Let’s be as clear as possible: there is no such thing as “120mm film”. Medium format roll film for cameras like Hasselblads, Rolleiflexes and Pentax 67s, is called “120”. That simple ~120-year-old designation is all you ever need to use. This isn’t going to be a big revelation to many of you but we’ve come to the point where I feel I need to get out the soapbox again, have a little rant and ask for your help to stop the nomenclature rot. I’m not alone.
You don’t have to delve too deep into social media today to find film photos and gear shots tagged as “120mm film”. Step a little further into the abyss and you’ll even find bonafide photographic businesses doing the same. I don’t mean tagging “120mm” lenses but actually referring to the format and cameras used.
This needs to stop.
It’s the same on Youtube and Vimeo, where many videos exist promising to help viewers figure out “how to load 120mm film” into various “120mm cameras”. Then there the online retailers out there selling “120mm film”.
Before you call me a bad person for singling out of inexperienced film photographers, this message is only partially for them, it’s actually more for the experienced photographers out there pushing “120mm” like rabid Flat-Earthers, Anti-Vax loonies and BREXITers. Please stop.
Over the past few years, I and others have done our bit, quietly helping correct folks here and there but given what feels to me like a recent increase in the use of this term, it’s obviously not been enough to turn the tide.
Here’s a little PSA from July 2018:
All this isn’t about maintaining a tradition, as some may think. It’s about standards, correct nomenclature, quality and good mentorship. 120 isn’t a description of a film format, it’s an official designation, a standard to which all 120 films are made. Calling “120mm” is like asking for a new set of 18″ tyres at your local garage in reference to their width, not the diameter of the wheels they fit. It doesn’t make sense.
Photographic film that is 120mm wide has existed in the past, there’s no denying that. The point here is that when people use the term “120mm film”, we all know they’re talking about 120 film. That’s what we’re trying to clear up – incorrect use of terminology that’s gotten to the point where it’s eating me alive from the inside.
More importantly, I believe the growing trend of people calling medium format 120 film “120mm” signifies something deeply wrong with our community: we are not effectively stewarding this or the next generation of film photographers, nor are we calling out those who should know better. This is about the quality of our community and to get something so fundamentally wrong needs to be fixed.
I originally wrote what has evolved into this article over a year ago. It started as a series of tweets about film formats (above) and expanded from there. I’d planned to publish it as part of a larger piece pushing back against misinformation and plain old bad advice and for better or worse, I’ve ended up sitting on it.
In readiness for release, I recently went back to the screenshots I’d taken for the original piece and checked up on a few offenders to see if anything had changed following my emails to them.
Everything was exactly the same. So, I picked one and tweeted at them:
Now, credit where credit is deservedly due:
Adorama’s social team said they’d do something about it and they have (thanks!) At the time of writing, a search for the ten listings of “120mm” film I discovered in mid-2018 only number three. I’m genuinely glad to know they’re working on it but I wish others were as responsive. A quick root around on Amazon yielded the following:
…and there’s more on social media:
In isolation, one or two posts don’t add up to much but if you start actively searching for the term “120mm”, you begin to get an idea of how deep the rot goes. One hashtag alone (I won’t name the platform) has nearly 120,000 posts referring to “120mm film”. One hundred and twenty thousand.
So, allow me to offer a helping hand with a few simple, helpful points on a few current roll films and image formats.
Let’s start with the “why”
Standards are everything
Nearly every single film format in existence has a formal designation/standard – mass-produced formats at least. This is to ensure that any interested party can use a set of predefined, universally understood specifications to produce a photographic film and/or cameras that use it. This is the reason why you can use – for example – 35mm film made in the USA today in 35mm film cameras made a century ago in Europe.
Standards govern everything to do with film photography (and much of the wider world). A great example of the unification of standards are ASA and BSA, old US/UK standards, which were, in part, used to denote film speed. ASA and BSA, along with German DIN values have all been rolled up into a single global standard: ISO. For example, ASA/BSA 400 is now ISO 400 and so on.
ISO? The International Standards Organisation. Their only job is to develop and publish international standards. They have so far published over 22,000 standards covering everything from shipping containers and food safety systems, to crop protection and auto exposure in film cameras.
120 is a designation that is now a standard. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) table of Kodak’s roll film designations over the years. That is to say, film that is/was supplied in a rolled-up format, be it in a metal tin, or backed with paper.
The “Image size” column describes the original image size the film was intended to produce. In the case of 120 film, that was 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 (6×9 by today’s nomenclature). Of course, many film types are able to produce multiple image formats. I’ve described a few of them in the following section.
