I mean to talk about the dimension differences when it comes to compositional framing and printing, on a most basic level film comes in either square or rectangular formats, rectangular formats are divided into many different proportions. On another basic level is the physical size of the film and in the modern era, the size of the sensor. Everyone has a preference and I am no different, my favorite is the square format, in the past there have been smaller square formats like those taken with the Robot cameras but nowadays, square format is ubiquitously considered to be the 6×6 format, this is a medium format size and with good lenses and fine grain film will result in a very high quality and enlargeable print. This is my film format of choice because I think it has the most flexible framing and cropping opportunities. When framing your photos with 6×6 you don’t have to stick to the tried and true compositional rules of thirds, you can still apply this rule but you’ll find that many of your photos can be centered. In rectangular formats having the subject dead center is often a taboo because it leads to a static photo, that tends to be uncomfortable for viewing with the elements in the wider edge wasted. But if you apply this to a square format, its different, even though it still lends itself to be more static having the subject in the center, there is now a symmetry with the natural square frame the keeps the photo comfortable for viewing. This means that you have more compositional flexibility overall. With square format you can crop the edges for portrait or landscape arrangements as necessary and still retain a large enough negative for printing, with minimal loss in quality. It is also logical that with square format a single photo can take advantage of the whole image circle projected by the lens and this just seems right to me. The only bad thing I can think of, is the lack of square format option for digital cameras, there are some lower resolution medium format digital backs that are square but these are expensive and nowadays a little out dated.
Having started with my favorite format, I will move on to your other options, but first I’ll like to talk about size of the film and in the case of a digital sensor, both the size and pixel density. The size of the film you should use is mostly dependent of your end output of the image you capture, the larger the print the larger the film the better. There are other factors like larger film/sensors allow for more cropping options, but it is obviously best to do the framing properly in the first place so you don’t have to crop. Other factors include, the size, cost, weight of the cameras that produce the respective size images, larger formats will be less flexible and slow to use and quiet bulky and usually very slow to setup, so even if you want the best quality photo possible you may still be limited by these other factors depend on your subject matter. For ultimate quality there is still nothing better than large format with film sizes 4×5 and up, these large setups will result in the best quality photos you can make, medium format is a compromise but will result in better portability and then there is the 135 format where its relatively cheap and in this age of better and better sensors you can get medium format like quality from a relatively light professional DSLR. 135 format is also the most flexible to use and carry around but the quality of 135 equipment is wide ranging from plastic lenses to professional lenses, it can be a minefield of poor quality lenses and cameras out there. Size isn’t always better with 135 format there are compact point and shoots that make amazing photos especially on film. Going back to my initial point, there is no point carry a large format camera or a professional 22MP DSLR if you never print the photos out large, for most people in this age of social apps, the most common output is online on the computer monitor and in this situation you don’t need anything better than 6 megapixels, with most cameras nowadays at 10 megapixels, even the rich amateurs amongst us should think twice about upgrading.
The most common format is 35mm and we are all used to using it, but do note that with cameras with cropped sensors there is flexibility within this format and cameras like the micro four third system are more square compared to regular full frame 35mm with a 4×3 proportion (so using these cameras will result in slightly different compositions that can be refreshing). But we should be talking about proportions as I have already talked about size, so lets convert 135mm film to its more simple proportions and that is 24x36mm or 6×9, this is a relatively wide format and is particularly flexible and hence it has become the standard format. This is also the reason why 35mm (slightly wide standard lenses) lends itself to this format. 6×9 allows for landscapes to portraits and hence arise these common labels for shoot 135 film vertically and horizontally. For most people, it is the only format choice. In medium format half frame, 645 and 6×9 are very similar in style. 6×9 & 6×8 formats are also very close to the dimensions to the printed page with its obvious advantages of no wastage in published texts.
Then there is the panoramic formats like 6×10, 5×10, 6×12 or Hasselblad/Fujifilm X-pan format or even the dopey APS panorama format, these are specialized formats and very inflexible. they lend themselves to horizontal landscapes, but this is only true because our visions are naturally horizontally wide. These can be used vertically for surprising shots that need the viewer to explore by moving his or her head up and down. Some say that if these formats are overused these formats can be a little boring, highlight the strength of the 6×9 format. I suspect that it isn’t the fault of these formats but the fault of the photographer not using these longer formats creatively. Most photographers shoot very stereo typical panorama shots of the horizon, no wonder this format appears more boring than it really is. But there is always a little magic and surprising to see panoramas and it is an important trump card in an photographer’s arsenal, used creatively it reflects our natural vision the most. 135 digital photos can easily be adapted to take panoramas as well making this format even more flexible if not more clumsy to using compared with a panoramic camera. In a pinch Tilt-shift 35mm lenses can be made to take short panoramas as well.
There are even more extreme formats with some Lomo cameras, their lenses’s quality leave a lot to be desired but some of the format options are intriguing. So next time you consider upgrading your camera, think about getting a camera in another format, it will broaden your photography horizons!