Why 35mm?

Miami CreekIt has been a while since my last post. Sorry about that. There has been a lot going on in my life that has taken time away from photography. Things have settled down a bit, but this Friday is the Canandaigua Art Walk and the official opening of my studio/gallery on Main Street so I have been printing and framing madly so that there will be something on the walls for people to see.

During all this framing the question came up as to why standard frames come in sizes like 8×10 and 16×20 while my camera produces prints in 35mm format. A “full frame” 35mm photo will not fit in an 8×10 frame unless it is cropped. I try to avoid cropping since it reduces the available pixels when it comes time to enlarge, but sometimes it just has to be done. However, I crop mostly for composition reasons and rarely if ever to fit a particular frame size. Sometimes I custom make a frame to evenly fit a print but most often the mat (which serves several purposes) fills out the print to fit the frame.

Let’s start with 35mm. What’s up with that?

You know a 35mm print is wide and narrow as compared to an 8×10 frame. It reminds me of the deal with letterbox formatted movies. When you view a movie in its original letterbox format, the top and bottom of your more square – ish TV (unless you have one of them thar new fangled wide TVs) is black. In fact it seems that motion picture film is to blame for the 35mm still photo format.

In the infancy of photography (starting around about the 1830s) photographic images were produced on metal or glass plates. Although some early work was done using paper as a substrate, smooth solid glass produced a much sharper image. (The flexible celluloid film base like today’s roll films was not produced until around 1889.)

The glass plates were large. They required a large camera. You know the scene – a photographer is taking a photo in the old west of some notorious bank robber – he has his huge camera propped on a tripod, his head is under a black cloth while he focuses, as his assistant lights some flash powder on a tall stick and POOF in a cloud of smoke the picture is taken.

This was all well and good for still photos, but soon people got the idea to create motion pictures. Thomas Edison among others worked on this idea. To do a “movie” many still images needed to be passed by a light source so rapidly that they would fool the eye by blending into a continuous stream of motion. Solid glass or metal plates were not going to cut it!

The guys at the Edison lab were eventually able to get their hands on some flexible roll film perfected my George Eastman (Kodak founder). For some reason they decided to slit the 70mm wide strips in half to 35mm and they punched holes along the edges to run over gears in a machine called a Kinetoscope – the first movie projector.

Now getting back to the large format cameras. Large format cameras (or view cameras) are still in use today. The large film size and some other design features that we won’t get into here allow these cameras to produce very high resolution images and give the discriminating photographer great control of the focus, depth of field, and perspective of the image. They take beautiful photos and have a long and glorious history. On the other hand view cameras are, well, big.

Ever see a picture of Ansel Adams, the famed nature photographer, taking one of his photos? I remember one scene where he had a platform built on top of a car and he was standing up there with his huge tripod and 8×10 view camera that looked about the size of a small refrigerator! This setup is great for dramatic landscapes taken from spots where either you or your minions can lug this kind of equipment.

The average person does not want to haul this stuff to a family picnic. Professionals that work in fast paced fields like sports or street photography can’t haul this stuff around either. People like me that like to hike miles into the woods, climb gorge walls, or push through thick underbrush can’t carry anything that big. Soooo, back to that 35mm movie film.

People wanted a “miniture” camera that was affordable and easy to carry. Although there were many different sizes available – my first camera used something called 620 film – some manufacturers took short chunks of leftover 35mm movie film and built small cameras around that format. The german company Leica was the most successful at it and by the 1930s, 35mm cameras caught on in a big way. Eventually they outstripped other sizes in popularity.

So in the end we have large format cameras with a long tradition (from the very beginning up to the present)  in photography especially in portraiture. The most popular films sizes for these cameras? – 4×5 and 8×10. Thus the standard frame sizes of 8×10 and 16×20.

We also have the widely popular 35mm “miniature” format cameras that many professionals and most amateurs use. The 35mm format is so ingrained in our psyche  and in our installed base that even the advent of digital cameras can’t break it. Theoretically a digital camera could use any size format that fit the chips. Probably a different size would actually work better for chip makers, but 35mm is what people understand and what millions of lenses and other equipment is based upon.

Eventually I think the digital age will bridge the gap between “film” formats. But it ain’t going to happen anytime soon!

MDW

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One Response to “Why 35mm?”

  1. weirdname Says:

    Hi, seems like your terrific blog is not being displayed correctly on my new Android phone :( Would love to read your posts on my way to work.

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