How many film formats are there? And what are those? I actually really thought that the only type of film that was still actually used was 35mm or 135 film. And oh boy, was I wrong! Thankfully, there are three major film formats that are still widely produced and used around the world. And we’ll explore each one of them!

How Film Formats Differ From Each Other?

The biggest difference between film formats its the frame size! And that frame size has a huge impact on the final image. You need to know what kind of final result you really want before choosing a film format to shoot with.

The smaller the film format, the more grain it will have and the flatter the tones will be. However, smaller film formats are more diverse and also more convenient which is a big plus for them. In contrast, larger format films will give you much more detail and almost imperceptible grain.  Yet, there are fewer options and they’re not convenient to use. 

The main film formats ordered from smallest to largest start with 135 or 35mm film, 120 or medium format film and large format film. And let’s start with the first one.

135 or 35mm film

35mm film is the most known format there is, and for very good reasons! It’s the most portable, economical and easiest way to shoot film. This film format is stored inside metal canisters and is mostly sold with 36 exposures. However, there are still rolls being sold with 24 exposures instead.

Being the most popular film format, there are many different film stocks that you can try out. From these, there are some that are very cheap and also very good for you to start out with. For color negative film, I recommend Kodak Colorplus due to its low price and excellent tones. For black and white negative film, I recommend starting with Ilford HP5 because it’s easily the easiest film to shoot with. All of this is why you should start with 35mm film if you’re going to explore the world of film photography.

Taken with Kodak Colorplus on a cool morning in Cais das Colunas.

Similarly to medium format film, 35mm film also has other variants besides the standard frame that we’re used to. There are cameras that can shoot two small frames that fit inside a standard 35mm frame. These cameras are called half-frame cameras because they shoot frames with half the size of a standard frame. Thus, you can get 72 exposures instead of 36 which gets very economical! Also, there are also panoramic cameras that take much wider frames but these can be very expensive.

120 or Medium Format Film

Medium format film is the most versatile film format. Each frame is 6 centimeters wide and there are cameras that can shoot 5 different frame lengths. That’s right, 5! From the narrowest to the largest, the frame sizes are 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, 6×9 and the panoramic 6×17. Keep in mind that these dimensions are in centimeters.

Things start getting more expensive when you step into this film format. The cameras are more expensive and each exposure starts to cost around 3 times more than a single 35mm exposure. Depending on the camera format, you get different exposures per roll. A 6×4.5 camera takes 16 exposures, 6×6 allows for 12 shots, 6×7 provides 10 images and 6×9 only allows for 8 shots. It gets ridiculous once we step into panoramic 6×17 cameras – only 3 exposures per roll!

Film Format - Miguel posing in front of a house.
A Medium Format Portrait of Miguel taken with Kodak Tri-X.

However, the size of the negative makes it worth shooting! The frame is much larger than 35mm which allows for much more detail and smoother tone transitions. Additionally, you can get much more bokeh if you’re into it. Medium format cameras sit very nicely between 35mm and large format ones. They’re one of these cameras that you take with you on occasions that you know exactly what you’re going to shoot.

Having shot several film stocks, I recommend shooting Kodak Portra 400 for color negative film and Ilford HP5 for black and white negative film. Portra 400 in medium format is simply beautiful, especially for portraits. HP5 is also immensely beautiful. These two film stocks are very versatile and easy to shoot. Also, for cheap black and white film, Fomapan 100 is amazing and should not be underrated.

Large Format Film

Large format film is the oldest format there is. In contrast with the other film formats, large format film comes in sheets instead of rolls. The most popular size is 4×5, followed by 8×10 and then by larger sizes that are only made and sold once per year. Unlike medium format, these dimensions are in inches!

The cameras that shoot this kind of film are big and can be really big. This isn’t a big issue, because it’s a very slow style of photography where each sheet of film is very expensive. Setting up, metering and focusing on these kinds of cameras is a more complex task than the mentioned other formats.

Why shoot these big and expensive types of cameras? Well, due to how huge the resolution that you can get from the negatives can be. The grain is nonexistent, the bokeh can be mindblowing and the tones are superb.

This film format gets expensive really fast. I never actually shot with a large format camera, but I would be lying if I told you I never thought about it! It’s just not the time for me yet. I need to move around. However, when I get my first large format camera it will be in 4×5 format and I will very likely buy Fomapan 100 film. From what I’ve seen, this is the best bang for your buck black and white film stock. Even across all these film formats.

Final Thoughts on Film Formats

We’ve seen that there are three main film formats that are still currently produced and used. The smaller the format, the more popular it is. 35mm film is the most convenient, portable and cheap way to shoot film. Medium format film is an option for when we want beautiful and large resolution images but still want to move around. Large format film is a very niche and expensive option that people only use when they know exactly what they want to photograph due to how slow and heavy the equipment is. Which of these formats have you already shot?