Yes, I shoot film. Not digital…film.
I used digital cameras for my portrait and wedding photography for a long time, so it’s not like I’m a luddite who never moved past the 1990s. About a year ago I realized that I wasn’t getting the same thrill from my digital images as I was from the film images I shot for personal projects. So I made the leap and switched – which was a little scary at first. Now I shoot film for all my ‘people’ images, i.e. weddings and portraits. I will still occasionally shoot digital for commercial clients if required, but that’s rare.
So what’s the big deal? As a bride or groom and prospective client, what does it matter?
While there are many little reasons that I personally like working with film instead of digital, there are three reasons that directly effect my wedding and portrait clients. And no matter what anyone tells you, a digital camera just can’t match film for certain things.
1. Dynamic range. Or to put it more simply, higher highs and lower lows. A digital camera’s sensor can only handle a certain range of light. While the camera’s light meter will adjust the exposure so that the overall image is basically correct, the sensor can’t handle parts of the image that are ‘out of bounds’. There will parts of many scenes that are either too dark, or too light, for the sensor to handle.
Meanwhile film has an amazingly large dynamic range, when compared to digital. Skies that would be completely blank white on a digital camera, will retain some detail of the clouds on film. Shiny highlights on people’s skin will turn into a circle of pure white with a digital camera, but will maintain a smoothness with film.
Should you care? Well let me ask you: is any part of your wedding, reception, or getting to/from the ceremony done outside? Will you also be wearing white? Then yes it matters very much! You probably spent a lot of money on your wedding dress, and you’d like to have images that show the beauty and the detail. But your wedding dress is one of the most challenging things to shoot and expose for properly, with a digital camera. With film…it’s no big deal.
Look at the image above. If that had been shot with a digital camera, the overall scene would have looked similar. But the places where the sun is hitting the dress and veil would lose all detail, and just be a sheet of pure white. And if the photographer had underexposed to keep the dress’s detail, the groom’s tux would have lost all detail. It’s likely there would be a happy medium where this image could have been captured digitally, but it might have taken a number of adjustments and shots. As a wedding photographer, I simply don’t have time to risk missing a shot. Film doesn’t require me to fiddle with the exposure settings as much. So I catch more wonderful moments like this.
2. Skin Tones. Skin tones with modern films look absolutely stunning. Kodak has come out with three new film formulations in the past couple of years, based on their movie film technology (most big-budget films are still shot on…film! Go figure.). In conjunction with my professional photo lab, the results are perfect, right from the start. I don’t have to fiddle for days with the skin tones, like I would with a digitally-captured wedding.
3. Film just has that ‘film look’. Digital images are very precise and clean. Which, when capturing people, can come across as harsh and severe. It’s probably the combination of the dynamic range, mentioned above, and the ‘grain’ that gives a softer look. Film looks ‘creamy’ compared to digital images. Yes there are Photoshop effects that can simulate the ‘film look’, but it’s not quite the same. Not to mention, it saves me a lot of time to just shoot on film in the first place.
Digital photography has its benefits, don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful as a delivery method. It’s very convenient to keep images on a hard drive, send them to friends, use them to make albums etc. But as a capture method, film is ideal for wedding photography.
And I make use of both technologies, to get the best of both worlds. I have a professional lab (Richard Photo Lab) process and scan all my film, and then they deliver the images to me as digital files. I can then treat them like I would any other digital image: I can retouch them, I can design albums with them, make prints from them, the whole nine yards! But the initial benefits of capturing the images with film are maintained.
And I’m not the only one shooting on film, of course. Some of the most amazing photographers in the world shoot exclusively or primarily on film: Jose Villa, Lisa Lefkowitz, Jen Huang, and Jonathan Canlas are just a few who come to mind. Sure, it requires skill to shoot weddings or portraits with film, so not every photographer can handle it. But a film shooter is definitely worth seeking out.