Having been born in the early ‘80s means I spent a good chunk of my formative years shooting on film cameras. I still remember the very first digital camera I bought; it was the first and only time I stood in line for Black Friday. The year was 2003, I was a senior in college, and I immediately fell in love with my new, crappy digital point-and-shoot camera. I kept my film SLR but often turned to my new prized possession to take pictures. I look back and cringe at the quality (lack-thereof) of that camera, but I also laugh because if you had told 2003 me that I was going to ditch this new technology in preference of my old film cameras, I would’ve thought you were crazy.
Thanks to toy cameras (ahem, Diana Mini) I embraced film again in 2009. I joined a few Facebook groups for film shooters a couple years later and was amazed at what people were doing with film. I was inspired to shoot more, and in late 2016, when I bought my own Noritsu scanner, I knew there was no going back for my personal work. The biggest issue is that I wanted to do film for client work, but I was still scared.
I find this to be common among commissioned photographers who fall in love with film. They have a desire to use it for their paid work but don’t quite know how to transition or how to gain the confidence to transition. If this is you, and you need a little encouragement and maybe a few ideas, I hope you will find both of these things below!
How I Moved from Shooting Digital to Film for Client Work
Let me preface this by saying that I am a lifestyle family, newborn, and senior photographer. I DON’T do weddings, so if you do, bless you. I don’t have to worry about nasty reception lighting, just home lighting, and I can easily fix that with a strobe.
Trying to Shoot Film and Digital at the Same Time
When I started incorporating film at sessions, it was just that: incorporating. I didn’t trust myself to do all film, so I bought a dual holster, put my DSLR on one hip and my film camera on the other. I did this for all of two sessions before I realized I was creating more of a pain for my workflow. I found matching film with digital images to be much more time consuming than shooting all digital, and I loved all my film images so much more than the digital ones that I felt like the post-processing battle was not worth it. I love film in part because it makes my post-processing life a breeze, and this was the opposite. It was just the push I needed to go all-in with film.
Updating My Portfolio to Film
The next issue I faced was having a portfolio that would reflect my new aesthetic. It’s my worst fear that a client won’t love their images because they don’t fall in line with my portfolio, so I wanted to be sure that there wouldn’t be any surprises on that front. I also wanted to try my hand at an all-film session without feeling paranoid about “messing up.”
I hand-selected three clients and offered them a free session during a slow business month (hello, hot and humid summer!). You could also put out a model call to find a few clients, offer a free session with a few images with the option to upgrade, or just offer a free session where the client pays only your film costs. This part is up to you, but I recommend doing whatever it takes to FEEL FREE to be creative. Don’t let money make you feel beholden to your client’s expectations. Take this opportunity to do what you want to do, let loose, be creative, and push yourself. Not only will your new portfolio reflect your film aesthetic but also attract clients who want you to lean into your creative side.
The next step hurt the most. I went to my website and deleted all my digital images. Maybe you don’t have to delete all of them, but I felt this was a necessary, but brutally difficult step. Once again, I wanted to be sure to clearly communicate to my potential clients what my style entails. And in my case that’s grain and light leaks and lots of bright colors but also lots of black and white. I also was sure to include the creative images I shot to show clients that this is what a session with me will entail. I will photograph the classic-smiling-shot but also the shots with motion blur, out of focus moments, and double exposures.
If it feels like three clients won’t give you enough images, think again. Your portfolio doesn’t need to be an exhaustive list of every single image you’ve taken and liked. It should be a small, curated set of images that make your heart sing. It doesn’t take many images to communicate your style, and using too many can look sloppy and amateur. I have read you only need about a dozen images in your portfolio… I personally am not good at sticking to that and am not sure if that’s even a definitive number for a portfolio, but I did use the transition to film as an opportunity to pare down. My current website features around a dozen images per category showing my in-home work, my on-location work, and my seniors.
After trying my hand at a few all-film sessions and revamping the work on my website I felt confident that anyone hiring me would know exactly what to expect. And I had shot three sessions using all film, and all of them turned out. I knew I was ready.
Do Clients Hire Me Because I Shoot Film?
Shooting film is part of what I do and who I am, but I honestly don’t expect to be hired because of it. Sometimes at sessions people are shocked when I change out that first roll because they didn’t realize I’m analog. I’ve even heard of people NOT getting hired because they shoot film. I don’t hide the fact that I shoot it, but I also don’t rely on it. I want to be hired because someone connects with my portfolio and my preferred medium just happens to be film. If you want to read more about WHY I shoot film, click here.
If you’re wanting to make the transition to film, I hope that my experience has helped you brainstorm how you can take steps toward making it a reality. If you’ve already made that transition, I’d love to hear how your experience was similar to or different from mine. And as always, if you have questions, ask away!
What camera(s) do you use at your sessions?
I still use that double holster I bought for the short time I did film and digital! I put a Nikon F100 (find at KEH Camera or on eBay) on my right side and a Nikon n80 (find at KEH Camera or on eBay) on my left. I use two cameras for three reasons: I like shooting multiple film stocks at once, I like having quick access to multiple prime lenses at once, and I like that usually if one roll finishes and I’m in a good flow I don’t have to change out my film, I just grab the other camera.
I’m a prime lens shooter at sessions alllll day erryday. For families/newborns, I usually have the nifty fifty (1.8g) on my F100 and the Sigma 35mm 1.4 on the n80 with the 85mm (1.8g) in my bag. For seniors, I usually have the 50mm and 85mm on my cameras with the 35mm waiting in the wings.
Do you have a favorite film you use?
I often use color film (also called C-41) in one camera and black and white in the other. My go-to C41 is Kodak Portra 400 rated at 400. Sometimes I will use Kodak Portra 160, but if I’m photographing a family and it’s gloomy, I know I’m going to need a smaller aperture and faster shutter speed, so I’ll usually shoot it at 320 and push a stop. I also love Portra 800 at 400. Portra 800 is becoming my fave (color for dayyyzzzzz!), but it’s definitely pricier than its siblings.
For black and white, I go between Ilford HP5+ 400, Kodak TMax 400, and Kodak Tri-X 400, but I most often shoot Tri-X 400. I often rate my black and whites at 800 or 1250 and push either one or two stops. I just love contrast and grain, and that’s a sure way to get it.
How do you keep your film accessible?
I’m glad you asked! I rock a hot pink fanny pack; it’s stylish and practical. (JK, I look like an idiot, but it is practical.) I keep a Sharpie and lens cloth in the back pocket (gotta mark those rolls you want to push!), my unused film in the big pocket, and the finished rolls go in the front pocket.
What meter do you use?
I use the Sekonic L-358, but honestly I only use it with strobe. I find I’m much faster at using my internal meters and a zone system. When I was using the Sekonic to double check my exposure, I found I was wasting my time because the reading never changed how I shot. You can find my tutorial for in-camera metering here.