As a film wedding photographer myself, based in Charleston, I can definitely say I have a bit of a bias on the whole film vs. digital debate. When someone asks me the difference between film and digital photographs, it takes everything in me not to out my soapbox, stand atop it and proclaim “everything!!!” … but instead of jumping immediately to that though, I want to give you some perspective as you search to choose a wedding photographer and help you understand why I believe – film wins.
What makes film different than digital wedding photography?
It’s often difficult for me to try to relay the beauty of shooting film on wedding days as opposed to digital. I respect both mediums, but I choose to personally spend over $1000 – and sometimes much higher – from every wedding payment I receive just for the chance to shoot film (the cost is in the purchase and processing of film). There’s gotta be something to that, right? I always want to talk about heart, and feeling and essence, about beauty and tangibility and SOUL … but how easy is that really in a simple blog post? It can be a tough task, but I want to do my best to explain the WHY of film photography – why is it worth the effort, why is it worth the cost, why is it any better than a top of the line digital camera anyway? Why has this medium of film – once thought to be outdated – made a resurgence in the wedding and fine art industry?
For those who crave the tangible reasons behind why I think film wedding photography wins over digital wedding photography, I’ve got you covered. Here are 10 reasons why you should choose a film photographer for your wedding day:
- It’s a timeless aesthetic. Film is (usually) not subjected to the same “of-the-moment” editing techniques that many digital images are. Film, by it’s very nature of being an image burned into a literal film, is scanned and processed resulting in an image that often doesn’t need to be adjusted much via editing and therefor doesnt undergo filters, presets or any of those over-done forms of post-processing. As a former Historian, this is one of the main reasons I choose to shoot with film – when someone sees these images in 50 years or more, I want their first thought to be “Wow, that’s beautiful! … not “Wow, thats sooooo 2016!”
- It takes skill. First and foremost let me say that digital shooting also 100% takes skill. There is no denying that. However, because film shooters need to be intentional about the images they capture, that means we often had to hone and sharpen our abilities quickly. Without the convenience of a digital camera’s instant-screen on the back of a camera, film shooters have to train themselves to see light all around them, and not depend on the view-screen of an image they just shot to tell them if something looks pretty or not. Film shooters have to learn without this crutch, and I believe it makes them all the more capable. As a film shooter I’ve trained myself to develop an instant ability to determine light and color quality of a scene with just a glance, and that has certainly made me a better photographer in the fast-paced schedules of wedding days.
- It’s safer in terms of image-loss. In my many years of shooting and being in this industry I’ve heard far more stories of wedding images being “lost” from those who shoot exclusively digital. Technology – as great as it can be – can fail. Camera cards can corrupt, get damaged, lost or be deleted. I’ve heard stories of any and all these things happening and photographers who’ve been around the block often say “it’s not if, it’s when” a card will be compromised. With film, if shot appropriately, there is no modern technology to get in the way. Film can’t be dropped and damaged. Once it arrives and is scanned by the lab – the negatives can be stored forever and reprinted the same way they have been for the last 100 years. As a precaution to malfunctioning film equipment, I personally back-up all of my wedding days with digital cameras as well. That means the day is captured on two different mediums/formats and that helps further protect against lost images.
- It’s an intentional artistic process. As I alluded to early, film is expensive for the shooter. Every single image I shoot on film costs me on average $2.50 whether I like it or not. The one thing that I believe refined and honed my skills as a film shooter was that I had to stop rushing through the day – and I had to slow down, and see the moments that were unfolding and capture them with extremely focused intention. One of my favorite digital shooters said to me upon seeing the film shots I received back from the lab “these look like my highlights!” – and it made me laugh (and of course love her all the more for such a compliment!). Instead of firing blindly at a moment, I need to be present, aware and waiting for “the” moment to happen. While I shoot almost 60% less frames in total than a digital shooter – I deliver the same amount of final images.
