10 Tips on Shooting Street Photography on Film

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!