Camera Formats 101

Camera formats varied according to the needs of film photographers, but have continued on through the digital revolution. Camera-phones aside, we’ve put together a primer on three of the main formats. You may already know this, but if this is the first time you’re seeing these terms, hopefully you find them helpful.35mm SLR:


The term SLR refers to a Single Lens Reflex. The camera body is essentially a box, with a lens on it, and a mirror inside that allows the photographer to see what the lens sees. When the shutter is released, the lens flips up out of the way to allow the light through the lens to hit the film. With film, this type of camera takes standard roll film (each frame of which is 35mm wide). With digital, it is an image sensor that responds to the light (which is approximately 35mm wide, varying depending on the camera). When you think of “A Camera”, you’re likely thinking of a 35mm SLR. It’s small body and (relatively) lightweight frame make it a friendly choice for the general population.

Medium Format:

(images: Unknown and Eugen Ilchenko)

Also an SLR, medium format refers to the kind of film this camera uses. Aspect ratios vary for this type of film, so it generally means anything larger than 35mm, but smaller than 4x5inches. Larger film captures more detail, and can produce larger prints. With many medium format cameras, film can be loaded into a separate back (“magazine”) which is then fitted onto the camera body. With digital, a special digital back can be fitted onto the camera, rather than a film magazine, and the image sensor captures the exposure to a card. You can also hook up the digital back to a computer, and shoot straight to the computer’s hard drive without using a card. These cameras are a little heavier, more technically needy, and considerably more expensive than a 35mm SLR, and are usually the tools of professional photographers.

Large Format:


(image: Oxam Hartog)

The structure of this type of cameras is different from that of the SLR. Rather than a box, a large format camera has a board with a lens on the front, and a board with a piece of ground glass on the back. In between is a flexible, light-tight bellows. The image is projected through the lens onto the ground glass, where the image can be seen. Film for these cameras comes in individual sheets, which are loaded (in the dark) into double-sided holders (*see photo below). When the photographer is ready to make an exposure, she fits the film holder between the ground glass and the bellows. The light-blocking panel is lifted out of the holder and the shutter is released. The panel is then slid back into place, and the holder is removed.

Large format digital backs are available, which fit into the camera back rather than the film holder. Like the medium format option, the camera can shoot to cards or be tethered to a computer. Because the lens plane and film plane are separated by the flexible bellows, they can be moved independently, allowing for very fine adjustments in focus, depth of field, and perspective. Because of the perspective adjusting qualities, large format is most frequently used for photographing architecture.

(feature image: CIngre)

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