Foreword by Ollie Gapper: CritiqueMe is still alive and well, I just haven’t had time to produce a good, in-depth critique this week, it will be returning soon!
Its been thrown at you pretty relentlessly over the past few months: the notion of shooting film and its merits over digital, but what should you know before/during your time spent shooting this marvellous medium? This is a short list of things that I have personally found useful learning in shooting film, things I hope will help you as much as me!
1. ISO and latitudes
All films are given ISO ratings at which it is recommended you expose your images at. This, for most films, is not gospel and (depending on the film you are using) should be used as more of a guide, and not a strict rule. I used to think that with film I had to be super-accurate with all my exposures to ensure none of my contact sheets were full of blank spaces. 9/10 times I needn’t have worried as all films have latitudes, which correspond to how vast an exposure range they can handle. Ilford XP2 for example can be up and downrated (not to be confused with push/pull processing) anywhere between and including 50-800 ISO, and processed as normal. The only adjustments needed may be longer/shorter print exposure times in the darkroom or curve adjustments with digital scans. I purposefully recently shot a roll of XP2 at ISO’s ranging from 400-800 during my time assisting David Gibson on his street workshops.
The results were great, and allows for lots of experimentation (this was, for example, my first time using hotshoe flash on the street). Colour negative films usually render much better results when over exposed by around a stop, so a film like Portra 400 shot at 200 will give spectacular results with unrelenting detail resolution. It is, of course, recommended that you experiment with any up and downrating before using it for anything important, but there are plenty of online resources for gathering an idea of settings that may work for your style. Push and pull processing refers to under/overexposure followed by relevant over/under development, something I recommend reading dedicated articles on.
I would never up/downrate slide film, it just never looks good.
2. Brighter negatives are better than darker
As mentioned above, it is a lot better to overexpose almost all films rather than underexpose them. This is determined by simple logic: if a negative holds information, a thicker (darker) negative holds more information (to a point). A thicker, darker negative will therefore give brighter images and to make a print darker a longer print exposure time is needed, meaning more control is given and more information and detail is transfered to the final print. In a digital workflow, brightening an image will begin introducing noise into the shadow and low mid-tones of your images, to darken a bright image (aslong as nothing is blown) you are simply reducing the amount of information you are showing.
3. Larger negative are easier to work with
Its true I’m afraid, using 35mm is fantastic and can render truly spectacular results, but where possible larger negatives are almost always preferable. Greater dynamic range, more depth of field control, wider latitudes, higher levels of resolution, less distortion (wide fields of view are achieved with longer lenses) and easier colour corrections are all benefits of larger negs. My personal favourite cameras for project work at the moment is the Mamiya 7ii (6×7 negs) and the Hasselblad 500C/M (6×6 negs), though when I can afford to use 4×5 large format, I inevitably thank myself later in the darkroom, where half my work is already done for me. Scanning can be made slightly problematic with larger negatives (dust will become the bain of your life), but its still worth it.
4. Film is easier to focus
Yes, it sounds weird but its true. Film, regardless of size, is thicker than digital sensors, which allows for a minute amount more forgiveness when it comes to critical focusing. Film is starting to sound pretty easy to use now, isn’t it?
5. Film is delicate
A painfully obvious point for some, but this is something I have seen other fellow photographers get lazy with. Your negatives are incredibly delicate, so much so that if you touch the emulsion side and leave a nasty mark, there is really nothing you can do to repair it (other than digitalise it and remove it digitally). Holding film by its sides is ok, but a pair of cotton gloves is a must have for anyone who is going to be handling negatives regularly (or at all, really).
I find having either my Canonet or a Mamiya 7 on me to be a pleasently relaxing experience. Having confidence that no matter what you encounter during your day, you will be able to record it sufficiently is a really great feeling and one that I sometimes struggle to get with my D90. Its nothing to do with it being digital, I just havent found a digital camera that gives me the same feeling yet.
What other tips/advice would you give when shooting with film. Anything you disagree with above? Share your thoughts in the comments below!