Written by Kathleen Frank
The ability to shoot medium format is one of my favorite benefits of film photography. In the digital world, medium format cameras are so expensive. It’s rare to see even professionals use them. But not so with film! Medium format film cameras can be found at any budget, opening up this style of shooting to pretty much everyone.
As amazing as medium format is, it can often feel intimidating to new film photographers. So let’s break down exactly what medium format film photography is, why people shoot it, and some of the common terms and definitions.
What is Medium Format Photography?
Medium format refers to the size of your roll of film (or if you’re talking digital, it’s the size of the camera sensor). It really just means that you are shooting on a bigger piece of film than you do with a 35mm camera.
There are three different categories of film size: 35mm, medium format, and large format. A 35mm film negative, or image, is 24 mm x 36 mm. A medium format film negative is anything larger than 24 mm x 36 mm but smaller than 4 in x 5 in. And large format is anything 4 in x 5 in or larger.
A roll of medium format film, also called 120 film, is approximately 6 cm tall, and common medium format image sizes are 6 x 4.5 cm, 6 x 6 cm, and 6 x 7 cm. A lot of technical info, I know, but you’ll notice how they are all 6 cm on one dimension, matching the height of a roll of medium format film.
You’ll also see these sizes referenced when you start looking at medium format cameras. A camera like the Mamiya 645 creates negatives that are 6 x 4.5 cm. The Pentax 67 camera creates negatives that are 6 x 7 cm.
So, why does it matter what film size you shoot? What are the benefits to shooting a larger negative?
Benefits to Shooting Medium Format?
Higher Quality Images
The increased size of medium format film means a much larger negative. This will give you finer details and less grain. You also get smoother tones with a wider range of colors. Basically, this means a prettier image, avoiding the grittier quality you’ll often find with 35mm.
Shallower Depth of Field
Medium format film cameras have a wide field of view. That large negative lets you see more of the scene you’re shooting than you would with a 35mm camera. This gives you a shallower depth of field for your apertures. If you like to make your subject pop with a blurry background and lots of bokeh, you’ll love medium format!
These two things together produce the medium format “look” you’ll often hear photographers talk about. Beautiful creamy background, sharp subjects, and low grain. Medium format makes it much easier to get clean, lovely images, which is why this format as a favorite for portrait and wedding photographers.
Disadvantages to Shooting Medium Format
Medium format film cameras are much larger and bulkier than 35mm cameras. And if you get into 67 cameras, they can get very heavy! If you are looking for something small and light, 35mm may be a better fit for you.
Number of Shots per Roll
A roll of 35mm has 24-36 shots on it. A roll of 120 film has 10-15 shots, depending on the size you’re shooting. With the 645 size, you have 15 shots per roll; with 6 x 6, you have 12 shots; and with 67, you only have 10 shots. That is just not many shots per roll! It will definitely help you slow down and cherish each frame, but you will still be changing out those film rolls pretty often.
While shooting medium format on film is much cheaper than shooting it on digital, it still tends to be more expensive than 35mm. 120 film is more expensive than 35mm film, and you get far fewer shots per roll. If you send your film out to a lab, developing is also more expensive per frame. While you can find a medium format camera at almost any price point, the cameras also tend to be more expensive than their 35mm counterparts.
There are definitely some pros and cons that come with medium format. Personally, the image quality wins for me. I also enjoy the skills I’ve developed from only having 10-15 shots per roll. I often find I have more images I love out of those 15 shots than I do with the 36 shots on a roll of 35mm. The images really do seem to have an extra something you can’t replicate with 35mm, in digital or film.
A Few Common Medium Format Terms
Here are a few terms that come up a lot with medium format cameras. Understanding them will help if you’re shopping for a camera and comparing all of the different options.
Waist Level Viewfinder
With a typical film camera, you hold the camera up to your eye to take a picture. On a camera with a waist level viewfinder, you bend over the camera and look down into the top to focus and take your picture. It’s called a waist level viewfinder because you hold the camera down at your waist in order to see into the top. Definitely takes some getting used to!
And even more so, the image on a waist level viewfinder is flipped left to right. Composing your shot can get a little tricky.
Often abbreviated as WLF or WLVF, waist level viewfinders are found on both medium format and 35mm cameras, but they are much more common on medium format cameras.
* If you have a camera (or are shopping for one) with this kind of viewfinder and you don’t like it, check to see if there is an eye-level attachment! Many cameras have attachments that will let you replace the waist level viewfinder with an eye-level one.
SLR vs TLR
The term SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex. It means the viewfinder of the camera uses a mirror to look through the lens, so what you see through the viewfinder is exactly what you see in the final image. You can find SLR cameras in 35mm or medium format.
Compare a SLR to something like a toy camera or an Instax camera where the viewfinder is just on top of the camera. Your final picture doesn’t quite match what you saw through the viewfinder, because the view from the viewfinder is a few inches high and maybe to the right or left of the lens. Generally not a big deal, but if you’re looking for more control over your images, you’ll want a SLR.
So, What is a TLR?
TLR stands for Twin Lens Reflex. Rarely seen in 35mm (although there are a few), TLRs are primarily medium format cameras. If you are looking at medium format cameras, you will definitely come across some TLRs.
The twin in Twin Lens Reflex means these cameras have two lenses. They have a very cool and distinct look with one lens on top of the other.
The second lens is there for the viewfinder. Instead of seeing exactly what the lens sees, like with a SLR, you see what the second lens sees. With a SLR, the mirror that lets you see out of the lens moves up and down with the shutter. A TLR is built with this two lens configuration so the mirror doesn’t have to move.
Lenses & Viewfinders on TLRs
Due to this unique lens setup, it is rare to find TLRs with interchangeable lenses. The lens is built into the camera, so you are limited to the focal length and aperture settings of that particular lens. The Mamiya C330 is the exception to this.
The other most notable thing about a TLR is it almost always has a waist level viewfinder. There are a few eye-level attachments out there, but, with these types of cameras specifically, many find that the eye-level attachment detracts from the usability of the camera.
Lastly, TLRs tend to be durable, but not heavy, and very quiet, making them a favorite of street photographers, and, generally, quite fun to use. The non-moving mirror makes them incredibly steady at slow shutter speeds. They are also one of the most unique cameras out there. The design alone makes them a conversation starter. Definitely a staple of the film world!
That pretty much covers it for medium format film photography! We’ll get more into some of the specific camera models and brands in a couple weeks with a list of our favorite medium format cameras for beginners!
Leave any questions about shooting medium format below in the comments, and check back in in a couple weeks for our recommendations for medium format cameras!
Want to learn more about shooting film? Read all of our film photography tutorials here!