- It’s more of an experience for the person being photographed. I’ve been on both sides of the camera and try to have my photo taken annually by a professional to remember what it’s like to be a client. Instead of constant and limitless shutter clicks – a film photographer shooting medium format must adhere to a 16-image per roll rule. Each frame is taken with a purpose. For those being photographed, this feels a lot less like a rapid-click photo shoot and more like making a record of history together. I love seeing a client get the experience of hearing the shutter click on film for the first time – something about it feels special, and permanent. I encourage more real-life interactions while directing, and often have the time to allow my clients to take things at a balanced pace because I’m not shooting for quantity. Instead, I’m searching, creating, and capturing the quality of what I consider to be the perfect shots, both candid and directed. Instead of being able to show the back of the camera in the moment, I let my clients sit in the moments and experience it from their own point of view first. “You worry about making memories, I’ll make the photographs” I often like to say.
- It can be savored. Shooting and processing film all take time. Film photographers aren’t whipping out next-day sneak peeks. Whether clients know it or not – they don’t need sneak peeks. They need the room to breathe and process the experience of a wedding before getting bombarded with 1000 images from their wedding day. Life needs to be lived before we start obsessing over Instagram posts. Fast isn’t always better, and when it comes to experiencing once-in-a-lifetime moments? Fast is the opposite of what I want for my clients. I believe in this process from beginning to end. I want a measured experience as images are being taken, and aim to be just as intentional with how the photographs are then experienced afterwards. Instead of rushing up a wedding sneak peek while they’re on their honeymoon, or overwhelming them with hundreds of images in a scrollable gallery I first send 100 selected prints that arrive on their doorstep in an heirloom box*. These photographs sit in their hands (and not their inboxes) as the first retelling of the story of their wedding day and give them one final lesson in savoring the good stuff in life. (*along with these prints is also a note that gives them immediate access to the online gallery once they’ve had their first experience with the printed images.)
- It has depth (literally). Yeah, yeah I’ve been preaching about soul and experience and “depth” here, but when I say depth – I mean it literally. While I’m sure there is someone with more technical jargon who could appease the techy-lovers on how best to describe this – I’m betting most of those reading this aren’t professionals – so we’re skipping that part! The combination of film emulsion and the popular set-up of a Contax645 and Zeiss 2.0 80mm lens means that images taken on film have the ability to focus in on clean, sharp subjects while compressing the background in a way that makes the viewer of a film photograph feel like they were present in the moment. A film camera’s ability to convey such beauty on various planes is unmatched in my opinion and is the perfect combination for wedding days. Smooth skin and sharp lashes? Every girl’s dream.
- It’s a BEAST in capturing all those details. First, film renders highlights differently than digital does; all those beautiful white dresses often come under threat in digital photography from losing their detail – but not with film. The depth of exposure range on film is unparalleled on a digital camera, and because of this it handles bright light (any light, really!) like a CHAMP with the ability to capture the shadows and highest highlights if shot correctly. Not only that, but a medium format camera can deliver or exceed the same resolution of one of the most expensive digital camera systems on the market selling at $40,000.
- It blends unparalleled Color, Light & Grain: film handles light (from flare, to reflected light) in a way that digital just can’t. According to SLRLounge “Digital camera sensors, are made up of millions of tiny squares that give us an image. Film isn’t split up in such a linear way, and because of that, it naturally blends light and colors better.” For me, I also feel like portrait film stocks like I use for weddings, have an unmatchable tone and color palette – creating images that are rich and varied that represents true-to-life colors. Not only that, but the way film and digital camera handle grain is night and day. For film, grain is a result of a crystalized emulsion process while digital grain is from those tiny pixel squares having to fill in where the digital camera just can’t produce detail. For film, all of these elements combine to add texture and controlled vibrancy in a way digital isn’t able to.
- Chemistry: Both of the above reasons can be explained by technical or chemical processes of course (and for those that want more of a breakdown, I suggest you call my favorite Wood family in Salem Oregon who run Photovision Prints film lab. They’ve got the know-how for anyone truly interested in the emulsions, scanning and magic that makes film so great.) I like to think though, that the nuance of film’s true beauty is best described by a different kind of chemistry. The same chemistry that sparked your heart for that person you plan on marrying. Yeah, there are a lot of technical reasons or specific points you could bring up to explain why you chose that person, but just like with love – film is best just understood by those who feel the chemistry, the skipped heart-beat, the excitement of finding a match to what you desire. Sometimes you may not have even realized you craved that match until you found them.
