Shooting film is my zen. I love hearing the shutter click, and that sexy sound of the film advancing. It’s more than just the sound of the camera, though. Shooting film is all about slowing down… knowing I just have a finite number of frames to capture my vision… carefully choosing my composition and lighting.
I got started out with film simply: A friend was selling his Canon AE-1Program and, being a diehard Canon fan, I was intrigued. Part of me wondered if I could just use the lenses with an adapter on my DSLR, and save some money on glass. But how I ended up using that camera – completely by happenstance – changed how I shoot. Heck, it changed how I think.
Starting out wasn’t easy at first. There’s a plethora of information about starting with a DSLR. But starting with film? I didn’t know where to look. I mean, who shoots film anymore??? When I tried to ask people about it, I got looks like I’d just asked to drink sour milk. WHY would I want to do THAT?!?!?!
Once I made myself completely transparent, confessing that I knew nothing but was eager to learn, I found some experienced film shooters who led me by the hand. I found books at my local library that – although dated – contained all the information I needed to learn. See, the thing is, the technology of film shooting hasn’t changed in the last 50 years. What worked back then STILL works today.
So what kind of questions did I ask? How did I move forward? Let me share what I have learned….
What kind of film should I buy?
I usually tell film newbies to start off with consumer film: Kodak Gold and Fuji Superia. If they want to try black and white film, I suggest Tri-X. I believe, there will always be time for more expensive, pro-level film. When just starting out, it’s worthwhile to cut your teeth on film that costs half as much.
Once a photographer has learned about exposure, shadows, and the intricacies of any particular camera, I recommend Portra 400 or Fuji Pro400H. Those two films both produce beautiful results. Portra, in particular, is very forgiving and can be under-exposed or over-exposed without ruining the images.
What kind of equipment do I need?
Obviously, a film camera. Modern 35mm film cameras can accept the lenses you are currently using on your DSLR. They also offer autofocus, so in that way they will feel very similar to your current camera. Classic cameras come in 35mm as well as 120 (also called Medium Format). 120 film has a varying number of exposures per roll, depending on if your medium format camera shoots 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, or even 6×9. You should also get a handheld light meter. Internal light meters can be finicky and a handheld meter will teach you about light and how it falls on a subject.
Where do I get my film developed?
Depending on where you live (metropolitan area vs. small town) you may have options you didn’t even know about. Some Walgreens, Costco, and Sam’s stores still develop color film! That’s one option, but probably not the best. The upside: you get it back quickly. The downside: the employees are oftentimes not familiar with developing chemicals and since developing film is not as common anymore, those chemicals don’t get changed as often as they should. Another option is to take your film to a local Pro camera shop. Quite often these shops still develop film and are arguably more knowledgeable about film, chemicals, etc. A third option – and most popular among my film friends – is to send your film away to a pro developing lab. The turnaround time is longer, but the results are more reliable and usually much much better. Popular film labs in the US are The FIND Lab, Indie Film Lab, Richards Photo Labs, Pro Photo Irvine, and a less-expensive option is TheDarkroom.com
What is this “pushing” and “pulling” I hear about?
Pushing and pulling are terms related to development times. A film that’s underexposed when shot, will benefit from having some “extra exposure” in the developing tank. To balance out one stop of underexposure in camera, a film can be “pushed” (or, left in the developing chemicals) for extra time, to bring the net exposure up to -0-. This would be compared with taking an underexposed digital image, shot in RAW, and adding one stop of exposure in post-processing. “Pulling” is just the opposite: pulling the film out of the developer tank earlier than it normally should be pulled to finish development. Pulling film will balance out film that’s been overexposed when shooting. Some people purposely over- or underexpose their film, depending on the look they want. So in a case like that, you just let your lab develop the images as they are shot.
Can I edit my images after getting them back?
For a long time, I thought shooting film meant, “once I snap the shutter, that’s it. It’s ‘in the can’ so to speak. Editing photos is only for digital cameras, right? I mean, isn’t that the point of shooting film? Less editing?” Well, yes and no. The benefit of shooting film is that, when it’s exposed correctly, the images will have near-perfect white balance and will handle highlights and shadows much better than their digital counterparts. Sometimes, though, we want a specific look and that might require some dodging and burning, or some brightening of shadows, etc. Whatever the reason, there’s no rule about editing film images – just make photos that make you happy.
I have loved learning about shooting film because it forced me to slow down and think about my craft. Besides that, I love the idea that I’m learning how to shoot in the same way that photographers learned years ago. I now have a kindred link to master photographers from the past. It’s amazing to think that I have something in common with other incredible artists. Shooting film gave me back my photography happy place and that’s what it’s all about.
Gretchen Willis is a teacher, volunteer, photographer, wife, mom, friend, and lover of all things chocolate. Not necessarily in that order. She shoots in her rural backyard of southern Wisconsin, taking the occasional client but she mainly shoots the people who pay her in hugs and kisses.
Gretchen has a recently published an ebook, which you can find for sale in the B&C Store. It’s titled “A Photography Love Letter to your Children”, filled with inspiration and solid advice. Find it HERE.
Visit her website at www.gretchenwillis.com