A Primer to Shooting Film in 2020: Format and Camera Options

A Primer to Shooting Film in 2020: Format and Camera Options

With film getting more and more popular, it’s about time we cover some of the details. Let’s start by talking about your different options for formats and cameras.

Following my previous article about why you should start (or return to) shooting film, this is the first article in a short series of three articles acting as a primer to film photography. In this first article, we will talk about choosing a camera.

Format

When you go to buy yourself a film camera, the first place you need to begin is asking what film format you’re most interested in. The most common place to start is, of course, the 35mm (also known as 135), as it is the format with the largest selection of cameras, greatest availability, and is generally the least expensive. The next most common format is medium format. 

For those that are unfamiliar, medium format refers to the film size (called 120) and covers a range of formats that can use the same film. The smallest is medium format range is 6x4.5 (more commonly just referred to as 645). This format tends to be the most affordable medium format options, and being nearly three times the size of 35mm, it is basically like a super-size 35mm. The next largest medium format option is the 6x6 square format, which is without a doubt the most unique format of film. While it is quite attractive to step up the format, if you crop your photos to print on 8x10 11x14 paper, your 6x6 format effectively becomes equivalent to 645 format. Next, up is 6x7 (also commonly referred to as simply 67), which is my favorite of the medium format bunch. Coming in at approximately five times the size of full frame, 6x7 is a great option for getting incredibly shallow depth of field and incredible resolution. Another great thing about this format is how close it is to standard printing sizes. Unlike 6x6 or even 645, the 6x7 wastes very little of the negative when cropping to print 8x10 or 11x14. Next up is large format. Similar to medium format, large format does not imply one specific format but rather a range of formats starting with 4x5 and up to 8x10 and beyond, well into ultra-large format, where the film must be special ordered. 

There are, of course, more obscure film formats as well — some of which use the same film as the three parent formats mentioned above (35mm, medium, and large format). To begin, there are panoramic cameras, the most famous of which is the Hasselblad XPan (a.k.a., Fujifilm TX-1 and TX-2), which is so prohibitively expensive that it is now and will likely remain out of reach for the vast majority of photographers. These cameras utilize 35mm film. There are options for shooting panoramic style in medium format, but outside of the toy camera from Lomography, options are typically view cameras. Additional odd formats include in the Advanced Photo System (APS), which is akin to the modern sensor size APS-C. 

In addition, the medium format system offered multiple other aspect ratios that are a bit less common. Namely, there are two sizes: 6x8 and 6x9. Truth be told, I don’t understand the point of 6x8. It is kind of an awkward aspect ratio that doesn’t really speak to me. Then, the larger of the two, 6x9, is basically a gigantic 35mm camera since it is the same aspect ratio but offers a negative that is 6.5 times the size of 35mm. I have seen and considered getting one of the several Fuji 6x9 offerings, but I would only do it for the novelty of it. I do not see any practical use for those cameras. There are 6x9 backs for 4x5 that seem quite attractive, but I cannot imagine going through all of the work of setting up the 4x5 just to take a shot on 120. For black and white, it isn’t that much more expensive to shoot 4x5 than 120, so I fail to see where it would truly be worth it. I suppose I could understand for C41 if you have a shop in town that can process up to 120 but cannot do anything larger. But even then, I don’t know that I would personally go through the hassle. That’s not to say that I haven’t been tempted before to try it out. Perhaps one day, I’ll go through with it and give it a go. Finally, last but not least, there are the 2x3 press cameras from back in the day. This film is only made by special order. 

Please note that there are definitely other, more obscure options out there. The world of film is so vast that even spending years embedded in the film photography community, you’ll never come across everything. 

Camera Brands and Models

As far as brands go, there are the usual suspects: Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, Mamiya, and Zenza Bronica. Even more so than film formats, there are so many different options for camera brands and models. Quite literally, there are hundreds if not thousands of models of cameras that have been offered over the years. If you have yet to pick up your first film camera, I would like to first start by saying that if someone in your family has their old one, that is the perfect place to get going. When it comes to film, the camera is arguably the least important piece in the whole process. Aside from features like autofocus, a built-in meter, automatic film advance, aperture priority mode, etc., the camera itself doesn’t make much of a difference. The camera body itself is just a light-tight box that you can attach a lens to and holds your film. The lenses can make a big difference, while the film will play the largest roll in what the photos will look like when it’s all said and done. 

As for specific suggestions, I would refer to the previous article that gives an interview of under- and overrated cameras in 2020. For just about every camera you can think of, there is most likely more than one YouTube video reviewing the camera. For some of my detailed reviews on Fstoppers on an assortment of film cameras, please see below:

What are your thoughts? For those photographers who would like to get their film first camera, what would you suggest? If you are one of those photographers and have a question about picking out a camera, please leave a comment.  

