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If you’re interested in analog photography, the first consideration (before you choose a camera, even) is what type and size of film you’ll be shooting.
When most people think of shooting film, they think of 35mm film – the most common and popular format in the past, present, and future.
There are other sizes of film but they’re usually reserved for more advanced photographers.
And this isn’t even getting into the different chemistries available – each roll of film is made to be developed in a specific type of chemicals, which determines the color profile of your photos.
Check out more info on each of the different film formats below – you’ll be up to speed in no time.
Different Film Sizes Available
The terminology can get a little blurry here. Oftentimes, when people talk about a “film format”, they are really referring to the size of the film. Generally speaking, each film camera only accepts one size of film.
Sometimes, people use “film format” to describe the “process” of the film, AKA the film’s “chemistry”. These terms indicate how the film should be developed and what color profile the images will show (i.e. black and white vs color film).
An even more ambiguous term is “type” or “kind” of film, which are often used to describe all of the ideas above.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll use “type/kind of film” and “film format” interchangeably, to differentiate one specific film from another.
35mm / 135 Film
As we noted above, 35mm film is the most popular size – it’s the cheapest type of film to shoot, the easiest to find, easiest to get developed, and there are significantly more 35mm film cameras available than any other type.
35mm film is also referred to as 135 film – we’ll use both names going forward.
You may also see 35mm film for motion pictures. This was the standard way for theaters to show films until the early 2000’s and although they share the same name, they are not the interchangeable.
The name “35mm” is a reference to the physical width of the film itself – the standard image size for 135 film is 24mm x 36mm.
There are other image sizes for 35mm film (which is determined by the camera you use), but especially nowadays, they are pretty uncommon.
For example, a few 135 cameras produce longer, panoramic images while some use the “half-frame” format to get twice as many photos per roll.
How Many Photos Per Roll?
While 35mm represents the width of the film, the length of the film is what determines how many photos you’ll get per roll.
36 exposures has always been considered the standard, though different options have been available throughout the years.
These days, you’ll pretty much only see 36-exposure or 24-exposure as your options for 35mm film.
Most “professional grade” films, like the ever-popular Portra 400, are only available in 36-exposure, where “consumer grade” options like Ultramax 400 can usually be found in 36 or 24-exposure rolls.
Who is 35mm Film Best For?
35mm film is best for anyone and everyone who wants to shoot film!
Especially for beginners, it doesn’t usually make sense to shoot larger, more expensive film sizes – 35mm film with good scans will still get you beautiful, detailed images, perfectly suitable for printing.
And even for advanced or professional photographers who shoot medium format, there are plenty of circumstances where 135 is perfectly adequate.
If you’re new to shooting film, get well acquainted with the 35mm film size – you’re going to be great friends.
Plenty of people like shooting disposable cameras, even if they aren’t really interested in photography.
The attraction to disposables is the same thing that attracts a lot of photographers to film – in a time when instant gratification rules all, it’s nice to practice patience every once in a while.
Not being able to see your photos right away also pushes people to remain more present – instead of obsessing over whether or not you got the perfect shot, you’re a lot more likely to take the photo, then just move on.
Some people may not even know that disposable cameras just contain regular old film.
What Kind of Film do Disposable Cameras Use?
All of the disposable cameras that you can buy now contain 35mm film.
It’s the same size, produced the same way, and developed the same as any other roll of 35mm film that you would shoot through a standard analog camera.
Just like rolls of film, disposable cameras come with a different number of exposures per camera, although the most common is 27-exposure.
The 27-exposure film found in most disposables is actually the same length as 24-exposure film available in rolls.
Because the disposable comes preloaded, the entire length of the film can be used for an extra three photos. Standard film cameras need a small portion at the start of the roll to feed into your camera.
A lot of non-photographers get confused about where to develop disposable cameras, but they can be developed at any photo lab that accepts 35mm film.
That means that if you’re looking at a photolab and they don’t advertise disposable camera developing, they should still be able to help you (as long as they offer 35mm developing).
It has become more common to see labs including a small fee for developing disposables – usually just $1 or $2 on top of the standard 35mm developing price.
Better Alternatives to Disposable Cameras
While we have no problem with disposable cameras, they’ve gotten extremely expensive lately. Not to mention the waste involved with a product that has “disposable” in the name.
