HOLD Photography workflows

A Look at Still Camera Systems


This is an article intended for those who are absolutely new to photography, and want to know what options they have.

Still camera systems are broadly divided by two classes:

  • Film or digital
  • Size of the medium

The biggest decision a photographer has to take is whether to shoot on film or digital. The rule of thumb is: Test what you can find, look at the results, and stick to one format. It takes a lifetime to master anything.


Advantages of Film over Digital:

  • Cheaper initial investment
  • Cheaper lens options
  • Sturdier and not easy to break
  • Low maintenance
  • Some cameras are fully manual and don’t need batteries
  • Having a limited number of shots per roll might make the photographer think more prior to clicking
  • Will stay with you longer
  • Idiosyncratic image quality using different film stock


Disadvantages of Film over Digital:

  • Limited dynamic range unless you use the best stock. Then it’s 50-50.
  • Poor at higher ISO ratings
  • Limited availability of professional film
  • Expensive to buy, develop, process, scan and clean images. Long term, film is more expensive than digital
  • Less environment-friendly
  • Time-consuming. Time between taking a shot to seeing the finished product is from a few seconds (in Polaroid, which is mostly extinct), to days
  • Unless you are perfect in every step of the way, you cannot be sure what you are seeing in the end is what you have shot
  • Has lower resolution than digital. A 15MP DX/APSC easily matches 6×7 medium format. An IQ180 back beats 8×10 film

All said and done, there are proponents for both film and digital. I too used to shoot both, but due to limited options in Mumbai, I rarely shoot film any more. The control I gain over the image till the print, plus the fact that it is cheaper and environment-friendly, make digital shooting a no-brainer for me.

Film is for those with lots of money and/or time in their hands. When I have both, I might start shooting film again – if the world doesn’t run out of it.

For more information on film vs digital, visit Ken Rockwell’s site and Clark Vision.



Camera systems come in various sizes. The most famous ‘size’, and the one every other format is judged or compared to, is 35mm film. 35mm has been around for a 100 years, and was standardized in 1909. The most well-known of manufacturers to adopt this format, and still reigning king, is Leica. The size of the frame is 36x24mm. Modern top-of-the-line DSLRs and the Leica M9 have a sensor this size, and is called a full frame sensor. Lenses are referred to as 35mm equivalents so that one might instantly know the area of coverage if it were a 35mm lens (assuming one has shot with 35mm before!).

Most consumer grade DSLRs have a smaller sensor, either an APS-C (Canon and others), DX (Nikon), 4/3 (four thirds) system among others. Most of these sub-35mm frame sensors offer quality on par with 35mm film, if used with the right lenses. Check this image out for basic sensor sizes in the 35mm world:

Sensor sizes

If you look at the biggest size, it says ‘medium format’. Most people only know of 35mm or smaller. But there are bigger sizes.

Medium Format

If 35mm is around 1.5×1 inches, then medium format system begins at 6×4.5 cm (2.3×1.7 inches), which is almost three times the area. Medium format film systems have two types of film rolls: 120 film and 220 film. 220 is just a longer roll, and is less common. The same 120 roll is used for different format sizes, which are as follows:

  • 645 – 15 shots
  • 6×6 – 13 shots
  • 6×7 – 10 shots
  • 6×8 – 8 shots
  • 6×9 – 8 shots
  • 6×17 – 4 shots

The most beautiful thing about medium format systems is that most of them are modular:
Medium format system

This means, you can mix and match various accessories depending on the kind of work you do:

  • 1. Camera body which houses the rewind and shutter buttons mostly
  • 2. Lenses. Unlike 35mm systems (where the shutter is inside the body of the camera), in medium format systems the shutter (called a leaf shutter) resides in the lens
  • 3. Focus screens or ground glass
  • 4. Special grips and power drive to use handheld. Most of these systems need tripods as they are heavy
  • 5. Wind-up crank
  • 6. Prism finder with meters, to use at eye-level
  • 7. Prism finder
  • 8. Waist level finder, to look down and shoot at the waist level
  • 9 and 10. 120 film backs. These can be interchanged so each back can hold a different kind of film
  • 11. 35mm, Polaroid and digital backs can be added to these systems.
  • 12. Cable release, to keep this beast with a gigantic mirror to remain steady

Digital backs allow medium format systems to be used even today to get a higher resolution than full frame 35mm DSLRs. These backs have megapixels from 20MP all the way to 80MP as of this post, with signs of even bigger things to come.

When are these cameras used? Whenever a bigger resolution is required. This includes studio and portrait photography, architectural and landscape photography, and commercial photography. The one thing these cameras are not used much for is journalistic or street photography.

One type of medium format system that is light and can be used for street photography is the Twin lens reflex camera system:Rolleiflex camera

Large format

If you thought medium format is huge, then wait until you read this. The biggest format sizes in photography fall under the category: Large format photography.

Size does matter:

Large format systems begin at 4×5 inches and go all the way up to 20×24 inches. The most common sizes are 4×5, 5×7 and 8×10. Each film is one sheet (not a roll like 35mm or medium format). The most widely used design is the View Camera design:


View Camera design

You’ve probably seen these beauties from old photographs. Yes, they are still in use today, by those who want the ultimate in quality for landscape, portrait and architecture work. Medium format digital backs are also used with these cameras to get the best resolution.

The greatest advantage of large format view camera design is the fact that it allows for the greatest manipulation of the image, which is not possible with 35mm or medium format systems. These include:

  • Rise and Fall – used to eliminate converging parallels
  • Shift – used to remove the image of the camera from the final image when photographing a reflective surface
  • Tilt – used to change the plane of the depth of field
  • Swing – used to achieve sharp focus along the entire length of a plane
  • Back Tilt/Swing – used to swing or tilt the rear standard is to keep the film plane parallel to the face of the object being photographed


The biggest disadvantages to these systems are their size and weight, plus the fact that setting up exposures is time consuming and tedious. Any weakness or lack of skill in technique will easily destroy a picture in this format, whereas 35mm and medium format systems often tend to help correct some human errors. Large format systems are pure photography.

There are even cameras that don’t need lenses, like Pinhole cameras. However, these cameras are not very versatile and their use is limited to certain types of photography under certain conditions. But it has its fans!

Digital systems have come far. This year we have our first gigapixel camera:

People are talking about 50 to 50,000 gigapixels now – more that what the eye can resolve at any distance!

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, one of the most famous and greatest of images created by the master himself, Ansel Adams, using a large format camera system, The Tetons and the Snake River (1942):

The Tetons and the Snake River

Hopefully this article has helped you find your way for further research. Hope to see your photos soon!

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