I am looking at getting a film camera to have some fun with (e.g. won't be using it professionally)

What is the difference, as an a amateur, between using a medium format and a 35mm camera (and the photos you get)?

(Apart from the obvious size difference)

There's quite a bit of difference, actually.

Size of the Negative

Medium format is a somewhat encompassing term. When one talks about 35mm (135 film), it's most often a camera that shoots a 36mmx24mm frame. There have been specialty cameras that use the 135 format to shoot other sizes, but most 135 cameras shoot this fairly standard sized frame.

Medium format, on the other hand, could be of the 6x4.5, 6x6, or 6x7 type. They all shoot the 120 film but produce images sized at 56x41.5mm, 56x56mm, and 56x67mm, respectively.

I'd say that these are the most common, though the film has been used in cameras that shoot up to 6x24!

Why size matters: The 35mm long side is 36mm. An 8x10's long side is 254mm. One has to double the size of the negative 3 separate times (36 -> 72 -> 144 -> 288) to get to this. Unlike the process of blowing up a digital image, where interpolation adds more pixels, blowing up a negative means simply spacing out the grans into a larger area. At some point, the image simply falls apart. (The medium format, on the other hand, only has to jump a little more than twice [56 -> 112 -> 224].)

You may not think that one doubling of size will make a difference, but keep in mind that each doubling degrades quality. The larger the format, the less doubling has to be done in order to make a large print.

Size of the Camera and Resolution

Because 135 needs to be blown up so much, camera and lens designers have been forced to seek lenses with incredible resolving power. They really do milk as much detail out of the world and onto the film as they possibly can. Still, there are limits to how much detail can be resolved in the small space of the 135 frame.

The medium format camera, having to hold a bigger negative, is obviously larger. Rangefinder type 120 cameras benefit in size because of the lack of mirror, SLR types can be quite big compared to the 135 cameras.

But, because the negative doesn't need to be blown up as much, the lenses are not taxed quite as much to resolve absolutely everything. Don't get me wrong, medium format lenses are superb. But, optical designs can get a little simpler. (Take this to the extreme and look at the optical design for a lens designed for a large format 8x10 camera)

What is the difference, as an a amateur, between using a medium format and a 35mm camera (and the photos you get)?

As an amateur, gear acquisition can be quite costly. Some medium format items, because of the lack of market, are coming very far down in price. The Pentax 645 system especially is very cheap to obtain.

To me, because the larger negative is blown up less, some film and developer combos open up to you. For example, I don't think anyone in their right mind would use Delta3200 with Rodinal - but shot at a lower ISO (around 800) in 120 - the grain structure, to me, becomes very pleasing.

Developing it is easier. No can to crack and the spool doesn't require scissors to clip the film off. Simply unwind, remove the backing paper, and load.

You will get less frames per roll which has both pro's and cons. Some medium format cameras have the ability to swap film backs mid-roll - which is a definite plus over 135, IMO.

But, perhaps the biggest difference you would see is in the image quality of your blown up prints. There is a difference at 8x10 levels but medium format, hands down, beats 135 above that. If you aren't printing any bigger than 4x6 or 5x7 - you won't notice a difference.

  • Could you put some units behind all those numbers, it's quite hard to follow. – Orbit Sep 27 at 19:10

I think the biggest difference is going to be in camera choices. Medium format is mostly what twin-lens reflex (TLR) cameras use. Both formats are supported by rangefinders and single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras, but with TLRs you're mostly shooting square medium format (120/220), not 35mm (135).

Thought I could weigh in on this subject.

As an amateur, you and I may tend to go for the cheaper option. 35mm can be reached (initially) cheaper than medium format, without a doubt. My first film camera (Canonet QL19) cost $25 and I still use it all the time! It's my favorite camera.

I have however noticed that developing can get expensive, especially when you need to ship your film over international borders to get clean scans.

For this reason, I resolved to start developing film myself (black and white for now). To do so, I realized I needed a decent scanner. I got the V500 and quickly realized its' 35mm scanning is less than ideal. After shooting and scanning 120 film, I realized this would be the cheapest option; the 120 scans were better than acceptable after some tweaking.

I still shoot a lot of 35mm but my more "serious" work is always on medium format. I also do a lot of night photography; I've really taken a liking to the wide and bright viewfinder of my medium format camera. I also can get much more detail with medium format at night.

