[Contax 645 + Portra 800 rated @640 around 10am. the Big Island, Hawai'i]
Yesterday I had the great privilege of joining a google hangout presented by Ryan Muirhead (killer photographer) and during his mini workshop on metering for black and white film he briefly mentioned something I have been harping on all along that made me say “Yessss! I HAVE been giving good advice!” (ha!). He noted it’s best to pick no more than two film stocks and stick with them. When you’re learning to shoot film there are at least 6 different factors that contribute to the end product of your image and without limiting some of these factors things can get confusing as hell.
The 6 variables that contribute to a film image:
1. Camera choice: different models have different characteristics.
2. ISO of the film: ISO’s have varying grains and tonality. The higher the ISO the larger (and more noticable) the grain.
3. Exposure: One film can have multiple looks based on the way it was exposed. Properly exposed Fuji 400h vs. overexposed gives you opposing looks.
4. Film stock: Fuji or Portra? Each renders colors differently.
5. Developing Lab: the communication you have with them to scan images the way you like is key, they can’t read minds people!
6. Lighting: one of the BIGGEST factors–lighting can really make or break and image + help carve out your style. It’s also important to recognize that the main colors in or around a scene have a big impact on the overall feel to your photo, too, like this photo of Serena below. But I won’t get into that too much, just know it.
[Contax 645 + Portra 160 in Red Rocks, Las Vegas. F/2.8 1/60. Portra already tends to have a lot of magenta in the film, so with all the reddish rocks in the scene it had an impact on the color of her white dress and made her skin tone appear warmer, all of which I love!]
With alllllll of those variables it makes finding a combination of camera+iso+film+exposure+light+lab that’s inherently you seem daunting. When I first began shooting film I felt like I was completely on my own learning (hence why I started this blog series + the film collective group). I began studying the work of others I admired, trying to figure out what camera and film combo they used, noted the types of lighting they shot in and picked apart what I adored about their signature look. Through this I figured out the people who’s work inspire me shoot the same camera, film, and lighting consistently with consistent results. This made COMPLETE sense to me considering up until this point I had been using tons of different film stocks (Portra 160, Portra 400, Fuji 400h) in different lighting scenarios and getting it developed at different labs–with NO clue what I liked, didn’t like, and how I was screwing up. Ahhh, the age old question “is it me, or the lab?”. I was doing trying WAY too much with no real way to figure out which side was up. Since there are 6 variables that effect the end result of a product I began to think of it of it as a science equation and in hopes of honing in on my artistic desires began setting controls and variables. AHAHAH. TRUE STORY. Through research I knew the Contax645 was the camera for me, I decided to commit and marry ONE lab and work on my relationship with them instead of dating others on the side. This helped set my ‘controls’ (the camera and the lab I was going to work with) so my variables were less prominent–which made learning and comparing the things that do change much easier. Now I just needed to chose the film stocks I was going to master! But…how? There are so many! Here’s how I narrowed down what film stocks I was going to learn:
Choosing Film Stocks
1. Research: Head to manufacturer’s website to get the scoop on different films, their colorings, what types of scenes they’re good for, etc. I.e. Ektar is contrasty and vibrant–super great for landscapes and oceans. Fuji film has faithful color reproduction (read here). Right now don’t think about the ISO so much as the film stock. Once you think you’ve found a match, hit the internet for examples to confirm the color, contrast, etc. is right for you.
2. Prevision: See the end photo in your head. The colors, lighting, contrast, the amount of grain or lack there of. This will also help you narrow down the manufacturer of your film.
3. ISO: Evaluate the scene you are going to shoot. Will it be brightly lit or low light? Just like digital, this helps you choose an ISO. However, unlike digital the ISO of films don’t ONLY correlate to film’s sensitivity to light. Different ISOs also have different amounts of grain and different tones to them, making my point of choosing no more than 2 films to learn super important. It’s also key to note that higher ISO films aren’t just meant for lower light settings, like Portra 800. I personally love it for mid-day landscape shots, like the images below. But that’s a topic for another day.
4. Color, contrast, and your “look”. Want saturated, vibrant images? You’d probably want to stick to Kodak Portra films. Want the choice to have soft, more ‘airy’ images? Fuji may be for you.
[The beautiful, saturated blues + greens of Hawai'i are captured perfectly in these shots using Portra 800. The top photo of the couple was shot in open shade around 10am at f/2.8 (can't remember my shutter speed, but I rated my Portra 800 at 640 ISO). The shot of the ocean was around noon, f/4 at 1/4000 (guesstimate). Also rated at 640, so overexposed only by about 1/3 stop. See the difference between THIS Portra 800 and the Portra 160 one above? ISO makes a difference in color, too]
Once you’ve narrowed down the two films + ISOs you think are up your alley, it’s now time to practice. practice, practice! Again, set MORE controls so you have less variables in your equation, which makes learning and figuring this out easier. Orchestrate calm shoots around your house in which you can get comfortable with these two films and ISOs in different settings. Use the same light and bracket your shots to see what kinds of exposures you like. Go outside and shoot in super bright sun. Take your shutter speed to the limit and see how slow you can go with your shutter speed at dusk. Take notes, take notes, take notes!! TAKKEEEE NOTESSSSSSS. And most of all, don’t forget to communicate and tell your lab these are practice shots! Otherwise they may edit your images and you won’t see the true end result you intended.
[These images shot on Fuji have a much softer look than the Portra 800. Photographed on an overcast day at f/2.8 rated Fuji400h rated at 200 ISO, so overexposed by 1 stop.]