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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

Evolution of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

Updated: Mar 22

The evolution of photographic formats is a fascinating odyssey that traverses the history of visual art, reflecting technological advancements, aesthetic requirements, and cultural shifts. From the earliest experiments with daguerreotype plates to modern film, each step has marked how photographers have expressed their view of the world.

Evolution and Use of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

© O. Robert

Initially, formats were often bulky and impractical, requiring meticulous attention and a deep commitment to the art of photography. The introduction of the 35mm format revolutionized the field, offering flexibility and freedom previously unimaginable.

This evolution of formats has not only expanded creative possibilities but also influenced the public's perception and reception of photographic work. As we journey through time, we discover how each format change has helped shape our artistic approach, inviting us to see the world from new perspectives and with renewed sensitivity.


Like many of you, I have often pondered the image ratios in photography and their impact on the final result. Not just in black and white, of course. But, from my perspective, it is undoubtedly in monochrome that the relevance of ratios most impacts image narration.

I have always been a proponent of the square 6:6 format since my early days for obvious reasons related to the film and medium format cameras I had the pleasure of using with my family. However, a few other rectangular ratios have gradually piqued my curiosity over time for their dynamics and the broader field of expression they offered me.

Thus, the 6:7 format was added to the perpetual square, allowing me to reconsider my framing in landscape photography. Later, switching to digital medium format also allowed me to rediscover the expressive power of the 4:3 ratio with the excellent Pentax 645Z. To this day, 4:3 remains my favorite ratio after 6:6 and 6:7.

The illustration below demonstrates the impact of the ratio on the interpretation of the photograph.

Evolution and Use of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

Although I am a fan of the Leica brand with which I also work, I must admit that the 3:2 ratio has always been problematic for me. Naturally, this ratio is more elongated than 4:3, but not enough to be useful for panorama in landscape photography. Hence, I have never felt as "comfortable" with 3:2 as with 4:3.

And it's not for lack of trying multiple times to explore my favorite landscapes in the legendary 24x36 format. But something disturbs me when it comes to expressing myself in a more elongated ratio such as 3:2. In short, all these are personal considerations from my photographic approach and research. Everyone should form their own opinion on this aspect.

So, I wanted to write this article on photographic formats and image ratios to explore the possibilities available to landscape photographers and learn more about their evolution. And as always, I share here with you the results of my research and years of practice in analog and digital black and white.

Below, you will find a summary of the different image production processes that have led to the formats and ratios we know today. I then discuss formats specific to black and white. And I conclude with medium format and the 120 film that has equipped many professional photographers for decades.


Contents of the Article:

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The Different Processes in Photography

The image production processes in the history of photography have evolved over time, reflecting technological advances and aesthetic preferences. They have set the standards we know today in terms of formats and image ratios.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the evolution of the main processes, formats, and films over time:

1. Daguerreotypes (1839): Invented by Louis Daguerre, in collaboration with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. The daguerreotype is the first commercialized photography process, producing a unique image on a polished silver plate. Niépce is often credited with creating the first permanent photograph in the 1820s, but it was Daguerre who developed and commercialized the process that bears his name, thus making it widely accessible and popular around the world.

2. Calotypes or Talbotypes (1840s): The calotype process, also known as the talbotype, was invented by William Henry Fox Talbot. As an English scientist, inventor, and photography pioneer, Talbot developed the calotype as an alternative to the daguerreotype.

The calotype process was one of the first to use a negative from which multiple positive prints could be made. This was a significant advancement in the field of photography, as it allowed for reproductions of the image, unlike the unique images produced by the daguerreotype process. Talbot patented his process in 1841, marking a crucial step in the evolution of photographic technology.

Evolution and Use of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

3. Ambrotypes (1850s): The ambrotype was invented by Frederick Scott Archer. It is a variant of the wet collodion process, giving a unique positive image on a glass plate. Archer, an English sculptor and photographer, developed this method as an improvement over the earlier daguerreotype process.

