As my first post here on Photography Life, I thought I would write a bit about why I shoot film as a wedding photographer. I started my career in photography in 2008 as a digital shooter. Since it was the digital age, it didn’t even cross my mind to shoot film. I had some preconceived notions about it — at the time I thought film was old, outdated, and produced inferior images compared with digital. But the more I learned about film, the more I realized I needed to take a second look.
(All images in this post are taken by me shot on a Contax 645 with a Zeiss 80 2.0 lens with Fuji 400H film)
My First Experience with Film
My first hands-on experience with film as a professional photographer was with James Christianson. I had hired him to photograph anniversary photos for my husband and I in 2010. He told me he was switching to film and that the session would be all film. I was curious and thought that was a great idea. And while I LOVED the finished product (see a few here on James’ blog) … getting there was a bit rough. I knew that each image taken on a medium format film camera cost approximate $1-$2. So every time he clicked the shutter, I was cringing knowing how much money was being spent. I was so accustomed to digital and not paying per frame.
At the end of our shoot, James had me shoot a roll on my own. It was such a crazy experience and I kept checking the back of the camera because I was so used to digital. My images were terrible. James took his rolls to his pro lab, and I sent my one test roll to a 1 hour local lab. My scans were terrible, full of dust, underexposed, and out of focus. At the time I said I would never shoot film.
However, as time went on, I could not deny that so many of my favorite images from other photographers were taken on film. I had noticed the work of Jose Villa and Elizabeth Messina and started to see the potential of what film really CAN do. I got curious.
I pondered which camera to buy. Should I go 35 mm and use the Canon lenses I already own? (no, I realized I liked medium format the best for film work). What about a Hasselblad? (no, I had heard it can be a bit tricky to use, but I still DO want to test one out!). I also considered a Mamiya RZ 67, but it is a beast and VERY heavy.
I decided on the Contax 645 and a Zeiss 80 2.0 lens – everyone I knew shooting film raved about it, the colors, the lens, and the ease of use. It became the obvious choice.
Becoming a Film Shooter
My first few rolls on the Contax were terrible as well. It’s not just about finding the right light, setting the right exposure, and composing the right shot. Another very important component for shooting film is your lab. You can do everything right on your end, but still get awful images if you are working with the wrong lab. I have tried quite a few labs until deciding to go with Photo Impact Imaging in Hollywood, CA.
Fast forward to today and I am utterly head over heels in love with the process of shooting film. I love not being able to see the photo when I take it. This makes me more aware. I like that it actually costs money to shoot film (well I do wish it costs less). Each and every frame I shoot, I strive to make it even better than the last because each frame has a literal price. With digital it becomes too easy to overshoot and not look for the best shots. And I love that it takes time to get my film back—because it feels like Christmas morning every time I get that email saying I have scans waiting to be viewed. It’s nice to have that separation from taking the photo and viewing the photo.
I love the colors that I get with film. With the right lab (thanks Photo Impact Imaging) I barely have to do any adjustments to my film— they arrive in my inbox ready to be posted to my client’s gallery. Film has a wider dynamic range where you do not lose highlights as easily as you do when shooting digitally. I love the grain— there is something so perfect in the little imperfections of film. Film grain is so beautiful to me, and gives a depth and a quality to an image that I do not get with digital. Digital images feel TOO perfect— I prefer a little imperfection from time to time.
My Recommendations for Taking a Good Film Image
- Buy a light meter. I use the Sekonic 558.
- Know your film stocks. Some films look best when overexposed 1-2 stops (Fuji 400H). Some films are best shot by spot metering (many black and white films like Tri-X). And some are best shot right around box speed or just a tiny bit overexposed (Kodak Portra 800).
- How will you know? By trial and error. And these are not hard and fast rules. They are just how I like to expose my film. I know other photographers that prefer a slightly underexposed look and shoot their film accordingly.
- Look at your negatives. A good lab can fix many mistakes! But looking at your negatives will tell you how you are doing with exposures. A dense (thick) negative means that if you hold it up to light, there are few areas that are clear, which means it would print lighter. A thin negative means that there are many sections that are very light, which means that it will print darker.
