Why shoot a wedding (or anything) on film?

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.



12 thoughts on “Why shoot a wedding (or anything) on film?

  1. I’ve been waiting for a post like this from you.
    Thank you so much for finally sharing your thoughts on that matter.
    Although I still shoot digitally events and weddings, like you, I find pleasure with film and carry my film cameras in no stress shooting situations. After hearing your thoughts I will attempt to bring a film camera along for my event.

    Keep up the excellent posts. I always appreciate your insight, vision and technical disclosures.


  2. Thanks for your comments, Elie! I did try the ‘hybrid’ approach, where I shot both digital and film. I found though that I often got lazy and just shot digital mostly, as a security blanket. I would suggest instead setting up a situation – either a low-stress client session, or a portrait session for friends etc – that has a little pressure but not too much. See how it feels to shoot 100% film like that. You might then feel brave enough to shoot other sessions that way.

    I always make sure I have, and use, multiple cameras on a shoot with film. Just in case something fails and I don’t notice right away. When I’m shooting a wedding, I have two cameras around my neck at all time, and have an assistant shooting as well. So there is very little chance of a big disaster. Unlike if I were shooting digital and lost 300 frames on a bad card for example.

  3. Bravo! Well put Matt. Film has so many more benefits and finding a great lab to scan it makes the perfect combination. Film capture + good scans = BLISS! Write on…….

  4. hi matt! just wanted to stop by and say thank you for your thoughtful comment on my blog yesterday – means so much! and I love this post! i shoot hybrid for my weddings… digital mainly in the evenings so i can capture the beautiful colors at night. but shooting film, i believe, makes me a more conscientious photographer. i see light better, i watch (and wait) for moments… overall i “make” images rather than “take”. it’s quite freeing.

  5. Hi Matt,

    Very cool stuff. How do you find clients react to your preference for film? Have you found that the type of client you have been getting has changed at all?


  6. Thanks for your comment, Bradley! I consider my use of film to be an advantage over the run-of-the-mill photography out there, so it’s something I’m pretty clear about on my website. Clients who book me do so based on my work above all. For some people, my use of film doesn’t matter. And for some, they like the fact that I’m doing something a little bit different and special. For those potential clients who dislike the idea of film…well, I probably never hear from them! That’s fine, because I can’t be all things to all people.

    Has my type of client changed? Yes, they’re now much better looking. 🙂 No seriously, I haven’t noticed a change in the *type* of client. I do have more of them than I used to, but I don’t think I can credit my use of film for that.

    When film was the only choice, there were limitations. Digital cameras solved those limitations, but added some of their own. Using film to capture the image and then scanning the negatives digitally gives me everything I want in my image capture.

  7. Fair points! As you point out any capture technique brings with it its own advantages and limitations – it’s about working with them rather than against them to get the results you want.

    In your case you’re definitely doing a fantastic job. Keep up the good work.

    Thanks for the reply 🙂

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