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The Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography: Intro to medium & large format

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A medium format Hasselblad camera.

Photo: Classic-Photographic

Once you start shooting film, it won’t be long before you hear the siren song of medium and large format. What are medium and large format film photography, and are they right for you? This Absolute beginner’s guide to film aims to point you in the right direction.

What are medium and large format film photography?

As with digital, medium and large format photography use physically larger film formats than 35mm (full-frame). Because the size of the crystals that make up the photo-sensitive emulsion is the same regardless of film format, a larger negative will show more detail and less visible ‘grain’ and allow larger prints to be made without degradation in image quality. However, as film size increases, gear and supplies tend to get more expensive and less convenient to use. Generally speaking, the larger the film format, the longer it will take and the more it will cost to make a photograph.

Medium format film

Nowadays, medium format usually refers to 120-size roll film. A roll of 120 film is approximately 61mm (2.4 in) wide and 850 mm (33 in) long, and will accommodate between 8 and 15 pictures depending on the camera format (more on that in a moment).

Various rolls of medium format film.

Rather than a sealed cassette, 120 film is attached to light-proof backing paper and tightly wound on a plastic spool. As the roll is shot, the film is wound onto a take-up spool; once the roll is finished, the take-up spool with the film is removed and the old supply spool is moved into the take-up position. Without a sealed cassette, there is no need for a felt light trap, which is a source of potential scratches on 35mm film. 120 film also has no sprocket holes, allowing the image to take up nearly the entire width of the film.

120 film also has no sprocket holes, allowing the image to take up nearly the entire width of the film

Some antique cameras use a format called 620. Introduced by Kodak in the early 1930s, 620 was basically 120-size film on a thinner spool. While no film manufacturers currently sell 620-size rolls, some 3rd-party vendors roll 120 film onto 620 spools, and it is also possible to buy the spools and transfer it yourself.

Buying and processing 120-size (medium format) roll film

Many types of B&W films offered in 35mm are also available in 120 format. For color film, the choices are narrower, and primarily constitute ‘professional’ emulsions like Kodak Ektar, Portra, and Ektachrome, Fuji Velvia and Provia, and Cinestill. Generally, a roll of 120 will cost about the same as a 36-exposure roll of the same film in 35mm.

Many types of black-and-white films offered in 35mm are also available in 120 format. For color film, the choices are narrower, and primarily constitute ‘professional’ emulsions

Most businesses that develop and scan 35mm film can also process medium format film. 120 film can be home-developed using the same process as 35mm, using wider reels and taller tanks. Home scanning can be a bit trickier; 35mm negative scanners do not accommodate 120, and getting the larger, thinner 120-size negatives to lie flat for flat-bed scanning may require special equipment.

Medium format cameras

A Mamiya 645 medium format camera. It produces 6 x 4.5 cm images.

As with 35mm, there are a variety of types of medium format cameras, ranging from low-cost (and lo-fi) ‘toy’ cameras like the Holga to bulky studio cameras like the Mamiya RB67. Manufacturers of the most popular medium format cameras include Bronica, Contax, Fujifilm, Hasselblad, Mamiya, Pentax, Rollei and Yashica. Some MF cameras offer automatic exposure, but many are fully manual and lack built-in light meters. The controls often differ greatly from 35mm cameras, and a fully manual medium format camera will likely take more time to set, focus and shoot than a fully manual 35mm camera.

One thing that sets medium format apart from 35mm is that not all MF cameras shoot the same image size

One thing that sets medium format apart from 35mm is that not all MF cameras shoot the same image size. The most popular negative sizes include 6 x 4.5 cm (2.25 x 1.75 in), 6 x 6 cm (2.25 x 2.25 in), 6 x 7 cm (2.25 x 2.75 in) and 6 x 9 cm (2.25 x 3.5 in). You’ll often find a clue to a camera’s image size in the name, such as the Bronica RF645 (6 x 4.5) and Mamiya RB67 (6 x 7). Generally, the larger the film format, the larger, heavier and bulkier the camera. A Mamiya RB67 in shooting configuration weighs nearly seven pounds (3 kg)!

