PetaPixel

Film Photography Technique Tips for the Digital Photographer

filmphotog1

Film photography is similar in many ways to digital photography, and most of your standard digital photography techniques apply to film too. You just have to understand the peculiarities of film and its limitations and you’re good to go.

That will be explained in detail in this article, which presumes readers are already reasonably proficient at digital photography and are embarking upon film photography for the first time.

The main difference between actually using film versus digital cameras is a matter of getting the exposure right and this will be the primary focus of this article. I will also briefly talk about developing, printing and scanning.

Film Speed

The sensitivity of a film is referred to as film speed. A slow film is one that’s less sensitive and a fast film is one that’s more sensitive.

Film speed is measured in ASA. Functionally, it’s the same as ISO on a digital camera. You won’t often be faced with any other measurement of film speed, but the most common alternative is DIN standard 4512. This is an old system and the only time you’ll have to use it is if you’re using a very old camera.

Often the film box will state the DIN number alongside the ASA rating. Just in case, here is a handy table:

DIN-Table

Essentially, all you need to remember is 100 ASA (ISO) is 21 DIN and each additional 1° of DIN represents a third of a stop of exposure sensitivity.

Shooting in Low Light

I will be pilloried for saying so, but I just don’t recommend shooting in low light with film. There is film that can be shot at up to 6400 ASA, but I find the grain, contrast and lack of shadow detail not worth the exercise.

The main reason fast lenses were so popular before digital was due to the relatively slow films available at the time. As films got faster, wide aperture lenses became less common.

One further complexity is that at long exposures, film suffers what is called reciprocity failure. That’s when the film performs at below its rated ASA during long exposures. How much exposure you’d need to add depends on each film. If you are determined to do bulb exposures, look up how to calculate it in the film manufacturer’s specifications.

lowlight

I don’t enjoy doing long exposures on film. It’s possible, but it’s much easier to get it right by trial-and-error using a digital camera. As a general rule, if the light level, film speed and maximum practical aperture demands a shutter speed that would result in camera shake or subject motion blur, then I just put the film camera away and go to digital, or find a way to better light my subject.

The flip side to film being slower than digital is you can get really slow film. This makes it possible to take wide aperture photographs in broad daylight with a hint of motion blur. By over-exposing, you can get far more than a hint of motion blur. Do this with a digital camera with a base ISO of 100 to 400 at midday and even shooting in RAW won’t save you.

In fact, try it; take a narrow depth of field shot on medium format with midday shadows and motion blur. That would say ‘film’ in a way that would be extremely difficult to reproduce with digital.

Flash

The traditional solution to photography in light too low to shoot with a wide aperture alone is to use flash. Done with skill, this can work out very well. To my eye, on-camera flash comes out better than with digital flash photography. I do like the look of on camera flash and black and white film. Certainly, it comes out better than an underexposed image.

Artificial Lighting

artificial

Film has a fixed white balance. Most colour film is daylight balanced. Shooting under tungsten or fluorescent light adds further complexity. Whereas electronic flash has a colour temperature close enough to daylight, tungsten and fluorescent light are of a different colour temperature and nature. In the old days, you’d buy tungsten film, but today the vast majority of film is daylight balanced.

Colour temperature is traditionally corrected with optical filters. For example an 80A filter will cool Tungsten light to approximate daylight. This comes at the penalty of two stops of light cut by the filter. Another more modern approach is to fix it in digital post processing and you may lose only a little bit depth.

If you are using flash or strobes with tungsten balanced film, you should employ a CTO (orange) gel over the light source to bring the colour temperature back to the equivalent of tungsten, just as you would with a digital camera. In a situation of changing or tricky cross-lit white balance, I will usually choose monochrome film instead of colour. It’s a lazy cop-out, but remains sensible advice.

Fluorescent tubes and LEDs not only have a strange colour temperature, but flicker too. The solution is to make an exposure of 1/60s or longer to avoid uneven lighting. This fix applies to digital photography as well.

As for the colour temperature, I would simply guess whether it is closer to daylight or tungsten and use the appropriate film. If in doubt choose daylight film, because a little amber colour in the light gives the scene a little warmth and atmosphere.

Setting Film Sensitivity

asa

Older film cameras that have a meter required you to set the film speed manually through a dial, whereas most modern film cameras can take care of setting the film speed for you. Not to be confused with Nikon’s designation for crop-frame sensors, DX is a system by which electrical contacts in the camera body pick up a reading from the film canister. The film has a DX pattern on it (not all do) set the camera film speed to DX. If not, set the film speed manually.

