Exploring Different Film Formats

One of my first cameras was a Kodak Brownie box camera, which used Kodak’s 620 film (120 format on a different sized spool).

My sister, c 1969, taken with my Kodak Brownie box camera – 6×8 or 6×9 format, I believe.

Beginning in the 1890’s and into the 20th century Kodak developed several film formats, like 116 and later 616 that were larger than 120. There was also 127 film, which was smaller than the 120 size – about 46mm wide. And then there’s 35mm film. Here’s an interesting history of 35mm photography – in case you’re interested in that rabbit hole. Later in the 20th century (1934), the 35mm film size (135) started to be used more for still photographs – when Kodak developed the 35mm pre-loaded cartridge. Previously, if you wanted to use a Leica or other 35mm camera, you had to roll your own film onto reusable cartridges in your darkroom. By pre-loading the 35mm cartridge, Kodak brought 35mm photography to the rest of the regular people. 35mm was originally used as a motion picture format mainly for silent films. And Kodak adapted the 35mm format to other slight variations, like 828 which was the same size as 35mm film, but with holes on one size only, and it came with backing paper like 120 film. I’ve shot and processed 828 film on my 35mm film developing reels – here’s a link to that post if you want to read about that. Even later, they developed 126 film, which was basically the same film as 828, but instead of backing paper, the film came in an enclosed cartridge – which you just popped in the camera, closed the door and advanced the film to the first frame. There was no rewinding, as is normal with 35mm film, since it was all contained in a single cartridge – the exposed film was simply on the other side of the cartridge when you took it out of the camera to get it developed. This was actually a very handy, and easy to use method. In the 60’s and 70’s Kodak Instamatic cameras using 126 film were very popular, and as a kid, one of my favorite cameras. They were simple point and shoot cameras – some a bit more sophisticated, and some very simple. They sensed different kinds of film (different ASA) and adjusted accordingly. They (as far as I know) were all fixed focus, wide angle lenses – with focal lengths around 35mm.

My dog (Buttons) in the snow at our home near Buffalo, NY, c 1970, taken with my Kodak Instamatic camera – 126 film (square format)

The 127 film size I mentioned above was very interesting because if was larger than 35mm, yet smaller than 120. It made really nice slides because of it’s slightly larger size than 35mm slides. I really liked that film, but I never owned or used a camera that used 127 film.

The 35mm size film concept was very popular because of it’s size. Cameras that used this size film (including cameras that used 828 and the 126 Instamatics that I described above) could be easily carried.

So, why so many different formats? Well, film evolved much like digital evolved (is evolving). Early in the digital age, sensors were very immature and they didn’t produce images with any kind of usable resolution. I remember the first digital images I captured – and it’s hard to believe that I even wasted my time capturing them when I look at them now. As film was evolving, especially roll film, people were pretty amazed that they could capture anything at all – just like I was amazed that I could capture an image without film! I didn’t care that it was really poor quality – I was quite happy that I could just see it right now.

When film cameras were just beginning, in the 1890’s into the early 1900’s, Kodak made many large size film types – like 116 which was 2.5 x 4.25 inches. Early on, contact printing was very popular so negatives needed to be large enough to make a decent sized contact print – by laying the negative directly on top of photo paper in a dark room, turning a light on for a few seconds and then developing the paper. So prints from film in the late 19th century and way into the 20th century would many times be the same size as the film they came from. So, that was an early film thing – if you used a larger sized film, you could get larger prints to put in your photo book or frame on our table. This came with the disadvantage of needing to carry a larger camera around.

If you had enough money to hire a photographer to take photos of your family, they often used a larger camera that took sheets of film 5×7, 8×10, or larger, so your photos would be that large – large enough to hang on a wall even. But for normal people, carrying around that kind of camera was expensive, difficult and required a darkroom to just load the sheet film into light-tight holders. If you shoot large format film, basically the same process you must go through today.

Moving farther into the 20th century, enlarging became easier and less expensive, so smaller film types became more and more popular – like 35mm, and some of it’s cousins – like 828 and 126 – since you could have prints made in all popular sizes from the same small negative.

I also want to point out that, while Kodak made some huge business blunders (in my opinion) with regard to the future of digital (and other things), and suffered for it, they were a huge factor in making photography easy, available, and affordable for everyone. The invention of roll film itself (although not directly Kodak’s invention) and how Kodak saw the opportunity to make photography something that everybody could do (and make a lot of money for Kodak at the same time) was crucial to the future of photography. Kodak made a very profitable business by giving people an easier way to take photographs, and they processed and printed all those photographs – and sold more and more film with every new camera they sold. It’s a classic business model that companies around the world try their hardest to duplicate. In fact, Kodak (again, my opinion) should be studied in business schools as a great example of what to do, and what not to do in business.

In my mind at least, the huge number of different film types was due to different people, and different companies trying to make things better – or to make something new that people thought would be better. It’s a different world now, but I find it interesting to look back at the last 130 years or so, and learn about how film and film cameras were developed.

Did I forget to mention 110 film? Disc film? APS Film (sounds like aps-c for you digital fans, and it is related)? A few more rabbit holes to wander down if you have trouble sleeping…