Ambrotypes used a glass plate coated with a silver halide collodion emulsion, which produced a negative image. However, when placed against a dark background, the negative appeared as a positive. This process was cheaper and faster than daguerreotypes, making photography more accessible to the public. Archer did not patent his invention, allowing it to become widely adopted without restriction.

4. Ferrotypes or Tintypes (1850s): The ferrotype, also known as the tintype, was invented by Adolphe Alexandre Martin in 1853. This photographic process involved creating a direct positive image on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer or enamel. It was a variation of the earlier ambrotype, but instead of using glass, the ferrotype used a metal plate, making the photographs more durable and cheaper to produce.

This affordability and robustness made ferrotypes especially popular in the United States during the 19th century, notably among itinerant photographers and at fairs, as they could be produced quickly and given to the customer on the spot.

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5. Wet plate collodion (1850s - 1880s): The wet plate collodion process was also invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. This photographic technique involved coating a glass plate with collodion, sensitizing it in a bath of silver nitrate, and then exposing it while still wet. It is  closely related to the ambrotype but not exactly the same.

The wet plate collodion method significantly improved the detail and clarity of photographic images and was widely adopted for several decades. Despite its advantages, the process required photographers to prepare and develop the plates quickly before the collodion dried, which made it challenging to use outside of a studio setting without portable darkroom equipment.

6. Gelatin silver bromide (1870s): The gelatin silver bromide process, which became the dominant photographic process of the 20th century, was developed through contributions from several inventors and scientists. However, the key development of using gelatin as a binder for light-sensitive silver salts is most closely associated with Dr. Richard Leach Maddox. In 1871, Maddox proposed using gelatin instead of collodion to bind silver bromide grains onto a glass plate, creating a dry plate that was more convenient than the wet plates used in the collodion process.

This innovation significantly advanced photographic technology, leading to the development of the dry plate and eventually to the creation of film. The gelatin silver process offered numerous advantages, including greater sensitivity to light, the ability to be stored before use, and a more straightforward development process. Over time, improvements by others, including Charles Harper Bennett who, in the 1878, significantly increased the sensitivity of gelatin dry plates, made the gelatin silver bromide process the foundation for both black and white film and paper prints up until the digital era.

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7. Modern films (late 19th century to today):

120/220 (Medium format): The 120/220 film format, which became a foundation for medium format photography, was introduced by Kodak in 1901. This film format was designed for their Brownie No. 2 camera, marking a significant advancement in making photography more accessible to the general public. The 220 film, which is essentially the same as 120 but with double the length to allow for twice as many photographs without increasing the size of the film spool, was introduced later.

645 film: The 645 film is actually a part of the standard 120/220 roll film. Cameras designed for the 645 format use this roll film but frame the images to the specific 6 cm by 4.5 cm size, allowing for more frames per roll compared to larger medium format frames. For instance, a standard roll of 120 film can typically yield 16 exposures in the 645 format, compared to 12 exposures for 6x6 format or 10 for 6x7 format.

Several camera manufacturers have been notable for their development and popularization of 645 systems. For example, Mamiya introduced the Mamiya 645 series of cameras in the early 1970s, which became very popular among professional and amateur photographers for their quality, versatility, and relatively compact size compared to other medium format cameras. Other manufacturers, including Pentax and Hasselblad, have also produced cameras that use the 645 film format.

135 (35mm film): The 35mm film format, widely used in both photography and motion picture, was initially invented by Oskar Barnack of Leica Camera AG in the early 20th century. Barnack, seeking to create a small, portable camera that could use a film size already available due to its use in motion picture cameras, adapted the 35mm motion picture film for still photography. This innovation led to the development of the Leica I, the first 35mm camera, introduced in 1925.

Evolution of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

126 film: The 126 film formats was introduced by Kodak. The 126 film format was introduced in 1963 with the Kodak Instamatic camera line. It utilized a cartridge system that made loading film much easier and more foolproof, aiming to eliminate the common problems associated with threading film onto a spool. The 126 film cartridges produced square images and were instrumental in popularizing snapshot photography.

110 film: The 110 film format was later introduced in 1972 by Kodak as well, further miniaturizing the cartridge film concept for even smaller cameras. The 110 cartridges were compact, making the cameras that used them very portable and easy to use. This format produced smaller, rectangular images and was marketed towards casual photographers and those looking for a convenient, point-and-shoot experience.

