Only 12 Shots?!

120 film. Pros and Cons.


Shooting 6x6 (6-centimeters by 6-centimeters) on 120 film gives you 12 shots for a roll, it's not much. I used to think 36 shots of 35mm film wasn't much... now it feels like plenty!

Above: the 7th roll of 120 I've shot on my Mamiya C220, on Kodak Ektar 100 film.


What's the Appeal of Shooting 120?

  1. Why limit yourself, why shoot only 12 shots? I think this goes in the realm of "less is more" and "quality over quantity." When you're forced to slow down, compose a shot, measure the light, choose the moment... then you have a much higher chance of capturing a good image when you finally do pull the shutter.

  2. A bigger image. Shooting 6x6 medium format is literally a bigger image than 35mm. It's like bumping up the resolution, it just looks so much more crisp and sharp. You are shooting on a wallet-sized film negative! This allows you to blow things up, edit more precisely, and have an overall clearer image.

  3. Improved ROI. What I think happens with the limited 12 shots is you end up getting a higher ratio of good-to-bad images. Your return on investment is better. I consistently get about 6 images out of 12 that I end up liking. Where with 35mm film I get more like 1/3 or less than 1/3 of the images that are to my liking (that's partially due to shooting more duplicates in order to capture a specific moment or try slightly different compositions).

Cherry Blossoms - Testing the minimum focus distance on the 80mm F2.8 lens.

"Cellist Blossom" - Working on my in-camera double exposures.

Jinny with the mascara, sun cutting across from the window.

What's the Down Side of Shooting 120?

  1. Less spontaneity. Often the joy of photography is being able to see or anticipate something ahead of time, and be able to quickly frame up and capture that before it's gone. This isn't impossible with medium format. If you can be quick on your settings, and if you don't mind using up a lot of spendy film, then it's possible. But more often than not, especially with the Mamiya C220 that has no light meter, no auto focus, and a TLR viewfinder that makes everything backwards, you end up needing to take a moment or two to get things framed and settings dialed. So I noticed what I do, especially for documentary/street photography, is pre-set my shutter and aperture based on surrounding light conditions and then wait for the moment to happen. Spontaneity isn't impossible, it's just more challenging with only 12 shots.

  2. Less risk-taking. Experimenting is a big part of photography. Having more shots, like in 35mm, you feel more comfortable "wasting" a shot in order to maybe get something amazing. That risk and experimentation is fun and exciting. You took a chance on it... and it might pay off in a big way. With less shots that 120 affords, you are less likely to take those risks that would have the possibility of really shining. It's a trade off you have to get comfortable with.

Indoor set of images with my daughter, Charlotte.

Conclusion?

A medium format camera can be super fun. You can get started with an affordable option like a Holga, or step it up right away with more customizable camera options from Ebay (or ask relatives if they have one collecting dust in the attic). Shooting with 120 film will help you become a better photographer by making you really slow down and think about what you're shooting: your settings and your framing. And if you develop and scan your own film (which is easier to do than you might think) you can save a lot of time and money. My medium format Mamiya is a great option to have along with my other 35mm cameras. If you haven't shot medium format I highly recommend you give it a try!


Construction: Shadow | Shadow Maker (interesting pentagon sun flare shutter shape)