For the last year and a half or so, I have been shooting my personal street photography on exclusively film. After shooting digital for around 7 years or so, it has been a great experience so far and I have learned a ton.
When I first wanted to start shooting street photography I had a lot of fears. What if the photos don’t turn out? What settings should I use? What film is ideal? Where do I get my film processed? Or should I process it myself? What camera should I use? What chemicals do I need? The list goes on.
I am certainly not an expert when it comes to shooting film, but I wanted to write this article as a primer for those of you who want to get your feet wet (but may not know where to start). I will use my personal experiences and opinions– but of course, feel free to experiment. And if you see any mistakes in this article, please correct me in the comments below and I will revise it.
Why Shoot Film?
I have been shooting film the last year and a half or so, and it has definitely helped me become a better photographer.
Some benefits I have found shooting film:
- It has helped me be more conscious when shooting
- It helped me slow down (I shoot a lot less in film compared to digital)
- It helped me be more discerning when deciding to take a photo (is it really worth it?)
- It has helped me better understand the technical settings of my camera
- It is more “zen” (I focus more on the process of shooting than the result and constantly chomping)
- It makes me worry less about the gear (I shoot not worrying if my camera’s autofocus is fast enough or the High-ISO performance is up to par, as it is a fully-manual film camera)
- It helps my images look aesthetically consistent (I stick with one film. In digital, I would often post-process my photos differently)
- It has has helped me edit my photos (I generally don’t process my photos until 1-2 months after I shoot, so I become emotionally detached from a lot of my shots– and edit more objectively)
- Better dynamic range (I found film has much more detail in highlights when compared to digital. However, shadow detail is almost impossible to recover)
- Not really a benefit, but I love the excitement when I don’t know what I got (I feel like a kid waiting for my Christmas presents every time I get my film developed).
Benefits shooting film from Julien Legrand
- Beautiful colors (Eric: I have personally found the colors of Portra 400 to be unlike any other colors I could achieve with digital. VSCO film presets get close, but don’t have the same depth and richness of color imho)
- Beautiful grain (Eric: I have been able to get some pretty decent film-grain looking results with Silver Efex Pro 2, but still find the grain of b/w film and color film to be much more natural)
- Beautiful b/w (Eric: Silver Efex Pro 2 is probably the best tool to converting from RAW to b/w, but the depth and dynamic range of black and white film can’t be beat)
Benefits shooting film from Sean Breslin
When you are on the road, you don’t have to worry about:
- Hard drives
Of course there are other benefits I am probably missing, feel free to share what other benefits you have found (if you shoot film) in the comments below.
Downsides of Shooting with Film
Of course, there are downsides of shooting with film.
Some downsides shooting film:
- It costs money (buying film and getting it processed isn’t cheap. However if you bulk-roll your own film and process it yourself, it can actually be cheaper than digital. It just depends on how much convenience you prefer)
- Scanning is a pain in the ass (I personally hate scanning film– as I find it to take a long time and to be quite monotonous. However some people I know don’t really mind. Generally to pass the time when scanning, I watch photography documentaries or listen to music– which makes it more bearable)
- Organizing your film can become a challenge (I am horrible when it comes to organizing my negatives. They are all shoved in boxes to rough dates. If you are really good, you should organize them in plastic sleeves according to date. But this can be a challenge, and time-consuming (but worth it in the end).
- You will ruin film (there is no way around it– sooner or later you will mess up some film. You might take out your film from your camera prematurely, accidentally screw up the development, or something else. However with experience, you will certainly screw up a lot less).
- Developing your photos takes time (this can be a benefit or downside. I generally find it to be a positive thing, but I know some people who hate developing their own images).
- You want to get the exposure right in-camera (you can adjust exposure afterwards, but not with as much detail as a digital RAW file in most cases).
Downsides shooting film by Julien Legrand
- Scratches (on negatives when handling or scanning them)
- Finger prints (on negatives when handling or scanning them)
- Time spent scanning (yes, it is very time consuming)
I actually have a hard time finding any other negatives or downsides off the top of my head. Please share some of your personal downsides shooting with film in the comments below.
Step 1: Get a Film Camera
So if you want to step outside your comfort zone and try out film– the first thing you need is a film camera. In my experience, almost everyone has an old film camera lying around somewhere at home. I would recommend for starters, just use that. I recommend first shooting with a cheap film camera to see if you first like the process. Then if you really like it, maybe invest in a Leica after.
I personally recommend starting off with a film camera with a fully-manual one (if possible). This will help you learn more about the technical settings with your camera– and really help you learn aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Of course, this is optional– but I found it be of a huge help.
I also personally recommend a camera with a built-in meter. It will just make life easier, trust me. If not, you can always get an external meter (just search “light meter” in the iTunes store or Google Play store). If you want something uber-accurate, you can get a Sekonic. I personally use a Sekonic L-358, which is expensive at $350 USD but very accurate. A smaller and cheaper option is the Sekonic L-308s Light Meter which goes for $232 USD (once again, not cheap). I have personally found the meters for smartphones to be pretty accurate (although not as accurate as an external meter).
