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The Age Old Debate: 35mm Full Frame Versus Medium Format Film

What photographer hasn't thought about getting into medium format photography? This comparison provides some useful side-by-side work for you to make your own comparisons. 

In this video, Film Supply Club does a nice comparison of a 35mm camera (the infamous Canon AE-1) and a 645 camera (the quintessential film camera for wedding photographers). For photographers who have not shot medium format, the appeal is pretty strong. While the lenses are generally slower, the depth of field is generally more pleasant with some lenses, offering a full frame equivalent of f/1.2-1.4 maximum aperture. Further, with the bigger negatives of medium format, grain doesn't disappear but is generally considered more pleasing. With that said, medium format cameras, particularly 67 cameras, are considerably larger and heavier. 

It should be noted that this comparison, while helpful, is not the end all, be all comparison — that would be impossible. As I'm sure you know, the lens choice makes a huge difference in the sharpness and depth of field. In addition, as noted in a previous article about film cameras, there are multiple formats that fit under the "medium format" umbrella — the 645 being the smallest format. Adding to the mix, the larger the format, the lenses are generally slower and there's a larger disparity between the focal length and the full frame equivalent. 

At the end of the day, deciding on the camera that's right for you is hardly ever as easy as a this or that comparison; however, this video offers a great introduction to comparing medium format and 35mm photography. Do you shoot medium format as well as 35mm? What are your thoughts?

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68 Comments

Dave F's picture

Since when did "full frame" become a term used for film?

Adriano Brigante's picture

Since there are "half frame" film cameras, like the Olympus Pen EE that shoots 72 frames per roll.

Dave F's picture

Sorry, I can't recall ever seeing 35mm film referred to as "full frame". "Small format", yes. "Full frame" is a digital term.

Les Sucettes's picture

Correct. Fullframe became a marketing term ... I suspect around the time when Canon went 35mm in digital and Nikon had to play catch-up with their APSC’s ... by comparison Canon was fullframe (small format)

Adriano Brigante's picture

Here's an 1969' ad where the Rollei 35 is described as "the smallest full-frame 35mm camera".

David Vivian's picture

huh? 35mm has always been synonymous with "full frame" unless you've been asleep for the last 15-20 years?

Jacques Cornell's picture

"Half-frame" was a thing. "Full-frame" wasn't.

Adriano Brigante's picture

See my reply above.

Jacques Cornell's picture

OK, so you found one marketing blurb. The simple fact is that the media and photographers themselves almost never referred to 35mm format as "full-frame". I'm old enough to know. Prior to digital, when photographers said "full-frame", they were referring to a print that showed the entire capture with no POST-CAPTURE cropping. That's how black borders became a thing.

Adriano Brigante's picture

I found only one because I just did a 10-second google search. But here are more. The simple fact is that several camera manufacturers used the term "full-frame" since the 60s. So it was definitely used for film, contrary to what Dave said above. I rest my case.

Dave F's picture

I wouldn't rest just yet. I'll happily retract my statement if you find me a source that wasn't written by a marketing department. It wouldn't surprise me that because "half-frame" was a thing, somebody who knew nothing about cameras but had the job of selling them would come up with something like this. Just because a term was used doesn't mean it was used correctly. Nobody used to call 35mm film "full frame", at least outside of magazine ads, apparently.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Hey guys, don't hurt your back moving the goal post so much. Also, nice use of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.

But I'll humor you one last time:

https://books.google.ch/books?id=hU8sHSz9ZkYC&pg=PA9&dq=full+frame+half+...

https://books.google.ch/books?id=WiYDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA114&dq=full+frame+hal...

https://books.google.ch/books?id=Nf7MLkuUGGUC&q=full+frame+half+frame+35...

Hell, here's an Ngram plot:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Full-frame+35mm&year_start...

Now, I'm done and I'm putting the burden of proof right where it belongs: On you. You claim it is not a term used for film. Prove it or GTFO. Good luck.

Dave F's picture

I said I would happily retract my statement and I've got no problem doing so. Apparently it was a term. I'm fine with admitting I was wrong. What's unfortunate is that what should have been a discussion devolved into you being an a**hole. "Prove it or GTFO"? Get over yourself.

Fortunately my identity isn't dependent on winning Internet discussions, but I'm happy that you got your points for today. Gold star for you.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Yeah, right! What prevented this from being a conversation is the last sentence of my last comment. It's definitely not you using multiple fallacies to disingenuously and repeatedly avoid admitting you were wrong, even though I provided plenty of evidence for it. Get down your high horse, will you?