Note that if the canister does not have DX contacts, most DX cameras default to 100ASA. If your film is other than 100ASA and lacks a correct DX code, for example, it’s some funky small production film, or bulk-loaded from a 100 foot roll, first consider whether this will be a problem with your camera. There are some interesting workarounds available for this situation. When I bulk-load film, I often recycle used 135 film cans with a correct DX code for the film that I intend to load.

Also, some modern consumer-grade cameras don’t have the facility to override DX. If so, you might be able to get round this with exposure compensation, if available. Sometimes, I want to use film rated at 1600 ASA, but the camera’s meter doesn’t go that high.

If all else fails, just shoot away and treat the film as if it were rated at whatever the camera thinks it is rated at. This will under- or over-expose the film and tell the lab that you shot it at 100ASA. I’ll tell you about re-rating film next.

Pushing and Pulling Film

Many people don’t know that you can adjust the film speed in development. What you do is shoot the film at up to three stops over (two is better) and clearly label the can. It’s not common in high-street stores, so it helps to make good eye contact with the lab-technician and say clearly “Please push two stops” and wait for him to mumble an acknowledgement and write the instruction on the order slip. Otherwise he might well forget and then you’ll have to rely on latitude and that’s usually only good for one stop of under-exposure. BTW, I wouldn’t bother pushing one stop; it’s usually not necessary.

Pushing is relatively easy; they just stop the machine and let it develop longer. Pulling is hard to do in a commercial processing machine, but straightforward to do by hand. Note that many labs hand-process black and white film, so you may have more luck asking them to pull it, especially if you go to a good artisan lab. I don’t normally pull film as print film has great over-exposure latitude.

Note that pushing increases grain and contrast and loses some shadow detail. Pulling reduces grain and loses some highlight detail. If I want more grain, I’ll push it. I find it more effective and reliable than altering the developer chemistry. Cropping also enlarges grain, but you lose some sharpness and contrast and shadow detail are not affected.

Latitude

Print film has tremendous latitude compared to digital sensors. Films vary, but you can shoot most print films at between +3 and -1 stops of exposure. The precise latitude can be found on a technical data sheet, or if you know how to do it, you can read it by looking at the DX code on the can. I will teach you how to do this, because unlike film speed, latitude is very rarely written on the can.

This is a bit silly, as I can’t recall seeing a camera that could read the second row of contacts, not even Fujifilm Natura cameras that rely heavily on latitude in their exposure programs. It’s especially silly, because it is humans metering by eye that would benefit more from using latitude than automatic cameras would anyway.

latit

In the picture above, the two red highlighted contacts reads +1/-1 stops of latitude. The blue highlighted contacts read +half/-half and the green contacts read +3/-1. You can confirm this from the table below.

DX-Table

In practice, having lots of exposure latitude means you don’t need to be spot on with your exposure. As you over-expose, you will lose highlight detail. Conversely, as you under-expose, you may start to lose shadow detail. It’s best to get it right, but when I am working with high-latitude print film in a meterless camera, I tend to err on the side of over-exposure and give an extra stop of exposure for good measure. This is Old timers would say “Expose for the shadows”.

In fact, you are supposed to be using something called “The Zone System” to balance shadows and highlights. Read up on it if you want to learn more. As a general rule of thumb, if the scene has a high dynamic range and your key subject is not the brightest part of the image, then expose to keep shadow detail. Let the emulsion’s greater over-exposure latitude handle the tricky highlights. This is the opposite of the way you’d do it with a digital camera, where you might try to avoid blowing out the highlights. Try it and once you have the hang of it, it will make a lot of sense.

Latitude relates to the flexibility of setting the film’s mid-tone exposure. As a side note, dynamic range describes how many stops of variance the scene can encompass. In this scene below, I exposed for the shadows and relied on film’s wide dynamic range to carry the highlight detail. You can still see details on white shirts in the midday sun.

pic

In the second example below, I had no time to plan my exposure as I was busy dodging a bicycle messenger cycling across the road. As a result, I exposed sloppily without adjusting the centre-weighted meter. The image on the left is as scanned. The one on the right has been adjusted in Photoshop to bring up the shadows. It kind of works, but it’s not as natural looking as a proper exposure would have been.

Wrong-Exposure-1024x784

Slide film, on the other hand, has great dynamic range, but narrow latitude. It has to be shot at precisely the correct exposure, to within less than a stop off. I can’t guesstimate it by eye to my own satisfaction. Most metered cameras can handle it, but the best are the Nikon matrix-metered SLRs.

