An introduction to medium format

So far, the fundamentals series has been focusing on 35mm film, mainly because it's the best place to start as a beginner. But, as you grow as a photographer, you may want to start looking at other film formats. This week we're focusing on medium format - what makes it different, and the pros and cons of shooting on a larger scale like this. 
Photo by Jason Round

Film size

When you're shooting medium format, you're working with a larger roll of film, known as 120. A medium format film negative is anything larger than 24 x 36mm but smaller than 4 x 5 in. Different cameras will result in different sized negatives - common image sizes are 6 x 4.5cm, 6 x 6 cm and 6 x 7cm. Camera manufacturers will often include the image size in the model's name - the Mamiya 6 produces 6 x 6cm images for example, whilst the Pentax 67 produces 6 x 7cm photos.


The size of your film negative will affect the number of exposures you get per roll. 120 film might be physically bigger than a roll of 35mm, but you get much fewer shots per roll. Typically, shooting 6 x 6cm images will give you 12 shots per roll whilst shooting 6 x 7cm will only give you 10 exposures.


Photo by Matthew Santomarco

Benefits of medium format

  • Higher quality images - the increased size produces a larger negative. This means finer detail and less grain.
  • In fact, because the image to grain ratio is much higher in medium format, you can use a higher ISO film with less visible grain, producing smoother, often creamy photos.
  • Medium format captures lots of detail, and can face enlargement without losing quality.
  • You also get little perspective distortion - what you see is what the camera will capture. This is why so many favour medium format for its ability to create a more "real life" look.
  • Medium format cameras boast a wide field of view, which allows you to see more of the scene than you would with 35mm, and gives you a shallower depth of field.
  • You can produce clean images, with little grain and smooth backgrounds, which is why medium format is so highly rated for portrait shoots and wedding photography.


Photo by Dave Scaringe

Disadvantages of medium format

  • The cameras tend to be bigger, bulkier and heavier - there are smaller options available but you aren't going to get anything pocket sized and super light.
  • You get less shots per roll - although this could potentially fall into the benefits category as well - it forces you to take your time and really focus on the composition of the shot, I've found I don't snap through exposures as quickly, and really think about what it is I want to capture, which ultimately makes for better photos.
  • Price - everything about medium format is more expensive - the cameras, the film itself (especially considering you get less exposures) and developing at a lab.


Photo by Justin DeGarbo

A much cheaper way to try medium format is to rent a camera. I rented a Mamiya 7 for a long weekend, to experiment with the new format and try something different, and it was a really great experience - look at sites like Fat Llama for rental options and to see what people are offering in your area.


Photo by Jake Davies



As mentioned before, medium format cameras are much bigger and bulkier than the standard 35mm options. Models range from more old school, waist level viewfinders like the Rolleiflex, to something much more recent, like the Mamiya 7. We're going to be doing a post on some of the best medium format cameras soon, going into more detail on the different styles and viewfinders available to you at this format, so keep an eye out for that.


120 Film

120 film is much bigger than 35mm, and is loaded slightly differently. This will obviously vary depending on the camera model you are shooting on but 120 film comes with a large arrow printed across the back - this has to be aligned with the corresponding markings on the camera. As always, there are lots of videos talking you though this process on Youtube.

Kodak film is a great option for anyone wanting to try 120 colour - Ektar and Portra are really popular and produce beautiful, professional results. Black and white, however, is where 120 film really shines. Particular brands to look out for are Foma, Ilford, Washi and Rollei.





Photo by Alberto Genato


Photo by 35mmc


Photo by @findmatthewcoleman


Photo by Drew Ruggles


Cover photo by @valeriogeraci

Author : Becca Knight 

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