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Medium Format Is Unnecessary. Can We All Agree to Just Stick With 35mm?

In the film world, it doesn’t take long before you start to get hooked on the idea of shooting medium format. Why, you ask? By this time, no reason whatsoever. 

To address this, let us first consider what made the medium format so popular to begin with, namely the increased negative size. With a consistent height of 6 cm, medium format film (also known as 120) ranges in width from 4.5 cm to 7 cm for the most popular formats (including 6 cm in between for the famous 1:1 aspect ratio) and available in 8 cm and 9 cm widths in some lesser-known and less popular cameras. For the smallest of the more common formats, 6x4.5 offered the chance to shoot what felt like 35mm in its aspect ratio, but you get a lot more resolution in a relatively compact size. Next up, the 6x6 format offered what felt most uniquely different from 35mm film and digital photography; however, in making 8x10 and 11x14 prints, you gain little to no resolution over the 6x4.5 format. Then, we have the 6x7 system, coming in at nearly five times the size of the 35mm negative, while the added resolution on an 8x10 and 11x14 print puts it into a whole other world. Even better, the 6x7 aspect ratio is pretty similar to that of the most common print size (i.e., 8x10) and thus, the 4x5 system. Indeed, shooting 6x7 gave photographers near 8x10 prints while being much more compact and friendly.

In addition to increased resolution, another of the most beloved aspects of medium format is the tastefully shallow depth of field, which can be razor-thin on some of the fastest lenses. More specifically, the fastest medium lens ever made, made for the Mamiya 645 system, the 80mm f/1.9 is approximately equivalent to a 50mm f/1.2 lens on 35mm film (to include full frame digital cameras). Then, we also have the legendary Pentax 67 lens, the Pentax 105mm f/2.4, which has a nearly identical 35mm (/full frame) equivalence of approximately 50mm f/1.2. 

At the time these systems were made new, there was no other option for having better-quality photographs than to increase the format, and thus, we still a ton of medium format cameras on the market today. Years ago, prior to the recent rise in the popularity of film photography, medium format cameras were still quite cheap and affordable, so much so that when I once considered selling the Mamiya RB67 I inherited, the going price of it was so low (around $200, if I recall correctly) that I decided against letting it go. That was about 4-5 years ago, and just 2.5 years ago when I wrote up the review for the camera here for Fstoppers (link here), a good copy of the camera with the full kit could still easily be found for around $300, whereas now, you could expect to easily pay double that for a decent to good copy. I would like to say this situation is specific to the Mamiya RB67, but it has indeed spread to every medium format film camera I know of; this is particularly true for the Mamiya and Pentax 645 systems, which have seen an astronomical hike in the used price of a good copy for every version of the camera. So, in my opinion, the only rational thing to do in response to these ridiculous price hikes is to just stick with 35mm and digital. 

Why 35mm Film?

To answer this, I would like to revisit the points I just made – the increased size of the negative that results in increased resolution of prints compared with 35mm and the wonderfully shallow depth of fields. These are attributes that have become somewhat commonplace for digital photography, so much so that the legendary lenses mentioned above would not be able to compete with any Sony a7 series camera with a new 50mm 1.2 GM. Moreover, beyond those specific lenses, the fastest lenses you’ll usually find are still no faster than an f/2 lens equivalent for 35mm. With this in mind, you easily and relatively cheaply duplicate the same admirable qualities of medium format film with a modern(-ish) digital camera. As such, why even shoot film in this day and age? Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? It all comes down to the desire to shoot film.

This brings me to the primary point I’d like to make: if you are going to shoot film, I would suggest sticking with 35mm film and leaving medium format out of it. The fact of the matter is that the primary charm to film is in the finite quality of it (limited to 24 or 36 exposures for 35mm film and between 10 to 16 exposures for 67 and 645 film, respectively) and embracing of the imperfect. Both of these qualities are present regardless of whether you are shooting 35mm or 120. Moreover, shooting 35mm gives you a lot more bang for your buck. That is, even the cost of the most expensive color negative film along with processing and scanning services would cost less than $1 per frame. Compare this with medium format, where the prices for a roll of film, processing, and scanning can similarly reach $30 in total for fewer frames, meaning the cost is around $2 per frame for 645 and $3 per frame for 67 negatives. The easily out of control costs are why film photographers, myself included, shoot and process black and white on their own, cutting out the lab costs and taking advantage of less expensive rolls of film. 

In conclusion, back when you could get a nice medium format camera in good condition for around $300 to $400, I would and did highly recommend them for anyone looking to get into film. Nowadays, with what I hope are all-time high prices, I cannot personally make that recommendation for someone getting into film or even photographers who have been shooting film for a while but haven’t taken the plunge into medium format. With all of this said, please note that I still love my medium format cameras and will continue using them. I’m just personally struggling with the massive upswing in the prices they demand these days, so much so that I wouldn’t be able to justify the cost for myself or anyone else I know. 

