A Journey with Film and How You Can Start, Too

natural light photo of mom holding newborn on her bed by Elena Wolfe

There was something magical that I felt as I sorted through my fathers prints that I pulled out of a box as I moved into my new home. I remember looking at film negatives as a little girl and examining them as the light past through. Every time my father saw me looking at the negatives with curiosity he would start telling me about backpacking in Siberia, growing up and his adolescence and adult life and then the pictures of me as a baby. As I sat there sorting through his photographs feeling the worn edges and creases in-between my fingers, I cried remembering the stories he shared. As I felt the paper between my fingers, I saw deep into my father’s heart. He has an eye for simple composition and a passion for hand crafting his vision. This was a gift he had shared with my sister and I, I was fortunate to inherit his eye for photography.

As I sat there sorting through his photographs I tried to understand why I felt so connected with his photographs but yet so distant from my own. As a photographer I had composed my images meaningfully, put my heart and soul into creating my work but there was something missing. I started doing a lot of research and reading about digital photography, editing, manipulating, photoshopping, it sounded and looked so unnatural. I accidentally stumbled across film and it led me into an obsession for film and beautiful film cameras. In the fall of 2013 I began saving for my first film camera, a Contax 645. Within a few short months I received my first body and lens and invited my father over. I took out the camera and I saw tears fill his eyes. I was pursuing his passion that was prohibitive to him economically. His passion became my motivation to live his dream. Something that day had changed me and I began my journey into discovering discovering myself through film.

girl peeking through a store window by Elena Wolfe

There is a simplicity to film that is freeing. Film has slowed me down, connected me with my subject and has given me the freedom from editing for countless hours. The process of taking the photograph, selecting my film and my camera has changed me as a photographer and made me a more intentional shooter. I began making the conscious decision of taking or not taking a photograph, finding my light intentionally and picking my film for that light. Photography suddenly became so natural and my photographs began to change. I carried around a small journal and started taking notes. The beginning days were not easy and I had a lot of challenges to overcome.

Starting film was filled with frustration and so many questions: which film, how do I meter, what is pushing and pulling, which lab should I choose, why are my scans coming back so underexposed? I joined various film photography forums and Facebook groups and I highly suggest seeking out a few to join including specific film camera groups that are very helpful. I signed up for a workshop with Jonathan Canlas called FIND, which stands for Film Is Not Dead. It opened the door for me to learn the basics about film, to feel comfortable trying, failing, learning and growing. It also exposed me to different cameras and film formats.

black and white square film pic of girl looking up and holding out her dress by Elena Wolfe

I currently shoot all of my paid work with a Contax 645 and my go-to lens is the Zeiss 80 2.0, I also added the Zeiss 45 2.8 which I found is very handy for large bridal parties but it stays home during family sessions. My travel camera and my daughter’s favorite camera became my Rolleiflex 2.8f. It is light, quiet and really fun to use since the images that you get are a square. I have other cameras but they are mostly for backup, personal work or come out for certain occasions like my Canon EOS 1V, Mamiya AFDII and my Polaroid 110A Land Camera. I found out that film has soul and so does each camera. When I want to connect with my daughter I use my Rolleiflex, I found out that she gets silly and shows me a more curious nature when I use this camera.

There are so many beautiful film stocks, my favorites are Fuji 400h for its beautiful skin tones, Portra 800 for its versatility, Portra 160 for its colors and depth, Acros 100 for so many reasons and I will speak a little more about this film later, Ilford HP5 and one of my favorites for weddings and newborn sessions Ilford Delta 3200. I carried around a journal and took notes, I would shoot one roll of film in one setting at different exposures and found what my magic numbers are. I sent in test rolls to different labs, tried different scanners, and learned how to communicate with my lab to get the results I want. There are so many fantastic labs, although I use Richard Photo Lab and Pro Photo Irvine, other labs that do beautiful work are Film Box Lab, Indie Film Lab, The FIND Lab, Carmencita (in Europe), Photovision, and Photo Impact Imaging. The best thing to do is get a test roll scanned and communicate with the lab. Your relationship with your lab is really important and communicating with them will help you achieve the results that you are looking for.

film photo of mom hugging daughter by Elena Wolfe

When I meter film, I use a handheld Sekonic meter, my internal camera meter, or the Sunny 16 rule. If I am walking around with my Rolleiflex I often use the Sunny 16 rule and found out how to adjust it for changing light. My journal and notes really helped me understand how many stops of light to adjust cloudy days, shade, and backlight by. When I use my internal camera meter I use the Zone System to meter with spot metering. My handheld meter is usually bulb in, and I am careful to make sure I meter my color film right in the shadows and am not accidentally metering off a white surface. The most important thing to remember about metering is to analyze your whole scene as well as what you are metering from.

