Medium Format vs 35mm Full Frame Cameras: What Are the Differences?

Discover the world of film photography and learn the differences between medium format & 35mm cameras: their history, resurgence, and features.

Medium Format vs 35mm Full Frame Cameras: What Are the Differences? | Long Weekend Editorial by Willem Verbeeck

You've likely uncovered phrases like "shot on 35mm" or "captured on 120 film" weaving through the various photography forums and Instagram captions. These aren't just casual mentions of camera jargon; they signify a choice of tool that can dramatically shape the artistic outcome of a photograph. The numbers — 35mm and 120 — hint at the size of the film used, but the distinction between them delves much deeper into the heart of photography's rich heritage.

Whether you're devoted to the classic 35mm, entranced by the prowess of 120 medium format, or simply here for a deep appreciation of the craft — let's explore the differences, historical tidbits, and technical specifics that set medium format and 35mm cameras apart.

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1. Medium Format

Step into the distinct realm of medium format photography, where you capture the world on a canvas larger than 35mm full-frame images but more intimate than the vast 4x5 inch film. Here, 120 film reigns with its popular formats:

  • 645 format gives you 16 shots per roll.
  • 6x6 format allows for 12 shots per roll.
  • 6x7 format provides ten generous frames per roll.

In film photography, the formats determine how many exposures the roll offers. For example, shooting with a format of 645 will allow you to shoot up to 16 images per roll of 120.

Now, on the perks of size – medium format cameras have larger sensors than their full-frame and point-and-shoot counterparts. This size advantage translates into the striking clarity and broad dynamic range seen in the work of photographers like Beacasso and Willem Verbeeck, with colors that pop yet remain true to life.

Brief History:

Medium-format film has a storied history, tracing its origins to the 1800s. This photography category became widely accessible in 1901 with the advent of the first consumer-friendly medium-format camera: the Kodak Brownie, developed by Eastman Kodak. The Brownie heralded a new era, popularizing the concept of "snapshots" and democratizing photography for the masses until around 1950.

As Kodak blazed the trail, it wasn't long before other notable companies like Fujifilm, Mamiya, Hasselblad, Bronica, and Pentax entered the fray, each contributing to the medium format legacy.

Example Medium Format Camera Types:

  • TLRs (Twin Lens Reflex) utilize two objective lenses—one for the viewfinder and one for taking the actual photograph.
  • SLRs (Single Lens Reflex) have a single lens that allows viewing and capturing the image.
  • Rangefinders, which allow precise focusing through a dual-image rangefinding device.
  • Viewfinders typically involve a simple viewfinder for framing but no reflection system.

Medium format cameras are indeed larger and, as a result, often come with a higher price tag. However, don't let their size intimidate you. With the guidance of Moment's online courses, you'll discover that transitioning to the world of 120 film is a smooth and rewarding experience. You'll soon relish the extraordinary detail and depth only medium format can provide.

Find the strength to hold medium format.

An Easier Form of Medium Format

If you're eager to try medium-format photography without delving into complex settings, the Fuji GA645 is your gateway. This user-friendly medium format point-and-shoot rangefinder was introduced in 1995 and equipped with a versatile 60mm f/4 lens. As the name implies, it utilizes the 6x4.5 design, allowing you to capture up to 16 exposures on each roll of film.

The Fujifilm GA645:

  • Portability – its size is comparable to a Leica.
  • User-friendliness – it's fully automatic.
  • Focus ease – it includes autofocus.
  • Convenience – it features auto film winding.
  • Image quality – it delivers maximum resolution.
  • Exposure accuracy – it comes with auto-exposure.
  • Exposure metering – it includes a built-in meter.

With an understanding of medium format cameras like the GA645 under your belt, let's pivot to the realm of 35mm photography and examine the characteristics of SLR and point-and-shoot cameras.

Photo by Japan Camera Hunter.

Photo by Lomography on the Fujifilm GA645.

Photo by Lomography on the Fujifilm GA645.

2. 35mm Film Cameras and Systems

Two primary types of cameras use 35mm film: SLR (Single Lens Reflex)/DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and point-and-shoot cameras. For this discussion, we'll focus on the film SLRs, a staple for many photographers in their day-to-day shooting.

SLR Cameras

Think back to the moment your interest in photography started. Perhaps you began capturing the world with a smartphone, but soon, that spark grew more significant, and you craved the depth and control of a more capable camera.

You scoured the internet, quizzed friends, made wish lists for Santa, or browsed local thrift stores, all searching for the perfect first camera. Chances are — you might have landed on an SLR or DSLR. While there's a distinction between digital and film, we'll let's hone in on traditional film SLRs.

Brief History

The single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, a transformative innovation in photography, was first developed in 1861. This system uses a mirror and prism setup that allows photographers to view directly through the lens, ensuring that what you see is precisely what you capture. The term "35mm" denotes traditional SLRs' film width — a format size synonymous with most photography types.

The trailblazing SLR using 35mm film was the Kine Exakta, which debuted in Dresden, Germany, in 1936. This camera revolutionized photography, marrying the convenience of 35mm film with the precision of through-the-lens viewing.

Regarding portability, 35mm SLR cameras are known for their compact, lightweight design, making them a favorite for photographers on the move. Their versatility shines with various interchangeable lenses, allowing for creative flexibility. These cameras are more affordable and widely available compared to their medium-format counterparts.

The 35mm film stock variety rivals 120, offering a rich palette of options. Additionally, 35mm film typically allows for up to 36 exposures per roll —contrast this with medium format's 10 to 16 shots, and it's clear why 35mm is a popular choice for many. The trade-off? A smaller film size means less detail and resolution, which is most noticeable when enlarging images.

In manual control, both medium format and 35mm SLRs allow photographers to adjust shutter speed, aperture, lens focus, and exposure.

However, when you step into the world of 35mm point-and-shoot cameras, you'll find that these manual adjustments are limited, catering to ease of use and convenience.

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3. Point-and-Shoot Cameras

The appeal of point-and-shoot cameras has been undeniable, especially with icons like Selena Gomez and Frank Ocean or internet sensations like Pastel Papi. If their stunning pictures have sparked your interest, you're not alone.

Known for their petite size and simplicity, point-and-shoot cameras are the go-to for straightforward photography. Just aim and click — the camera handles the technicalities, automating settings like aperture and shutter speed to match the lighting conditions.

Many modern point-and-shoots also come with autofocus and built-in light meters, further simplifying the process. Some models offer a basic zoom function, though manual controls are typically minimal. One of the perks? Automatic film winding and rewinding—no manual cranking required.

These cameras, perfect for holiday snaps and everyday moments, have a broad price range. The cost can be as little as $25 for a simple model or soar to $2,500 for more advanced ones, reflecting their surge in popularity. When Kodak introduced the first point-and-shoot in 1888, priced at $25, it was a significant investment — and today, the desire for that classic film aesthetic can still come at a premium.

While point-and-shoot cameras may not offer the creative flexibility of an SLR or a medium format camera, they still foster creativity within their simplicity. They typically use 35mm film, which means you can expect a certain graininess and charm to your photos, characteristic of the film. These convenient and portable cameras make them ideal for those who value a quick, effortless photography experience.

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