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84 Comments

Justin Sharp's picture

The 8x10 and 11x14 prints, were those digital scans and printed from a printer or were those prints made in the darkroom? I experience a big difference printing medium format compared to 35mm negatives on silver gelatin paper in the darkroom.
Of course, the best option is to forget medium format and smaller and shoot large format. Go big or go home!!! (Kidding.....sort of)

Michael Aubrey's picture

I think this is a legit point: 4x5 is actually getting cheaper in terms of the gear thanks to efforts by Intrepid which are already competitive with the existing used gear. That means there isn't a rush on used cameras for LF. Film is more, of course, that's the thing. But home developing B&W and contact printing is super satisfying.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

Large format never was for the camera.
The lenses is whats expensive with large format.

Marc F's picture

It’s because large format lenses have the shutter inside them. The remaining of the camera is only a box with a ground glass.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

no shit sherlock hehe

Michael Aubrey's picture

Expensive lenses?

A 90mm f/8 Super Angulon for $200.
A 150mm f/5.6 Symmar-S for $150.
A 210mm f/5.6 Symmar-S for $200.

If you say so...

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

I didn't say that the lenses are expensive, i said compared to the camera.

And just because you can buy cheap Schneider lenses doesnt mean that a 150mm lens is cheap in any case, those are just affordable options.
You can also buy an Apo Symmar for 5 times the money from Schneider.

Micah Bayer's picture

Nope, if you're doing professional work medium format is still a huge gain in scannable data and resolution even with a flatbed. Can 35 suffice for most fun things and projects? sure it can.
While I can be surprised with a dedicated 35mm scanner every once in a while, the sharpness of a good medium format shot just can't be beat. Even a good Polaroid shot has more data. Now am I gonna use that? probably not, but I have and occasionally enjoy the option.
If you're sending it off for scans, yeah that can get expensive real fast. It's better off for darkroom and special reasons. But man, the things I see in my medium format work is worth the cost, even for fun. Plus getting to exercise some amazing cameras in my collection and the reactions when I show up with a TLR is pretty fun too.
Pretty sure I wooed my now wife when I showed up to her party with a 600se and gave away photos with that glorious boat anchor. Worth it!

Rob Davis's picture

Title: Medium Format is Unnecessary. 35mm is plenty.

Body: Actually I really like medium format, but just can’t afford it. Really this isn’t as much about medium format as it is my current mood.

Avery Miller's picture

Little harsh, don't you think Rob?

Kevin Connery's picture

It might seem harsh, but it really summarizes what the article actually says.

There's nothing in it to show that MF isn't 'better' than 35mm, or that 35mm is actually enough.

Yes, used MF gear prices have recovered from their earlier bargain-basement prices; that doesn't change the physical characteristics of the format. For any given film stock, more real estate means more data, finer gradation, etc.

MF in all its guises was always a compromise between (for example) 35mm and 8x10 film. That's no less true today than it was in the past.

Justin Sharp's picture

As online comments go, pretty tame. In fact, it’s a fairly good summary of the content of the article.

Ed Knuff's picture

I'd say the writer may be seriously lacking much education in Photography.
I understood how much more beneficial medium format is vs 35mm when I was 14 years old.
Maybe he should try 110 film...

Ed Knuff's picture

My lovely wife said my comment was too harsh. Yay, Nay?

Justin Sharp's picture

Well, at least you didn’t call him a moron and he needs to just quit. That would be harsh (and common in many online comments on various websites).

Ed Knuff's picture

Definitely do not think he should quit. He has some lovely work on his page!

anthony marsh's picture

How do you know for certain it is his work? Anyone who composes inane and non factual tripe is suspect.

Charles Mercier's picture

The line that was harsh was about 110 film. But I appreciate it because I completely forgot about that crappy format! lol

Marc F's picture

The comment is harsh, except for the part that says “Maybe he should try 110 film…”

Marc F's picture

Why not try to take pictures with a single 8mm movie camera set to frame by frame. One roll of film will give thousands of frames…

David Purton's picture

Scan resolution and possible print size from different film formats is only part of the argument. The reasons for choosing different formats is how they make you approach the subject. I come from the film era and still have 35mm, 66, 67 and 69...tlr and rangefinder. They are, and always have been, tools for jobs...and remain so. 8 frames on 120 focuses the mind in the way 36 frames never did.

Or several hundred digital captures? I think it is possible to argue that slowing down and having to consider the subject in a more critical and contemplative way is basically "a good tbing"?

anthony marsh's picture

Several hundred and at times several thousand to capture "the one" The famous film photographer GEORGE ZIMBLE likened it to DIGITAL DIAHRREA.

Benjamin Bateson's picture

My unequivocally answer to this article is No. 35mm is fine but medium format is still it for hand holdable quality. When it comes to printing and scanning size still matters. The authors opinion is not completely off point but to suggest other potential film photographers shoot only 35mm is irresponsible to the greater film community. If film as a format is to survive it needs to survive in multiple formats.