Dave F's picture

Are you crying? I think I see a tear coming through the screen 🤣. Ride on, Internet warrior.

Jacques Cornell's picture

A ten-second Google search will find you proof that the Earth is flat.
"several camera manufacturers used the term 'full-frame'"
My point exactly. MANUFACTURERS misappropriated a term that, at the time, already had a widely-accepted and utterly different meaning. Nobody outside marketing departments referred to 35mm as "full-frame". How do I know? I was an avid amateur photographer in the 80s and 90s, and I read tons of photo magazines and books. I was aware of the "half-frame/full-frame" thing, but nobody actually referred to 35mm as "full-frame", and if they did the medium-format shooters would have laughed them out of the room.

Dave F's picture

Oh I agree, I just don't feel like arguing about it anymore.

Les Sucettes's picture

Since when did small format become fullframe?

Fullframe is 8x10.

Chew on that for a while

Brahm Sterling's picture

Since when did normal people be called cisgender?
Chew on that for a while.

Les Sucettes's picture

Since some idiots decided “gender studies” isn’t part of biology but a social science... and then started to confuse sexuality with gender itself... same stupidity. Actually it’s even more stupid and only will end in gender apartheid.

Les Sucettes's picture

I disagree with the notion that social and cultural constructs should lead to legal apartheid between sexual preferences or genders. Everyone should be treated the same in front of the law. By emphasising the differences, as the majority of social “scientists” are doing, we are dividing society and making it worse.

If someone is being mistreated for sexual orientation (note it’s sexual not genderal - the construct of gender being social is being defined by the same people who have a job because they decided there is, a circular argument that serve their profession, not society), then this person should have all the rights to demand the same rights as all others have. And not receive special privileges for real or perceived exploitation.

Les Sucettes's picture

It has nothing to do with film standards, and if you go up the chain, you’ll see that I didn’t bring it up.

If everyone agrees that there should be no difference between genders, then why are the very same “gender study” / identity politicians suggesting to use quotas as a valid tool? Why are there “safe spaces” in universities where we, in the name of anti discrimination, discriminate against certain people of colour?

This nonsense comes from the same ideological disciplines that are trying to sell the idea that gender is a social construct because they are trying to portray certain groups as victims so that they can claim power from others.

Gender studies isn’t really about equality - it is a movement that tries to use parity as a means to gain more power, not to actually be treated equally.

Les Sucettes's picture

I don’t feel like people take power away from “me”. I personally have no skin in the game nor could the skin be taken away from me. I’m set in life - I am in a very furtunate position I know.

I simply state the obvious: if we simply agree on equality, there is no further need to make differences. Quotas may seem fair today, but they create unequal opportunities. That may seem fair at a 20000 feet level. But when you look at the i dividual cases, things can look very different very quickly, especially in time. Tell that to the black man from a poor family, who may be better qualified, than that Manhatten white girl, that he cannot access a job because of a quota... it gets weird very quickly.

We say women are disadvantaged and yet we typically create quotas mostly in the types of jobs that are accessible to white middle class women.

The black man from Atlanta is actually far more disadvantaged than the women applying for a board position - which is where we are introducing the quotas.

Quotas are impossible to create fairly. It creates more of a mess.

Personally, I couldn’t care less. I own my house, my gear and have enough to survive on.

Why do I care? Simply because it looks like a train crash in slow motion. You see it happening and you can’t stop it nor can you look away.

Now go back to bed and chew on that for a while before you assume that everyone who has a concern about quotas or gender study is some form of bigot.

Sure they exist too, but you know what they say, they’re mostly just the writing on the wall for something that actually is a bigger issue. And perhaps the intellectual elite - of which I happen to be part of - could scratch their heads a bit more before they introduce nonsense and instead should think things through to the bitter end. Quotas also are mostly defined by one sex. Many say at least 50% women. It’s so obviously exploitable - wait 10 years and now there’s 70% women in a board position and now what. Are we going to just take them back? Of course not.

At the end of the day it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter whether you are asexual and a woman or hetero and a man, black or why. Equality means the same laws apply to everyone.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and culture takes time to change.

PS in some bigoted countries, like the US, women don’t actually have the same rights. Maybe work on that first before going down the “gender is a social construct” route... things like the right to abortion, access to maternity leave, fathers should take paternity leave to create an equal playing field, and free childcare should be a “god given” right. Those are things that matter and not some silly “gender studies”

Les Sucettes's picture

You were implying it:

"I'm sorry you feel that people are out to take power from you, and that you assume negative intent from many people who want nothing more than equality."

that's shorthand for calling someone insecure or a bigot. Whatever it is I don't really care.