This last point leads me to a story. I remember once having to stay in a little cottage on the Lost Coast of California before a shoot; the small town was far from everything except an expanse of ancient redwoods, and my room didn’t have cell service, a television or even a radio. The magazines on the end-table were decades old and the silence was oddly unsettling. It’s not until you find yourself in a place like this that you really start to miss the modern conveniences that make it easy to waste away a quiet evening. As I lamented my disconnection, and counted down the hours until my morning photo-shoot I realized there was a lonely record player sitting in the corner atop a box of dust covered records in their sleeves. I looked through the options of names I’d never heard of and pulled out one that seemed like the closest match to what I’d enjoy listening to, all the while cursing my lack of cell-service – it would be way easier to pull up Pandora if only this small town had been large enough for just ONE cell tower to help a sista out!
As the first crackles of the record player sparked static throughout the tiny aging cottage I sat in, a booming voice from a lifetime ago swelled and filled the room with a sound so pure and authentic I was immediately enraptured with it. No finely-tuned, crystal clear iPhone speaker could compare to the imperfectly beautiful sounds spilling from that old record player. This particular sound, if you give it your pure attention (in a way that only a secluded historic house can really allow you), emits an unparalleled sense of nostalgia. It’s the analog nature of such a medium that allows you to truly enjoy the music in a way so many of us are too busy to appreciate most days.
It was hard, of course, to explain to my husband when I returned home just how beautiful that music had been in that moment, but the best way I coul describe it was that this record player had soul – and I’d found chemistry.
Why should someone choose a film photographer for their wedding?
It’s simple to me, really. Film photography has soul in much the same way that the old record player in that tiny forgotten cottage on the California coast has soul. It’s not a process that can be rushed for sake of convenience. Film takes intention from the photographer. I can’t shoot though a million frames firing off in every direction hoping to capture something worthy of delivery. I have to look at the moment, have to take it in and purposefully capture every single frame exactly how I want it to look. Not only that, but a film shooter must have a mastery of understanding light, and must be particular about the methods in which to create their art.
Standing on a bluff with the wind billowing through a white dress as you commit your life to another person is amazing enough – but to have a shutter drop, burning the moment onto film, a moment intentionally captured by an artist who chose it with reverence – that’s everything. For my clients, this sort of artistic, considered approach to capturing their wedding day not only creates an experience for them that is less rushed and more emotive, it creates images that are unparalleled in the rendering of light, depth, and palette.
It’s always my goal, when shooting film, to not just create beautiful images, but to create images that relay to my clients how they day truly FELT, and film assists with that by rendering light in a way more similar to the human eye than that of the digital camera. It’s this combination of an unexplainable soul, purposeful capturing, and unmatchable aesthetic that drives me to shoot film, and finds resonance with the clients that choose me.
Why doesn’t everyone shoot film?
It seems that if this was the entire story, then almost everyone would choose to shoot film, but as with anything, along with the beauty comes challenge and inconvenience. Film shooters must be fully focused, completely capable and on their best game at all times, or the risk can be great. Along with the danger to the inexperienced, comes a high price to learn, practice and shoot it. Every medium format film photograph that I take costs me around $2.50 out of my pocket whether I like the resulting images or not – this sort of investment can be difficult to swallow unless you are truly committed to the medium as an artist.
Even with these supposed drawbacks, film has made a strong resurgence in the fine art wedding industry. because in a world of quick, easy, surface-level and temporary so many of us are feeling a desire to connect to something that posses a unique beauty that can’t be replicated, and takes effort, focus and intention. So while it may be a tall order to fully convey the reason to choose a film photographer to capture your images, perhaps one day I can sit you down in a tiny cabin on the West Coast, pull out some negatives as we put on the record player and show you a little glimpse of the analog soul.
Stay tuned for my next post on “20 things you should know when hiring a film photographer for your wedding”