The Original Megapixel Wars: Film Formats!

 Can you name all the film formats shown here?

(clockwise from top left: 35mm, 828, 127, half frame 35mm, 126, 4x5 sheet film, 120 (6x6), and 35mm Stereo)

You may have heard of the "Megapixel Wars."

Though they have abated somewhat in recent years, in the latter part of the 2000's, they were of a matter of increasingly jaded skepticism among more scrupulous consumers of photographic gear.  In essence, camera manufacturers were, for a time, almost continually "upgrading" their lineup of digital cameras by increasing the maximum resolution of the pictures these cameras took, often coupling this with increasingly robust zoom lenses. 

The intended result was that the owner of a 3MP camera from 2002 with a 3x zoom would certainly want to upgrade to that 6MP camera with the 10x zoom when it was introduced in 2006.  Of course, this replacement purchase would be "obsolete" compared to a 2008 vintage 12MP camera with a 20X zoom lens, wouldn't it?!? 

In the end, a lot of this planned obsolescence involved a good deal of smoke and mirrors.  These "large" images were usually being compressed onto the same, or even smaller sized sensors (a more direct factor of image quality), and the mega-zooms were often extremely slow, being really only usable in the brightest of light, or with ISO speeds jacked up.  All in all, image quality was generally taking a hit despite these "improvements."  It seems the main impetus was to sell cameras touting only these specifications to less than savvy consumers. At least, that was the consensus of long time photographers who were familiar with the historic practices of the industry. 

History has a tendency to repeat itself, even in an consumer industry like photography that is now vastly technically different in nature from that of decades ago.  As such, there were any number of reinventions of the wheel (or more accurately "spool") of film, very often designed to sell more cameras.  Let's have a look at some of these.

135 (36x24 mm frame, 1934-)

Sample 35mm slides and a 35mm camera body and lens.

Figuring out where to begin to sort out the mish-mosh of formats was a challenge, so I may as well start with the prevailing film standard.  Standard "35 millimeter" debuted in the 1930's touting ease of use by utilizing a light-tight cassette into which the film was rewound after use for processing.  By the 1950's, the format had gained dominance in the field of photography, an honor which it held a tight grip of until falling off as the new millennium debuted, and with it, a rapid adoption of digital photography.  It remains as one of only two commonly used film formats today.

828 (28x40 mm frame, 1935-1985*)

828 slide at left compared to 35mm at right, Kodak Bantam 828 camera.

Introduced around the same time as 135, 828 (decoded as 8 exposures of 28mm film) was geared towards a more consumer related market than its 135 cousin.  The format used a film stock similar in overall width to 35mm, but with only a single sprocket hole per frame, and making use of backing paper and a take-up spool.  As a result, it was able to offer a slightly larger frame size than 35mm.  828 film enjoyed a modest popularity, and I've seen some extremely sharp 828 slides such as this.  However, the film was commercially discontinued in the 1980's due to waning demand.  There does remain a niche demand for it, as some will successfully respool non-perforated 35mm film stock onto 828 spools to keep the cameras in this format usable.  

135 Stereo (23x24 mm frame, 1947-)

Sample Stereo 3-D mount compared to full frame 35mm. 

Stereo imagery was about as old as photography itself, using two images taken from slightly different perspectives to create the illusion of depth when viewed through a special viewer. As color slide film gradually grew in popularity in the years following World War II, it became only natural to want to use the vibrant medium to create the most realistic three dimensional images known.  The use of color positive film for 3-D images had its advent with the creation of the Viewmaster in 1939.  The 1947 introduction of the Stereo Realist camera followed by Kodak's own stereo camera in 1954, allowed a previous generation of quirky guys with cameras to create Viewmaster type scenes of their own choosing, with a camera that would stagger exposures in an overlapping manner.  However, the fascination with the 3-D craze during the 1950's began to wane shortly thereafter, and with it, the number of 3-D image takers gradually went into decline. 135 stereo is not at all dead however.  Since it uses regular 35mm film, 3-D enthusiasts can still shoot to their heart's content, provided they have functional equipment, and develop slides without mounting that they can then mount themselves.  

135 Half Frame (18x24 mm frame, limited prior to 1959-)

Half Frame 35mm frame at right compared to full frame 35mm at left, sample Half-frame lens.

Half frame 35mm was another method of using conventional 35mm film in a reworked manner.  Unlike traditional 35mm, the long side of the frame ran perpendicular to the edge of the film instead of parallel, resulting in a camera that was biased towards a portrait orientation instead of a landscape orientation.  The introduction of the Olympus PEN series of film cameras beginning in 1959 gave this format a surge of popularity, though it did not have significant adoption in the United States.  Benefits of the format were the availability of more compact camera bodies in comparison to regular 35mm cameras, as well as the ability to squeeze twice the number of photos out of the same 35mm roll of film.  The format held onto its followers for decades, though the emergence of automated printing machines for print film ultimately made continued consumer level use of the format a challenge.  Since the film used is the same as that of 35mm film, the format is hardly dead, but its use is now more niche than it has ever been.

126 (26x26 mm frame, 1963-2008)

126 slide at left compared to 35mm.  

