The Phoblographer Explains: Why Does Large Format Film Look So Good?


Photographers who shoot smaller formats like Micro Four Thirds and APS-C always aspire to one day shoot full frame 35mm. Why? The quality just looks better. If you’re a 35mm sensor or camera user, you probably aspire to shoot with medium format for the same reason. And again, the same reason applies to going from medium format to large format. In the photography world, bigger is quite usually better.

But what makes it better? To figure this out, I talked to reps at both Kodak Alaris and Fujifilm USA.

“In photography, if all things are equal – including the type of film (e.g: Velvia 50), the camera and lens selection and the degree of enlargement – the imaging result would be the same.” says Justin Stailey, Sr. Product Manager, FUJIFILM North America Corp. “However, if the resulting image is a standard size for all three film formats, then we see the effect of the degree of enlargement.” Basically, he says that it only really happens with larger formats.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Essentials Medium Format Beginner (3 of 6)ISO 1001-125 sec at f - 4.0

Kodak, however, says something a bit different. “Actually, the dynamic range and color gamut are the same in all film formats.” is what Kodak tells Audrey A. Jonckheer, Director of Worldwide Public Relations for the Imaging Division. “The only difference in larger format is the size of the negatives.” Kodak continued to state that it is important to remember that to get an 8×10 print from an 4×5 negative, you only need to magnify it 2x, versus 4.4x for a 6×6 (square format) 120 film, and 8.8x for a 135 negative. To that end, prints from the larger formats tend to look better because they’re blown up less in proportion. “Images captured with a high end 35mm camera often exhibit the best image quality, because the lenses are typically sharper.”

So let’s look at the formats.




Now that we’ve got that in mind, let’s run with this logic.

  • If you were to print a 60 inch by 42 inch image, the large format image would need to be enlarged less than a 35mm film image would due to its size and its task to fill the space.
  • If you were to print a 60 inch by 42 inch image, the 35mm format image would need to be enlarged even more to fill the space. Why? It’s a smaller format.

So what does this all mean?

If you’re printing an 8×10 image, then a 35mm film format image will have a bit of degradation because of the size. But if you’re printing an 8×10 image of an 8×10 piece of film, you’re not blowing it up at all–so it’ll be at its fullest quality.

Then there are other obvious things like depth of field, bokeh, lens coatings, etc. Full frame 35mm film cameras have lenses that are technologically the most advanced so far, so that can give them an edge in some ways.

  • Hector
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    “Photographers who shoot smaller formats like Micro Four Thirds and APS-C always aspire to one day shoot full frame 35mm. Why? The quality just looks better.”

    Sorry man, but I beg to differ… I’m quite happy with the size and portability of my APS-C camera and I certainly don’t find any meaningful advantage in shooting larger formats for my occasional photographic paid work which is mostly documentary photography for (other people’s) books.

    While it is true that enlarging will degrade more the smaller format images it is also true that the biggest enlargements also require a longer visualization distance which nullifies the advantage of the finer rendering of very large formats. Have you ever seen a billboard print up close? It’s horrific.

    I’ll grant that for specific uses like fine art printing the large format advantage is meaningful though.

  • Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    No 6×6? Tisk Tisk.

  • Stephen Tyler
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    You completely forgot to mention the change in DOF that occurs when your use a larger format. And most large format cameras offer tilt and shift which can be used to place that DOF across both the foreground and the background. The degree that a large format camera can manipulate the focus is unobtainable with smaller formats.

    • ChrisGampat
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      That’s not a consideration here. It literally has to do with print quality, not bokeh, not depth of field, etc. Depth of field only also changes because of the larger format. For example with Four Thirds, you’ll need to take the aperture from the Olympus or Panasonic camera + lens and multiply it by two to get the equivalent depth of field of what you can get with full frame 35mm.

      For example, the 12mm f2 from Olympus is the equivalent of a 24mm f4 wide open on 35mm full frame. However, the light gathering abilities are the same. F2 is always going to be f2 the same way that 1/8000 is always going to be 1/8000 no matter the format. The depth of field is the only thing that changes.

      With that said and to that end, it is highly possible for these cameras to offer equivalent depth of fields. The larger the format, you typically get less distortion. But again, this post is literally talking about prints hence the quote from Kodak.

      • DMR
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        I respectfully disagree with your opening – “That’s not a consideration here.” The title of the article is ‘Why Does Large Format Film Look So Good?’

        In that regard, Large Format film looks good for many reasons – one of which was described in the article as less magnification to an equivalent print size. However, there are many reasons, such as Stephen Tyler pointed out – DOF, use of tilt/shift, or in different cases, the optics.

        Just to say it’s not a consideration isn’t fair – in my opinion. Maybe if it’s not the intended use of the article, change the heading/title.

        • ChrisGampat
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          And I once again disagree but refuse to get into some sort of argument about semantics in the comment section. Depth of Field can be mimicked no matter what the format. A 135mm f2 lens shot on 35mm full frame can absolutely and totally mimic the look of a medium format lens/film plane. I’ve seen it. In fact, I’ve done it.

          Depth of field and pretty much what you’re saying here is “More bokeh.” But that’s completely incorrect. At a given aperture, yes you’ll get more with a larger format. But the depth of field effects can still be mimicked.

          • DMR
            Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

            Not with the same equivalent field of view. In order to mimic the DOF on a smaller format with a longer focal length lens, you have to physically move further away from your subject to create the same ‘field of view’.

            For example, the Contax 645 80mm f2 lens is ~50mm focal length on 35mm format. Taking a picture of a subject at 10′ away from your subject, you’d have a DOF of 10.03″.

            To use the 135mm f2 lens you referred to, and to create the same field of view of image area, you’d have to place your subject 27′ away from the camera. The DOF of a 135mm f2 lens at f2 and 27′ distance is 17.28″.

            Yes, you can create a smaller DOF by getting ‘closer’ to your subject with a 135mm f2 lens on 35mm format, but you completely change the image that’s being created.

            The only lenses capable of replicating the DOF of the Contax 80mm f2 lens (50mm equivalent on 35mm format) are 50mm f.95 or f1.2 lenses. Not impossible to come by (I think of Leica Noctilux, Canon 50mm L, or Mitakons). But, after DOF, then you have the advantages discussed in the article concerning magnification ratios of print sizes.

            The above still ignores tilt/shift options of 4×5 & 8×10.

            The above is not for the point of argument, just factual, and in the hope of teaching the community of readers – which beyond advertising, is hopefully a purpose of this website.

          • DMR
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            I’m just simply trying to say there are more than the singular advantage of film magnification ratios for print.

          • Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

            Maybe if the title were “Why medium format prints look so much better” OR if the title remained the same, but in there somewhere you put… “Hey, what about depth of field and background blur for that unique effect?”

            Then adding as you stated above
            … “A 135mm f2 lens shot on 35mm full frame can absolutely and totally mimic the look of a medium format lens/film plane. I’ve seen it. In fact, I’ve done it.”
            And then post an example with exif, etc.
            It really is kind of confusing when you make a blanket statement saying why it “looks better”, it’s a sort of broad, subjective statement to me.
            But then again… I don’t write article a whole lot, and it’s easy to have an opinion about everything.