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?

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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The size of the negative makes a difference in printing. Nothing quite like a contact print from an 8x10 or 12x20 negative.
No, Clients were not "desperately concerned" but the gear we used was noticed. Sinar, Hasselblad and the high end studio and location strobes were a confidence inducing factor in some commercial jobs. Much as showing up to photograph a wedding wearing a good suit and tie. Looking professional was just part of the job.

Why are articles now just ads for poorly made videos?

I shoot both 35mm and 120mm in 645 format. They both have their time and place, as any other piece of gear. There are very few times where I am shooting both. I bring the medium format out for portraits, landscapes, and some events; and use the 35mm for candid, street, and anything else I don't feel like spending more dollars per frame. Quality is a whole other factor, as others have pointed out the differences in scanning can make a huge difference, or none at all. That difference in quality really does come through if your developer has a good handle on their scanning equipment and knows how to deal with each format. But analog to digital won't ever quite be able to show everything. Taking these analog formats all the way through to the darkroom is where the quality of 120mm really comes through, especially if combimed with a fine grain film format

645 is *barely* MF. It's not that different than 35mm in terms of negative area (especially in comparison with 6x6, 6x7, or 6x9)

Did you work with 645 or even stand next to it? You won't get nothing even close to contax 80/2 or mamiya 45/2.8 on 35mm camera and, the most funniest, on 6x6 or 6x7 too. 645 is awesome format and it is same MEDIUM as big brothers.

645 contains as much usable film area in a 4:5 ratio print as 6x6. That was the point of the format.

Folks, I'm here to tell you 35mm is "full frame" long before digital photography because the usage comes from moving pictures where 35mm was the standard for theatrical releases and was later adapted for small format stills, especially photojournalism. 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm were common film sizes. 35mm was "full frame." Adriano posted below an historic advertisement using the term. The trick is the term came into still photography from moving pictures, just as 35mm film itself did.

Except that the original cine frame using 35mm film was 16x22mm, only half the size of the original production size of the Leica frame using the same film.

The Leica 24x36mm has always been the largest standard size (which excepts some odd-ball panorama formats) for cameras using 35mm film.

So, no, the "full frame" moniker doesn't come from the cinema world.

It was the same 35mm film. "The first commercially available 35mm camera was the 1913 Tourist Multiple, made by the New Ideas Mfg. Co. of New York. This camera ran the film vertically and exposed the standard 18x24 cine frame size (equaling four sprocket holes per frame). This was soon followed by the Simplex, from New York's Multi-Speed Shutter Co.. The camera permitted a choice of either the cine frame size or the "double" frame 24 x 36mm format."

The term "full frame" continued after the vertical to horizontal transition on the same film 35mm film rolls doubled the negative image size. "Full frame" is associated with the film itself, not the mm of the negative image. and was widely known and used before digital photography to refer to 35mm film rolls -- which cine shot vertically and Leicas and later still cameras shot horizontally.

I would like to see an actual example or reference of the specific term "full frame" being used for either the Tourist Multiple or the Simplex.

One comparison to 35mm worked OK. That was using Kodak Tech Pan in 35mm with the right processing. Especially good for locations and jobs with mediocre lighting and contrast where the smaller camera with good lenses matched the quality of the film.
Overall, the larger the negative the "better" the final print - in technical terms.
35mm or 120 enlarged to 16x20 compared to a contact print from a negative that size shows the difference easily. Problem is - the much larger negative means a much larger camera and that can be limiting for a lot of locations and type of work.

"Full frame" refers to the complete image in the native aspect ratio of the film you are using. For instance a full frame 3:2 aspect ratio image from 35mm film could be printed 8X12. Cropping to a standard 8X10 print would show less than full frame because it is cropped from 3:2 to 4:5 aspect ratio, thereby losing 2 inches from the longest dimension of the full frame print of similar size.

There is no comparison in quality. 35 mm film was invented for having more frames in a smaller camera that could be used to take photographs in a faster way, while sacrificing quality with a smaller film base. In the day, Hasselblad medium format ruled, and the true test was that you could print a 40 x 40“ print, and it was beautiful. Conversely even on the slowest film, 35 mm film, including Tech Pan, shot at 12 ASA or less, there was still no comparison. 35mm film is the most iconic in a Leica, for it strips down all the bells and whistle‘s into a shutter and finder, but still was limited by the film size in comparison to medium format.

medium format film is great because they keep telling us.

The nice thing about living in 2020 is that film cameras of all sorts of formats are relatively inexpensive. I have multiple 35mm bodies, you can pick up excellent SLRs for $20 and lenses for not much more.

I don't shoot 645, but I love shooting 6x6 which generally gets cropped to 645 when I print. Decent folders that shoot 6x6 like the Agfa Isolette can be had for under $100, sometimes much less if you're willing to give them a little TLC to get them up and running again. TLRs with excellent optics (Yashica, Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex series, etc) can be had for between $100 and $200. Even full-featured 6x6 SLRs like the Bronica SQ series are very affordable compared to high-end DSLRs.

I don't shoot 6x7; I hate how it doesn't fit nicely in standard binder-sized neg storage unless you throw away a frame.

6x9 is a nice format for when I don't want to deal with the large format camera but do want huge resolution. I have a Moskva 5 that I picked up for around $70 that puts out awesome negatives and folds up smaller than my DSLR.

And you can get an Intrepid in 4x5, 5x7, or 8x10 for a few hundred bucks. Short of multi-row panoramas or super high-end digital medium format bodies, digital doesn't touch the resolution available from 4x5, let alone larger sheet films.

So don't shoot 35mm OR medium format. Shoot 35mm AND medium format! And large format while you're at it.

Absolutely! If you are patient and you know what you're looking for, you can get awesome deals. Over the years, some of my best purchases include a Zeiss Ikon Nettar for $10, an Olympus OM-1 and its 50mm f/1.7 Zuiko lens for $30, a Rolleicord III for $15...

I print 35mm in a colour darkroom alongside a bunch of medium format users and it's always easy to see the difference but not just in the lesser grain. Medium format is often more careful and staged no matter where it is and I can always see it in the photos - it's as if the photogs have used a tripod even if they haven't. That slowness and carefulness really has an effect on what is shot and the vibe.

With 35mm there's usually a totally different vibe, photos usually feel more flowing and chanced and have a certain spontaneity even if the subject is still. Obviously the lightweight and more shots you get gives 35mm an edge in that you get faster lenses and slower shutters all handheld and can experiment more and take more chances. That changes your approach I find. Which results in different images with a different voice.

I don't care much about the resolution, I like grain and texture the same way I like seeing the paint or canvas in a painting. For me it's not about making the smoothest grain free image possible. Digital can do that. I just can not operate the way I want to with MF and so primarily use 35mm but usually people always talk about resolution which TBH if the photo is great then unless you must always print huge, doesn't matter.