Where it will bite you in the behind is when you’re using a camera with a dodgy meter or shutter, or a camera designed for mercury batteries but used with alkaline batteries of a different voltage. Unless you can be sure to meter correctly, don’t shoot slide film. Whenever I see the Lomography website, I am astounded at the skill or good fortune of the photographers that post good images shot with slide film and cameras with no exposure control at all. It’s not as easy as Lomography would have you believe.

Using Expired Film

Film is a chemical process. Chemicals degrade with time. Colours can shift, but the biggest effect with expired or poorly stored film is it gets slower. Therefore, I sometimes deliberately over-expose old, expired film.

expired

Slide film is very temperamental and should be stored as cold as possible, slowly brought to ambient temperature, shot before it expires and developed immediately. Print film is much more tolerant and 25 ASA to 400 ASA black and white print film is all but bullet-proof.

Processing Film

Most film emulsions with unusual processing requirements are no more. Kodachrome, for example required a special process that can no longer be found. Today, most labs offer only three processes:

  • C-41 is the colour negative process
  • E-6 is the colour slide process
  • B/W chemicals process monochrome print film

I prefer to develop colour film in a lab. It can be done at home but it’s cheaper, easier and required less kit to get it done commercially, even when pushing. Bear in mind that slide film and black and white film can cost triple to be done in a lab. Black and white print film can be developed by anyone that can follow a cookbook and is cheap to do at home, so I do all mine that way.

The other reason to do your own black and white film is control. Most labs don’t specify which of several available developers and protocols will be used, or how old the chemicals are. This can have a significant effect on the grain, tone curve and quality of the image.

If you’re bored with your photography, colour negative film can be developed in slide chemicals (E-6) and colour slide film can be developed in negative chemicals (C-41). The latter is more common. This messes with the colours to creative effect. You end up with a colour negative with strong hues. I love it, but it’s not for every roll.

developed

Make sure your lab knows you want to do this not all labs will cross process. Whatever you do, don’t get a lab to cross process movie stock in a conventional C-41 or E-6 machine. It will leave a nasty gunk all over the inside of the machine, on the rollers and on other people’s film.

You can even cross process colour film in black and white chemicals. You get a thin but contrasty black and white image with strong grain. This needs to be over-exposed and pushed a stop or two or you will have no mid tone detail and no shadow detail at all.

Black and white film can’t be cross processed in C-41. It just comes out blank, and the lab-tech will laugh at your naivety. Some specialist labs can even reversal process certain black and white negative films with clear film bases, but if you want black and white slides, you’re better off with a film designed for it like Scala or Fomapan R. You can process these as negatives too.

Scanning

Many digital photographers like to scan, being accustomed to editing and storing images on a computer and sharing the results on-line. Whole books can be written on this topic and I will go into greater detail in subsequent article, but for now I will provide a simple summary.

Photo by Bernard Reznicek and used with permission

Photo by Bernard Reznicek and used with permission

Some labs will scan on a drum scanner, especially large format film. I scan mine at home on a flatbed scanner that is designed for film. Other people I know prefer to photograph back-lit negatives with a DSLR and a macro lens. There are pros and cons to each process, but they all get the job done. Just don’t buy one of those little dedicated film scanners with a camera inside. I have tried several and they all gave horrible scans and scratched my film.

Enlarging and Printing

The best way to enjoy your slides is as slides and best way to enjoy your negatives is as prints. When I print, I like to print big. 35mm film can easily be printed to 12″x18″, but finer-grained films are best for this unless you want grain to be a big feature.

Note that I said “feature”; it’s not like ugly chroma and luminance noise. It is a feature; it contributes to the look and feel. It is worth finding a good lab that does optical enlargement. Digital labs are more common, but they will just scan at 1200 to 2400 dpi, then re-sample and print on a digital printer at 300dpi. Optical enlargements get the most out of your film and look much better.

Most digital labs don’t print larger than 12R except by special order, as this is the biggest they can make from a 3:2 format image on a standard roll of printer paper. A good print is a sight to behold.

Conclusions

The use of film has pros and cons over digital. If you understand the differences, you can use it to best advantage. The important thing is to get out and start shooting. You’ll learn from your mistakes and take pride in your triumphs.


About the author: Dan K is a photography enthusiast based in Hong Kong. He’s passionate about collecting film compact cameras. You can find him on Tumblr and on Twitter. This article originally appeared on Japan Camera Hunter.


