Photography: Which Film Size?

Some of today’s older cameras use one of three main film formats – 110, 35mm and 120 (roll film) – all of which can be loaded and unloaded from the camera in daylight. There are also various sheet and instant film formats.

The 110 film size, aimed at the snapshooter market, is a miniature film format measuring just 17mm wide. The film (and its numbered backing paper) is in a sealed cartridge with light-tight compartments for unexposed and exposed material, and a central exposure window. With each wind-on a new frame is available for exposure until the end of the film is reached, when the tension of the film prevents the wind-on lever from being operated. The cartridge is then removed and can be replaced. Film types can be changed mid-roll by removing a partially used cartridge and replacing it by another – only one frame of film will be wasted.

35mm film format with optical soundtrack

Image via Wikipedia

The most popular film size is 35mm, the format originating from cut lengths of 35mm-wide movie stock. Rows of perforations run along the edges of the film and engage with teeth which advance and rewind film; these holes limit the image area to 24mm wide. The film is usually purchased in metal cassettes; a short length of film protrudes through a light-tight felt-lined slot in the side of the cassette for loading. The first few frames are wasted as the loose end of the film is attached to the camera take-up spool; the film is rewound into the cassette once exposed.

Roll-film – otherwise known as 120 – is 62mm wide. Image width is usually 56mm although this is often called ‘two and a quarter’ in inches or written as 6cm in metric, but the other dimension varies as several subformats are used, such as 6 x 4.5cm, 6 x 6cm, or 6 x 7cm. Like the much smaller 110 format, 120 film is attached to an opaque backing paper, longer than the film itself. It is this which is threaded onto the camera’s take-up spool. Frame numbers are again printed on the backing material, though modern 120 cameras have motorized or lever-wind advance with no need to view the numbers through a window in a camera back. Once fully exposed the film is wound on so that the paper length protects the film before it is removed.


All modern films can be loaded and unloaded in daylight. Roll-film has a backing paper to protect it, 35mm comes in metal cassettes, and both 126 and 110 films come in plastic cartridges.


Which film format is best for you?

For the person taking snapshots, 35mm is definitely the best option. Though 110 cameras are very pocketable, the format is so small that picture quality is only just acceptable even at enprint size. Sharpness is also affected by the flatness of the film when it is inside the camera, and the 110 cartridge has no precise means of holding the film in place. One or two very high quality 110 cameras have been marketed, such as the Pentax 110 SLR system and the Minolta Zoom 110 models, but the lack of precision in the plastic cartridge design limited their performance.

Having suggested that 35mm is the best format for the casual user, which format should the aspiring enthusiast go for? Here, too, 35mm is probably the best choice. This format produces excellent picture quality, especially when slow film and superior lenses are employed in combination. Above all, it is affordable and versatile – every imaginable type of film is available in 35mm.

Why, then, does anyone need a larger format?

Roll-film is predominantly used by professional photographers and amateurs who enter exhibitions and competitions – those who need the best quality possible. The image area of the smallest popular 120 roll-film format is at least three times that of 35mm. This leads to superior enlargements with less visible grain and greater detail. Dust-marks and scratches tin the original negative cause more trouble on 35mm than they do on because they, too, are bigger when the picture is enlarged. The disadvantages of roll-film are the cost per shot and the necessity to reload frequently because there are only 8 to 16 shots per roll of 120. Some pro cameras take size 220 film, which is double length and gives up to 32 shots, but only a few film types can be bought in this size.

As film format increases so does camera size, with 120 cameras being much larger (and more expensive). A roll-film system costs from two to four times as much as a 35mm system, and even when it is complete the camera is not suitable for all applications. A 35mm kit probably includes versatile zooms or a long telephoto lens; either of these lenses for rollfilm will stretch your budget and build unwanted biceps. The smaller 6 x 4.5cm and 6 x 6cm models can be hand-held, but aren’t ideal for moving subjects. The bigger 6 x 7cm to 6 x 9cm cameras are normally confined to the studio.


With its blend of image quality, modest equipment size and reasonable price, most photographers choose 35mm. Its sprocket holes mean that the film can be transported through the camera reliably at high speeds using an auto-winder or motor-drive without damaging the delicate emulsion. For action, sport, wildlife, candids and a host of other picture opportunities, 35mm is by far the finest format. Medium-format 120 cameras excel where quality – not speed or portability – is paramount.

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27. December 2011 by admin
Categories: Equipment | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Photography: Which Film Size?


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