Written by Kathleen Frank
A few weeks ago, we shared an awesome article all about how to get that light and airy look in your film images. (Check it out here!) Sometimes, though, you want a little more drama and a moodier feel to your images. So, today, we’re helping you do that! We’re sharing three tips to help you achieve a moodier look with your film images.
Look for Contrasting Light
So much about film photography, and all photography, is learning how to read light. Is your light soft or harsh? From which direction? Does it have a warm or cool tint? To get a moody image, you’ll need to start with some moody light.
Look for harsh or strong light that gives your scene a lot of contrast. This type of light creates both strong shadows and highlights. Also, you’ll want a scene with more shadows than highlights, such as a dark background with just a little bit of light on the subject. It will help create a moodier image.
Window light is a great example of this. In the image below, light came in through the window in an otherwise pretty dark room, creating a strong contrast between the shadows and the highlights.
Meter for Shadows but Scan for Highlights
This is the secret trick for getting moodier images! And it’s a bit counter intuitive. When I first started experimenting with moodier film images, I figured metering for highlights with my color film would give me those dark shadows and moody tones. I was wrong!
Metering for highlights, more often than not, landed me with muddy and underexposed images. But with some advice from my lab and through a lot of experimenting, I found that metering for shadows or midtones was a much better way to go. Metering for shadows or midtones gives you more light to work with on your negative, produces a cleaner image, and avoids the muddiness and grain of underexposure.
*This metering advice is more applicable for color film than black and white film. Metering for highlights works quite well for black and white film to get a moody look, but with color it often leaves you with an underexposed image.
But this is the same way I meter for light and airy images! How can I get a moody image if I’m metering the same way I do for a light and airy image?
The big difference is in the scanning. For light and airy images, you’ll scan for shadows (which is typically how labs will scan your images). For moody images, you’ll want to scan for highlights.
Scanning for highlights, along with shooting in contrasty light, will give you nice dark shadows and detail in the highlights, creating beautifully moody images.
My go-to recipe for getting a moody image is shooting Portra 400 in contrasty light, rated at 200, metered for the midtones, and scanned for highlights. (Find Kodak Portra 400 on Amazon) *This will work with most film stocks. Portra 400 is just my personal favorite!
Communicate with Your Lab
The last piece of the puzzle is communicating with your lab. Labs will typically scan an image in a light and airy style as it’s the current standard. Since you’re looking for something quite different, getting on the same page with the people who are scanning your images is a must.
Let your lab know you want the images scanned for highlights with a moodier feel. I usually include this with a note on my order form. If I forget (which happens way too often!), I just send an email. You can also send them a few example images of the style you’re trying to achieve. These can be your own images or other photographers’ images.
With most labs, you can even tell them individual frames you’d like scanned for highlights. You’ll have to take some good notes while you’re shooting so the lab knows which frames to scan which way, but it will keep you from having to shoot an entire roll in a moody style.
It’s also a great idea to keep communicating with the lab after you get your scans back. If they didn’t quite hit the mark, let them know what you want different and ask for a rescan. If you loved your scans, let them know that, too! That way they’ll know what you like for next time. Working with a lab is a collaboration with a lot of back and forth, so don’t be afraid to keep an open line of communication and let them know what you want in your film images.
If you have questions about shooting moody images with film, leave them below in the comments!
Want to learn more about shooting film? Read all of our film photography tutorials here!