Kodak debuted 126 in 1963, possibly as a means of trying to counter competition from the increasing wave of competition from emerging Japanese camera manufacturers, but just as likely to create a film format that lower end consumers would find easier to use in comparison to 35mm and 828, thus selling new cameras.  The format's primary selling point was that the film was sold in an easy to load, light sealed cassette.  The user only needed to remove the film from its pouch, open the rear door of the camera and wind to the starting position, before being able to shoot away.  A completed roll was simply wound though to an ending point, and then removed and sent off for processing.  The format enjoyed significant popularity in the 1960's through much of the 1980's, when affordable "point and shoot" 35mm cameras began to appear and eat away at the market share of 126.  Kodak discontinued the format in the late 1990's, though one Italian firm continued to manufacture 126 format film to 2008.

127 (40x40 mm frame, 1912-)

127 transparencies surround 35mm transparency.

The 127 format is a bit of an enigma for me.  Introduced decades before 135 as a more portable alternative to the 120 roll film format, 127 saw its fortunes wane and then resurrect as it was used in very low cost Brownie box camera models of the era.  Interestingly, the format was also used in some higher end model cameras, such as the Yashica 44.  The format was commonly seen as that used on commercially available tourist slides, and even survives to this day, with Efke still making film in the 127 format.  You'd think a niche like this would be perfect for a quirky guy with a camera, but I've never really been swayed by the lure, particularly given that the few color transparency films remaining today do not come in 127 format.

120/220/620 (60x45/60/70/90 mm frame, 1901-)

120 transparency at right; a pair of 6x6 unmounted transparencies at left, and a 35mm slide in center for comparison; 120 TLR camera.  

The longest standing roll film format around, 120 classifies as "Medium Format" and is often the preferred medium of professional film photographers and advanced amateurs.  The film is used in various types of cameras, but is most commonly used in high-end SLRs such as those made by Hasselblad, and a range of Twin Lens Reflex cameras of varying quality and price, as well as some folding cameras.  620 is nearly identical to 120, differing only in the film spools used, while 220 is a modified version that offers twice the number of exposures by eliminating most of the backing paper that 120 uses.  120, and to some degree 220, are still alive and kicking, though their market has diminished in the past few decades.  

Sheet Film

4x5 transparency at left, and a smaller sheet film camera and film plate. 35mm slide to compare. 

It's hard to really call sheet film a "format" in the sense of those listed above, in that it came (and still comes) in many different sizes.  However, the most common sheet film size is 4"x"5, used most commonly in field cameras with shifting bellows that allow precise control of depth of field and focus.  Sheet film also still comes in 8"x10" and 11"x14" sizes as well.  The difference between these formats and even conventional 35mm is astounding.


616 (70x110mm frame, 1932-1984)

Largely a product of Kodak, 616 was commonly used in folding and box cameras produced from the 1930's to the 1950's.  Slightly larger than 120, the format slipped in popularity beginning in the 1950's and eventually perished.  Working 616 cameras can be modified to use 120 film with some innovation.

Minox (8x11 mm frame, 1936-1943, 1948-)
One of the most well known "subcompact" formats, Minox film tended to have two main markets: spies (looking to get photos without being suspected) and the wealthy, some of whom may have been wanting to look to look like James Bond.  The maker of the films is committed to keeping the format alive, but has had some supply issues as of late.

Minolta 16 (10x14, later 12x17mm frame, 1955-1974+)
Another subcompact format from the Japanese camera manufacturer, this one was able to use respooled 16mm movie film, a trait that has managed to keep it "alive" long after the cameras have no longer been manufactured.

110 (13x17 mm frame, 1972-2009)
The mainstream subcompact format looked something like a miniature version of 126 as it used a similar cassette assembly with similar loading and removal characteristics.  Most cameras were of the most rudimentary entry level in type, the most notable exception being from Pentax, who created a complete mini-SLR system using 110.

Disc (8x11 mm frame, 1982-1998)
Introduced at the dawn of the home computer age, Kodak's "revolutionary" disc camera promised ease of use and convenience.  However, with its small negatives, its results were some very grainy prints compared to formats like 126 and 135.  Improvements in compact "point and shoot" 35mm cameras in the late 1980's made the disc's success short lived.

APS (9.5/16.7 x 25.1/30.2 mm frame, 1996-2011)
One might view APS ("Advanced Photo System") or Advantix as film's "last hurrah" but most tend to view it as the "final insult." Introduced less than a decade before digital camera usage became widespread, APS was a consumer oriented format touted as enabling versatility and convenience by enabling three aspect ratios in the same format (essentially little more than encoded crop instructions), and allowing negatives to be neatly stored in their original cassettes instead of in sleeves.  Slides were supposedly offered, but I've yet to see an example of one.  It's difficult to see where anyone really benefitted from the new format.  Consumers who bought into it only got a few years of use from it at the most.  The same can be said for mini-lab outlets who had to purchase new equipment to process the format.  And what of the threatened film industry who elected to put their R&D dollars into developing a new format that would be obsolete almost as soon as it was introduced.

Comparative Sizes at a glance:

Below are links to scans of 6 different progressively larger formats at 1200dpi.  They are shown on this page in a lower resolution in true size relation to each other.  Click on any for the full 1200dpi version.   

135 Half Frame
Geneva, Switzerland, 1953

Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA, 1972

Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 1970

Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 1949

Western Pennsylvania, USA, 1965

Western USA, 1957