Small, Medium & Large Format

By ralph

Let's face it, the photographic world pretty well sings the 35mm song these days. That size is so ubiquitous that many younger users think film and 35mm are synonyms and the statement that film can even exist in wider rolls or as a stack of cut sheets often meets with uncomprehending stares. Except for the existence of yet smaller sizes this seems to mark the end of a long evolution from almost comically huge camera sizes, through periods of standardization on such large sizes as 8x10 and 4x5, in certain fields of photography, to more and more reliance on 35mm.

Use of the huge cameras built into the darkroom and camera wagons that Matthew Brady had in the Civil War, and later that William Henry Jackson and Carleton Watkins used to visually open up the American West, was dictated by the desire for large prints. Only contact prints could be made back then so if you wanted 11x14 or 16x20 prints you had to shoot glass plates of that size. Taking six pictures a day was considered a phenomenal amount of output. By the end of the century it was possible to enlarge images so the range of common sizes dropped to 8x10 and even down to (believe it or not) 70mm rollfilm (the popular "you push the button and we do the rest" Kodak box camera).

Choice of size in that period was based on the quality desired. Since film was less sharp back then, the 8x10 was the norm for crisp, smooth and grainless images, but "small" sizes like 4x5 and roll film were okay for casual use. This century started with 35mm being used only as a movie film. It entered the still photo field by the back door and only began to gain respectability with the Leica (not the first 35mm still camera by the way). The big boost for 35mm came when its advantages for photojournalism - the ability to capture fleeting moments in adverse conditions - were seen to outweigh the lack of image quality. The endgame for 35mm began with Kodachrome in the late 30's and 40's when it was seen that it could deliver fine and sharp, full-page images in a magazine.

Still, to this day, after and endless series of improvements in the speed, fineness and sharpness of films there is still a slight difference of quality visible when big blowups are made - say beyond 11x14. Many progressing photographers feel the lure of larger formats with their promise of better than ever images, but before they make the jump there are a couple things to consider. First there's the higher cost. Not only is the equipment more expensive but so is the film. If you shoot a lot, the difference in cost between 120 (6x4.5 through 6x6 and 6x9cm) and 35mm can really mount up, and the price jump to 4x5 is even larger. The film processing cost goes up also, usually because the low cost, consumer level labs don't even handle the bigger stuff, forcing you to go to a professional custom lab. If you process your own film, especially B&W, the cost differential between sizes all but disappears and if you do your own enlarging only the chemistry and paper costs need be considered and they are the same for any negative blown up to a given size. Of course enlargers and lenses that handle the larger sizes can be quite pricey. The growing number of people who get their "trade prints" made in outside labs find that they get the lowest prices when 35mm is to be printed. While there are just a few labs that print 120 images at similar prices there are absolutely none that print 4x5 at those prices.

Secondly, those photo buffs who are responding to the siren song of higher quality should first be sure they're really getting all they can out of 35mm. Maybe better technique is all they need. If you are shaking your 35mm camera just enough to take the edge off the image you might wind up shaking the big camera even more and be right back where you started. To best check your own work you might want to compare it with the best 35mm work done by friends --- and don't be like a fellow I onc
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knew who said, "I traded in my Minolta for a Nikon because my pictures weren't good enough". The features might be different but the image quality is much the same.

Still lusting for super high quality? Before giving up on 35mm try pushing the limits of your own technique. Use some slow films like Velvia, Royal Gold 25, TMax 100 or even Technical Pan, use a solid tripod and a cable release, focus carefully and shoot at f8 or f11. Make sure the blowups, yours or the labs, are also at a tiptop level.

Image quality alone isn't always the reason to choose larger sizes. Some subjects seem too closely associated with certain formats to be easily separated. 120 is often connected with serious people pictures, like portraits or fashion. I suppose creamy smooth tones and retouchability (more negative to work on) are major factors here. And of course, the swings and tilts of 4x5 cameras are generally best for those architectural and commercial subjects. (But there are some 120 roll film view cameras appearing).

Likewise, image quality can be trumped by other factors in choosing format size. Ages ago, when I first became involved with stock photography, where the image might be used for anything from a 4 inch inset to a mural, 4x5 was preferred, 120 was tolerated and 35mm "didn't exist". As I got into 4x5 I started to acquire wide angle and tele lenses, even up to a big 15inch (381mm) tele. Big as it was the image was only about 2 1/2 times normal size, equivalent to 105mm on a 35mm camera (true normal for a 35mm frame is 42mm). Desire for a real long lens led to the "big lens fiasco". I saw an ad for a 983mm Bausch and Lomb telephoto with shutter and case for a mere $55. Couldn't resist it. One day when I came home there was a huge black trunk standing in the corner of the kitchen. It seems I didn't read the fine print, which said, "shipping weight, 110 pounds". The lens alone, a huge glass in a massive barrel, weighed over 50 pounds. The shutter worked ---like a cannon going off. I wrestled with it for months trying to connect it to a 4x5 body but finally gave up. One wild and stormy night I rushed off to Princeton to sell it to a kindly soul (greater fool?) who offered to take it off my hands for $40. When I realized that all that cumbersomeness was barely equal to a 250mm lens in a 35mm camera I had a great awakening. Extreme tele, as is used in sports and wildlife belongs to 35mm.

Other photographers must have come to the same conclusion, even the stock agencies finally did. Slides of those sports and wildlife subjects began to be accepted, then gradually more and more subjects followed.

Now when you walk into a stock picture agency you're going to find all the files set up for 35mm slides, the paperwork ready for slides, the caption and numbering systems centered on slides and even the scanners and web site clamoring for slides. That cute young receptionist is just likely to say, " 4x5, what's that?"