You also want to make sure you have batteries to power the meter or the camera, whatever camera you may be using.
To also figure out how to use the camera, you might want to google the instruction manual for whatever camera you are using. Generally, there are free PDF’s flying around on the web.
I am also recommend first starting off with a 35mm film camera. Medium-formats are nice for street too, but not as nimble and more bulky. I might talk more about medium-formats in a future post.
Don’t have a film camera?
If you don’t have a film camera I recommend two options: The Leica M6 or the Contax T2.
The Leica M6 is fully-manual, with a meter and the best bang-for-the-buck rangefinder in my opinion (you can get a good one for ~1600 USD). You can find one on ebay, craigslist, or contact Japan Camera Hunter (I personally get all my film cameras from him). For a lens, I recommend the Voightlander 35mm f/2.5 to start off (you can get one for ~400 USD).
For a cheaper option, I recommend the Contax T2, which has a brilliant 38mm f/2.8 Zeiss Lens (sharp as hell) and it is reasonably compact. It isn’t fully manual, but has aperture-priority mode and pre-focusing abilities. You can get a good one for under ~$500 USD. Once again, you can check ebay, craigslist, or Japan Camera Hunter (he actually has some on sale here.
If you want a rangefinder for sub-$100, definitely check out the Yashica Electro 35 GSN 35mm. I know a few street photographers who use it (like Brian Soko from Chicago). It is aperture-priority, has a solid lens, and I heard you can get for as cheap as $50. Definitely another great option.
Once again, these are just some personal recommendations. You can really use any film camera when starting off, don’t worry about the camera too much.
Step 2: Get some Film
I know a lot of film photographers who constantly change the type of film they use. Sure this is fun, but it won’t create a consistency of your personal aesthetic vision. It is the equivalent of post-processing your photos dozens of different ways, and uploading them online.
Also another option if you want to shoot black & white film but you want to get it processed at any old lab (C-41) you can get Ilford XP2 which I have found has great contrast.
If you want to really save a ton of money shooting film, you should consider “bulk loading.” The concept is you roll your own film into re-usable canisters. You can watch an excellent tutorial below:
Step 3: Loading the film
An obvious step, but you want to load the film into your camera. Once again, every camera has different ways to load film into the camera. Google instructions on how to do it, or even go on YouTube to find tutorials.
Step 4: Pushing the film
If you shoot black and white film, I personally recommend pushing film to either ISO 800-1600.
What is pushing exactly?
The idea of pushing is that you use a certain type of film (ISO 400 film for example) and then underexpose it by one or two stops, and then make up the difference when processing to get a correct exposure.
What is the benefit of pushing? It allows you to shoot at a faster shutter-speed when on the streets. Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz often pushed their Kodak Tri-X film to ISO 1200 to get the maximum shutter speed possible when on the streets. The benefit (or for some downside) for pushing black and white film is added grain and contrast (some love it, and some hate it). I personally like the added grit.
So how do you “push” the film? Well, if you have a meter in the back of your camera you simply adjust it to ISO 800 or 1600 (so it tricks the meter into thinking you are shooting with that type of film). If you don’t have a meter in your camera, simply expose pretending that you are using that certain type of film. So when using your light meter, set the ISO to either 800 or 1600.
- If you shoot somewhere really sunny, I would push it to ISO 800.
- If you shoot somewhere pretty gloomy or dark, I would push it to ISO 1600.
Once again, pushing is not mandatory. If you have lots of light wherever you shoot and it is incredibly sunny, ISO 400 is fine. But if you are shooting a lot in the shade or on cloudy/rainy days– pushing will help raise your shutter speed (and also stop-down your aperture to get more depth-of-field).
For color film, I generally shoot it at the regular speed (ISO 400) as I don’t process color myself, and send it to a lab. Most labs nowadays don’t push film (but some will do it for an extra charge, if it is available).
Step 5: Calculate your exposures
So you got your film camera, some new batteries loaded, a basic light meter, and some film inside. Now hit the streets.
I personally recommend shooting street photography during the day at f/8. Why? It gives you a good balance between depth-of-field and light, and is an easy aperture to remember (f/8 and be there). Most war photographers and photo-journalists (and street photographers) have trusted shooting at f/8. However note when shooting at night, you will probably have to shoot wide-open at f/2 or f/2.8 (whatever your lens supports).
Once you set your aperture is set to f/8, you need to make two meter readings: one for the highlights and one for the shadows.
For the highlights, you first expose for a really bright area (where the sun hits) and calculate what your shutter speed needs to be. If you are shooting at ISO 800 at f/8, generally your shutter speed will probably vary from 1000th of a second and above. If it is super-bright, you will probably have to stop your aperture down to f/11 or f/16. (Edit: Rogério Salgado-Martins has mentioned that the Leica M6 manual says for color slides, expose for the highlights. However for color negative film, expose for the midtones).
For the shadows, you expose the darkest part you expect to shoot. If you are shooting with ISO 800 film at f/8, it will generally range from 125th/second to 250th/second.
Once you memorize those two settings, all you have to do is adjust your focus and shutter speed when on the streets. Be cognizant when you are shooting in the sun or the shade– and switch between those two settings you memorized.
