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Film sizes

Bigger may be better, but not for every purpose

Both sheet and roll film are available in a variety of sizes suited to the variety of cameras in use. Note that some medium-format cameras can be equipped with adapters to use either 35 mm or 120 film.


Very large film sizes (5" by 7", 8" by 10" and larger) are suggested for the perfectionist photographer who has lots of time in which to make an exposure that must be super-sharp and technically perfect, particularly when the image must be blown up to poster or even billboard size. A studio can take anywhere from five minutes to several hours or even weeks to set up a shot. The large film sizes are ideal for situations where the picture must have everything in place, all the elements properly composed and the lighting in perfect balance.

Advantages There are many advantages to using large-sized film, and almost all are related to image quality. The images do not have to be magnified as much as smaller sizes to achieve the same size of enlargement, which results in greater image sharpness, less tendency to look grainy and finer tonal gradation. Good images can still be achieved from a smaller section of a large negative (or transparency), which can be an advantage to the photographer who does not have a telephoto lens but still wants a decent image of a distant subject. Even the printing process is simplified since dust specks or minute scratches on a large negative show less in the finished print simply because they are magnified less. And, of course, large-size film produces exceptional quality (the very best obtainable in photography, in fact) in terms of resolution, smooth tones and gradations. Large-format cameras have other advantages not related to the film they use (such as the various camera movements - shift and tilt, etc.).

Disadvantages - Among the disadvantages that larger-size films have are the fact that the cameras that use them are generally bulkier and heavier - especially those that take very large sizes of film (known as large format cameras) - and therefore less portable. Other disadvantages? Large cameras usually require much slower operation, restricting the photographer in his or her subject choice and ability to react quickly for a fleeting picture opportunity. Because larger lenses with longer focal lengths are used with large film cameras, smaller ƒ-stops (and correspondingly longer exposures - i.e. slower shutter speeds) are needed for increases in depth-of-field. Most large cameras are almost always mounted on a tripod for this very reason. The cost per exposure is higher than with smaller-size film.


The principal advantage of medium-format film is in image quality, especially noticeable when big enlargements are made.
The principal advantage of medium-format film is in image quality, especially noticeable when big enlargements are made.

At one time, the average photographer may have chosen medium-size (120 or 220) film for his or her day-to-day photography. 120 roll film is the most popular medium-sized format film, and provides negatives or slides (transparencies) that are 2” by 2” (6 x 6 cm), 2” by 3”, or 6 x 7 cm in size. 220 roll film is used to make the same negative and slide sizes, but has most of the paper backing that is found on 120 film eliminated, so the roll is longer than a 120 roll and provides twice as many frames as 120 film.

Smaller films have been engineered to such exacting standards of quality, color reproduction and sharpness that, along with their other appealing characteristics, they have taken pride of place as the dominant film choice in both consumer and certain professional markets.

This doesn’t mean that medium-format film is on the way out, because that is by no means the case. Far from it. Medium-size films in the 2” by 2”or 2” by 3” sizes (for use in what are known as medium format cameras) provide the photographer with many of the benefits of the large-format cameras (image quality, sharpness and large size - though not in quite the same scale) as well many of the advantages of the 35 mm and other smaller cameras (portability, ease-of-use, speed, also not in the same scale). They represent an excellent balance between the two extremes, and medium-format cameras are constantly being improved to remain competitive. They are well-suited to professional use in the studio and in the field, and are preferred by many photographers for weddings, commercial work, portraits and photographs for publication.

Image quality is their chief advantage over 35 mm and smaller film cameras. If we had our “druthers,” we’d rather have an image shot on medium format film than on 35 mm film, all other things being equal. The problem is that some people (generally those who exclusively use medium-format cameras) will try to convince you that medium-format film is so superior to 35 mm film that you shouldn’t use 35 mm film at all. That is simply not true. They both have their uses, and both can produce excellent-quality images and sharp blow-ups. Many photographs have been taken where the educated viewer cannot tell whether the film used was medium or small-format.


Small-size films (35 mm, APS and others) are ideal for the documentary photographer, the family photographer, the professional covering a wedding or other event where candid pictures (and formals) are part of the assignment, or for model portfolios and general photographic uses, and anyone who needs a picture taken quickly or who wants to record action and who requires a high degree of flexibility in their camera and their photography.

Images properly shot on 35 mm film can be enlarged to quite-big sizes before a quality difference becomes apparent, and most users of 35 mm film will never require that size of enlargement in their picture-taking experience. “How big is that, anyway?” you are probably asking. Well, hand-held images from 35 mm film appear on many studio wall displays in 24" by 30" and larger size with no apparent loss of sharpness or image quality, and many full-page, large-format magazine photographs are taken using 35 mm film. Today’s excellent lenses and the quality of modern 35 mm film account for this remarkable clarity and image quality.

Advantages of smaller-size film? 35 mm and APS film are quite a bit cheaper per exposure than their larger cousins. Because of this, more exposures can be made of the same subject, catching different expressions and activities, while still not becoming cost-prohibitive. Also, smaller cameras means lighter cameras and therefore greater portability, easier storage and faster picture-taking, particularly when the camera is equipped with an auto-winder. The selection of lenses for smaller cameras is greater, too. High-speed, fisheye and zoom lenses would be overly heavy and prohibitively costly for very-large format cameras. Higher shutter speeds can be used with cameras that use smaller-size film while still achieving comparatively good depth-of-field because of the shorter focal lengths of the lenses. The film itself is easy to store and transport because of its small size, and it loads and unloads fast. There is a lot to be said for 35 mm size film, and many professional photography studios use it exclusively, and most use it frequently. It is the most-popular film size in use today, and with good reason.

Until the advent of digital photography, APS film was rapidly catching on in the consumer market as an easy-to-use, friendly film choice. See APS film for more information on this consumer-oriented film system.

Further information...
APS film