Avery Miller's picture

I clicked on this ready to defend my precious medium format but you make a very good case! The price hikes are just crazy, it's been a real problem. I'm a big fan of digital, but I came over to medium format very recently because of the fidelity it can resolve, but I am jealous of the 35mm shooters with th affordable film stocks and the compact sizes!! I would really like to test the resolution on a high quality 35mm film vs a cheap expired 120 film, and see how drastic the resolution difference is, because it might not be as significant as I'd like to think.
If I could find a real panoramic 35mm camera around the $300 mark, I'd jump to 35.

Morgan Miller's picture

The differenece is drastic. There is mo comparison. Serious landscape can onlu be done with mediim or large format film. This is a click bait opiniom piece. The difference between med format and 35mm film is so.large, it dwarfs the difference between cropped and full frame. Silly article.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

a "real panoramic 35mm camera" would be any 120 film camera you load with 135 film

David Moore's picture

no.

Giovanni Aprea's picture

I love portraits and as such the dream camera has been, and would still be, an RZ67ProII with a Polaroid back and the 110/2.8.
I often take a camera with me when I work (work on a boat as a tour guide) and take shots of my friends along the way, now that's the worse time and light for such a thing but they all enjoy having a memory off of what they think being a "real camera" (just to confirm the equation that bigger is better), they will have to wait to go back home, have time to download, process and email, I imagine how fun would it be to give them a Polaroid straight away and, no, don't tell me to buy a Polaroid camera, the whole handling of a MF, the viewfinder etc is another experience not to mention that for "normal" shots it would force to carefully think before hitting the shutter.
As a matter of fact I am cherishing a Mamya since a couple years but prices have almost doubled if not more, just saw a ProII with the 110 for 2.500(!!!).
I bought two rolls of 35mm BW film for my F3 and take it for a ride once in a while, hope to get developing gear and to learn, it will add to knowledge and fun and delay MF to better times when hype calms down as well as with vinyl, till couple years ago my son's friends coming home and seeing my huge Michell turntable didn't even know what that thing is, now it got fashionable and vinyls cost twice if not three times as much...

Morgan Miller's picture

Wow, bad article, bad

Mike Ditz's picture

Another FStopper article saying something is unnecessary written by a guy who uses the thing that is unnecessary.

¯\_ (ツ)_/¯

All righty then, consider the idea that for most people (I exclude 4x5 and 8x10 shooters) shooting any kind of film in 2021 is unnecessary and folks doing it are making an effort to go against the easier, faster often better quality, etc digital cameras for various reasons. There are many affordable 35mmm and MF film cameras.
I have a Nikon F2 sitting on a shelf. It may have film in it. I don't really know or care. My digital cameras have made 35mm film pretty useless to me...it ain't really that much fun to use, but I can put those lenses on my Sonys.
But I also have a late 80s Hasselblad with one lens, that does have film in it, 400 portra. The entire process is a different way of seeing and shooting than with the 35 format of FSLR or DSLR and that is sort of fun to use.
If saving money is the only reason to shoot 35mm that's cool, but If I am going to the extra effort to shoot film it'll be MF.

Ed Knuff's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician.

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

Can we all just agree there's no right or wrong option here as this is based on an opinion?

Patrick Rangeley-Wilson's picture

35mm is unnecessary. Can we just all agree to stick with APS-C?

In fact... APS-C is unnecessary. Can we just all agree to stick with Micro Four Thirds.

They are all "unnecessary" compared to the format that is a bit smaller but basically just as good.

Stuart C's picture

This article is about film, not digital.

Jerry Dalton's picture

Your joking. Right? You do realize that those are all film sizes?

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

mFT is a film format?

Jayson Brinkler's picture

Bad article. Medium Format is way superior over 35mm. I gave up 35mm back in 1992 to go exclusively medium format. You only have to look at the quality of the prints and resolution of the larger negatives to realise never to touch 35mm again.

Joe Smith's picture

Love the useless clickbait titles.

O S's picture

Wow, really Fstoppers? The kind of articles published here recently and the opinions expressed by your new "writers" is getting more and more questionable for quite some time now. What's up? No resources to filter?

Ed Knuff's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician.

anthony marsh's picture

He should remain so and have his allegedly owned photo gear confiscated by the TRUTH IN PHOTOGRAPHY POLICE.

Phil Tate's picture

My first real camera was a Yashica-D. It cost $50 and film was fifty cents a roll or so. But my dream camera was a Hasselblad, which was like an XK-E, something I would drool over but could never afford. I still don't have the XK-E, but I recently bought a 500CM in excellent condition for under $2,000. Still high-priced, but after 60+ years finally affordable. Not necessary, but it changes my relationship with photography and alters my approach to each picture I take.

John Tal's picture

Pointless.

Deleted Account's picture

There's no way you could have thought that this article wouldn't get flamed.

Mike Ditz's picture

I think it was intended to to that,
we all took the bait.

anthony marsh's picture

I disagree. It was an unintended consequence by a fraud who doesn't have a clue about photography. I would question if his published photos are actually his work.

G B's picture

Was that an earthquake or was that Ansel Adams and the rest of the f64 club rolling in their graves?

BTW: If you want 'finite' just get a 1GB card.

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