I only started taking photography seriously in about 2011, by then we were well in to the digital age. Scale back a decade or so, and we were still happily shooting film, back then the eternal battle was 35mm vs 120 film (also know as Medium Format film). I’ll give a brief overview of their differences, and then show you some of my work shot on both kinds and let you weigh up which you’d prefer. I’m going to be posing this to you from a standpoint of “this is what medium format cameras can do”, as most of you will be able to relate to the humble 35mm already.
Big vs small.
We’re talking physical camera size first off. Medium format cameras are physically 2-10x larger than a 35mm camera and it’s down to the larger negative surface. Where as a 35mms negative is about 24mm high, the medium format ones are 60mm high. This larger film size forced the engineers to make all the cameras mechanics bigger, including the mirror and prism. For a size comparison, here is me with my old Mamiya RZ67 with a Polaroid back. For reference I’m 6’2″ and even I find the camera difficult to manhandle.
So why should we even have a medium format camera when we can get shots out of a little pocketable 35mm camera, which is sometimes no bigger than a smartphone? Well, it’s all about image quality. The bigger the negative, the more information can be captured onto the negatives surface. This doesn’t mean you get a wider picture with more of the surrounding image in the frame – rather that the detail bring recorded to the negative is finer in comparison than on a 35mm. It’s like having a super high end camera compared to a cheap point and shoot camera. The optics are bigger in the bigger cameras, meaning better resolution, contrast and colour rendition. Beneath is a shot of mine from a Hasselblad 500cm (the world famous silver and black camera, Helmut Newtons favourite).
Brilliant quality, lovely depth of field (the lens was an 80mm 2.8) and very fine grain. However this is not fine grain – just the negative is bigger so we’re looking at the grain from further away. This is a standard Ilford HP5 ISO400 film, a general purpose all round film. Because we have a bigger negative, we can zoom in more and get detailed crops, something we cannot afford to do with the much smaller 35mm negatives. Now we’ve established that the negatives are great, much better than a small 35mm, what are the downsides to shooting 120 film?
The cost and scarcity.
As I’ve covered in a previous blog post, medium format film is becoming harder to find in stores. As analogue photography is considered by more and more retailers as a dying art, they don’t see a profit in stocking all the different kinds of film stock. However thanks to the internet, you can source lots of films online for cheaper than store prices. Now you’ve sourced your film, good luck trying to find a shop in your town that will develop it. Medium format film is wider than 35mm, so requires a specific machine that can develop these wide film types. Automatic film labs like you find in supermarkets won’t have this ability and even if they do I personally wouldn’t risk giving a film to the staff unless they’re trained on loading the film into lightproof developing tanks. Again, the internet and postal services can save you there, but you have to risk sending your negatives off in the post. In my past experience I’ve found you can get ten different kinds of 35mm film for every one you come across in any physical photography shop.
Price per unit.
We need to do some maths a second here, so lets assume you bought a roll of 35mm film from a shop for £6, and you get 36 shots out of it and developing costs you £10. £16 got you 36 shots, each shot setting you back £0.44. On medium format the negative strip is the same length, but different cameras can take different ratio images. Some cameras shoot 645 (that means each negative is 6cm high, 4.5cm wide), some shoot 66 (6cm by 6cm), 67, 68, 69 and even 617 negatives. The smaller the number wide the more frames – a 645 can take 15 shots per roll, a 66 takes 12, a 67 takes 10 etc. If we base our calculations on the Hasselblad 500cm, a film will cost you the £6, shoots 12 frames and then costs £12 to develop as medium format is always pricier to develop. We’re now looking at £1.50 per frame to develop and print, three times the price of a 35mms negative! There best be a dramatic difference in negative quality you say, and I have your answers beneath. I’ve done close crops of the face as well as the full size of the negatives on each so you can gauge the quality control for yourself. Both were scanned on a high street labs highest settings, giving me around 3000x4000px on the 35mm and 4000x4000px on the medium format.
Again, this is using the same Ilford HP5 stock, just different negative sizes. The close crops to the head are miles apart in quality, but at full size crops the image distortion isn’t really noticeable. If you’re looking to crop in on your images, or print insanely high, gallery-level resolution, pick medium format. However if you’re happy with seeing the entirety of the image as a whole, 35mm may be a much cheaper and portable option for you. Theres a preference for everyone out there, and depending on your budget, outcome and how trigger happy you are will choose your film choice for you.
Alongside the huge negatives of the medium format cameras, a few of the more popular models have digital back capability. The Hasselblad 500cm, Mamiya RZ67 to name a few have the ability to completely remove the back end of the camera that holds the film, and replace it with a top spec (currently 120mp at max) digital back, for use in the studio. You can use the cameras retro functionalities but with amazing, negative free results. If you’re in the market for very high end studio cameras, purchasing an old Hasselblad and renting a digital back may be the way to get the resolution and clarity you ever dreamt of. I’ll be sure to show you a side by side comparison in the future on what these backs can do against film.
Jon Sparkman is a fine art photographer from the UK using film cameras, interesting lighting and bright colours in his images. Follow him on Instagram @sparkman_uk and see more work at www.sparkman.co.uk.