Camera formats

December 20, 2005

Cameras come in a variety of forms and there are numerous ways to classify them. We’ll use cameras from my personal collection to go over them, starting with camera formats: 

One way to classify cameras is according to the size of film that they use — also known as the camera “format”. There are three major camera formats, plus a bunch of minor ones which we won’t talk about much:

35mm cameras, like the Voigtlander CLR or the Canon Rebel take film which is 35mm wide. These are the most common form of film cameras, and are what most people instantly recognize as cameras. They use standard 35mm roll film cartridges which can be purchased everywhere as easily as batteries, and are very versatile, used by everyone from professional photojournalists to proud dads who want snapshots of their kids. They can be very fast, are pretty light and easy to carry around. They can have replacable lenses, or fixed lenses, etc. We’ll discuss the details of 35mm cameras later. 

Medium Format cameras, like my Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex, Mamiya 330C or Mamiya RB67 Pro-SD are cameras that take 120 film — film which is 120mm across. Needless to say, medium format cameras tend to be larger than 35mm cameras, but since they produce larger negatives, they can provide much sharper pictures. Some of the more modern medium format cameras have many of the standard features of high-end 35mm cameras (auto-focus, for example) too, though they are generally also somewhat heavier than 35mm cameras. Medium format cameras are popular with photographers who specialize in fashion photography, where image quality is more important than the speed or versatility of the 35mm camera. The film for 120mm cameras is also widely available, though you probably can’t buy it at a local drug store. It comes in a role, covered with a paper sheet.

Large Format cameras, like my Calumet C440 studio view camera, or my Graflex Super Speed Graphic press camera, use much larger sheets of film than either 35mm cameras or the medium format cameras — and so they can be much larger, much heavier, and much harder to use. They’re also generally much more expensive, and the film which they use is much more expensive and harder to find (you’ll need to go to a well-stocked photography store, or use mail order). The film sizes used in large format cameras are in sheet form, measuring either 4×5 inches, 5×7 inches, 8×10 inches, or in very rare cases even 20×24 inches. Large format cameras come in three types: field cameras which can be folded up, and are therefore used outodoors, view cameras which are used in the studio can can’t be folded up, and press cameras which are basically the same as field cameras except that press cameras were designed to be hand-held while large formats cameras in general require to be placed on tripods. You’re probably familiar with old movies where the photographer sticks his head under a black cloth as he’s taking a picture — that’s a large format camera. And yes, they’re still used today, but usually by serious, artistic photographers. They’re not something you can take on a picnic for snapshots!

 In addition to the three format mentioned above, there are a number of different formats which are either obsolete (the film is no longer being made) or are just not commonly used by serious photographers. Disc format cameras, for example, were made in the early 1980’s and abandoned after that since they had tiny negatives and bad optics = bad pictures.

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