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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49 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.

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).

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"?

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.

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?

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.

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.

Salty Cremepuff'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.

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.

Steve K's picture

Clickbait article. I switched from 35mm to 120 because my $200 flatbed scanner can't resolve enough detail from 35mm film, and a better 35mm scanner costs a crap ton more than a 120 format TLR ($800+ vs $125)

Roberto Adrian Sanchez's picture

Why do we all have to agree on anything in a creative matter? It is great that film, medium format, polaroids, m43, apsc and full frame exist.

Izzy Schreiber's picture

As someone who shoots 8x10 and medium format on a regular basis, not for fun, but for my living (fashion campaigns and editorials). I have to say the fundementals of your arguement are flawed. Lets all be honest, if you shoot 645 you dont really shoot medium format... there are massive asthetic advantages for shooting 67 and the generally better they get the higher you go. The only arguement in my mind for not shooting medium format is if you dont c type print in the darkroom or do it as a hobby, then 135 would be fine for most.

Mike Ditz's picture

Even whenI shot film, I felt 645 was too much of a compromise. Not as fast and easy as 35 and not the big step up in image quality of 6x6 or 6x7.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

645 is nice because the cameras are small and you dont have to store two types of films.

Robert Budding's picture

No, 645 is a legitimate medium format choice. The negative is 2.7X the size of 35mm, and the difference in print quality is huge.

Chris Rogers's picture

Aaaaah yes I'll take two extra large bags of popcorn please. This gunna be guhd

Ed Knuff's picture

lol

Robert Hold's picture

I just about laughed reading this article.

I shoot 35mm film primarily if I'm intentionally working with small prints if not doing darkroom work or scanning the negatives. I get far more data/information out of larger format negatives than I do out of 35mm. When I'm on the road and I'm intentionally shooting 1x2 landscapes, I throw a roll of 120 in my CrownGraphic Speed Graphic with a 6x9 back and use that. I'm able to resolve a 100mp digital file when I scan it and I can create some solid work.

The argument you make about 35mm being a bigger bang for your buck sounds a lot like "spray and pray" instead of making photographs with intentionality and training yourself to be a better photographer in the process.

Cole Turner's picture

What an awful article. There may not be a limit to what can be stored on the internet, but I have a limited number of minutes in my life and you just wasted 3 of them.

Tim Foster's picture

I'd argue there's no reason to shoot 35mm. The aspect ratio isn't good for much. Most medium format sytems offer a 4:5 aspect ratio, which in my opinion lends itself much better to prints.

A Pentax 105mm F/2.4 produces roughly the depth of field of a 50mm F1.2 with better resolution. The RZ67 with a 110mm F/2.8 is a dream for image quality and ergonomics if you use a tripod.

The 135 frame was generally an amateur format and there's a lot of reasons for that.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

exactly, its a format made for movie-cameras with sprockets that waste space and a dimension where it makes more sense to buy a cheap nikon fullframe DSLR than a film SLR.
It made sense when there was no digital and i love my 35mm Nikons, but if you shoot film in 2021 shoot as big as possible

Ed Knuff's picture

A comedic article...

Lyle Mariam's picture

Another article that doesn't answer the question posed by the title. The difference in resolution of 6x6 or 6x7 film is vastly superior to 35mm. I used and still have a Canon F1 and used Mamiya C330's, RB6x7, and 500CM Blad's. A 35 mm negative is 24x36 mm and a 120 is 60mm x 60mm or roughly twice the negative length on the long side and a 6x7 even bigger. The fact that film is expensive to process today is a poor argument for not using 6x6 film. That's sort of like saying VHS tapes are hard to find so don't buy a VCR. You can't take an obsolete vintage product and compare it today. If processing is expensive, do what I did and buy the chemicals and make your own developer.

Steve Sondheim's picture

I like your articles James, and I get this was written a little tongue in cheek. ;)
But if your article is called "Medium Format Is Unnecessary. Can We All Agree to Just Stick With 35mm?" and then you close your argument with the statement "With all of this said, please note that I still love my medium format cameras and will continue using them." ... what exactly are you actually saying here? If you want us to agree, lead by good example and dispose of those medium format cameras. And I for one will gladly volunteer to take on the burden of ownership. :)

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

I know this is f-stoppers, but even for f-stoppers standards: what a trash article

35mm is nice, but if you shoot 35mm why not shoot digital? Whats the benefit of shooting 35mm in film?

I know this is a clickbait article thats supposed to just draw readers to their advertisers, but if you already decided that you want shoot film shoot the biggest format you can afford. Buy a Shen Hao or one of the new 4x5 or shoot 6x9 or 6x6 or even 645. Dont waste your money and film on space for sprockets in tiny cameras, go big!

AJ L's picture

You might as well just say, shoot digital instead of film. Choice of film is a matter of personal preferences, and most people shooting film these days are doing it for enjoyment. If shooting medium format gives you enough enjoyment to be worth the cost, go for it.