Comparing 35mm Film & 120mm Film Guide

In this day and age of digital cameras and smartphones, 35mm film may seem like an antiquated format, even though it’s by far the most popular film format of all time. With that said, 120mm film might seem even more antiquated, unless you’re an amateur photographer who loves the artsy effects of Brownie cameras or a pro who uses expensive medium format cameras. Chances are you have many 35mm negatives and slides gathering dust in closets, attics, and basements – probably far less 120mm format film.

Unlike 35mm film, 120 format was primarily designed for professional use when it came to movies. Although 35mm movie film may not have produced quite as extraordinary quality as 70mm, cinema lovers and experts bemoaned its demise. In the early 2000s when the digital cinema revolution hit, the vast majority of movie houses discarded film projectors in favor of new digital projectors. They switched from 35mm film to DCP digital format, disregarding the film’s rich history. Digital film is much easier to reformat and resize for mobile without compromising picture quality, making it appealing from a financial standpoint. A notable exception is Director Quentin Tarantino who is still an outspoken opponent of digital. Tarantino was quoted in an IndieWire article, “As far as I’m concerned, digital projection is the death of cinema. The fact that most films aren’t presented in 35mm means that the world is lost. Digital projection is just television in cinema.” 

35mm Film: A Brief History & Guide

In the late 19th century, an employee of Thomas Edison cut 70mm movie film in half and spliced the ends together. Many inventors tried unsuccessfully to use this new format for still photography, however, it wasn’t until 1913 that the first 35mm camera was widely available for purchase. Of course, it was incredibly expensive ($175 is the equivalent of $4,000 today), so most people couldn’t afford it. In 1925, Leica introduced a camera that inspired other camera makers to follow suit. In 1936, the Argus A made 35mm photography affordable for amateur photographers. The invention of the single-lens reflex camera (SLR) further revolutionized photography. The same lens is used for the image on the film and viewfinder, enabling accurate focusing and framing the image through the viewfinder. While you can still buy new and used 35mm cameras, a dwindling number of photo labs process the film.

  • Kodak introduced the term 135 (ISO 1007) as a designation for the cassette for 35mm film
  • 35mm film measures 24 x 36 mm, so film rolls are quite small and portable
  • ISO refers to the film sensitivity which correlates to different lighting situations – low light conditions require a higher ISO film, but the tradeoff is increased graininess
  • The standard image exposure length on 35mm for movies is four perforations per frame along both edges, resulting in 16 frames per foot of film

120mm Film: A Brief History & Guide

Introduced for the Kodak Brownie camera around 1900, 120mm film is larger than 35mm and scarce in comparison. This film consists of a black paper roll with a strip of film taped inside which is drawn through your camera as you shoot. The paper had markings on the back to guide advancing the film through a red window, prior to the advent of rapid wind levers. While it was still popular among professionals in the 1960s, photojournalists started using 35mm film around 1970. 

  • 220 film was introduced in 1965 with the same width as 120mm film
  • 220 film had no backing paper, offered double the length of 120, and thus twice the number of possible exposures per roll
  • Due to its larger size, 120mm film provides better quality than 35mm when used with a high-quality medium format camera (e.g. Mamiya, Pentax, Contax, Hasselblad) 

Digitizing Old Movies and Film

Although history is wonderful, it isn’t always practical. Just as cinemas discarded those old projectors, not many people these days have slide projectors or old-school movie projectors. You can digitize slides, negatives, and movies yourself if you have the patience and equipment. Getting them scanned professionally is a great way to share precious memories with family, friends, and preserve them for generations to come.