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.
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 6×4.5 (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 6×6 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 8×10 11×14 paper, your 6×6 format effectively becomes equivalent to 645 format. Next, up is 6×7 (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, 6×7 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 6×6 or even 645, the 6×7 wastes very little of the negative when cropping to print 8×10 or 11×14. 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 4×5 and up to 8×10 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: 6×8 and 6×9. Truth be told, I don’t understand the point of 6×8. It is kind of an awkward aspect ratio that doesn’t really speak to me. Then, the larger of the two, 6×9, 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 6×9 offerings, but I would only do it for the novelty of it. I do not see any practical use for those cameras. There are 6×9 backs for 4×5 that seem quite attractive, but I cannot imagine going through all of the work of setting up the 4×5 just to take a shot on 120. For black and white, it isn’t that much more expensive to shoot 4×5 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 2×3 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.