8. Polaroid or instant photography (1948): The Polaroid film, known for its instant photography capabilities, was invented by Edwin Land. He unveiled the first commercially viable instant film and camera system. This innovation allowed photographers to take a photo and see the developed picture in just a few minutes, revolutionizing the way people approached photography.

Land's invention led to the creation of the Polaroid Corporation, which became synonymous with instant photography. The development of Polaroid film made photography more immediate and accessible, allowing for instant visual feedback and eliminating the need for a separate film development process.

9. Digital formats (late 20th century to today): With the advent of digital photography, images are now often captured in formats such as JPEG, RAW, TIFF, etc., and stored on digital media. They no longer correspond to the standard image formats mentioned above as the photographer can now freely choose the final format of their photography based on their composition and narration.

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The Different Image Ratios

Just like the supports and films mentioned above, the image ratios in photography have varied over the ages depending on the film or sensor format. Here is a list of the most common ratios for large formats, medium formats, and small formats, with their corresponding film types and approximate dates of appearance:

1. Large format

8:10 (8x10 inches): A classic large format, often used for its high resolution and exceptional image quality. 8x10 inch films are still used for art and commercial photography but are very complex to produce and therefore not very profitable. This ratio was introduced in the 19th century with the first photographic chambers.

2. Medium formats

6:6 (6x6 cm): Used in cameras like Hasselblad, this square format is appreciated for its versatility and aesthetics. 120 films are typically used for this format. This ratio was popularized in the mid-20th century.

Evolution and Use of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

6:6 ratio © O. Robert

6:7 (6x7 cm): Offering a slightly larger ratio than the square format, 6x7 cm is favored for its close resemblance to the 8x10 inch format, but in a more compact form. This ratio is produced from 120 films and was popularized in the 1950s to 1960s.

Evolution and Use of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

6:7 ratio © O. Robert

6:9 (6x9 cm): This wide format is often used for landscape and offers a ratio similar to 3:2. It is also used with 120 films.

Evolution and Use of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

6:9 ratio © O. Robert

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3. Small formats

4:3: Popular in digital cameras and some film types, this format is closer to the square format than 3:2. It was mainly popularized with digital photography and 44x33 mm medium format sensors with a 6x4.5 aspect ratio (Hasselblad, Pentax, Fujifilm,...).

Evolution and Use of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

Ratio 4:3 (From Pentax 645Z) - Fine Art Print © O. Robert

3:2 (36x24 mm): Obviously, this is the standard ratio for 35mm film. Popular since the introduction of 35mm film by Leica in 1925, this format has become a standard for amateur and professional photography. It now equips most digital cameras known as "full frame".

Evolution and Use of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

Proportion of a 3:2 ratio in a 4:3 image. Fine Art Print © O. Robert

Each ratio has its advantages and is chosen by photographers based on their style and the requirements of their projects. Larger formats generally offer better resolution and finer details, while smaller formats are appreciated for their portability and versatility. They are more appreciated in reportage photography.

Formats Specific to Black and White

These evolutions are not just technical but also philosophical. They have often questioned our relationship with the world, the moment, and eternity. The artist's choice of format becomes a reflection on the very essence of photography: a tension between capturing the ephemeral and creating a timeless work.

In black and white, this dynamic is even more accentuated, with formats deeply influencing how nuances, textures, and contrasts are perceived and expressed. Thus, monochrome photography has used a variety of formats throughout its evolution.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the main supports and films used in black and white and their specificities (see above for more details about their history):

1. Daguerreotypes (1839): The first commercial photographic process, using unique, non-reusable silver plates.

2. Calotypes or Talbotypes (1840s): The first paper negatives, allowing multiple positive prints.

3. Wet plate glass collodion (1850s - 1880s): Requiring rapid development after exposure, they were used for negatives.

4. Dry glass plates (late 1870s): More practical than wet collodion, these plates could be stored before use.

5. Roll film (from 1888): Invented by George Eastman and popularized by Kodak, roll film gradually replaced glass plates.