A 1960’s advertisement for the Yashica Mat-124 TLR. Yashica TLR’s are still a great choice if you’re looking to drip your toes into medium format photography.

Image: Nesster

As with 35mm cameras, medium format cameras are available as rangefinders and single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs). While the Pentax 67 looks like an overgrown 35mm SLR, most MF SLRs look more like a box with a lens on the front, owing to a more compact film transport system. You’ll also find twin-lens reflex cameras – TLRs – which stack a viewing lens and a taking lens.

These professional-grade cameras are expensive, and prices are on the rise. Good-quality medium format cameras range from $150 to $600, and a nice Hasselblad setup can approach (or exceed) $2,000. Some professional setups have removable lenses, viewfinders and film backs, so a little research as to what compromises a complete system is a good idea. If you get overwhelmed, consider a Yashica TLR, an all-in-one camera that is among the most affordable of reputable MF film cameras.

If you get overwhelmed, consider a Yashica TLR, an all-in-one camera that is among the most affordable of reputable MF film cameras.

Lower-cost alternatives do exist in the form of plastic cameras like the Holga and Diana; however, these cameras have low-quality lenses and light leaks and may result in your photos looking more like impressionist paintings. Some antique cameras take 120 film and provide an affordable way to dabble in medium format.

Large format film

A box of large format B&W film.

Large format film is sold in single-use sheets. Popular sizes include 4 x 5 in (10 x 13 cm), 5 x 7 in (13 x 18 cm), 8 x 10 in (20 x 25 cm) and even 11 x 17 in (28 x 43 cm), and once a year film manufacturer Ilford allows photographers to order any size sheet film they like. The resulting large negatives (or transparencies) provide resolution unparalleled by other film formats and even digital photography.

Emulsion choices are more limited than with medium format, with B&W offering the greatest number of options

Emulsion choices are more limited than with medium format, with B&W offering the greatest number of options. Color sheet film is generally limited to professional emulsions including Kodak Ektar, Potra and Ektachrome and Fuji Provia and Velvia. Sheet film is usually sold in boxes of 10 to 100 sheets. Prices vary based on size, emulsion and quantity, and can range from just over US$1 per sheet for 4×5 B&W to well over $25 per sheet for color 8×10.

Sheet film is far less convenient to work with than roll film. Individual sheets must be loaded (in darkness) into a film holder before exposure and removed (again in darkness) to light-tight storage for developing. Developing at home requires specialized equipment, and not all photo labs can handle sheet film.

Large format cameras

A large format view camera from the late 19th century.

Image: Nabokov / Wikipedia

The view camera is the most typical type of large format camera. A view camera consists of two boards (called standards) linked by a flexible bellows; one standard holds the lens while the other supports the viewing screen and film holder. Operation is usually fully manual with no built-in light meter. View cameras are capable of perspective-altering tilt and shift movements, allowing perspective correction for landscape and architecture photography. These large cameras require a tripod and take time to set up, focus and load – no snap-shooting here!

Unlike other types of film cameras, several models of view cameras are still being made, but they are expensive

Unlike other types of film cameras, several models of view cameras are still being made, but they are expensive – we’re talking $3,000 to $10,000 or more, not including the lens or focusing screen. Used view cameras are a bargain by comparison; it’s possible to pick up a complete 4×5 setup, including lens, for well under $1,000.

While less common, there are portable large-format cameras, most notably press cameras like the Graflex Speed Graphic, which were popular until the 1950s and the rise of roll film. Because these cameras use sheet film, they can only take a single picture before reloading. Functional Speed Graphics sell in the $300 to $800 range, making them a great first foray into large-format photography.


About our beginner’s guide to film photography

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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