How to choose 120 film

A beginner's guide to 120 film - for those of you
who are just getting into medium format photography.

Film types

First of all you have three types of photographic film to choose from: color negative film, black & white negative film and color positive film. Negative film (or print film) is the most common type and it is usually a bit cheaper than positive film (also known as slide film). One advantage with positive film is that it can hold a lot more detail than negative print film. It gives you more faithful colors and less perceptible grain. Positive film can also be cross processed.

Personally I really enjoy shooting black and white film, mainly for these reasons: As a beginner it's quite easy getting cool looking results with black and white film. I really like the old school, classic feeling you can achieve. It works really well on those dull, rainy and colorless days as well.

Once again, the three main film types are:

ISO (film speed)

One important thing to concider when buying 120 film is the ISO rating, or film speed. The ISO rating mainly affects two things: In what lightning conditions the film can be used and the amount of visible grain in the photos. Common ISO ratings are: 100, 125, 160, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200.

As a new medium format photographer ISO 400 film is a good beginner's choice. It will work well in several different lightning conditions. An ISO 100 film (a slow film) on the other hand, is best used in bright dayligt or with a flash. An ISO 3200 film (a high speed film) can be used in low light conditions without a flash. High speed films usually have distinct visible grain and slow films hardly have any visible grain. The ISO guide below will give you a rough idea when to choose different ISO ratings - click to enlarge the illustration.

120 film ISO guide illustration

Looking for something out of the ordinary?

What do you want to achieve with your photos? Are you after realistic and natural looking results or are you more of the experimental and artistic type? If the latter applies to you, here are a few films that you should give a try:

  • Redscale film
    A color film that produces warm shades of red and orange.
  • Infrared film
    Black and white infrared film captures more that what is visible to the human eye - and adds a kind of spooky feeling to your photos!
  • High speed film
    ISO 1600 or higher, usually results in photos with nice visible grain.
  • Slide film
    If you choose to cross process your slide films, you will get crazy results with high contrasts and over saturated colors.

What subject will you be shooting?

If you know in advance what subject you will be shooting, you can adapt the choice of film for the specific subject. Most films actually work fine for all-round photography but a few films have been created with a specific purpose in mind. Here are a few examples:

  • If you are shooting portraits or weddings, choose for example Kodak Portra or Fuji Pro 400H.
  • If you are shooting landscapes, and like saturated colors, try the popular slide film Fuji Velvia.