Medium Format or 35mm?

Medium format or 35mm?

The camera bug is easy to catch, especially in the world of film where classic cameras can be picked up for next to nothing. I admit initially I was infected, but despite buying 7 cameras and throwing 2 away, I’m pleased to report I’m over the worst of it! It was relatively early into my camera fest that I considered buying a medium format camera motivated by their ability to take big square photos, use cool old school fat film, and also joining the fraternity of medium format shooters at Imperial! This article will hopefully tell you enough about medium format to join in on any of our ‘square’ conversations in the Thursday meet-ups and help anyone who’s debating dropping some dough on one of these bad boys.
So, for those not in the know, medium format refers to the format of the film. We have 3 main sizes of photographic film available:

35mm film which has become the standard size for shooting – 35mm wide including its perforated edge producing photos 24x36mm

120 format (medium format) which takes photos 6cm wide, square or rectangular

Large format is anything above 6x9cm and is sold as single shot sheets of film.

Now a lot of articles will say that medium format is for the more serious photographer shooting studio work, commercial outdoor work, and for those who require bigger prints. After all, the cameras are often more difficult to operate, heavier to cart around, and can be much more expensive. Personally I say pish to all that; the draw of the camera is the feel of the photos it creates, as well as the novelty.

How do they feel?

My experience has been with the twin lens reflex camera (TLR depicted above). I saw another member fumbling with a queer double lensed box and I immediately fell in love with the beautiful way you view the image not through a viewfinder but down on a plate at waist level where you can see the image framed as if it were a 3D print. You carefully load the film in a fiddly old fashioned routine involving transferring spools and threading paper; you view the photo to be, and really concentrate on composition. Finally you consider lighting, and remember that through the viewfinder everything looks back to front and take care to select the correct shutter speed and aperture. Wow this is becoming complicated, but all this drama and care ensures that you and your photo are committed together and because you only get 12 shots per roll, you really savour this routine with your beloved box. Developing is a little trickier due to the films tendency to curl and the lack of a perforated edge; however the method is the same. But you must let the results speak for themselves; these big negatives allow a greater dynamic range (that is difference between whites and blacks) and cause the grain to appear smaller, smoother and seem to emit a quality as a result. Some of the older models also allow a function which I’ve grown to love and hate – double exposure! If you forget to wind your camera after a shot you end up taking a photo one atop the other, a rather interesting, confusing technique which can produce stunning shots.

Jonathan Kim using TLR (Yashica-mat)

Delta Warf - Jonathan Kim

Chris Walmsely – multiple exposure using folding camera (Zeiss Ikon Nettar)

Eiffel Tower - Chris Walmsley

Sam Whitcomb using TLR (Ricohflex Dia)

Brighton - Samuel Whitcomb

Is 120 for you?

I say shooting medium format can be vastly different from shooting 35mm. Different aspect ratios, particularly the square, enable different compositions which can be reminiscent of the Polaroid, unusual, casual, simplistic and in my opinion slightly more nostalgic than the 6:9 of the 35mm. Furthermore, shooting from the waist gives a completely different perspective on the action, and can allow a more natural response due to the camera being out of the subjects face. 35mm is certainly more convenient, quick, discreet; you certainly don’t get as many stares, and you get 36 shots – ideal for the travelling photographer, or quick snaps on the street or at a party. For the photographer who loves the act of taking a photo, and is naturally more reserved with the shutter (after all it is quality not quantity that counts) medium format is a must! The cameras can be more basic and so demand a little more patience, for example a lot of medium format camera don’t have a light meter and therefore a handheld light meter can be pretty useful, but don’t be put off – it doesn’t take long to get a feel for it, and shooting full manual is a great way to learn the ins and outs of photography.

Are these things cheap?

Medium format cameras come in many shapes and sizes, the twin lens which I describe above, SLR’s, rangefinders, and the older folding types which are completely portable and can offer incredibly sharp optics, or lomo type lightleaks, either way you probably won’t have to ask your subjects to smile! A good consumer camera will cost from around £40 to £150, my box cost me £50 (Ricohflex Dia), Holga’s and Diana’s for the lomo lovers will put you out around £25. The film itself is slightly cheaper than its 35mm counterpart, but considering the area of film is roughly the same it works out fairly at around £2.50-£3.50 per roll.

For anyone who wishes to try the format, Photosoc have an excellent twin lens reflex, and 2 amazing medium format SLRs available to borrow. Feel free to come to the weekly Photosoc meetings to learn more.


  • Laverna Mckennon

    Thank you for this article, I enjoyed reading your post

  • cn208

    The article is great.

    Would you know where I can find 120 film negative preservers at a reasonable price? Thanks!

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