Shooting Weddings on ISO 3200 Film, Full Manual, and No Flash

Say what you will about wedding photography, but few other gigs will allow you to drink on the job and party with beautiful people without having to even know a single dance move.

My wife and I are freelance wedding photographers. She shoots digital and I shoot on B&W 35mm film. I use vintage, all manual cameras and lenses, and I don’t use flash.

This is a very challenging workflow that I’ve set up for myself, but it’s quite rewarding and fun. In particular, my favorite part of a wedding to photograph is the reception.

What I like about the reception is that I no longer have to run around from location to location, constantly selecting different films and different lenses and, best of all, all the bridal party and guests are familiar with me by the reception. They are usually well buzzed on alcohol or just happiness and allow me to shoot candids without interruption or reservation.

I generally like wedding reception photos more than any other images of the day. They display a genuine joy and excitement that is rare in portraits of any genre. I like how backgrounds are mostly dark instead of light as with outdoor portraits. This really emphasizes the people in the images and just sort of flips convention around.

I enjoy the out of focus elements at wider apertures. And I enjoy big, pronounced film grain of ISO 3200 35mm films and high acutance developers. One can certainly reduce grain by shooting medium format, using flash, or using a developer that tidies up the grain, but I enjoy the textures and de-emphasis of irrelevant details in a scene. Yet grainy B&W also makes out of focus highlights sparkle with energy.

I wanted to share some of my methods and techniques for achieving (what I think are) great wedding reception portraits in this style. It’s not as easy as it may seem and I’m not totally sure I can even articulate what I do exactly but let’s have a look.

My method starts with Kodak T-MAX P3200 or Ilford Delta 3200. For years I just used Delta since P3200 became unavailable. But now that P3200 is back, I can choose which film might be best for a particular situation.

P3200 is a bit more tonal and perhaps not quite as sharp as Delta. I use it when I expect light to be more contrasty. Its tonality helps gather better context around people since greys don’t disappear as fast.

I choose Delta if I’m expecting flatter lighting where I need to help the highlights to pop out of the shadows as much as possible. Both films I process in Kodak HC110b and boost low levels and/or contrast a bit in Photoshop. Yes, I scan my film as a final result.

Next, a good, low-light lens is critical. A common 35mm or 50mm lens with an aperture wider than f/2 is what’s needed for shooting candid portraits in dim light. Any wider, and barrel or perspective distortion is a concern. Any longer, and shutter speed needs to be increased to prevent handheld camera shake. And raising your shutter speed reduces your ability to stop down.

I tend to prefer a 35mm f/1.4 or 50mm f/1.5 to 1.8. I have a Pentax 50mm f/1.2 but not only can focus be tricky to hit, but also the DoF is often too shallow for portraits. As high a resolving lens as possible is also recommended for use with these high-speed films. A softer lens will just turn that big, beautiful grain to mush.

While I adore my 1949 Leitz 50mm f/1.5 Summarit, at full aperture it’s quite soft, so I tend to only use it with higher speed film when I know I can stop to f/2 or so. Something like the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 Nokton is a better choice in my opinion. A Summilux is fantastic but really only if it’s a newer aspherical model.

For Nikon, I use either my 35mm f/1.4 AIS, 50mm f/1.4 SC or 50mm f/1.8 AIS. 35mm lenses are fantastic because you can catch a whole scene while having a fast lens and added DoF compared to a 50. Shooting at 1/30th is fun for adding some motion blur to dance scenes.

But I also like to isolate a single person, for which 50mm is perfect. I haven’t much liked the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AIS at full aperture. It’s as sharp as the earlier SC version with more microcontrast so it appears even sharper. But it just lacks much character to me. The 50mm f/1.8 is a nice compromise between speed and the resolution of an f/2 lens so I often go with it.

But what about the body? A good body can make all the difference in terms of your ability to control what you’re doing and seeing. These Leica lenses on an LTM body with its tiny finder or these Nikon lenses on an F3 with its atrocious meter display would not end well. What defines a good body?

I use and recommend a Nikon F2sb, Nikon FM2n, and Leica M6 TTL .85. What these bodies have in common are bright split screens and bright at-a-glance light meter displays that all measure up to 6400 ISO.

