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Insights & Thoughts

Shooting Film vs. Shooting Digital – Shooting For Your Medium

By Teagan Alex on August 13th 2014

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!

About

Teagan Alex is an Event and Fine Art Photographer based in Salt Lake City Utah. She believes that all people are inherently beautiful, and loves to capture the details of the world around her.

She received her BFA degree from UVU in photography and since has been published in books and magazines, multiple gallery shows, and won best in show for her work. Visit her website at teaganalex.com and connect with her via Facebookor Instagram.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    Thanks for the article Teagan. I do not make my living through photography; I’ve enjoyed photography as a personal endeavor from the film days.

    I do want to purchase a light meter; but since I don’t have one, I rely on in-camera metering. For my film cameras, my 34 year old Canon A-1 uses center-weighted averaging and I’ve experimented with backlit situations without success, having to rely on Lightroom to recover the photo.. In 2013, I bought a used Canon F-1N with center-weighted, and bought partial, and spot metering screens; I will try the spot metering screen for the event where I know I’ll have back lighting. I Just recently bought a DSLR in December 2013, so I am new to the DSLR world; but I am treating the Canon 5D Mk III like a “film camera” by setting the White Balance to what film I would use for the conditions. Outdoors would be set to Daylight; cloudy or overcast, it’s set to daylight. This is an experiment that I can afford to do with digital.

    Negative print film has a wide range of latitude. If shooting sunrises or sunsets, I’ll underexpose by -2/3; I’ve accidentally overexposed ISO 400 B&W film with I forgot to set the ISO after unloading ISO 100 film The photos were a bit blown, but recoverable with Lightroom.

    Ektar 100. I like this color negative film. This is great for landscapes and for daylight photography. I used it for the final Space Shuttle launch (daylight launch, but conditions were cloudy, -2/3 stops). I plan on using it for a practice round next year at Augusta National Golf Club for The Masters.

    Portra 400 is my general purpose “Go To” film for color.

    You didn’t mention B&W. For the year 2012, I shot the entire year in B&W. It was a year of experimentation for me using different B&W contrast filters. It was probably March before I started to visualize in B&W, but it was a year of growth for me.
    I prefer to use C-41 B&W film since I can get it developed locally instead of sending it out of state. Kodak BW400CN has a sepia tone and Ilford XP2 has a cyan tone, both of which need to be adjusted in Lightroom to resemble traditional B&W.

    Traditional B&W: I like Tri-X and the TMAX films; each have their own merits.

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  2. Rafael Steffen

    Thanks for sharing this amazing experience on shooting different mediums. I recently tooked a trip where I was able to overexpose my pictures more and ended up getting more detailed and lesse pos-production in lightroom. Thanks for the tips.

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  3. oscar campos

    great post! I recently started shooting film again and I really enjoy it. Switching films in analogue photography is much akin to switching sensors/camera brands but costs a lot less! Yes processing film can be relatively expensive (specially if you push/pull film), but there’s something to holding a negative, scanning it, and printing that is hard to match with digital products.

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  4. Jonathan Heckel

    I must confess that I’m slightly confused…I’m shooting film for 4 months now and until now thought about a light meter. I just exposed as my Canon AE-1 Program told me and the pictures turned out just fine. But I don’t know how to expose for specific parts of the image and know that it’s exposed the way I want to. Can anyone recommend a video or book that could help me so I’m not always wondering if the exposure was correct or take multiple exposures just to have a correct one? I just want to shoot knowing that I got my shots the way I wanted to.

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    • Stan Rogers

      Well, the *way* to meter hasn’t changed, so you can use the relative cheapness of digital to help you learn. (Trust me, it beats the heck out of “chimping” either by burning through box after box of really expensive Polaroids or running to the one-hour photo minilab a couple of times a day as your wallet gets lighter and lighter.) And there are at least eleventy-seven different ways to meter that are all good and reliable; what matters is that you pick one or two methods and be consistent in the way you use them — otherwise your meter will lie to you. Well, not *lie* as such, but it will give you different information than you think you’re getting. Teagan’s film ratings (the ISO she chooses to use, which is not always — or even usually — the ISO on the box) and push/pull/normal processing decisions are based on her metering method and the results she wants to achieve.

      Your camera does not have a great meter built in; it’s a centre-weighted average meter, which will generally give you a usable negative, but it doesn’t give you a whole lot of options for critical metering, and fails hard when the scene doesn’t fall into the usual “snapshot” range of tones. (Really dramatic light? Fahggedabowdit.) You can get close to your subject and use a grey card to meter (with the grey card oriented in the same direction as your subject’s critical plane), or you can use something like the Expodisc to turn your camera into an incident light meter from the subject’s position (pointing it either at the light source, back to your desired camera position, or somewhere in between — *as long as you are consistent*). Or you can use an external meter.

      The best go-to reference will probably always be Ansel Adams’ book The Negative. You’re probably not going to become a hard-core Zone System practitioner. That’s okay. Understanding tone placement is what’s important. And metering and tone placement will depend on how you rate and process your film. (Sorry, but that’s largely a matter of experimenting, so it’s going to mean a little more money than you were hoping. But it will be *real* experimenting, not willy-nilly random stuff, so you will quickly home in on something you can rely on. And remember that you’re not shooting sheet film, so you’re after “good enough to work with under many conditions”, not individual perfect negatives.)

      It all sounds complicated, but it’s really not. You’ll develop an intuition around it quite quickly. And remember that film has latitude (when you’re not shooting slides), so being off a half-stop doesn’t mean much. Oh — and do keep in mind that the prints/scans that you get back with your original development (especially if you’re not using a pro lab) also have autoexposure applied to them, so they might not be quite what you want.

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  5. Ricardo Dionísio

    I would love to shoot film again but the price of film, developing and all the work prior that it’s a big barrier! Anyways, good post!

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