Each film stock has a unique way of being exposed and there are so many different ways to meter and overexpose film. You can overexpose film by selecting a lower ISO, or setting a slower shutter or wider aperture. One thing to remember is that your ISO is already predetermined by the film type and speed on the box. When you set up your meter or camera you can intentionally overexpose your film by setting a lower ISO and you can adjust your aperture or shutter I find that my favorite results with Fuji 400h on a sunny day is being metered for the shadows at ISO 200. If it’s a very dark and gloomy day I prefer to let in more light and meter at ISO 100. Portra 800 looks beautiful when it is metered for the shadows at ISO 200, 400, and 640. It has different characteristics depending on how much you overexpose it, it is my favorite film for at home sessions due to its versatility. I expose Portra 160 at 100, it renders colors that are more true to life in my opinion and is a little more rustic when there are a lot of earthy wood tones in the scene. Additionally I use a few different black and white stocks, the one that is always with me is Ilford Delta 3200. I find that when this film is metered in the shadows at 1600, it looks really dreamy and romantic. The shadows are really soft and the whites are whimsical.

black and white film photo with a rolleiflex of girl laying on a bench by Elena Wolfe

My favorite black and white film is Fuji Acros 100, I generally meter it in spot mode for middle gray in the mid-tones at 200 and push it one stop in developing. Pushing film is a way of underexposing your film in camera but your lab will compensate for this and overexpose it in the developing process. When you meter your film to intentionally underexpose it, it is important to communicate this with your lab so that they can change the developing time. The developing time varies based on the speed of the film and when you “push” film you increase the time that the film spends in the developing bath. This will increase the contrast by making your whites whiter and your blacks darker. This method works best when you have good quality light. Ilford HP5, another black and white film that I like to use is very versatile, has minimal grain and can be pushed well up to 1600 if you have good light.

Once I felt comfortable using and exposing film, I began incorporating it into my paid work. I as able to connect more with my clients and the relationship during the session began to evolve. Children have a natural curiosity and parents showed trust during the session. During proofing sessions I watched eagerly as my clients selected the film images as their favorites. I would ask my clients, what made you choose this one and most times they would say “the feeling I get from it or the way the colors look”. This brought me back to the feeling I would have looking through my fathers photographs.

backlit photo with sunflare of girl running in a field by Elena Wolfe

During the beginning of my journey into adding film into my paid work, I began incorporating one roll at a time at family sessions and up to 5 rolls at weddings. I now shoot about 5-10 rolls of 120 film at a family session about up to 30 rolls of medium format film at a wedding. I taught myself to shoot my digital to compliment my film work and began shooting at the lowest possible ISO, widest aperture that was appropriate for each scene and slowest appropriate shutter. I expose my color film for the shadows and my digital images for the highlights making sure that I do not clip my blacks or whites but keep the information in my midtones. I also learned that if I had to select an ISO of 800, it was an easy decision to put my color film away and work with black and white film and digital.

My shooting and editing workflow has become so much simpler and less time consuming. I save so many precious hours that I can now spend with my family instead of stuck at the computer editing. After my session, the film gets mailed out to my lab. Once I receive the images, I cull out a few images and then I cull in complimentary digital images. I learned to use Mastin Labs Presets which emulate film and incorporate it with my digital editing workflow. I began playing with every single slider in Lightroom and tried to understand the effect it would have on the colors and tones of the image and my digital images now match my film scans. One of the most important gains (with the exception of precious time!) is being able to have a uniform color palette instead of editing that varies from one session to another.

black and white picture of girl walking by a home by Elena Wolfe

Although film is a beautiful medium, it is also expensive. I calculated the maximum number of rolls depending on each film stock and lab that I can shoot at each session and wedding to remain profitable. I use digital to supplement and compliment my film images which are now the main focus at sessions. I also use film entirely for personal work including photographing my daughter and our adventures together. My workflow for my personal work made me look forward to photography outside of my business. This really encouraged me to grow as an artist and strengthened my photography. It inspired a passion that was deeper than creating a photograph, each time I take a picture, I discover something new about myself every time I get my photographs scans back from my lab.

As I began to reflect on my digital work and on my film work I was able to see how much more soul and passion is in each film image. I am able to draw so much more deeper into my soul and make conscious decisions about the story I want each image to tell. There is so much more depth and dimension that each film image has and part of it has to do with the way that it captures and renders light. During my learning process, I kept returning to my fathers prints. I began to see something so much deeper that I had uncovered throughout this process. Film was able to connect me with the process of actually taking a photograph and making a feeling and a vision into something tangible. As I look back at my images, I discovered that I am more like my father than I ever wanted to admit and this has brought me closer to him, his vision, and passion for family. I am forever grateful for being able to discover this beautiful photography medium and hope to keep sharing its magic.

film picture of girl sitting on steps playing with her hair by Elena Wolfe

This article was guest written by Elena Wolfe. Elena is a film and digital wedding and portrait photographer. She has a lifestyle approach to photography and enjoys bringing personalities, mood and emotion in her work. Her go to camera for personal work is her Rolleiflex 2.8. Her camera bag also includes her Contax 645 and Canon 5d mark III.

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