Leica M2 of Callan Tham
Leica M2 of Callan Tham
Leica M2 of Callan Tham

I have learned a few things about shooting street photography on film from my own experiences (and the advice of others). If you want to read the full list of things I learned shooting film– read more!

1. It is better to slightly over-expose than under-expose your photos. This is because it is easy to pull out details from highlights in film (while very difficult to recover details from the shadows). I have also discovered that slightly over-exposing color film brings out more saturated colors (around 1/3-2/3rds of a stop).

2. If you’re pushing your film, mark what ISO you’re pushing it to directly on the film canister with a sharpie. I generally prefer doing this before I put the film into the camera, as I often forget to do it afterwards.

3. If you are curious to shoot film and never have shot it before, don’t splurge money on a Leica. Rather, start with the cheapest film camera you can find (eBay, flea market, your parents’ closet) and experiment. If you’ve shot with film for several months and really like it— then invest in a better film camera.

4. When shooting film on a rangefinder on ISO 400 film (during a sunny day) here are some good settings: f/8 at 1/1000th of a second in extremely bright sunlight, f/8 at 1/500th of a second when it is slightly less bright, f/8 at 1/250th of a second at the “golden hour”, f/8 at 1/125th in uncovered shade, f/8 at 1/60th when in darker shade.

5. Don’t be afraid to “waste” your film by only taking 1 shot of a scene. Rather, work the scene and even shoot an entire roll of film on a scene if you think it is interesting enough.

6. When experimenting with a new film or camera, do the following: take a series of photos of a friend in different lighting conditions with different apertures and shutter speeds. For each shot, write down the settings you used in a notebook (and the lighting situations). Once you get the film developed and scanned, cross-reference your photos with your notes. Then you will get a better sense of the “ideal” settings to use on your camera for the “look” you want.

7. I think it is good to experiment with a lot of different types of films— but once you find a film you are about 80% happy with, I recommend sticking with it. It helps you have a more consistent aesthetic look — and also helps you better understand the nuances of each film (how resilient it is to over/underexposure, how it looks during the day or at night, and the color or contrast of it).

8. If you’re shooting ISO 400 film, you won’t have any problems in airport x-ray scanners. ISO 800-1600 might pose a problem.

9. I generally get 1 photo I am proud of in every 50 rolls of film. Use this as a guideline— you will rarely take good street photographs. Of course, your mileage will vary.

10. Don’t feel bad about “wasting money” shooting film. Rather, see it as an “investment” — that will bring you boundless amounts of joy (more than any digital camera ever will, imho).

Learn more about film

Kodak Portra 400, my film of choice for color.
Kodak Portra 400, my film of choice for color.

My favorite films

What are some other tips you have shooting street photography on film? Share them in the comments below! 

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23 Comments

  1. Im very much enjoying Poundland Agfa 200 (repackaged Fuji) film here in the UK. It’s a quid a roll, yes £1! Usually only 24 frames but sometimes 36. I use it at 400 (i dont think its technically being pushed though) as I like the contrast and colour and then developing costs of £7.50 can’t be beat =D

    Im sticking with this for as long as I can.
    http://cl.ly/WhAu

  2. I can’t agree more about using cheap film cameras to start. In the post war period when Rangefinders were pretty common, there were a number of very good cameras made. Especially good bargains are the fixed lens rangefinders that were produced by Olympus, Yashica, Fujica and Canon all made some very good cameras with reasonably fast lenses (F2.8 to F1.4 (though the latter are rare) and focal lengths running from 24mm to about 45mm. These were enthusiast cameras of the day and often have very good lenses, and I have often found them in thrift stores for $20-$40 dollars. Small mechanical SLRs like the original Olympus OM-1 might be a good choice as well.

  3. Good to hear that ISO 400 film won’t have any problems with the x-ray scanners; this was one of my main concerns with bringing film on vacation. Thanks for the awesome tips Eric!

    1. I always keep all my rolls of film in clear gallon zip lock bags and request a “hand check” at the airport. They are quite accommodating and I have had no issues…at least in the U.S. I cannot speak to overseas travel.

  4. It’s pretty obvious, but I’d also recommend sticking to the same developer, if you’re shooting B&W film.
    Developing your own rolls of film is a wonderful and thrilling experience. But then shooting film is quite expensive too, and it makes you be more careful and selective. Anyway, just one good photograph out of fifty rolls of film seems to me a little dissapointing.

    1. Then change ‘good’ to ‘great'” or ‘worthy of exhibition’.

      If the standard is an exceedingly beautiful and meaningful photograph that the photographer and his audience and future audiences may greatly enjoy for many years, then regularly getting one shot in 50 rolls is hardly disappointing but rather it is a daunting accomplishment.

      Let’s say you have the time, resources, and damn serious dedication to shoot ten rolls a day, five days a week. Then at the rate of 1shot/50rolls, you’d have over 50 great photographs in a year. In a year and a half to two years, you’d have enough for a great book. About EACH week, a really great shot: who wouldn’t be joyous to have that?

