Fundamentals of Film

Film is light sensitive – this is what allows you to expose an image onto it. Once we break it down to the basics, it becomes easier to understand. 

KEY CONCEPTS

APERTURE:

How much light you let in through the lens. An aperture of f/2.8 is a wide aperture (the lens is wide open and letting in a lot of light) whereas an aperture of f/11 is a small aperture.

 

This might seem confusing but once you know that apertures are based on fractions it becomes a lot easier. Just remember the bigger the number, the LESS light is coming in.  Your aperture will also affect the depth of field in your image.

DEPTH OF FIELD:

Refers to how much of your image is in focus. In addition to aperture, this is also affected by the distance between your subject and the background. i.e., if someone were standing directly in front of a brick wall and you wanted to have the wall blurred out a bit more, you would need to have the person move further forward away from the wall to create a separation between the two focal points. You also have to factor in the distance between you and your subject as well (meaning you might need to back up to create more distance).

In the example above, adjusting the aperture has vastly affected how much of the garden beyond the book is in focus. At f/2.8, the background is blurred out whilst at f/11 individual branches, leaves and flowers are also in focus. 

SHUTTER SPEED:

How long the shutter is open for during an exposure.
You want to make sure that if you are shooting hand-held, that the shutter speed is fast enough to compensate for any of your movement.
For general shooting 1/125th of a second is a good place to start to ensure your images will be nice and sharp.

Individual water droplets could be captured at a high shutter speed of 1/500th of a second - but longer shutter speeds meant that the movement blurred. Water is often photographed at super slow shutter speeds to turn the water to 'milk' but for the purpose of this exercise, we were focusing on what you might photograph without additional gear (i.e. tripods/ND filters). 

Shout out to Frank & Teresa at Bean Bar for graciously agreeing to be photographed the old fashioned way! 

 

ISO:

The speed of the film; how sensitive it is to light. Sometimes referred to as ASA.
A 100 ISO film is considered a slow speed film.
An 800 ISO film is considered a fast speed film.

CONTROLLING EXPOSURE

Automatic point and shoot cameras will control most of these settings for you, often having a few different program modes you can select such as landscape or flash with red eye reduction when photographing people. These cameras will be able to automatically detect the speed of the film once loaded and meter accordingly.

SLR cameras however will allow you to have more control over these settings that rely on your ability to capture a good exposure. Aperture can be adjusted by turning the aperture ring on your actual lens whilst the ISO has to be manually set on the camera, so your light meter knows how to rate the film. Your shutter speed can be adjusted on the dial on the top of your camera. 

If you are indoors, you almost always should be using a flash. Even if it seems well-lit inside, your film will struggle to fully expose the scene and you will lose a lot of detail and see an increase in grain. A lot of the time when the flash is not used in low light scenarios, you might not even have enough light to expose ANY information onto the negative. So, the takeaway is, and we cannot stress this enough… USE THE FLASH!

Always be aware of your light source. Since we are dealing with film, we obviously won’t know the result of the final image until it has been developed so being aware of this is super important to avoid disappointing outcomes. The most common mistake we see is unintentional backlighting.

Now backlighting is when the main light source is coming from BEHIND the subject. So if you had a friend standing directly in front on a window with the sun behind them, then the camera will naturally expose for the brightest part of the image which is not your subject.

Your subject will be end up being rendered completely dark, possibly fully silhouetted while the sun through the window will end up being the brightest part of the shot. You can overcome this either by switching positions and having the sun behind YOU rather than the subject or alternatively you can use a FILL to fill in the shadows by firing the flash.

A classic golden rule when shooting film is to slightly overexpose rather than underexpose (which we might do with digital photography). More detail can be recovered from the highlights than the shadows on film which is why backlighting cannot be fixed after the fact. If the lab attempts to recover shadow detail, the entire image becomes extremely muddy and grainy.

How does film photography work?

When you are taking a photo on film, you are exposing a frame by controlling how MUCH light gets to enter through the lens and reach the film and for how LONG. Since your ISO is fixed (see section below on film speed), you must use your meter to adjust your other settings to correctly expose the scene. For example, if you have a 400-speed film outside on a very bright sunny day, there is going to be more than enough light to expose your film, so you will need to either adjust to a smaller aperture, which will let less light hit the film AND/OR raise your shutter speed.

It stands to reason then, that if you open the back of the camera without winding the film back into the canister, you are suddenly exposing a number of existing frames to light.

At best, if you close the back very quickly upon realising your mistake, most of your roll further inside the camera should still be okay, but the frames directly exposed will suffer from some form of light leak. This will appear as discoloured streaks through your frames.

At worst, you will completely fog part of your film which will essentially turn the negatives black, and you will lose any images exposed along that section.

