If you've found yourself reading this article, then odds are you're at least up to your waist in the rabbit hole of film photography. Maybe you're growing tire of your trusty point and shoot film camera or vintage 35mm SLR, or you want to try something different than a digital camera. You're likely well acquainted with Portra 400 by now—at this point, who isn't?—so let's dive into 120 film, aka medium format.
And don't worry, you can likely still rely on your favorite film development lab for 120 film processing services—the chemical makeup is basically the same. So what is the difference, you ask? Read on and find out.
What Is 120 Film?
Simply put, 120 film is a type of medium format film. Less simply put, medium format refers to cameras and their accompanying film stocks that have a frame size larger than the 35mm format—which has a 24 x 36mm area and used to be referred to as 135—and smaller than 4x5in, which is considered large format. Large format film comes in sheets, while medium format comes on a roll, like 35mm (but a little bit taller).
There used to be more film formats back in the day—120 was first introduced in 1901 for a Kodak camera called the Brownie No. 2—but when it comes to modern medium format, unless you're lucky enough to find a double-length roll of 220, 120 film is most common in 2023. It's readily available from a range of companies and at various (ever increasing) prices in both color and black and white.
What's the Difference Between 35mm and 120 Film?
The primary difference between 35mm and 120 roll film is size. You can see it when you compare the two spools next to each other—120 is tall and skinny, 35mm is short and squat. But the resulting effects of that size difference are many.
Practically speaking, the big one is how many photos you'll get out of a single roll of film. Most modern 35mm film comes in rolls of 24 or 36 exposures. With 120, depending on your camera, you'll get 16, 12, or 10 frames per roll. This is because different medium format film cameras can shoot exposures in the following formats: 645 (6 x 4.5, or 56 x 42mm), 6 x 6 (56 x 56mm), and 6 x 7 (56 x 67mm). You'll get 16 shots out of the 645 format, 12 from 6 x 6, and 10 from 6 x 7, but in each case you're still using the same roll of 120 film. If you're camera shopping, you'll often see the frame dimensions denoted in the model name, as in the popular Mamiya 645 or our personal favorite, Fujifilm GA645.
Benefits of Shooting 120 Film
Because medium format 120 film is roughly four times the size of 35mm film, it yields higher resolution images and greater dynamic range, which refers to the ratio between the darkest darks and the whitest whites in a photo. Put more simply, medium format film yields more detail and smoother gradients in photographs. If you've ever found yourself admiring your favorite film photographer's work, wondering how on earth the image is so crisp and smooth looking in blue hour light, chances are they used a medium format camera and 120 film to make it. Medium format is also typically less grainy and better for making large prints.
Downsides of Shooting 120 Film
The main downside to shooting medium format film is the limited number of frames. And the price. Unlike 35mm film, which will typically yield 36 frames per roll, you can expect to get just 15 frames from a single roll of 120 film—16 if you're good at loading film—because the frames are larger and because that's just the way it's made.
As for price, the cost of 120 film itself is often comparable to 35mm, but medium format cameras tend to be more expensive and they're also physically larger. The real expense is in developing. When you're looking at your usual film lab's processing costs, you might notice that it's often the same or sometimes even cheaper to get a roll of 120 developed and scanned. That's the POV for optimists—it's a little misleading. Realists will remind that you're getting half as many or a third as many photos out of one roll of 120 compared to 35mm, which makes it two to three times more expensive.
Top 120 Film Stocks to Try
Now, as with 35mm, one's preferred film stock is entirely personal. Some folks stick to Portra 400 no matter what—this makes sense for pros, wedding photographers, and other shooters who demand consistency in their work will often stick to a single style of film, varying only the speed for the day's light conditions. Even if you fall into this category, we suggest testing a range of film stocks to see what you like best before blindly committing to a single brand or style.
Film photography can feel itimidating and scary, especially when price is a major concern. But here's your gentle reminder to experiment and have some fun! If you're too worried about the cost of each frame you may never discover the unique, amazing images you can make on film. So, try different film cameras. Explore B&W. Shoot some weird purple LomoChrome. Test the waters with random expired film. Push and pull! After all, isn't the unknown part of the fun of shooting film? (Yes, it is.)
That said, a certain number of film stocks are considered the gold standard—films you can trust to deliver (so long as you know what a light meter is). Below is a quick rundown of the most popular 120 film stocks readily available.
Of course, we have to start with the 120 version of one of the most popular film stocks available, Porta 400. This is an ISO 400 color negative film that's favored by pros and hobby shooters alike for its ability to work well in many settings and lighting conditions, producing true-to-life, slightly warm color tones and an ideal dynamic range. You can also give Portra 160 and Portra 800 a try if you plan to shoot in more specific lighting conditions—bright or low light, respectively.
Price: $68 (5 rolls)
Kodak Ektar is known for its extremely fine grain, making it a favorite of portrait photographers. It's a slightly more affordable alternative to Portra for shooting well-lit scenes and excels in bright, natural daylight. It's vibrant, a little cool, and produces nice, contrasty images with minimal fine grain thanks to that ISO 100 speed. That said, best to pair with a steady hand as the low film speed may produce motion blur if trying to capture movement or you're shooting in low light conditions.
Price: $60 (5 rolls)
Released in March 2022 as a low(er) cost alternative to the other color negative films in the Kodak Professional range, Gold 200 is essentially a spruced up hobby photographer's film known. The low-speed ISO 200 film is best known for its consistent warmth and a vibrant color palette conducive to portrait snapshots, street photography, and even landscapes. In other words, it's big on nostalgia. (If film photos of you exist from childhood, there's a good chance they were shot on 35mm Kodak Gold.) Check out a full Kodak Gold 200 for 120 review here.
Price: $46 (5 rolls)
CineStill's 800Tungsten is a color film stock for more specific scenarios. It really shines in low light—CineStill says you can even push it to 3200 ISO—and can produce a halation effect (that's when areas of high exposure have glowing auras) that makes for interesting night scenes. If you're into shooting city scenes at night, give this one a try.
Price: $16 per roll
Fuji's pro-grade color reversal 120 film stock is pricey, but it's one of the few available with a daylight-friendly low ISO of 50. The resulting grain is super-fine and colors are vibrant with a hue that leans slightly toward magenta. If all you're used to is Portra, give Velvia a try for something a little different. Beware: it's pricey.
Price: $115 (5 rolls)
There are more affordable options for shooting black and white film (Ilford HP5 is a solid one), but Tri-X 400 is a longtime best seller for a reason. The high contrast and slight grain combine to produce dramatic and realistic monochrome photographs with depth in a range of lighting conditions.
Price: $50 (5 rolls)
New film stocks don't come around much these days, but in an effort to make medium format affordable, Ilford recently released the 120 version of its Pan 100 black and white negative film. After darkroom processing, images made on Kentmere Pan 100 are characterized by medium contrast, solid dynamic range, and a smooth, fine grain. It's akin to Ilford FP4, but at $6 per roll, you're more free to hit that shutter at will. You can also buy Kentmere with a film ISO of 400.
Price: $6 per roll