Most of the formats below are now long dead but you might recognise a few in there. Spoiler alert: there’s no “120mm” film type designation.
|Film #||Introduced||Discontinued||Image size|
|No.35||1916||1933||1 1/4 x 1 3/4 in|
|101||1895||1956||3 1/2 x 3 1/2 in|
|102||1896||1933||1 1/2 x 2 in|
|103||1896||1949||3 3/4 x 4 3/4 in|
|104||1897||1949||4 3/4 x 3 3/4 in|
|105||1897||1949||2 1/4 x 3 1/4 in|
|106||1898||1924||3 1/2 x 3 1/2 in|
|107||1898||1924||3 1/4 x 4 1/4 in|
|108||1898||1929||4 1/4 x 3 1/4 in|
|109||1898||1924||4 x 5 in|
|110||1898||1929||5 x 4 in|
|110||1972||~||13 x 17 mm *1|
|111||1898||Unknown||6 1/2 x 4 3/4 in|
|112||1898||1924||7 x 5 in|
|113||1898||Unknown||9cm x 12 cm|
|114||1898||Unknown||12cm x 9 cm|
|115||1898||1949||6 3/4 x 4 3/4 in|
|116||1899||1984||2 1/2 x 4 1/4 in|
|117||1900||1949||2 1/4 x 2 1/4 in|
|118||1900||1961||3 1/4 x 4 1/4 in|
|119||1900||1940||4 1/4 x 3 1/4 in|
|120||1901||~||2 1/4 x 3 1/4 *2|
|121||1902||1941||1 5/8 x 2 1/2 in|
|122||1903||1971||3 1/4 x 5 1/2 in|
|123||1904||1949||4 x 5 in|
|124||1905||1961||3 1/4 x 4 1/4 in|
|125||1905||1949||3 1/4 x 5 1/2 in|
|126||1906||1949||4 1/4 x 6 1/2 in|
|126||1963||2008||26.5 x 26.5 mm *3|
|127||1912||1995||1 5/8 x 2 1/2 in|
|128||1912||1941||1 1/2 x 2 1/4|
|129||1912||1951||1 7/8 x 3|
|130||1916||1961||2 7/8 x 4 7/8|
|130||1916||1961||2 7/8 x 4 7/8|
|135||1934||~||24 x 36 mm *4|
|220||1965||2015||2 1/4 x 2 1/4 *2|
|235||1934||Unknown||24 x 36 mm|
|240||1996||2011||30.2 x 16.7 mm|
|335||1954||Unknown||24 x 24 mm|
|435||1934||Unknown||24 x 36 mm|
|616||1932||1984||2 1/2 x 4 1/4|
|620||1932||1995||2 1/4 x 3 1/4|
|828||1935||1985||28 x 40mm|
- Original 110 format was an early roll film which was later replaced by today’s 110 film, aka “Pocket Instamatic”.
- 120 and 220 films were designed to produce a nominal image size of 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 inches (that’s 56x82mm, or more frequently known as 6×9 today).
- The original 126 designation referred to 4×5 inch aerial roll films, such as those used in the Kodak K24. It was later given to the “Instamatic” format.
- 135 format film – colloquially referred to as “35mm” film – produces a nominal image size of 24x36mm. The “35mm” name comes from the gauge (width) of the film strip, which is 35mm wide (as shot horizontally through a motion picture camera).
Data from the table was sourced from Wikipedia and archive.org.
What to call different photographic film formats and why
Thankfully (or not, depending on your standpoint), the number of in-production photographic films today number a tiny fraction of those listed in the table above. Here’s a quick cheat sheet on how to correctly name some of them:
Use “110” as a shorthand for 110 format film.
Use “35mm” or “135” as shorthand for 135 format film.
Use “120” as shorthand for 120 format film.
Use “127” as shorthand for 127 format film.
In case you’re interested in a quick bit of history on these four formats:
110 film is essentially 16mm film for still cameras. One cartdridge produces ~24 17x13mm images and as of 2019, the only company selling fresh 110 film is Lomography.
120 film was created for the Kodak No.2 Brownie to make 6×9 images. It can also produce 6x3cm, 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, 6×8, 6×12, 6×17, 6×24 etc., images. It’s worth bearing in mind that the actual image size from 120 (medium format film) is always a little smaller. For example, the most well-known image format for 120 film cameras these days is 6×6, which produces a 56x56mm image.
127 film can produce 4x4cm, 4×3 and even 4×6.5 images depending on the camera.
135 is the ubiquitous “small format” (kleinbildfilm) film. It’s most common format is “full-frame”, producing 24x36mm images. There’s also half-frame 24x24mm, square, 64mm wide. etc.
Things get a little funny with large format films depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re from. 4×5 is generally called “five by four” in the UK and “four by five” in North America. The same goes for 11×14 and 8×10, with the long edge being named first.
In and amongst all this you’ll note that there’s no reference to 120mm film. Not surprising really, as it doesn’t exist.
For the dad-joking pedants out there who will inevitably point out that 9x12cm film exists and is “technically 120mm film”. Your jokes are part of the problem. It’s not clever, funny or unique, stop it.
What can you do?
Spreading the word is important and your involvement is crucial. It might simply take the form of nudging folks you see using “120mm” on social media. Your approach needn’t be as harsh or sarcastic as mine in this article. In fact, I would rather it wasn’t. For serial offenders and those individuals, groups and organisations in positions of trust, vocally calling them out might be the only option. It’s your call. Do something, anything, just don’t stay silent.
35mmc’s Hamish and I have created various social media accounts to help. Use the hashtag #120NOT120MM on Twitter, FB or IG. Drop it into offending posts by way of a comment and tag @120NOT120MM while you’re at it.
If you want to give those accounts a follow, here are links for IG, Twitter and the Facebook group. Hamish also has an article out talking about this very subject – what an unplanned coincidence! – please head on over and check it out for his slightly-different-but-similarly-frustrated perspective.
Finally, for all things truth visit 120NOT120MM.com for a quick hit of facts that you can share.
Oh, and one more time: there’s no such thing as “120mm photographic film”…a 120/220 format film FAQ follows below!