    2. “Developing your own rolls of film is a wonderful and thrilling experience.”

      Maybe for a while. But not so exhilarating after doing a lot of it over a period of time. Say, 1000 rolls a year (a quite reasonable amount for a fully dedicated photographer) or even a small fraction of that amount, and year after year. The hundreds and hundreds of hours spent fumbling in the dark, rolling film unto reel or with sweating hands in a changing bag, mixing chemicals and breathing the dust, splashing liquids around and breathing the fumes, hanging roll after roll to dry … One can easily get sick of it.

      At least for me, the joy is seeing the negatives and contacts, and making and seeing the prints. But there are millions of vastly more rewarding ways to spend my precious time on earth than developing film.

    3. Yeah that’s a really bad hit rate! Assuming a 36 frame roll, your success ratio of 1:1800 is apalling! Even 1:1200 if using 24 frame rolls. And you’re teaching street photography Eric?!

      Film is so not a big deal Eric, just different in this disposable world. Although it does make one consider shots MUCH more and shoot with greater awareness; it certaily did when I started out shooting, with film, 53 years ago both as a professional and for my own work.

      Also, assuming current ‘average’ prices of US$5 per roll that’s getting VERY expensive at your rate ~$250 plus processing(!) for one good shot is woeful.

      Even ‘starters’ could achieve at least one acceptable shot per roll so don’t frighten off newbies.

      It’s also encumbent upon you as a self styled guru and ‘tipster’ to explain the opportunities of bulk loading, very inexpensive rebadged films such as PLUS / TRI-X, Agfa and others, plus sources for them such as Freestyle http://www.freestylephoto.biz.

  5. I find its a Challenge when carrying both film and digital cameras is not falling back to digital because it’s instant and easy. I try to carry a Mamiya6 & a Fuji x100s … Both rangefinders and both quite small and discreet, but making the film one the default is a challenge.

    Eric?

    1. I have the same problem. But I’d approach film and digital like a movie. Meaning, act like a film director. Choose a photography project your going to do and stick with either film or digital for it.

      For my Saigon diary series I’m shooting digital. For my American color work, portra 400.

      1. Forgive me if I missed your explanation elsewhere, but is your only reason for shooting digital in Vietnam so that you can post the results quickly? Or is there some other reason you have for shooting digital in Vietnam but film in the U.S.?

        1. Would also like the know the reasoning behind this. What was your reasoning for choosing digital in Saigon?

  6. This is another article in which Kim ignores CRUCIAL points:

    Yes, for shooting a subject frontlit by sunlight with Tri-X, 1/500 f8 may be a good exposure, but Kim leaves out that this usually includes a reduction in film development by about 15% or 20%.

    Ordinarily (for negatives with most detail), the goal is to expose for shadow detail but develop less, so that you don’t incur the loss of highlight detail that would result from the increased exposure. On the other hand, in light that is not so contrasty, the goal is to expose for the midtones and develop for good contrast.

    /

    Here is one approach for outdoors:

    REDUCED DEVELOPMENT (i.e. development reduced by, say, 20%)

    Subject frontlit by sunshine: 1/500 f8

    Subject frontlit by sunshine in a bright setting such as white sand: 1/500 f11

    Bright subject (such as white fence) frontlit by sunshine: 1/500 f11

    Subject frontlit by sunshine but with significant amount in deep shade: 1/500 f5.6

    Subject frontlit by sunshine but a large part of the important parts of the subject in deep shade: 1/500 f4 (unavoidably there will be loss of highlight detail)

    Subject backlit by sunshine: 1/500 f4 (unavoidably there will be loss of highlight detail)

    STANDARD DEVELOPMENT (i.e. not reduced by 20%):

    Slightly overcast: 1/500 f5/6

    Overcast: 1/500 f4

    Open shade: 1/500 f4

    Shade: 1/500 f2.8

    Deep shade: 1/500 f2

    /

    The “sunny 16” rule gives an exposure of 1/400 f16 (but let’s round to 1/500 f16). So the method above is a “sunny 8” rule (1/500 f8) with development reduced by 20%. And you don’t need a light meter, as you can simply adjust for the situations mentioned above. But then set your incident meter to an ISO so that when pointed at sunlight suggests 1/500 f11 (so that your “effective ISO” is HIGHER than the effective ISO for “sunny 8” mode), then, in flat light, use your incident meter and don’t use the 20% reduction in development.

    For on-camera flash, make exposure tests so that you obtain detail in the shadows while keeping detail in the highlights by using the 20% reduction in development.

    In other words, develop your sunlight and flash rolls together at less 20% and separately develop your overcast and shade rolls but without the 20% reduction. Of course, if you have sunlight and/or flash shots on a roll mixed with shots in flat lighting, then you have to decide which are more important and accept that the results for the other will be less than ideal.

