Eight Reasons Why I Shoot 120 Film

Not too long ago, I was asked by a friend and fellow film fan "So do you ever shoot 35mm any more?" It was a simple but good question, given that the answer at the moment is "No."

After all, there are a wealth of GREAT reasons to shoot 35mm film, such as the wealth and variety of equipment, including some with outstanding optics as well as many of the advanced technological features seen in present day digital cameras, with a number of these advanced cameras available for less than the cost of even a basic zoom digital camera.  In addition, 35mm is more economical, providing more frames per roll of film than my beloved medium format, typically allowing 3 times as many images per roll, which translates to more shooting fun.

So with all this going for it, why would I elect to shoot medium format instead of 35mm?  It's a question that bears thinking about, and certainly bears answering, and I've gladly provided some responses below.

1 - It's Easy on the Eyes - Since I shoot "slide" film predominantly, I find it handy to look directly at the film to assess photos prior to scanning them.  While I'm by no means "poor" in sight, my rods and cones are not exactly what they once were, and looking at a 120 slide, I can pretty readily evaluate exposure, focus, and color in my images at a glance, whereas I've picked out "good" shots on 35mm slides at a glance only to find that they are not at all focused when looking closer.  Besides, it is amazing to look at something that actually looks like a "enlarged" scene when looking at one's film rather than just a "thumbnail" type of view.

Long Green, MD - Agfa Billy Record.  I could readily tell by looking at this 6x9 transparency that it was properly exposed and focused before ever using any magnification.

2 - Grain - Interestingly, one of film's "beloved" signature trademarks, the formation of random grain patterns versus a digital "mosaic" arrangement of uniformly structured pixels, is also one of its least desired traits to a degree.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say that grain should complement the feeling of the photo rather than detract from it.  In any event, shooting a larger format such as 120 minimizes excessive grain compared to 35mm.  On most films, this may make little difference, but a fine grained 35mm film such as Rollei RPX 25 becomes just about grain free when shot in the 120 format, while a film with modest grain in 120, such as Agfa Crossbird/CR200, looks significantly grainier in the smaller 35mm format.

Fulton, MD - Franka Solida III.  A roll of Rollei RPX 25 provides the basis for a photo that provides a smooth look, thanks to an extremely fine grain pattern.

3 - Multiple Formats - Natively, the 120 format allows you four formats from the same format of film, including the efficient 645 format, the square 6x6 format, the portrait ready 6x7 format, or the landscape loving 6x9 format.  Unlike digital however, you can't switch between formats on the same roll (unless you reverse the load in complete darkness and reload in a different format camera) but having this versatility is a great thing for me.

Fulton, MD - Rodenstock Citonette. Sometimes I like to use a lot of real estate and carefully take a handful of 6x9 shots on a roll of 120 film, and there are times when I like the "efficiency" of 645, allowing me to shoot a bit more freely.

4 - Even More "Formats" - With a little bit of ingenuity, one can expand their horizons beyond the "stock" 120 formats to have some photo fun by putting 120 film in affordable old cameras designed for formats like 116/616 and 122, allowing image sizes such as 6x11 and 6x14! The ease of use of these adaptations can be a challenge, but makes good results all the more satisfying.  And one can even improvise to use 35mm film in 120 cameras as well, resulting in some wacky pseudo-panoramic results.

Catonsville, MD - Kodak Autographic 1A.  A roll of 120 film allows this durable dinosaur a chance to still capture images, even on color film stock!

5 - Shallow Depth of Field - While fast 35mm lenses are certainly capable of limited depth of field, larger formats tend to accentuate limited depth of field, allowing one's desired subject to really stand out from the backdrop.  Some even say that larger formats provide something of a "3D" effect that is just not as possible using smaller formats.  Shooting in 120 allows a convenient way to use this effect readily when desired.

Columbia, MD - Balda Pontina.  Even on a camera whose aperture only opens up to f/4.5, and shooting a subject reasonably far from the camera, I was able to get a really nicely blurred backdrop to put the focus on the foreground element.  

6 - Fewer Exposures per Roll - Didn't I just list this as an advantage of 35mm?  Say what you will, but there are many times when I am glad to have only 8-16 exposures on a roll.  For one, the economics of it leave me to really only shoot subjects I really like, while I also need to do as much as I can to get focus and exposure correct on the first and only try.  Even when I am in a shooting mood, it is nice to be able to finish a roll quickly so as to get the results promptly, and then possibly switch to a different film stock for the next project! 

Lisbon, MD - Zeiss Ikonta 521/2. I don't often get the chance to ramble about and shoot scenes like this, not too mention they are not overwhelmingly common.  Thus, it is nice to know that after finding and shooting eight 6x9 landscapes, I can unload the roll, send it off, and await the results!

7 - Fun Equipment - I'm not sure I can think of any other format that has such a readily available and wide array of equipment, each providing a completely unique shooting experience.  From the (too rich for my blood) interchangeable lens SLR cameras like Hasselblads to the sheer fun and challenge of focusing and shooting reverse images on a TLR camera to my personal favorites, the zone focused folding cameras, medium format offers some fun and challenging pieces of equipment, few if any of which are "point and shoot" to say the least, making the entire experience of getting good photos very satisfying.  

Silver Spring, MD - Balda Pontina with 645 mask.  I had to hand hold this time exposure taken on a folding camera and hope I had it framed correctly for the mask.  While the horizon is a bit tilted, the results are still amazing for a camera that is nearly 80 years old! 

8 - It's Quirky - Ok, it certainly isn't the quirkiest film format out there.  A lot of people out there are doing far more "esoteric" things to get images onto film and paper, but I find 120 convenient enough to keep me interested in it, but just unusual enough to keep it fun and challenging.  

Dayton MD - Balda Pontina with 645 mask.  Though a fairly ordinary snap shot in composition, this capture requires a pretty measurable amount of attention to details to create, including aperture, shutter, and focal point.  

So will I ever elect to give a roll of 35mm a try one day soon?  Very likely.  However, I am more than likely going to try to use some similarly odd piece of equipment to make my captures, and see if the experience is nearly as fun as with my mish-mash collection of vintage 120 film cameras.   I have a few ideas in mind, at least some of which may be able to make use of my adapted lenses, but we shall see if the thought comes to fruition.