Lessons Learned from a Film-Only Engagement Session

Film is dead. But I didn’t get the memo. 

Outside of my wedding and commercial work, I’ve been shooting film almost exclusively for three months, including 36 rolls I shot on a trip to Havana, Cuba. It’s been rewarding shooting film for my leisurely work, but I wanted to merge the two worlds. I’ve been wanting to shoot a film-only engagement for some time now, but the opportunity never really came up, until recently. 

Armed with the best of 1950’s technology - my Rolleiflex 2.8D, a Hasselblad XPan, several rolls of Kodak Portra, and a light meter, we set off for the Toronto Harbourfront. I intentionally left all my digital cameras at home, knowing it would have become a crutch had I the option to shoot with it. Luckily, my clients were game for this experiment, trusting me (those fools!) to deliver the analog goods. 

Despite what I thought were “just ok” results, I found it to be a really important part of my continuous learning process and evolution as a photographer. I’ve summarized the lessons learned on this super-fun film-only Toronto engagement photoshoot: 

1) The process was fun. Shouldn’t this be the most important lesson? Shooting digitally can be a bit mundane, perhaps slightly robotic. There was something refreshing about looking down through the waist level viewfinder and cranking the film advance after each shot. The process felt new again. We ran into another group shooting an engagement and I looked at all his digital gear and couldn’t have been happier not being him.  

2) It keeps you motivated. Wedding season can be a long and tiring one. Most wedding photographers I know make the majority of their income in a 6-8 month window each year. Whether or not they want to admit it, I am here to say that sometimes it can be difficult to stay motivated; to keep things fresh from shoot-to-shoot. I’m not telling people to all of a sudden abandon their digital cameras, but I do feel there is value in mixing things up here and there to keep the motivation and excitement at a high level.

3) The photos are unique. How many people getting married nowadays can say they’ve done a photoshoot all on film? This isn’t about the digital vs film argument, but what is perceived as being more unique. To me, I value film photos a lot more than digital ones because I know that the process is more difficult and the results are more varied. There’s definitely a lot more than is not within your control when shooting, developing, and scanning film. For my client, I suppose it gives them some sort of bragging rights to say their 2015 engagement was shot with a camera that is more than twice their age.

4) It slows you down. The process of shooting film is a lot slower. You have to pick and choose your scenes better and know when to push the shutter, especially when you’re working with a couple of chronic blinkers! Having a finite number of shots forces you to be more selective when pushing the shutter. You’re basically throwing a dollar away with each photo taken, so you’re more likely to put more care in each shot. 

5) You appreciate technological limitations. The Rolleiflex has a maximum shutter speed of 1/500 of a second and I did not have the cable to mount a flash to it. At some points I was shooting at 1/15 of a second because the ISO of my film was 160. Given these restrictions, it was interesting to adapt to each situation. When we shoot digital and can change ISO, shoot to 1/8000 of a second, and autofocus within a fraction of a second, we sometimes forget that there are technological limitations at all. 

6) The period of not knowing is great. Not having instant gratification seemed strangely rewarding. I like the idea that I don’t know immediately whether or not the image turned out as planned. When the client asked “how did that photo turn out?” I would reply “no idea”. There’s too many variables to know - maybe they blinked, maybe the lab will mess up the developing, or maybe I accidentally double exposed their roll. That leads to the next point… 

7) There is less expectation. Because there is some understanding that the film process is somewhat flawed and imperfect, I think that there’s less expectation in terms of the quality and number of usable images. I don’t think this is an excuse to produce mediocre photos, but with lower expectations the clients will be that much happier when they turn out better than anticipated. 

Using film in today’s world doesn’t make sense. It is expensive to buy, slow to load and shoot, and costs money and time to process and scan. But you know what? I would totally shoot more film for portraits and weddings if I could. There’s so much I love about shooting film and I think that clients can see this passion carry over when I am photographing them. If it takes shooting a few rolls of film here and there to keep that passion alive, then why not? The challenge for me now is to find more clients that value film the same way I do. Hopefully I can make these occasional shoots more frequent.       

Notes about the photoshoot: I shot four rolls of 120 film (Kodak Portra 160) and one roll of 135 film (Kodak Portra 400) on the XPan for 68 total images. The XPan images are not shown. The negatives were developed at Downtown Camera in Toronto and scanned at home using the Epson V700 with Better Scanning inserts. Colours were manually tweaked in Lightroom. Of the 68 images, I delivered about 25 to the client.

[You can now follow my wedding work @epictorontoweddings on Instagram]

Photo with my beloved Rolleilex, by Eric Kim.

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