W. Image quality is unique – instant film has a distinct look, which many artists like. Instant film does not produce any sort of easily accessible negative, so the photo itself is generally the only copy of the image.

Instant film advantages

  • Instant results
  • Unique look
  • No processing necessary

Instant film disadvantages

  • The price per shot can be high
  • Difficult to make copies of images

Instant film today

Fujifilm makes the most popular line of modern instant cameras and film under their Instax sub-brand – read our Best instant cameras of 2021 buying guide. The film comes in three different formats: Instax Mini, Instax Square, and Instax Wide (the latter being the largest).

Polaroid (formerly The Impossible Project) also makes film cartridges to fit classic Polaroid cameras, as well as cartridges that fit several modernized Polaroid models. Other less popular instant film options include Canon’s ZINK (Zero Ink) format and Kodak’s Instant Print format. Note: these formats create their image using an entirely different process than Fujifilm and Polaroid and (we think) the results are less appealing.

About Film Fridays

Our Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography is an educational series of articles focused on demystifying the ins and outs of analog photography. Geared toward those discovering (or re-discovering) film, the series will cover everything from gear, to technique and more. View all of the articles in our guide here.

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