While there are many different film photography cameras and formats out there, for broad strokes purposes in this article, I’ll be breaking down some of the differences and comparisons between the two heavyweights in terms of their staying power through the years: 35mm vs 120
35mm vs 120: What is a Film Format?
A film format refers to the size and shape of the film negative. The two most common film formats are 35mm and 120 (also called medium format).
Here’s a good representation of the size differences between 35mm and 120:
35mm negatives are 24mm x 36mm.
120 actually applies to a few different exposure dimensions depending on the type of camera used. Measured in centimeters they are: 6 x 4.5, 6 x 6, 6 x 7 (and even 6 x 9).
You can see that 120 film is quite a bit larger than 35mm.
There are pros and cons to each format, and when you’re choosing a film camera, you’ll want to consider which format suits your needs best.
Fair warning: referring to it incorrectly as “120mm” will unfailingly provoke the ire of strangers/film snobs on the internet. “120” actually doesn’t have any significance beyond being part of a numbering system Kodak used in the early days to identify different films.
An Overview of 35mm
Like many film photographers, my foray into the analog world began with 35mm when I picked up a fully-manual Pentax K1000 at the beginning of 2015 (and never looked back at digital again).
For those who are looking to dip their toes in the water and get acquainted with analog photography, 35mm is an easy and accessible gateway drug, so to speak.
Advantages of Shooting 35mm:
Quantity: 35mm film has more shots per roll with 24 or 36 exposures for most standard films.
Weight: 35mm cameras are light and easy to use as everyday carry cameras.
Cost: Shooting 35mm is less expensive overall – both on the gear and developing/processing sides. This is very helpful when you’re learning film since it allows you to “waste” shots and experiment more effectively.
Film availability: There are more film options in the market for 35mm. New and experimental films will usually launch first in 35mm, and there are many consumer film stocks, such as Kodak Gold or Fujifilm Superia, that are only available in this smaller format.
Disadvantages of 35mm:
Resolution: For me, the #1 disadvantage of 35mm film compared to medium format is the resolution. The resolution of film is the amount of detail available on the negative, and since 35mm negatives are so much smaller than 120, there is less resolution as well. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a comparison of two similar shots side by side on Portra 400:
Build quality: While there are notable exceptions to this (looking at you Leica), the glass and camera quality for many 35mm cameras is geared towards the consumer end of the market, and people who are not as obsessive about image and equipment quality. The results you get from this follow suit.
My medium format journey began in 2016 when I picked up a Cold War-era Pentacon Six TL (aka “the poor man’s hasselblad”…). I both hated and loved that camera at the same time and have since upgraded to a Pentax 67.
Similar to when I made the jump from digital to analog, upgrading to 120 has since made it increasingly hard to go back to shooting 35mm again.
Advantages of Shooting 120:
Medium format “3D pop:” Since the film plane is much larger on medium format cameras, you have more real estate to isolate your subject in a relatively thin slice of focus, blurring the foreground/background and making the image seem almost 3D:
Professional: Medium format is geared better for professional applications, and is almost a non-negotiable for anyone incorporating film into their professional workflow (weddings, portraits, etc.).
Build quality: Medium format cameras were almost all designed for pros, so the glass, build, and meter quality is top notch. Many of them are also modular in design, allowing you more options for customization.
Weight: Heavy heavy heavy. My Pentax 67 camera bag weighs over 10lbs fully loaded with camera + 3 lenses, which can be excruciating after a while… I can feel the discs in my spine decompress when I drop my bag after long shooting days.
Quantity: Fewer shots per roll. You’ll only get between 8-16 images per roll of film (depending on the camera), so you have to make them count. This can be a blessing in disguise, but I’ve found I take a lot less experimental or candid shots since switching to 120.
Cost: Film + developing costs can vary, but on average I have to keep in mind that I’m burning around $3 for each image I shoot with my Pentax 67.
There’s no perfect format that will accommodate every shooter or shooting style. 9 times out of 10 I’ll choose my Pentax 67 and put up with the disadvantages simply due to the insane image quality it’s capable of producing. But I still alternate between 35mm and 120 cameras regularly depending on the situation at hand.