Image credits: Film Photography by InspireFate Photography, Meadowlark by jdaviddean, Fluorescent by bredgur, Shutter Speed Dial and ASA Selector by Steve Snodgrass, Expired film effect by 96dpi, C-41 by renee.hawk


 
 
  • Elias

    In my opinion, one of the best side-effects of shooting with film only is that it forces you to slow down, and develop at least a basic grasp on proper metering. Instead of 300 so-so pictures, you often end up with 36 good ones. At least that’s what I’ve found for myself. Shooting medium format increases this effect even more. I typically end up with 10-12 fantastic shots when I shoot 6×6 or 6×7 because I’m very judicious about what I choose to use one of those precious frames on. And medium format is simply gorgeous. The tonal range, and DOF effects it’s capable of outshine any digital camera.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    Great article, thankyou.

  • Sam Agnew

    This is a great article. Thank you for writing it! Since this is aimed at the modern digital shooter who is considering trying film, please allow me to allay fears about a few areas you raised as potential pitfalls:

    1. Long exposures. I contend that far from a weakness this is an area where film cameras really have an edge over digital. Hours long exposures are easy and given the latitude of film can be comfortably guessed at. On digital this is usually a chore as sensors heat up, batteries run down and many digital cameras simply won’t let you set extremely long exposures. With film you just lock the cable release and leave it. If I’m especially lazy I’ll just shoot with my Nikon FE which can automatically time extremely long exposures in Aperture priority mode. It’s magic!

    2. Colour balance. I don’t know about you but I scan my film. In fact, so does anyone whose film picture you ever saw on a computer. Once you’ve done that you have a digital file ready for Photoshop (Photoshop was created to work on scanned film images), Lightroom, Snapseed, iPhoto, whatever whatever. Most of these programs make fixing a white balance pretty trivial.

    3. Latitude. With modern film it’s more than you think. I’ve shot ISO 800 negative film at ISO 25 and gotten great results. I’ve just rescued a few shots that were shot on slide film and ended up four stops underexposed. Just remember that with slide film you should err on the side of underexposure and colour negative film is almost impossible to overexpose. A lot of what was previously considered ruinously over or underexposed related to the difficulty of making a print or quick scan from it. With your own decent scanner you will be amazed at what is burried in film that you can’t even see the picture in. http://www.flickr.com/photos/samagnew/9263966586/

    4. Developing at home. It’s easy! It’s one of those things where it sounds a lot harder than it is. And it’s also one of those things that is much easier these days with three bath kits, Paterson tanks and iPad multiple timer apps. I wrote a fairly decent writeup on the process not too long ago. It’s worth learning how to do because it is rewarding and tends to be a lot cheaper too. http://petapixel.com/2013/05/13/how-to-process-c-41-color-negative-film-at-home-from-start-to-finish/

    I remember when I was a digital shooter who was curious but nervous about film. It can be intimidating. But the fear will go if you just dive in. I can’t promise you will love it. But I can just about promise that it is easier than you think it is. And that even if you don’t stick with it the experience will make you a better photographer.

  • Andrew

    I strongly disagree with the author’s assertion that flatbed scanners are superior for scanning negatives (35mm anyway) to “one of those little dedicated film scanners with a camera inside.” A Nikon Coolscan 5000/9000 or even one of the newer Plustek film scanners gives far superior results to any flatbed without any fiddling about with calibrating custom film holders, buying ANR glass, etc. just to make sure that the slide is actually in focus. Unlike with a flatbed scanner, the film doesn’t even have to be made perfectly flat to get a scan that is optimally sharp and in focus from edge to edge. I would only use a flatbed for scanning medium/large format negatives if I did not have access to a lab with a drum scanner.

  • CrackerJacker

    It’s funny, I just went into a darkroom for the first time in over 20 years today to process some B&W film. I had a great time! There’s something about the alchemy of making images appear on these strips of plastic that is still magical.

  • Elias

    Totally agree with #1. I recently guesstimated a star trail exposure on 6×6 negative film and it came out really nicely (below). If you shoot ISO 100, or even 400 on medium format you don’t get much grain at all.

    I’ve also accidentally overexposed negative film by 5-6 stops a few times and still gotten useable images. I’ve never understood people’s fear of slide film. I’ve only missed a handful of shots on E6, and it was always from a dumb mistake like forgetting to adjust my aperture, or not double checking my meter. I use a handheld meter in incident mode, or sometimes spot mode if I’m exposing for highlights, and I always get gorgeous results. My primary complaint about slide film is that it never scans as well as it looks on the light table. It’s absolute magic in a slide viewer.

