Day 65: How Film and Digital are Opposite

I’ve never had anyone tell me “Your job is so easy, all you do is push a button!” but there are so many memes about this that I have to assume it happens all the time. And if it DOES happen all the time, LET ME TELL YOU… photography is NOT easy!

Just when I got the hang of shooting outdoors in natural light, I dove into the world of flash photography and suddenly instead of just Aperture, ISO, and Shutter, there was flash power, flash-to-subject ratio, and the inverse square law. THEN when I jumped into film I learned that film often operates totally different from digital! UGH! So when I’m shooting both, my brain has to switch back and forth between the different principles of each medium.

Knowing these principles completely changed my film game though, so I am here to help you do the same. Here are some of the ways film and digital are complete and total opposites:

1. Exposure Manipulation: When shooting digital, it’s easier to make an image brighter than it is to make an image darker. When you blow out the highlights in digital, you cannot bring them back. The opposite is true for film. With film, it’s better to overexpose the image and bring the highlights down than it is to under expose and try to recover details in the shadows. You’ll hear people use the term “Lateral” when talking about film. This is the term used when talking about the ability film has to recover from a wrongly exposed image. You can overexpose film by 2-3 stops and still be totally fine. In fact, your results will be gorgeous at 2 stops overexposed.

2. F Stop Values: Digital looks pretty bad at higher F stops and amazing at lower F stops like 2.8 and below. Film on the other hand looks great at F4.0 and starts to get really soft when you dip below 2.8. In Elizabeth Messina’s book The Luminous Portrait, she says her rule of thumb is to shoot at 2.8 when closer than 10 feet from her subject and to shoot at 4.0 when 10+ feet away from her subject. Personally, when I have enough light, I’m mostly shooting at 4.0. Don’t be afraid to shoot at 4.0 on film, it will look beautiful! (All of the images below were shot at 4.0 on film.)

3. Lighting Conditions: Okay. We all grew from baby photographer seeds in OPEN SHADE, am I right? We all found the side of a building and hid from the sun because it’s easier shooting in open shade. Digital is sensitive to light and over exposing by even a stop can make a huge difference on a digital file. Film, on the other hand, looks ten times more amazing when soaked in light. Step away from the big white wall and walk into the sun. Have your subject just barely back lit (maybe a little side lit – just so their faces are in even light) and shoot your heart out. Film is light hungry, give it what it wants.

Bonus Tip: Find your own film stock! I started out dead set on shooting Fuji 400 film simply because that’s what “everyone else” shot. It wasn’t until my select-a-tech interview with The Find Lab that the tech said “I actually think you’d like Portra Film better…” that I decided to try something else. I shot two sessions on Portra and my game changed entirely. That film look I was chasing so hard and never getting FINALLY appeared. Guys, this is TWO YEARS after I got my film cameras and couldn’t “quite get the look I wanted.” My recommendation is to shoot different sessions using ONE film stock and view your results. I tend to do my best work when I’m shooting one film stock, one camera. Once you’ve found your style, stick to your film stock of choice and ride that wave with all your clients! It helps you to create a consistent portfolio which will attract clients, which in turn will make your business happy!