To some degree, the meter doesn’t matter. I find that the vast majority of reception halls can be photographed at 6400 ISO, 1/60th or 1/125th of a second and anywhere from f/1.4 to f/2.8. (And if they can’t, I have the lights adjusted accordingly.) It wouldn’t be impossible to take some measurements around the dance floor and then just rack your aperture and shutter as necessary without metering and get decent results.

When the light is super even, I will just set 1/60s and f/1.4 and just shoot without changing anything. If the light’s a stop or two bright, the latitude of the film will allow me to burn the highlights. Personally, I just like some confirmation while shooting though, even if I only meter a few times. And so a good, accurate, easy-to-read meter is important to me because I don’t want to have to slow down or get distracted by my gear.

More critically perhaps, is the viewfinder. Focusing in 6400 lighting conditions is the most challenging part of my equation. I’d say that focus is the number one problem with my reception photos. Maybe you’re sitting back, looking at my photos and thinking the same thing! The majority of the images that I throw out are either the wrong moment or I completely missed the focus. A bright viewfinder and accurate focus mechanism will not correct every focusing error but it’s a necessary start.

In terms of actually getting shots, I immerse myself in the throng of guests on the dancefloor. I keep an eye on people who are having an awesome time and are hovering in an area where they have some light on them. I really love it when DJ’s bring flashing lights. While they make exposure tricky, they can create engaging spotlight effects that come and go in different places, on different people, which really varies things up.

It sounds dumb but you really have to be careful not to back up into people or bump into them while they’re dancing or walking. It makes you look unprofessional and it’ll ruin your shots by startling you when you’re concentrating. So I do not keep my eye glued to the viewfinder. It’s also good for people to see your face and vice versa, to maintain that social connection. I never tell anyone to look at me and smile, they just do it on their own. And that doesn’t come without work.

I expose for middle tones, if there are any, and faces with a half stop to stop overexposure. Please don’t ask me to explain much more than this though, I’ll be the first to admit that what I do is the opposite of exact science!

When shooting with a rangefinder, I find it necessary to constantly pre-focus. I stand about five feet away from people I want to shoot and set my lens to that, then just make slight corrections one way or the other as they or I move. If one does not do this, rangefinder focusing can be confusing and you might think you’re focused but really, you’re on the other side of the scale. Just basic optical limits of using a rangefinder. But what’s handy is that the pre-focus habit helps get shots that much faster with my SLR, which I tend to use more if it’s really dim or lighting is really flat.

I look for the height of an emotion; a mouth open at its widest point, a glass lifted to its highest point, etc. Sometimes I rapid fire and get several versions of a moment but this can result in camera shake too so I usually try to wait, finger on the trigger, and nail things in one shot.

I always shoot for the moment first, focus second and exposure last. Composition is something that kinda just falls into place while I’m doing those main three things. The moment and people involved often dictate composition and I like to give people plenty of headroom to convey lightness of spirit. Exposure is usually going to be correct within two stops on these dynamic print films anyway. Focus; I’m always pre-focusing so that’s also at least close. But moment. Moment is something that you cannot accept as inaccurate or fix in editing. The moment has to be perfect. It’s the reason you’re shooting in the first place.

My style is to aim for technical accuracy but not to forget to enjoy the chaos. If I take a shot and miss the focus or exposure, or get a little camera shake or motion blur in the image, sometimes this works. These little imperfections express the manual mechanical nature of what I’m doing and culminate with the moment depicted to express excitement and thrill and speed. Some may call this a cop-out for not getting things right in-camera. But I really do mean it, I enjoy and appreciate imperfect, non-automated photography for what it is, and what it is not. And these imperfections are where the humanity is most clearly exhibited and experienced.

Well, I think that’s about all I’ve got! I hope you’ve enjoyed my photos and are perhaps inspired to go shoot a fun wedding reception with some high-speed film and a slick, low-light rig. Trust me, you’ll have a blast!

About the author: Johnny Martyr is a East Coast film photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. After an adventurous 20 year photographic journey, he now shoots exclusively on B&W 35mm film that he painstakingly hand-processes and digitizes. Choosing to work with only a select few clients per annum, Martyr’s uncommonly personalized process ensures unsurpassed quality as well as stylish, natural & timeless imagery that will endure for decades. You can find more of his work on his website, Flickr, and Facebook. This article was also published here.