  • Cam K

    A couple things here are just plain wrong.

    Film is measured in ISO now as well. ASA and DIN are both outdated forms of measuring sensitivity. Go shopping for film on B&H there isn’t a mention of ASA in the place. You’re right about the conversions to DIN and that the ASA scale is functionally the same as the ISO scale, however, you’re presenting as ASA being a film thing and ISO being a digital thing, which is not the case.

    Secondly, the +3/-1 has absolutely nothing to do with exposure latitude. It has everything to do with how much the film can be pushed or pulled. Pushing is over developing a film, and pulling is under developing a film.

    Black and white film has a latitude of about 10 stops depending on how it’s shot and processed, C-41 color negative is a little less at around 8 stops, and slide film is way less at 3-5 stops. Latitude also doesn’t have much do with over or under exposing, your DSLR might have 14 stops of latitude, that doesn’t mean you can underexpose a photo by seven stops and still have it turn out even remotely OK. The DX codes on the film canisters mark the push/pull capability for film processing machines.

    Come on, people. This isn’t flint knapping, it’s film. Film lost popularity in 15 years ago, not a 150 years ago. A lot of us still know this stuff.

  • DamianM

    this is bad. Film is so much like digital?
    Digital wants to be film, not the other way around.

  • http://twitter.com/Theranthrope Theranthrope

    The funny thing is: when I shot film, while shooting a couple of rolls for a project, I’d typically get about 12 keepers.

    Now that I’m learning digital, I shoot hundreds of frames for an equivalent project, and I STILL typically get about 12 keepers.

    I can attribute some of this to being on the learning curve transitioning, where I’m going to get a better “keeper” ratio as I shoot more, but the biggest difference between how I shot film and how I shoot digital is actually cost.

    Even if it isn’t a lot per-frame, each snap of the shutter carries a distinct, quantifiable cost with film; in the price of film, the price of developing film, in procuring space and materials to archive all those negatives or slides; as well as factoring the time and effort spent doing my own B&W negative developing; versus the pennies-per-gigabyte of storing and backing up digital images.

    So with that cost always being a in the back of my mind; I had to put thought into each frame of film that I shot. Conversely, with almost non-existent cost of digital; I have freedom to do more experimentation and bracketing.

  • Happy_Matt

    I learned a lot from both the article and comments – thanks all and happy shooting!

  • Mark Urquhart-Webb

    I love shooting with film but only really want my pictures as digital images. This is a problem as the market place is geared to printing. I have yet to find a website/shop that will take my roll of film, develop it and scan it in high resolution and send me back the negatives and either a DVD or a link to a website where I can download them.
    The places I’ve tried so far end up costing $20 and up for this which makes it wildly uneconomical. Anyone know of one?

  • Marco Santa Cruz

    Although i mostly agree. i think the cost isn’t as quantifiable as you mention (the initial cost of digital, is upwards of ^1000 dollars for a good camera/lens, mostly a very good lens )… We don’t normally factor in the electrical costs of all the things involved with digital, but i believe, if we were to include this, it wouldn’t be so cheap… With film (traditional b/w darkroom) i see the cost is continuous, moreover, it takes TIME (something that varies in importance to each person from ‘i have so much i’m bored’ to ‘time is money’ to ‘priceless’)… Again, what about the time we spend in front of a computer, if we do, editing… whereas in the darkroom, it’s much more physical, and for some reason much more rewarding. Also, have you read any articles mentioning a relation between dim lighting and an increase in creativity?, very interesting.

  • SG

    Just get few ‘darkroom’ essentials and you’re good to go. You can get developing tank (can develop two 35 mm rolls at the same time, and this thing is durable, $27 approx), thermometer (decent one for $7 approx), C-41 chemistry kit (good/reusable for 12-15 rolls of films, $26 approx), glass/plastic bottles to store chemistry ($10 approx), and few other accessories like metal/plastic clips to hang negatives after developing, protective sleeves for negatives, etc.
    It may seem much at the beginning, but it’s a very good investment if you frequently take photos with film camera. Photo labs charge you about $10 for developing/processing alone which you can do for fraction of the cost by yourself….the only thing you need next is scanner if you want the digital copies.

  • scamdex

    I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps that’s a good middle-way. My v600 scanner should be good enough for that.