Fortunately, a few companies have started selling reusable film cameras – essentially the same thing as a disposable, but made with a more rigid material and able to be reloaded.
Some models cost the same amount as a single disposable, but even the more expensive options come in under $50.
120 Medium Format Film
After 35mm, the next most popular size of film is 120, also known as medium format.
A common mistake is to call medium format “120mm”, but the millimeter shouldn’t be included – for 120, the number in the name has nothing to do with the width of the film like it does for 35mm.
At the time of release over 100 years ago, 120 film was geared towards amateurs. But as soon as 35mm gained mainstream popularity in the ‘60’s, medium format became seen as the professional choice as it was more expensive than 135.
These days, each photo you take on 120 film is 150% – 275% more expensive than 35mm. As such, most photographers that shoot medium format film are professionals or advanced hobbyists.
While there’s no arguing that shooting 120 is very expensive, it also produces significantly sharper, more detailed images than 35mm. Especially for photographers who create large prints of their work.
The reason is simple – the images are more detailed because the negatives are bigger than 35mm. How much bigger depends on what type of medium format camera you’re using.
Image Format Determined by Camera
Unlike 35mm, medium format film cameras don’t all produce the same size photos. They don’t even always produce the same shape.
This means that each image format produces a different number of photos per roll of 120 film. Think about it – if the images are larger and the film is the same size, it makes sense that you’ll be able to fit less photos on each roll.
There have been quite a few different medium format image sizes throughout time, but there are four that most would consider the standard options.
6×4.5 Medium Format
The smallest format for 120 film is 6×4.5. As with the rest of the medium format image sizes, the name refers to the nominal (rounded) size of the images in centimeters.
6×4.5 cameras produce 15 photos per roll of 120 film. Some models can squeeze in an extra photo.
6×6 Medium Format
As you could likely guess from the name, the 6×6 format is unique in its square images. Folks are quite divided on the square format – some love it, some hate it
6×6 medium format cameras produce 12 images per roll of 120 film. Some models can make it to 13.
6×7 Medium Format
Seen by many as the holy grail of film sizes, 6×7 images are large and in charge. The massive negatives provide unmatched detail – compared to 35mm, 6×7 images are 334% larger.
6×7 cameras produce 10 photos per roll of 120 film.
6×9 Medium Format
Last and maybe the least common is the massive 6×9 format. While this obviously produces an even larger negative, the downside is how few photos you get per roll.
6×9 medium format film cameras produce 8 photos per roll of 120 film.
220 film is essentially the same as 120, but twice as long. This means that you get twice as many photos for each image format listed above.
Unfortunately, 220 isn’t really produced anymore, so the only way to shoot it is to buy old (often expired) rolls.
Most photo labs that develop 120 should have no problem developing 220 if you get your hands on any.
It is worth noting that some labs charge twice as much for developing/scanning 220, eliminating the potential savings that attracts many people to shooting this format in the first place.
Who is Medium Format Film Best For?
If you’re a beginner in film photography, you probably don’t need to think about medium format for quite some time.
To each their own, but the price of shooting 120 is so high that most hobbyists will be perfectly pleased sticking with 35mm.
Not only is it more expensive for the film itself, but medium format cameras also cost much more than the majority of 35mm models.
Now we’re not trying to discourage people from trying to shoot 120, just making sure it’s known that the increase in quality comes at a price. For professionals whose number one priority is quality, the cost probably isn’t as much of a deterrent.
Some applications where medium format is still commonly used include landscape photography, fashion, portraits, and even weddings.
Other Film Formats
Especially these days, the vast majority of film photos are taken on 35mm or 120 medium format film. That doesn’t mean these are the only types of film you can find, though.
Large Format Sheet Film
You’ll notice a pretty clear pattern here – the bigger the negatives, the more expensive it will be to buy and develop the film.
This is certainly the case with large format sheet film. Instead of coming on a roll, the film comes as individual sheets, some costing up to $8 per image (not even including developing or scanning).
The most common sizes of large format film are 4×5, 5×7, and 8×10, representing the dimensions of the image in inches.
As you can imagine just from the sizes of the film, large format cameras are massive, heavy machines that usually require a tripod.