We would be much better served if all these brain cells wasted on gender studies were actually focused on creating equal opportunities and correcting the legal frameworks for it.

You have to ask yourself why does feminism and gender studies seem to care more about quotas and names and identities than specific legislation which would actually benefit people form Lower income spheres.

It's quite simple, it comes straight out of the bigot/racist handbook: If you create a difference you can divide and claim power to yourself.

Ever noticed how the loudest feminists are often white upper middle class and blondes (ok not always blondes but they are the most laughable ones)... yet they don't really fight for free and guaranteed childcare, or for maternal leave ... Not all that much anyway; mostly a bit of lip service... Why not? Simple: They are white and middle class and can afford a nanny... they just want to get into the Boardrooms. That's modern equality for you. It has nothing to do with actually helping the disadvantaged spheres of society. It is just about making it look like the majority (women are the majority) are the victims so that the upper sphere of that majority can claim more power. Sure in comparison to white upper middle class men they may have a slight disadvantage - but it is largely laughable if compared to the black unemployed youth in Atlanta, male or female or trans, lesbian, gay or whatever.

And Gender Studies is the main tool with which we divide up society into more and more parts, enabling (probably unwittingly, I would hope anyway) exactly that sort of bs.

Brahm Sterling's picture

You are so wrong.
Labeling people who are born as women as cisgender just because they wear skirts and make-up is not wanting equality, that is wanting to separate.

You are narrow-minded in saying he is confused about mistaking gender with biological sex. Gender and biological sex is based on genitalia. Simple.

"Gender" being a label is psychological. I don't care what people label me as. People who have problems with their own body are the ones that care as to what they get labeled. That is a lesson for you since you were confused about the core of the "issues" these days kids are having on social media.

Les Sucettes's picture

A person wearing a camera has nothing to do with being a photographer. That's a social/cultural identifier.

Mate, listen to yourself. There's whole university programs and PHD's wasted on identifying what makes a photographer, sorry I mean a particular gender.... Not by teaching photography (the fact there's no equivalence, means it is useless), but by identifying that their dress code or whatever is a cultural phenomenon. Geee... what an insight.

Fine - women wear dresses because of culture. Given the right cultural context, men wear dresses too. In some cultures everyone is naked. And?

Go study something useful like optics. Or better, positively influence society to enhance equal opportunity.

Cisgender, gender pronouns, trans toilets, bla bla bla

Brahm Sterling's picture

I love when people, like you, do not take their time to read and learn old facts of life and then use put downs to feel "better" about themselves. So, once again, let's repeat:

Gender is not based on clothes or make-up. Simple. Got that?

Your alternative meaning of the word gender is based on psychological preference, not biological. Got it?

You are too lost in social media nonsense to think the word gender is beyond genitalia. You have no right to label people as anything, just like people have no rights to label you as cisgender just because they want to.

Brahm Sterling's picture

Glad you read one meaning. However, you are unable to understand the difference between science and social labels/opinions.

Fact: you were born with a vagina
Fact: your gender is female
Fact: your biological sex is female

This definition has been around for hundreds of years. Nothing will change. You probably flunked out of basic science classes. But it's ok.

Opinion: you gender is female
That can change. Facts will not change in any language. The fact that your gender is female can not.

The "reality" you live in is you hold dear that other people's opinions about yourself are facts. Your stubbornness keeps you stumbling in narrow roads of ignorance.

Save your sexists jokes for another place.

Brahm Sterling's picture

Your original statement proves you think social media outweighs hundreds of years of science and facts. Not that simple. Gender had many meanings.
However, you think that because YOUR definition is the only one in existence everyone else is wrong. That is where you are just plain dumb.

Am I stupid? No. I understand both meanings and am not glued to one like you.

My statements are not inaccurate, they are facts to which the world agrees.

You are riding the waves of trendy separation. Not all transgender people agree with your small amount of scientists. They don't want to be a group or call people cisgender. Some feel it is asinine, just like you.

Brahm Sterling's picture

Haha. 2617 "scientists"
Ok. Social services is not exactly changing the world with experiments.
But hey, whatever floats your boat. The people involved with that website clearly don't grasp the concept of genitalia.
If you want to be labeled as something different, go ahead, but trying to tell others it is more complex than that really need to grow up.