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6. 35mm film (from the 1920s): Introduced by Leica, this format became standard for amateur and professional photography.

7. 120/220 film (1901): Larger than 35mm, used for better image quality, especially in portrait and landscape photography.

8. 110 film (1972): A smaller format than 35mm, popular for pocket cameras.

9. 126 film (1963): A format produced by Kodak (Instamatic) for amateur cameras, easy to load.

10. 127 film (1912): An intermediate format between 35mm and 120, used in some pocket cameras.

11. Large format film (4x5, 5x7, 8x10 inches, etc.): Used for very high-quality images, mainly in studio or landscape photography.

12. Specialized formats: Other formats like 620 (introduced in 1931) or APS film (Advanced Photo System, introduced in 1996) were used but were less widespread.

With the advent of digital photography, the use of analog films has decreased, but it remains popular among enthusiasts and professionals for its aesthetic qualities and manual process. The most commonly used formats today in black and white photography are 35mm and medium format (120), as well as large formats for specific works.

Evolution and Use of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

Medium Format and 120 Film

The 120 film, often called medium format, has a rich history dating back to the early 20th century. Here is an overview of its development and use.

1. Introduction (1901): The 120 film was introduced by Kodak in 1901 for their Brownie No. 2 camera. It was designed to be easier to use and more accessible than the glass plates (then in use), which helped democratize photography.

2. Characteristics: The 120 film is a non-perforated roll film, about 60 mm wide. It is wound around a cardboard or plastic core. It allows for larger negative sizes than 35mm, offering better image quality, higher resolution, and less grain.

3. Various frame formats: The 120 film can be used for different frame formats, including 6x4.5 cm, 6x6 cm, 6x7 cm, 6x8 cm, 6x9 cm, and sometimes even 6x12 cm or 6x17 cm for special panoramic cameras. This offers great flexibility to photographers in terms of composition and image aspect.

4. Popularity among professionals: Due to its high image quality, the 120 film has been widely adopted by professional photographers, especially in the fields of portrait, fashion, landscape, and commercial photography.

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5. Cameras: Many camera manufacturers like Hasselblad, Mamiya, Pentax, Rollei, and Bronica, have produced high-quality medium format cameras using 120 film. These cameras are often considered precision tools and are appreciated for their durability and functionality.

6. Evolution and survival: With the advent of digital photography, the use of 120 film has declined, but it has not disappeared. It remains popular among traditional analog photography enthusiasts. Many photographers nostalgic for the unique aesthetic of 120 film still use it for specific applications.

7. Analog photography revival: Since the 2010s, there has been a resurgence of interest in analog photography, including medium formats like 120 film. New versions of films are being produced, and a new generation of photographers is rediscovering the unique character and image quality offered by this format.

Therefore, the 120 film is an important element of photography history and remains appreciated for its quality and versatility. Its ability to capture fine details and produce large images gives it a special place among photographers looking for these qualities.

Evolution and Use of Image Formats in Black and White Photography

The Final Words

The evolution of image ratios in photography, especially in the realm of black and white, reflects a ceaseless quest for aesthetics and expression. Through these technical choices, a philosophy of photography emerges: a search for harmony between the subject, its representation, and the viewer's gaze.

The history of photography is marked by the evolution of its formats, from glass plates to roll films. These transformations reflect the quest for adaptability and innovation by artists. Small formats, like 35mm, have democratized photography, offering unmatched portability and spontaneity. They have invited a new way of seeing, quick and fleeting, contrasting with the contemplation demanded by large formats.

The 120 format, with its flexibility and superior quality, offers photographers a fertile ground to explore depth, texture, and subtle nuances characteristic of this medium. This format, favoring various ratios like 6x6, 6x7, or even 6x9, allows reflection on how we frame and interpret the world.

Through their richness and ability to capture timelessness, these different formats have often encouraged an introspective approach, inviting deeper contemplation of our environment and our emotions. They have, at all times, highlighted the importance of reflection behind each shot, affirming that photography, beyond technique, remains an art form in its own right.


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