As a photographer, I noticed other photographers don’t shoot the same medium as I do. I shoot almost all my jobs with a digital camera and occasionally use film. In an effort to expand my knowledge and horizons in different mediums, I decided to learn about shooting for film and shooting for digital. It has to be a useful tool, right? 

History of Film

Film started way back in the 1800s. Prior to film alternative processes, such as Daguerreotypes, and an old school items like a Camera Obscura were used. But all of these processes only allowed for one shot at a time.

CameraObscura Daguerreotype

In 1881, a farmer in Wisconsin named Peter Houston, invented the first flexible roll film, which is what we still see today. In 1886, he sold the patent outright to Kodak. Snaps for Peter!! As for digital, the first recorded attempt occurred in 1975 by an engineer at Kodak. The camera weighed 8 pounds and took 27 seconds to take a 0.01-megapixel image. From there, multiple cameras were created and the first commercially sold digital camera emerged in 1988. It was a Fuji DS-1P that recorded 16mb of information on an internal memory card. Thankfully today, our cameras have advanced past those tiny cards and images.

A Note About Light Meters

When I started out learning about the different mediums, I decided to use a light meter. I personally use a Sekonic L-758. This way, no matter the medium, the light reading was consistent and could give me an accurate reading all the time. I personally use it frequently when shooting film, but not all photographers need the use of a meter. If you are shooting digital, you can adjust your metering due to the output you see. Others such as landscape photographers or those using a light system, might not need a frequent meter read and can use just a spot meter or one read for their session.

I would suggest that anytime you have a new camera, or if you are just starting out in photography you use a meter. This helps you 1) Know how your camera reacts to light and 2) Teach you about light itself. Since light is the one factor in photographs you can’t always control, it is important to understand what it is doing and how we can manipulate the camera to best capture it.

Since knowing that film requires light and most frequently, more than a straight meter read (even in camera), I stick to overexposing at all times. Film has a great ability to retain details even when moderately overexposed.

Shooting Film

Here is my gear when shooting film

  • Nikon N70
  • Sekonic L758
  • Photoshop

As for what type of film to shoot, that depends on the look you want to achieve. Here are a few of my go to films:

1. Fuji 400H

This film has a cooler base, blue, so your colors will go a bit more cool. I like this film because it can be manipulated easily after development to make it warmer. It also has great saturation of colors. In direct sunlight, over expose this film stock ½ to 1 stop. Backlit situations overexpose 1 to 2 stops, this also applies to open shade. For flat and overcast situations, overexpose at least 3 stops. This film pushes well, and adds excellent contrast and saturation when you do. However don’t push to compensate for underexposure, the colors will go muddy.

Overexposed 1 Stop
Overexposed 1 Stop

2. Kodak Portra 160

This film has a white base. So your images will have a creamy clarity to them. This is excellent to use for portraits or weddings, the color records just as you see it. In direct sunlight, over expose this film stock 1 to 2 stops, backlit 2 to 3 and flat or cloudy at least 3 stops. This film also pushes nicely, but again remember to expose for where you want it to end up.

Overexposed 2 Stops
Overexposed 2 Stops

3. Kodak Portra 400

This film has a yellow base. So your images will go warmer. This film is great at holding contrast and saturation. I use this for portraits, just because of the warmth. This film I treat like Fuji 400H when exposing. Direct sun overexpose ½ to 1 stop, backlit overexpose 1 to 2 stops, and flat/ overcast over expose at least 3 stops.

Overexposed 3 Stops
Overexposed 3 Stops

When you send your film to the lab, they will process it for the ISO stock unless you inform them otherwise. So, if I shot Fuji 400H, they will treat it like 400 ISO. If you exposed your film to be pushed (for the added contrast and saturation), then make sure you tell them you want your film pushed. If I shot Fuji 400H, but metered it as 1600 ISO I would tell them to push it 2 stops. Most labs will push up to 4 stops.

Overexpose 4 Stops
Overexpose 4 Stops

Metering For Film

The first thing I do when shooting film is meter. When shooting for film I use my incident meter, since I don’t want a specific point of light to be read, I want an overall light read. I meter as follows: I put my bulb in on my incident meter, and point it at a 45-degree angle towards where I will be standing. By putting the incident meter bulb in, I gain a ½ a stop. By pointing it a 45-degree angle, I gain another ½ stop. So I gained a stop already. 

IncidentMeter

Depending on your lighting situation you might want to add additional light on top of that read, keep in mind that film loves light, especially when using lower than 800 speed, in which the film isn’t as sensitive. When you shoot for film, keep in mind that you are shooting for shadows and developing for your highlights. Film works backwards from digital and does great at maintaining details in highlights, hence the reason why you can overexpose or push in development.

Shooting Digital

Here is the gear I use for digital shooting

Knowing that digital works backwards from film, I knew that I had to watch my highlights especially close. Now since you do get instant feedback, you don’t have to use a meter. I often times will take one read just to see if my camera and meter are in sync, since each camera reacts differently. Here when I meter, I make sure that my highlights aren’t blown, because once they are gone, there is no getting them back. 

I personally always overexpose so I know that I got the greatest amount of detail and most correctly lit image. I usually use the following guidelines 1-2 stops over in sunny situations, 2-3 for cloudy or overcast situations and 3-4 for dark situations (like dusk or indoors). Now, this might not apply to you if you are looking for a moody image or if your camera does react differently. But a correctly lit image is always the way to go and will make post-production much easier.

Digital Example

Conclusion

A quick recap:

Shooting Film

  • Overexpose, Film is light needy
  • Shoot for correctly exposed shadows and develop for highlights
  • Retains detail even when overexposed

Shooting Digital

  • Overexpose, but only slightly
  • Shoot for correctly exposed highlights and develop shadows in post production
  • Highlights can’t be saved if blown out

Overall I would say learning about both the medium I use regularly and a new medium, film, that I gained new skills and knowledge. I learned more about what film can and can’t do, a better understanding of how film reacts to light, and how to use my digital camera to gain a better looking image. No matter what medium you choose, film vs. digital, make sure you are shooting for the best lit image and most of all have fun doing it!

Happy Shooting!