Now, the quality you can achieve with large format film is about as high as you can possibly get. For this reason, large format is commonly used for landscape and portrait photography.
As appealing as it may sound, we’ll be honest – shooting sheet film is usually saved for very advanced photographers. Many analog veterans have never and will never try the format because of the costs and effort associated.
Released in 1996 as a cheaper film format for amateurs, APS film was only produced for about a decade.
Right as the format started to gain traction, digital cameras came along and completely changed the photographic world, making APS obsolete in the process.
Kodak was the company to create the format, but Fujifilm, Agfa, and Konica would also release APS film stocks.
The size of APS film is most similar to 35mm, although you can easily tell the difference because APS rolls are a bit shorter with a more angular canister.
Unlike 135 film, APS stays entirely inside the canister, allowing more images per roll. APS was commonly available in 40-exposure, 25-exposure, and 15-exposure.
For every photo taken on APS, the camera produces an image that is 16.7mm x 30.2mm. This is also called “APS H” format. H = “High Definition”.
A unique feature of APS cameras is the ability to record three different image sizes, the first being “APS H” mentioned above.
The other options are “APS C” format (C= “Classic” with image dimensions of 16.7 mm x 25.1 mm) and “APS P” format (P = “Panoramic” with image dimensions of 9.5mm x 30.2mm).
This is possible because the camera records the full “H Format” for each image, but crops the photo to the correct dimensions if you’re using APS-C or APS-P formats.
Interestingly, you’re usually able to print your images in any of the three image sizes, regardless which format was used on the shot.
APS film hasn’t been produced since 2011, and especially because of its short lifespan, it’s not too common these days. Plenty of places still provide APS film developing, although a lot of the newer labs opened in the last decade never offered the service to begin with.
Different Film Chemistries Available
Now that we’ve covered all of the most popular sizes of film, let’s take a quick look at the different chemistries available.
A film’s “chemistry” is referring to the color profile of the images captured, and more importantly, how the film needs to be developed to expose the images. You may also see this referred to as the film’s “process”.
In other words, color film will only be able to produce color photos and black and white film will only produce black and white. Each film process requires different chemicals to properly develop the images.
(Technically, developing one type of film in another film’s chemicals is called “cross-processing”, but that is a somewhat experimental technique beyond the scope of this article).
Here are the different film chemistries available for you to shoot today.
C-41 Color Film
The most common and popular chemistry for film is C-41 color. That said, when the C-41 process was released in the 1970’s, color photography was much less common or respected than traditional black and white photos.
You may also see C-41 color film called “color-negative”, which refers to the appearance of the film after developing.
(Not to be confused with the term “negatives” which refers to developed film of any chemistry).
Once C-41 film is developed, you’ve probably noticed that the colors appear inverted (opposite) on the negatives. During scanning or printing, the colors are converted to their rightful appearance.
C-41 is available in any size, including disposable cameras. Of all the chemistries, color film is the most readily available and the most commonly developed by photo labs.
Black and White Film
When some people think of film photography, they think of traditional black and white photos.
This makes sense – the majority of historically significant photos from the 20th Century were captured in black and white, despite the availability of color film as early as the 1930’s.
Black and white film has traditionally been a cheaper option than shooting color, although we recently found that on average in 2023, the two processes cost the same amount of money to buy and develop.
One of the aspects that attracts photographers to shooting B&W is that it’s significantly easier to develop at home.
Sure, it’s still a relatively complicated process that requires time, space, and equipment – but compared to DIY developing color film, black and white is a cakewalk.
E-6 Slide Film
Most people know that film is available in color or black and white – not as many know about E-6 slide film. This film chemistry is also referred to as “color-positive” or “color-reversal”.
Compared to the inverted colors you’ll see on a C-41 negative, E-6 images display the correct colors once the film is developed.
Professionals love slide film for the extremely vivid colors and fine grain, which translates to sharper images.
One of the reasons for the finer grain is that E-6 film is only available in lower speeds, which always produces finer grain, no matter what type of film.
The process to develop E-6 is more complicated than other chemistries. It’s becoming more difficult to find labs that offer slide film developing, and the cost to purchase and develop a roll of E-6 has reached an all-time high.