35mm vs 120: Choosing a Film Format by David Rose

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Written by David Rose

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

How to Shoot Film - 35mm vs 120 Medium Format
How to Shoot Film - 35mm vs 120 Medium Format
Left: 35mm Right: 120 Medium Format – Click to enlarge

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 vs 120 Film Format Size Comparison on Shoot It With Film

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.

35mm

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:
Left: 35mm Right: 120 Medium Format – Click to enlarge
  • 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.

Some popular 35mm camera choices include: Canon AE-1, Pentax K1000, and Minolta X-700

Left: 35mm Right: 120 Medium Format – Click to enlarge

An Overview of 120

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:
The 3D Pop of Medium Format
  • 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.
120 Medium Format

Disadvantages of 120:

  • 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.

You can read our more in-depth guide to medium format film photography here.

Popular 120 cameras include: Hasselblad 500CM, Pentax 67, Mamiya 645, and Rolleiflex

Left: 35mm Right: 120 Medium Format – Click to enlarge

Conclusion

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.

Thank you so much, David! David is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his other articles here, such as his guide to choosing a color film and how to create the perfect lens flare with the Pentax 67.

You can also find more of David’s work on Instagram!

Leave your questions about 35mm vs 120 film formats below in the comments!

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Blog Comments

Hi David- You had me until I saw this: “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.”

I could not disagree more.

Despite mentioning Leica as an exception to your statement, you are dismissing decades of fine glass from Nikon, Minolta, and Canon just to name a few. For decades prior to digital, photographers such as William Allard and Sam Abel, just to mention two, shot all 35mm as staff photographers for National Geographic. Were they not interested in equipment and image quality?

Not every lens from those 35mm companies was great-neither was every Leica lens-but by and large they built very good quality lenses, enough so that plenty of people are using them today, adapted on their digital bodies and even putting up with manual focus and stopped down metering to do so.

I think it is much more accurate to compare 35 to 120 by saying that the larger image size enables a degree of detail just not possible with 35, and folks who tend to shoot 35 are willing to put up with less detail and more grain in order to have a smaller and lighter kit to carry around.

But to dismiss 35mm cameras and glass as geared toward “the consumer end of the market” is a very misleading generalization in an article meant to introduce photographers to the inherent differences and why someone might choose one format vs the other.

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