While I love film for its color, dynamic range, grain and what it can do with natural light, there is still a time and place for digital. There are times when I prefer my digital files (especially in low light situations). But overall, film has made me more aware, has pushed me creatively, and has given me a new perspective in my life as a wedding photographer. I feel I am a better photographer for incorporating film into my workflow.
Amazing photography no words to describe your passion and your talent. Nice photo shoot. Cute Couples all are looking gorgeous. Congratulation all of them for their new life.
Interestingly enough, I have had a few brides insist on film only. And a couple wanted B/W film only :-)
I still shoot film exclusively for my personal and professional work.
Interesting. I also shoot film, I understand exactly what you mean about the Christmas like experience, I wrote something similar the other day. Sometimes its a pair of tacky socks when you see that picture you though was going to be perfect, other times its the present you were hoping for but didn’t think you would get and its so exciting. I develop and scan my own film though, I’m not sure if I could trust a lab, not knowing all the little mistakes that you can make developing film.
Laura this is very useful, and inspiring- thank you! I shoot weddings part-time and have always used digital. I have some film cameras and am now looking forward to experimenting with some film at my next wedding. If they’re useable then great, if not, well I’ll still have my 5d to work off. Incidentally, I recently had some Mamiya RB67 shots back and the quality wasn’t good- I might try a different process shop as it’s not stuff that’s down to me alone (really grainy scans and over-exposed). Thanks again!
Do you shoot slide film? The dynamic range of slide film is sometimes lower than digital.
Nice article and very timely for me. I came to photography later in life. I owned a few film cameras over the years, I just took snapshots and photography wasn’t something that I was serious about. That changed a few years ago and photography has become a full time pursuit for me. I have been fortunate enough to make some progress in what is a very noisy and busy world. Since delving in to this pursuit, I find that I spend the majority of my time studying and trying to learn. Cameras, software, website, business practices, etc. It gets overwhelming at times. I suppose that in any trade one has to pay their dues. For me the post processing is the most distasteful aspect and the area that has been the hardest to learn. A few months ago, I came in to possession of an old view camera that had been in my wife’s family. I carried it to an expert to learn more about it. The first time that I looked through that ground glass I felt that I was being shown a new world. Soon after that, I met someone who had been a successful pro during the film days and who has become a mentor to me. I also had another friend give me a darkroom full of equipment. I honestly have no idea where this is going. My work for pay is all digital and I have to suspect that it will remain that way. What I can say with certainty is that I find the work with film has been much easier and satisfying to learn. It is almost therapeutic after breaking my hands on a computer for hours on end. The first time that I saw a print come to life in the tray was magic for me! So far I haven’t achieved any great results on film, but that doesn’t concern me as I am only getting started at this point. There’s no question in my mind that technically speaking, digital is superior, however when I look at images like the ones above I can easily see that there is far more to great images than accuracy and clarity.
Great article! There’s definitely an intangible quality of MF film that digital can’t replicate. You should submit to Shotkit.com – we need more film shooters!
A very interesting article and supporting comments, it really is a subjective area. I use to be a very keen amateur, but digital has lost my interest more and more. I use to shoot weddings with a Nikon F100 and always had superb results. When digital came along I stepped in with the D200, yes it is great to see immediately the picture you have just taken, but I got so depressed with the inconsistent exposure variations and colour cast, I just did not trust it enough for weddings. As time went by, I was too nervous to spend more money on upgrading it, if the results were going to be similar.
If you use film, you know the quality of the picture is second to none, you think about each shot and you are not using your camera like a machine gun, hoping for 10% being good. If you want to spend hours or days behind the computer playing to get the perfect picture, you can still have your film pictures put on disc.
Maybe I am just old, but I am not always convinced that technology is better, especially with the built in factor of equipment short life cycle and if you are not upgrading your camera equipment you have to upgrade your computer and software. Manufacturers and retailers love digital photographers.
Film will have my vote for many years to come, as long as it is available.
The best references originate from individuals who have utilized the photographic artist. Assuming that you knew about them through companions, they come exceptionally respected. When you discovered them through an inquiry, ask to see example pictures and converse with spouses or others for whom they have worked previously.