    By the way, one can obtain good results with steel cans that hold 11 rolls of film (I found that I could not maintain evenness with tanks holding 14 rolls of film) and one can set up a process for developing first an 11 reel can and then starting development of a second 11 reel can while the first is washing. (If you’re development technique is not yet smooth, then start by using 4 reel cans, then, as you get better, 8 reel cans, then 11 reel cans.)

    A typical process:

    Pre-rinse (helpful especially for cans with more than 4 reels)
    Develop
    Stop bath
    Fixer
    Hypo-clear
    Wash
    Photo-Flo
    Dry

    Two points for quality:

    (1) Agitation must be even, smooth, consistent, and sufficient but not excessive.

    (2) For consistent grain, keep water temperature within +/- one degree F through the ENTIRE process from pre-rinse through Photo-Flo.

    /

    And, for color, the exposure strategy for saturation for negative film is different from the strategy for slide film. With slide film one UNDERexposes by, say, 1/2 stop.

    /

    In any case, all of these exposures and developments should first be systematically tested and adjusted for the particulars of the camera, lens, shooting conditions, and development technique. And continue to develop your eye so that you can recognize a good negative on the light table.

    It may help to edit (choose your frames for printing) from negatives only, and only later looking at contact sheets the positive from the digital scan. If you do a LOT of editing from negatives, then when shooting you’ll start to “see” in negative and you’ll get very adept at exposures. Also, editing from negatives will get you in the habit of viewing shots in terms of strong form and composition – strong and bold design that pops at you from the negative. (Of course, in some cases, you need to see the positive to more carefully evaluate facial expressions and things like that, but as a first step, editing from negatives is good exercise.)

    1. I’m in Australia so we get plenty of strong bright light so the Sunny 16 rule is different everywhere you go really. If you live in Finland, you’re not going to be using the same settings as me in Australia – totally different quality of light hitting the Earth at those two places.

      Eric’s settings are a fine place to start – I shoot mainly mid-afternoon and always set f8/1/500 for Portra 400 on my M3 and things work out great.

      If I move to a scene with a little less light I change it to 1/250th and maybe 1/125th – it’s not rocket science.

      Most negative film can handle 2-3 and even more stops over-exposed so the advice to beginners is if you think it needs another stop, don’t be afraid and give it a stop or two. You definitely don’t want under-exposed shadows – that’s when film gets very unattractive :)

      Slide film is of course far more difficult and not all negative films have as much latitude as Portra but no negative film looks good under-exposed so don’t do it – simple.

      1. Yes, when I wrote “these exposures […] should first be systematically tested and adjusted for the particulars of […] shooting conditions […]”, I should have been more clear that “conditions” includes locations.

        “Most negative film can handle 2-3 and even more stops over-exposed”

        I don’t know what films you have in mind or what you mean by “handle”. But in the case of, say, Tri-X, if you (general ‘you’) want a negative that is not blocked in the highlights then the film should be exposed correctly relative to the development. Best to make the exact right exposure, or with 1/2 stop or maybe a stop, but not two or three stops beyond.

        The main point though is that to obtain a negative not blocked in the highlights, increase in exposure should be accompanied by decrease in development.

        “You definitely don’t want under-exposed shadows – that’s when film gets very unattractive”

        Sometimes one does want different kinds of exposure for different print looks (sometimes one wants an intentionally dark or murky look). And indeed, pushing film by development is basically accepting some underexposure in the shadows.

        And, on the other hand, one may even want blocked up highlights for a certain print look. But if one wants detail in the highlights, then two or three stops over target is disastrous and whatever is retained will look harsh and grainy, quite unattractive usually, especially if not accompanied by reduced development.

        “it’s not rocket science”

        Right, but it is premised in the science of the physics of light and chemistry. One doesn’t have to be a scientist to make good exposures, but a little understanding of light and film does help.

  7. Thank you for sharing Eric. I just switched from m9 to m6 couple of months ago and absolutely loved it. I never went back to digital since then.

    The article is very helpful especially on the “pushing film” part. Keep sharing! Cheers!

  8. Hope this is not a duplicate item covered by someone else – I didn’t have time to read all of the great comments.
    In regards to overexposing and pushing, the author’s comments apply to NEGATIVE film only. Not to transparency films. Shooting chromes requires very careful exposure to within 1/8th stop. Over exposing your chromes will lead to blown highlights and washed colors. Under exposing by 1/4 to 1/3 stop can increase color saturation but will also muddy the highlights.
    Push process a roll of chrome and you’ll see less density in the blacks and a noticible color shift that varies depending on the film stock. Pull processing won’t increase your black point much, but it will keep your highlights from blowing out in a high contrast lighting situation. Some shooters I worked for in the past would routinely shoot at the proper ISO and pull 1/4 stop just to get a bit more hightlight detail without much loss of shadow detail.

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