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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Pan daBear's picture

The only true full frame. Everything else is meaningless!

David Vivian's picture

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

Pan daBear's picture

Haha! Love it!

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.

Pan daBear's picture

Hasselblad wasn't the only camera manufacturer that (sometimes) used 6x6 square negatives: it was just a film format. Rollei, Bronica, etc. also used the format. In fact, Hasselblad had their own film back for the 500 series cameras, called the a16 back, that shot 645. And 645 crop cameras existed since the 1930s.

Forgive me, but I don't believe you know what you are talking about.

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.

Pan daBear's picture

Nothing "cheezy" about those backs: allowing more frames per roll was quite beneficial for a professional with a bottom line to consider.

Did you shoot in the 70s professionally? I rarely if ever have had clients so desperately concerned about the camera, and most certainly not the camera company, I was using. That sounds more like gearhead cock-measuring contest talk than anything a client or true professional cares about. They were always far more concerned with my portfolio and prices.

So why do you care about the size of a negative so much now? Are you a gearhead or a photographer?

Brahm Sterling's picture

See you picking on other people. God you are a nimrod.

Zelph Young's picture

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.

Pan daBear's picture

A bit of an extreme example here: you’re not contact printing 6x6 or 645 negatives, and the enlargement of either is not discernible to the client. That’s like saying horsepower and speed matters for a pizza delivery guy, and then arguing he should fly a helicopter to each house.
Are you arguing a Contax or Mamiya 645 would not be professional high end equipment for a job? Because that’s just not true.

Brahm Sterling's picture

Why are articles now just ads for poorly made videos?

anthony marsh's picture

A better comparison would have been if a camera with ZEISS or LEITZ lenses were used. Not that CANON is an inferior product however none of it's vintage glass can approximate the effects of ZEISS and LEITZ.

Dan Aalsand's picture

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

Rodney Johnson's picture

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

Yan Kuzik's picture

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.

Kirk Darling's picture

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

Pan daBear's picture

All these men so fixated on how big their (camera) packages are need to be reminded that size matters much less then how you use what you've got!

Pan daBear's picture

35mm film has a surface area of 864 sq.mm. 645 has a surface area of 2352 sq.mm. 645 is 2.7X larger than 35mm film. So there is a very big difference between the two. Also, 6x6 has an area of 3136 sq.mm, making 6x6 film 1.3X greater in area than 645 film. There is a much greater difference between 35mm and 645 than there is between 645 and 6x6, or 6x7 for that matter. I'm sorry, but you're just wrong here.

Marc Kusterer's picture

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.

Kirk Darling's picture

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.

Marc Kusterer's picture

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.

Kirk Darling's picture

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.

Zelph Young's picture

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.

Salvadore Ragusa's picture

"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.

RT Simon's picture

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.

David Vivian's picture

medium format film is great because they keep telling us.

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

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.

Adriano Brigante's picture

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...