 Above: The fogged negatives
Below: The resulting scan of a fogged frame

FILM SPEED

Shooting film is very different than shooting digital. With digital you are exposing a sensor to light and can change at any point during shooting HOW sensitive the sensor is to light*(Changing the ISO).

*This is a simplification for the purpose of providing a basic understanding in regard to film photography.

With film, your ISO is predetermined before you even start shooting as this is based in the very emulsion of the actual film you load into your camera. This is why it is important to choose the right film for the right application.

HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT FILM

GENERAL SHOOTING:

If you like to always have your film camera with you in case the opportunity calls for it, then you would want to have a versatile film on-hand so that you are not confined to having to shoot only outdoors/sunny conditions etc.

We always recommend a 400 speed as a general-use, multi-purpose film if you aren’t sure what you might end up photographing. This will allow you to confidently shoot indoor and outdoors in a variety of lighting scenarios (overcast day, indoors with flash etc).

Try: Kodak Ultra Max 400

SHOOTING OUTDOORS:

If you want to focus on taking your photos outdoors in bright, sunny conditions, then you will have the best results using a film that is LESS sensitive to light. These films will be less grainy because the individual grains are finer and smaller since they do not have to be working super hard to gather light in these conditions.

Try: Kodak Gold 200

Try: Portra 160

Try: Ektar 100

LOW LIGHT SHOOTING:

If you intend to photograph at night or indoors at a party or venue, then you need a film that is MORE sensitive to light because there is not going to be a lot of available light to expose the film. These are also referred to as ‘fast’ films and will have a lot more grain.

Try: Kodak Portra 800

Try: Cinestill 800T

Try: Ilford Delta 3200

Try: Kodak TMAX 3200

You will likely also need to consider an electronic flash unit for consistent results in low light indoor shooting. 

CONSUMER VS PRO FILM

Consumer film nowadays generally refers to the most versatile economical film options and usually can be purchased in packs like Kodak Gold and UltraMax + Fuji C200 and Superia. (Please note that stock of consumer Fujifilm has and continues to face major global shortages). 

‘Pro’ film is film that happens to be formulated with more specific genres of photography in mind. For example, Portra is very popular for portraiture given its incredible rendering of skin tones so a lot of studio, fashion and wedding photographers will seek out this stock.

That of course, is not to say you CAN’T use any of these films as you so desire, but unless you have a specific idea in mind, you might end up with a film that doesn’t really complement your subject/s. You can always experiment once you start feeling confident!

How to Tell if a Roll has been Used

The quick answer: you can’t!

There is no way to tell if a film has definitely already been shot.  The only way to see if there are images on the roll is to develop the film since it requires a chemical process to allow them to be seen. Of course, this means you take a gamble because if the film does end up being blank, you cannot simply reshoot the roll after it’s been developed.

The best practice to adopt is to ensure that once you finish a roll, to wind it fully back into the canister. This will allow you to distinguish which rolls you have already used from any fresh rolls in your bag.

Winding Back Film

As previously discussed, we need to make sure your film is safely wound back into the canister before you even TRY opening the back of the camera.

Automatic point and shoots typically have an auto rewind function that will trigger as soon as you shoot your final image on the roll. You might see your counter on the LED screen counting backwards down to 0.

If you for whatever reason want to rewind your film before the completion of the roll or just want to be certain that the film has wound back, there is often a button that can be pressed in (usually requires a pen) to manually rewind the film.

On a manual SLR, you must first press in the clutch (usually located on the bottom of the camera) to release the tension on the sprockets which are what help advance your film through the camera. This step is so important because if you just start winding without releasing that tension, you will end up tearing the film off the sprockets*. So only after the clutch is fully pressed in, can you start to wind back the film (in the direction indicated on your lever - it is usually clockwise). You should be able to hear a slight 'pop' when you have fully rewound the film back into the canister and then if you keep winding, you will feel no tension at all because there is no longer any film moving through the camera. Only then can you open the back of the camera and take out your film. 

Important Takeaways

  • Never open the back of the camera during shooting or until the film is fully rewound back into the canister
  • Ensure you are using a fast enough shutter speed (increase if you are shooting moving subjects)
  • Using a wide aperture lets more light in but also limits your focal point so be careful to nail focus
  • Use flash when shooting indoors OR in low light conditions 
  • Be aware of where your light source is and how it will affect your subject/s
  • Press in the clutch before winding back your film
  • Wind finished films fully back into the canister when they have been used

 

*If you suspect you might have torn your film, DO NOT open the back of the camera to inspect if you want to save the images taken on the roll. Bring in the camera and we will extract the film in a darkbox for you and salvage whatever we can.