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29 Comments

Michael Aubrey's picture

Most 2x3 press cameras shoot 120 in 6x9 format. It's not uncommon: Linholf, Mamiya Press, Horseman all provided 120 backs with RF coupled focusing.

And a 100mm f/2.8 lens shot wide open on on a 6x9 120 is gorgeous.

James Madison's picture

While it may not be uncommon, it's definitely not seen many, if any, 2x3 press cameras that are in good shape. Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough.

Deleted Account's picture

The Olympus OM series are great. The mid 80s fujis (35mm and 120) are superb. The Canons and Nikons are all great.

I'm starting to look at the Soviet stuff which is really interesting.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Yep, the OM series is awesome, and the Zuiko lenses too.

Carlos Dacosta's picture

The only problem i see with Zuiko lenses, is that they tend to suffer from mold and haze quite frequently. Dont know why, but be careful if buying one.

James Madison's picture

Excellent suggestions!

Ken Flanagan's picture

I like my speedgraphic setup. I shoot either 4x5 sheet, or throw on my 120 back to shoot some roll. It’s all fun though.

James Madison's picture

I've held a speedgraphic before and really debated buying one but couldn't bring myself to do it. I really wanted a rotating back but being able to use barrel lenses would be nice

Adriano Brigante's picture

I like how you said there are hundreds if not thousands of film camera models to choose from. The McKeown's guide has more than 10000 cameras listed... ;)

To start with 35mm, I'd recommend any camera that is 100% mechanical. They're often more reliable and easier to fix if there's a problem. And you don't have to worry about the battery issue. The Olympus OM series and the Konica Autoreflex series are good cameras with a very good lens lineup.
To start with 120 film, there are some cheap options that are very enjoyable: Lubitels are very cheap, Rolleicord a quite cheap too, in the TLR category. Or in the viewfinder category, a Zeiss Ikon Nettar, which is quite cheap too, very compact and with an awesome lens.

PS: Madison, you should write an article about the different kind of cameras: SLR, TLR, rangefinder, viewfinder, folding, pinhole, etc.
You should also write one about things that unique to film, things that are impossible to do with digital, like swing-lenses shooting on curved film (e.g. the Horizont or the Widelux). Or solargraphy, i.e. shooting the path of the sun in the sky during a 6-month (or more) continuous exposure. Good luck doing that with digital! :)

James Madison's picture

I'm not familiar with that guide but it seems very expansive if it has that many!

I would love to write a camera about the different kind of cameras but truth be told, I would likely be out of my depth pretty quickly unless I do a lot of research. I have little to no experience with TLR and pinhole cameras. Perhaps I will look into making it a goal for the next year to get more acquainted with the different types of cameras so that I may speak about them from a more educated and experienced perspective.

Also - the solargraphy example you shared is amazing! Thank you for sharing!

Adriano Brigante's picture

The McKeown is the reference price guide for antique and classic cameras. It's a must for every camera collector.

I think I've shot with every type of camera there is (except large format field cameras), so if I have time, maybe I'll try and write an article about it. Or we could co-write one, if you'd like.

And thanks! That solargraphy shot was taken with a homemade soda can pinhole camera over a 149 days period, if I recall correctly. It's one of my best attempts so far. Needless to say, this kind of photography is a true test of patience :)

Lawrence S's picture

It looks like the latest edition is 15 years old. One can presume it does not incorporate the latest price trends and the impact of; for example, Youtubers. Or when "famous" people casually show an old camera on social media, which result in huge price surges on second hand market for normal human beings (see Contax T2)

Adriano Brigante's picture

Sure, a few models are now more expensive than when the guide was last published, but it's still a valuable source, since 99.9% of all the cameras ever produced haven't been hyped by youtubers and celebrities. If you find an obscure model in a flea market or on eBay, it's helpful to know if it's a common $5 camera or a $1000 rare gem. And most of all, it's very cool to have a list of each variation of each model, with detailed differences in lens and shutter types, year of production, film format, etc. To me, it's more of an encyclopedia than a price guide.

Lawrence S's picture

Sure, I can understand that. But does it come in digital form? Like a website or an app. That would be a great product. Walking around at flea markets with a book is not ideal. From what Google showed me, I see they are almost launching a new one, but are still undecided about the medium.

Adriano Brigante's picture

That new (maybe digital) 13th edition was announced a long time ago. The website with the form asking about the options has been up for years now, so I'm not too optimistic about it. But I agree, it would be an awesome product, covering basically every camera ever made. If it ever gets published, I would buy both the books and the digital version.