In closing, I would say to start with 35mm and see where it goes; see what you want to get out of the practice. I find developing it at home and not needing to wait for any process or pay any extra is very rewarding, and I'm developing for less than $1 a roll!

Amateur photography dates from 1888 when George Eastman marketed a camera that used flexible film. Prior cameras commonly accepted glass plates. Soon people were handing out and displaying chemical based photographs on paper. Early on, professionals and serious amateur photographers selected big cameras. These were heavy and awkward. Big cameras were a necessity because the technique of making enlargements was yet to be perfected, so most photographs on paper were made via contact printing which yielded a print that was the same size as the image on the original film. Later when enlarging machines became common, big prints were possible, but often the results were substandard. The countermeasure was to use a big camera with big film sizes that could tolerate enlargement.

By the first quarter of the 19th century the movie business was flourishing. The motion picture segment of photography adopted 35mm wide perforated roll film. The availability of 35mm film prompted introduction of miniature cameras. The films of that era were OK, but no cigar when it came to the making of large prints on paper.

What I am telling you is, serious photographers were using cameras loaded with sheet film 8X10 or 5x7 or 4x5 inches in size. As the 1940’s dawned, roll film had improved and many serious photographers were adding 120 size roll film cameras to their arsenal of tools. Now begin advancements in camera design. All the while, advances in film manufacturing allowed the camera to shrink in size. In other words, ergonomic became a force in camera design. I still have calluses on my fingers from the straps of my 4X5 press camera.

In the 50’s the medium format camera was King. We used 120 roll film which yields 2 ¼ X 3 ½ or 2 ¼ X 2 ¼ inch images. These can tolerate being enlarged to poster or even billboard size. The 50’s saw the introduction of the SLR (single lens reflex) 35mm camera which solved the ergonomic problem plus the SLR design tolerates lens interchangeability. The medium format and the 35mm format are rivals. Again bigger is better! It all depends on what you think. The reality is, both can do an excellent job.

A new era has dawned; film and film cameras will soon be in the museums in a display near the early dental chair with silver / mercury amalgam fillings. I say, nostalgia is noble, looking to the future is maybe better when it comes to the apparatus of image making.

  • Hmmm — would you really say that there weren't amateurs before 1888? – mattdm Sep 13 at 23:41
  • @ mattdm - The introduction of the Eastman roll film camera with mail-order processing and printing is credited with the start of photography for the average man/woman. – Alan Marcus Sep 14 at 1:37
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    Sure, but "amateur" covers a lot more than that, and I think that in the context of this question (someone considering medium format today!) we're not really talking about mass consumer snaps. – mattdm Sep 14 at 1:53
  • @ mattdm -- By strict definition, amateur mean non-professional. I will concede, anyone considering a medium format film camera in this day and age gets the title advanced preceding amateur. An by the way, I consider all this minutia. – Alan Marcus Sep 14 at 2:28
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    There were no amateurs before 1784. – xiota Sep 14 at 3:49

Medium format

  • Bigger = More fun.
  • Bigger = More "professional". People are more impressed by medium-format cameras than they are of the dinky full-frame professional DSLRs everyone else totes around.
  • Bigger = Heavier = More musculoskeletal pain.
  • Scanning is easier because you don't need resolution or magnification to be too high.

  • Film costs more.

  • Can adapt smaller films.
  • Captured image sizes and ratios may vary (6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7, etc).
  • Don't need to buy a special "panoramic" camera. Just crop the top and bottom.
  • Development costs more.
  • Equipment for home development may not be as readily available.
  • Larger images require more computing power and storage.
  • Dust and other artifacts are not as visible.

Miniature format

  • You probably already have the camera, somewhere, collecting dust.
  • Different camera types available: panoramic cameras, stereo cameras, spinning cameras.
  • Wider variety of film types available at lower costs.
  • Film format is standardized (36x24).
  • Development costs less.
  • Tanks and supplies for home development are readily available for use with no special alterations.
  • Easier to digitize with slide copiers.
  • Smaller image sizes easier to post process.
  • Dust and other artifacts appear larger.
  • The only point I have against this is on home dev. It's certainly no harder than 135, and I'd say it's easier simply for the fact that the film gets off the spool easier. – Hueco Sep 14 at 5:26

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