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.
You might be interested in...
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!
Hi – do you know if frame numbers were printed on 120 film? I have read elsewhere that you can identify between 120 and 220 (developed) – if there are no frame numbers then it is 220.
I’ve been on a rampage on eBay for a few years now, contacting every seller I see who lists medium format cameras or films as 120mm. I reference the article from JCH but will include yours too now. It’s been a fun project and most sellers just say thanks and fix it but I do get some funny/aggressive/argumentative responses too 🙂
Brilliant article. Just one minor editorial comment. If you are going to be a stickler for terminology, ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization (www.iso.org).
It seems some folks here are new to film photography and have yet to discover that there is a world of stuff to learn before they become truly competent in the practice. It is not easy and can take years. The naming of the parts is the best place to start learning and one ought to do it properly. Good article. Thank you.
Thank you, Conor. For all the hate this article (and others like it) has gotten, I’m glad there are a few like minded folks out there 🙏
This article is NOT a “rant”. It is you making a TRUTH very cleat – without advertisement “Bullshit”.
Thank you for taking the time of your so-called “Rant”… Not only enjoyable – Factual, and well written.
Interesting. Sea story – I worked for 50+ years on a NASA contract at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Sometime in the last contract cycle, 2004 till -, an official NASA document (describing our facility) listed “120mm” film. When I pointed that out I was told it didn’t matter!
Also you should know that the film size designation was based on the metal (at that time) spool they were wound on to. This is why 120 and 620 are the same, only the spool differed.
I think we have to be grateful that 620 film is no longer available, Just think how huge 620mm is.
And you can spool 120 to 620, magically transforming it!
It is of course common practice here in Ireland to use a much more accurate designation system, i.e. for 35mm / 135 as “the wee fillum” and any 120 / medium format as “the big fillum”.
…and large format fillum is called…?!
That would be the Bigger Fillum.
Oh, no reason to get all over you for clarifying there’s no such thing as 120 mm. There is such a thing is 35 mm and I find it pretty obnoxious that it’s called 135!
It’s funny, both 135 and 35mm are correct. The former being the Kodak designation for still photography and the latter being the cine term for the film type. Just don’t mix them: there’s no such thing as 135mm film 😉
Des Rex, at least some “little englanders,” know how to spell “enumerate”.
I don’t know how to spell innumerate either, but innumerate is the word I meant regardless of my spelling.
I’m so stupid. I should never have read this article. Thanks for ‘enlightening’ …..whoever. I’m out the door shooting now….my 120.
I don’t believe I’ve ever used the term “120mm”. I just say 120 or more likely the size of the film negative, since I have 6 different medium format camera types. I’ll make sure that ‘bad phrase’ never appears in my blogs or articles.
Just two brief notes.
The first one regards your table: 127 film has not been discontinued completely – it is still available here:
The second note is regarding the size of the 6×7 negative, which is 56mm x 72mm (4×5 aspect ratio, Linhof’s so-called Ideal Format, originally invented in Japan afaik).
Corrections made. Thank you, Jens!
For shooting square on 120 film, I learned it as “two and a quarter, two and a quarter.” But I was happy to switch to metric: “six by six” isn’t nearly the mouthful!
Seriusly? I suppose there is some people with lots of free time. I believe that time could be use it to create photography instead, but I guess some people like to feel like illuminated beings that just need to impose what they believe to be right. Getting my cup of coffee now.
Who hurt you?
I don’t count calling something by it’s proper, accepted name is a sign of feeling illuminated about anything. Informed, certainly. Nokon, Carnon, Pantox, Leikuh….
If I had my way, I would abolish “mm” and all its metric chums, they are very confusing and unlike in America, these were foisted on us by the bl**dy EEC (now known as the EU).
Odd that just around the time when the simplicity of imperial standards was going to make computer use easier, the Europeans get a bee in their bonnets about Napoleon and his mad measurement system. Far easier to divide by 2/3/4/8/12/16/32 than 10.
Mind you, I can see why the Europeans did this, they have got ten fingers and ten toes… A built in calculator!
Easier to divide by 32 than by 10? I grew up with inches and lbs but have to design everything in metric. Once you’re used to it (takes about a week), it is much simpler.
sorry, the comment about brain cells was not intended for you. It was intended for the inumerate ‘little englander’.
It is very easy to extract the urine, but what are your thoughts regarding the mistaken idea that 120 film is some kind of metric concept?
My point was that, and this is a fact, computing is simpler when almost any number other than ten is used as a base, and indeed this has been and is the practise of designers. There are no metric computers, software has to compensate for its inefficiency. In other words, not only is it plain wrong in regard to the size of photographic film, it is wrong as a general standard, and only exists because of politicians.
The people that have rather successfully pushed this less than efficient standard to the extent that it is even taking over in the USA, have done it for no reason other than the desire to be in charge of everything… It is full of commenters like Dez Rez above, who are too young probably to understand that not all changes are good changes, and are stupid enough to be denigrating about people who do have the experience.
sorry, brain cell comment not intended for you
about the same number of brain cells you have then.
Regarding standards, there is no such organization as the “International Standards Organization” and “ISO” is not an acronym! Better look it up.
I wasn’t going to comment on this rather pointless article, but yeah, what you said. If you’re going to be pedantic about something so harmless, at least do it correctly.
And next we tackle world peace……
And next we tackle world peace……
While on following standards, you refer to ISO 400 film. There is no such designation. The correct designation is ISO 400/27 (should have a little degree symbol at the end) which accommodates both the linear system (US, UK etc.) and the logarithmic (various European systems).
Yes, but Germans have their own way of forcing people to adopt their standards.
Minor quibble about 127 film (which BTW I have seen referred to as 127mm!), 4×6 should be 4×6.5 and not really be added as an “afterthought”, as it is the original format used in the Vest Pocket Kodak cameras.
Thanks, I now have a headache in my eye. 😉