Brahm Sterling's picture

Guess you didn't even bother to research who the "scientist" are. Yes quotes. Not all of the people listed are scientists, idiot.

Again, you prove one thing: you think "gender" is now only a social term/label. That is not science, that is just a psychological label given to and/or chosen by people. Scientists can't prove something that is non-existent. Ideas can be proven by mathematics, by scientists, however, calling people binary is not science. I give two shits what people label me as, but I know what my gender is based only by genitalia. If you want to add complexity to your world just because a few "scientists" want you to, go ahead. Nobel Prize are as useless and sexist as Pulitzer, Oscars, or any awards. But hey, you need those titles to feel better about riding the social media train.

Grow a spine and be yourself without want segretaional thoughts about people and gender.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Guys...
OFF-TOPIC MUCH??? Why don't you just exchange phone numbers and hash it out between yourselves?

Brahm Sterling's picture

I gave her you number.

Les Sucettes's picture

I think you didn't read what I said. I specifically said that gender and biological sex is the same thing. While there may be social constructs, it's not worth the brain cells being wasted on it.

Go back in your box

Brahm Sterling's picture

What is wrong with her hands?

Brahm Sterling's picture

See you can actually read this time.

Kirk Darling's picture

In my day, "full frame" was 8x10.

David Vivian's picture

No, back in the day this was known as "macro" 4/3rds

Nathan Wong's picture

I still call it "35mm." Unfortunately people think I'm referring to the focal length of the lens. I also call medium format "120" too.

anthony marsh's picture

Since when was JAMES MADISON declared a film expert? Oh yes, when he declared himself so.

Adriano Brigante's picture

I shoot both. I like 35mm a lot, but you can't beat those big beautiful 6x6 negs of medium format.

Tony Clark's picture

Shoot a roll of 120 on a 6x7 system, compare it to 35mm and report back. As in anything in life, pick the right tool for the job.

Timothy Roper's picture

It's pretty simple for me, and has been since before digital: 135 for street, 120 for everything else when possible.

Kirk Darling's picture

In film there is zero debate. Zero. If the difference is not immediately clear, then someone doesn't know how to process a medium format negative.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

This video didn’t really settle any kind of debate for me:

1. As per their video description, the Contax is a “very pro” camera while the Canon is more of an “amateur” one. What? They couldn’t find a pro 35mm film camera for the comparison? That would have made more sense.

2. Many of his Canon shots appear to be out of focus. Like they are back-focused.

3. He seems to be inconsistent with the aperture on the Canon. Most of the time it looks stopped down (f3.2 or higher f-stop). I shoot (digital) a lot with a 35mm lens at f2 and there’s more separation than most of his images. Makes no sense if he’s shooting that Contax wide open (or close to it) while stopping down on the Canon.

4. His framing is inconsistent. Some of the shots he frames tighter on the Contax which results in more background separation. Looks more pleasing in busy or uninteresting backgrounds.

Nathan Wong's picture

Unless 35mm and 120 format is optically printed with an enlarger and a lens you're really only comparing how good the scanner can scan certain formats. A 35mm print takes 8x magnification on an enlarger to get an 8x10 print. A 120mm print far less. When printed there's a HUGE difference in quality and sharpness. You can tell the instant you see the prints which one is which. If you scan the negatives/slides you might not be able to see the difference right away.

As a side note, the grain on a negative or slide taken with 120 film is the same as 35mm. Grain may look smaller using 120 film when printed as opposed to 35mm but that's because of the magnification needed with 35mm to get the same image size.

Kirk Darling's picture

Yes, scanning is a huge factor. 120 film presents the same problem with scanning as it does with enlarging: Making sure the thin-based film is perfectly flat. Stopping down the enlarger lens and waiting for the film to pop (for an incandescent enlarger bulb, not needed for a "cold light" source) helps when enlarging. For scanning, then using a drum scanner.

Zelph Young's picture

(the quintessential film camera for wedding photographers) - was Hasselblad. The square prints in a proof book for the Bride & Groom and families. No worry about horizontal or vertical images. Later you cropped for those when making larger prints. Interchangeable film backs meant you could switch between slow and faster film for church interiors/receptions and outdoor images.
The 645 came in later and was seen as a "poor cousin" to the larger, square images.

Zelph Young's picture

I am well aware of the cheezy 645 back as well as the SuperSlide back. Also that others made 6x6 camera bodies - my Rollei's are that size.
Hasselblads for Weddings and commercial work in the 1970's was one way many clients "Judged" whether or not you were a "professional" when hiring.

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