If you are shooting with an aperture-priority camera, no need to really fiddle with the settings. If you are using a fully-auto camera, I just keep it in “P” mode. Set it and forget it.
Step 6: Adjust your focusing
Assuming you are using a manual-focusing lens, you want to learn how to get really good at pre-focusing your lens when in the streets. If you are shooting at f/8, it gives you a relatively deep depth-of-field, which means your focusing doesn’t need to be 100% accurate.
Therefore, I generally get three distance readings:
- How long the sidewalk is
- How long half a sidewalk is (just #1 divided by 2)
- How long it is to the other sidewalk (across the street)
Once you get these three distances memorized, it makes life a lot easier. Therefore when you anticipate a certain shot (at a certain distance), you can prefocus your lens to that distance and click without even thinking.
If you are shooting with a manual-focusing lens (like a Leica, Zeiss, or Voightlander lens) that has a tab, this makes life a lot easier.
On a Leica lens (I will use my 35mm f/2 Summicron as an example) having your tab dead-center is 1.2 meters (roughly the distance of two-arm lengths away). 45 degrees rotated to the left it is .8 meters. 45 degrees rotated to the right it is 2-3 meters. Therefore with practice, you will know where your focus distance is simply by feel (and without having to look through your viewfinder or lens).
To sum up, I recommend using “Zone Focusing” in which you shoot with your lens stopped-down (f/8-f/16) and roughly getting the zone in focus.
Step 7: Click
When you are starting off shooting street photography in film, don’t be intimidated. I recommend shooting a lot, and taking down notes. Sure every time you click the shutter it costs money, but you will have to shoot a lot of film to really learn. Don’t worry about the money, just don’t drink Starbucks for a week or two and you should be fine. A simple rule of thumb I learned from Charlie Kirk: “When in doubt, click.”
I also highly recommend taking notes on the settings you use on your film. And when you are done shooting a roll, make sure to use a sharpie to write notes on your film canister as well. For example, always write down if you pushed your film to ISO 800 or 1600. Also write down the shutter speeds, apertures, you use in certain conditions. And once you get your film developed (or develop it yourself) you can see how you have to adjust your exposure the next time you shoot.
You can also first start off by shooting things that don’t move. Perhaps practice on a mannequin by taking your time. Take an exposure reading, adjust your aperture, focus, and shutter speed– and take a few photos. Take them at different exposures, and remember to take notes– so when you get them developed you can see what works best. Also practice shooting in different lighting situations (when it is sunny, cloudy, or rainy) and once again– take notes!
Step 8: Develop your film
There are two ways to develop your film: getting someone else to do it and doing it yourself.
I think developing film is a ton of fun, especially if you have never done it yourself. I have personally used this tutorial below with good results for black and white film.
For a detailed tutorial on how to develop your own black and white film, check out this link: How to Develop Your Own Film.
For color, I recommend just sending it to a lab. Most drugstores do it for quite cheap and will even give you a scanned CD for cheap. I personally use Costco in the states (they charge only $5 USD for one roll of C-41 color film, and a high-resolution scan– around 3000px wide).
I find that developing black and white at a professional lab is damn expensive. So I recommend doing it yourself. Unless you live somewhere where they do it cheap!
Step 9: Scan your film
If you are hardcore, I recommend trying to print your own photos. However for the majority of us, scanning will do fine to share online.
You need to first invest in a scanner. I recommend two options: The Epson v700 – $600 USD or the Plustek 8100 – $315. The v700 does 35mm and medium-format/large-format scans, while the Plustek only does 35mm. I have found that the v700 is faster in scanning your films (you can batch it), while the Plustek gives you higher-quality scans (but takes longer, as it is one-at-a-time).
I recommend using the Silverfast software that the scanner comes with. It works well, and will give you consistent results. I also recommend scanning at a somewhat high resolution, as re-scanning photos later is a pain in the ass. I don’t do the highest quality scans, but generally around 80% of the maximum setting.
After you are done scanning, you can adjust your photo a bit in Lightroom or Photoshop (basic curves, contrast, brightness, exposure) if you need. And no, this is not “cheating.”
Step 10: Organize your film
This is the most important step–to keep your precious negatives organized. Invest in several Archival Storage Sheets and try to organize your negatives in a binder according to date, location, and even what film you used. Trust me, this will make life a lot easier in the future– if you ever plan to do a book or exhibition– and need to re-locate your negatives for some reason.
For a great guide on storing your negatives, check out Paul Coate’s article: “Storing Film Negatives and Slides.”
There are probably a lot of steps I am missing out, and please don’t take this as a comprehensive guide. This is merely an introduction for those who are utterly clueless about shooting street photography with film.
I am also certainly not an expert when it comes to shooting with film– but using the above guide has worked out pretty well for me.
If you have any further questions, suggestions, or corrections– please leave a comment below. I plan on continuing to edit this article as I learn more.
Good luck, and have fun!
Thanks to the contributors who helped me edit/make additions to this article:
- Rogério Salgado-Martins
- Julien Legrand
- Just Alan
- Sean Breslin
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