Scott Kiekbusch's picture

Adding another vote for the Olympus OM series. The OM-1 is a fantastic SLR camera for people interested in giving 35mm film shooting a go. It's fully mechanical (meaning it doesn't need a battery to take pictures), very solidly built, usually comes with a high quality kit lens (F.Zuiko 50mm, f 1.8), and has a built in light meter (the light meter does require a small battery). The camera is fully manual, but the light meter helps give you confidence that your photos will be exposed properly. Not to mention, it's simply a beautifully designed machine, and the entire package can usually be had for less than $200.

Another topic to explore beyond the types of film are the pros/cons of different types of cameras, e.g. SLR (single-lens reflex, should be familiar to most modern DSLR/MFT digital shooters), TLR (twin-lens reflex camera), rangefinders, etc.

Carlos Dacosta's picture

I tend to prefer Canon and Nikons. The reason being that there are many available for parts or to buy if needed, the top models being fully mechanical, and both offer a huge lens selection that exceeds anything produced by other top brands. All of this helps you in getting the lens you want which is readibly available at reasonable prices. Lastly the top tier lenses made by Canon and Nikon are simply the best ever produced, barring some of Leica lenses.

James Madison's picture

I don't have much of any experience with the Olympus lineup but I know they're highly sought after and thought highly of.

You're suggestion is similar to that of Adriano (above). I will definitely look into it!

Carlos Dacosta's picture

I own the Canon F1 which i bought new in the 80s. It still works, just replaced the seals on camera back for $10.00!. Have mamy accesories and only kept 3 lenses: the fd 50mm f1.4, the 28mm f2.8, and a 300mm f4L. This camera is a tank, fully mechanical in certain settings if battery dies, has a high speed drive and auto exposure head, and i have an eye level prism which is a joy to use. Cant beat an old Canon or Nikon, they were the best....

Jason Frels's picture

I recently got a hold of my dad's 52 year old Nikomat (purchased in Germany) and had it repaired. I am about halfway through my first roll of film. It is fun to shoot with the camera that took photos of me when I was a baby.

James Madison's picture

That's fantastic! What film stock are you putting through it first?

Jason Frels's picture

Kodak color ASA400. Something basic. I haven't shot film in 30 years so I figure there will be very few keepers on my first couple of rolls. I was going to try Fuji next and see what I like better.

The man at the camera shop found an old user manual for the camera and gave it to me, so I read through that.

I bring along a D750 and shoot the same pictures for comparison, which is a hassle but I am trying to learn how to use the old camera for now.

Richard Reed's picture

I got a RZ67 a couple years ago before used prices of the Mamiya's bodies started getting out of hand after a number of YouTubers reviewed that model. Love that body, but definitely cumbersome.

For anyone getting started or wanting to dip their toes into the water, I would recommend a fully mechanical body for the reasons mentioned above like the Nikon FM. Having said that, I own a Nikon N80 which would probably be the equivalent of a entry Nikon DSLR (D3xxx). It operates pretty much the same way and uses my AF-S lenses. It's no F100 or as classic looking as an older SLR, but you can get one for under $50 so the commitment is definitely low.

Personally, shooting 120 format (and larger) really highlights the beauty of shooting film as I've not been incredibly impressed with my 35mm film scans.

Deleted Account's picture

Scanning is one of the issues with film. The practical limit of the flatbeds tends to be less than 2,400dpi.

If you want to get everything out of the film you need a dedicated film scanner or a drum scanner (or print optically).

https://petapixel.com/2017/05/01/16000-photo-scanner-vs-500-scanner/

Lawrence S's picture

Or: use your digital SLR or mirrorless camera to "scan". It's a fuzz to get the film flat and everything in balance, but when your set up is on point, it delivers truly great results. Bonus is the increased speed over drumscanning.

James Madison's picture

I picked up an RZ recently and have grown to really love it compared with my RB. I definitely did not get it for as good of a deal as they were going for last year. much less in the years before that.

I completely agree. I don't actually know that I'll ever buy another 35mm camera outside of getting out to do a review and then selling straight after. Compared with 120, I see little to no reason for it. At least not beyond the 35mm cameras I already own.

Howard Shubs's picture

There are older MF film sizes, but they're out of production: 620, 616, others. 828 was more like 35mm but as a roll film with only 8 shots/roll. 620 used the same film dimensions as 120 but used a different spool. I have a 620 camera, but I'm not willing to use it even if I were to respool some 120 onto 620 spools as it's too hard to focus.

220 is still made.

Brad Trent's picture

“...I don’t understand the point of 6x8......”

Spoken like someone who never shot a single frame on a Fuji GX680! 😂 The damned thing was awesome...like a hand-holdable 4x5. And unlike the RZ, you had full swings and tilts of the front standard, so you could mess with the focus until the cows came home! And if you liked shooting Polaroid Negs, that gigantic 8x8cm negative was super sweet to work with. But that’s OK...you don’t understand the point of 6x8 🙄

Deleted Account's picture

Or the similar comment re 6x6.

We get so trapped by convention.