Film vs digital has been a debate since digital cameras were invented. In the beginning, the resistance was to digital wedding photography and that was mostly just the prototypical old-timers being uncomfortable with change. However, film is making a comeback for fine art wedding photographers and now the old-timers are those who are swearing by their digital cameras and the crazy lighting effects they can do with them, while others of us are looking for something fresh, natural, and more fine art.
That’s why I started photographing weddings in film. Digital is easier, cheaper, and more convenient no doubt. And yes there are loads of Photoshop presets you can buy to help imitate the look of film. But none of them can give you lovely soft bokeh or the fine grain that to me looks more like tiny soft brush strokes than “grain.” I started playing around with film because the look fit fit my brand. I’ve always wanted my couple to leave with images from their wedding that feel like art: authentic yet artistic, images that might belong on a gallery wall. Something that invites you to stay and stare for longer than just to register what’s happening in the picture. Film images do that. The texture, the softness, the tangibility invites you to stay, evokes you to feel, provokes you even to want to touch the physical print, something that we all lose in our digital world.
Top (Film) Bottom (Digital edited with film preset)
In these two photos above, pay attention to the circles of light above their heads. In the left one (digital image edited with a film preset) the circles, called bokeh, have hard lines where as in the right image (film no editing) the bokeh is softer and overlaps. Also look at the out of focus grass on either side. In the left image the grass just looks like out of focus green while in the right image the fine grain gives the background texture like tiny brush strokes.
Top Image (Film no editing) Bottom Image (Digital edited extensively to bring back the skyline and with a film preset) It’s an easy mistake to compare the colors when comparing film and digital images, but film just like digital can be developed in all kinds of different ways to achieve different color. Instead, look at the difference in the softness of her skin. Every shadow and line is visible in the digital image while in the film image her skin looks softer and the light is more even. I also love the way hair looks on film. In the film image her hair looks soft and touchable almost like thin brush strokes painted on by a master artist.
When photographing in digital you have to expose for the highlights (or they will blow out – meaning turn white) so it results in the skin having to be darker, and shadows under eyes and elsewhere on the face become are prominent. In film, I can expose so those shadows get washed out and still retain the important highlights in the background (in this case, the skyline). You can see the same kinds of differences in skin in all these sample images.
Top (Digital edited with film presets and highlights brought back) Bottom (Film no editing) Here again you may notice less shadows in her skin and the nice texture film gives to hair. Also notice the sky. Film is able to pick up much more of the sky while film blows out the details of the storm cloud and even with extensive editing it can hardly be brought back.
Left (Film with no editing) Right (Digital with film preset) I made the digital image as bright as I could without blowing out the highlights on her skin, but the shadows under her eyes and around her mouth didn’t soften even close to how much they did naturally with film.
Above (Film) Below (Digital edited with film preset) Again on the subject of the sky and highlights, the film image retains more of the integrity of the building in the background. Also you don’t get nearly as much chromatic aberration (the purple color you see from the back-light in the willow tree). I also think the top image has a marvelous texture. If you look closely at the willow tree leaves it looks like each one is painted on while in the digital image they all sort of blend together in a blurry mess.
Above left (digital) above right (film) Film also gives more flexibility with where and when you can shoot. While the legendary “golden hour” (what photographers call the hour before and after sunset) is still the best time of day for portraits, wedding schedules often don’t allow you to plan photos around the best light. When this happens, film is your best friend (if it wasn’t already). Film takes in more information, retains more of the highlights, and yet the light stays soft. Presets can’t help you here because they won’t change the difference of how film and digital sensors react to light. This was a really difficult lighting situation we came across at a recent wedding. It was bright and sunny and the majority of portraits were scheduled for midday. There was no shade to be found. This is not ideal lighting. So in digital, you can see there is quite a bit of contrast between the shadows on their face and the background. In film you can see the image retains a softness and the contrast between the highlights and shadows is minimal.
Left (Digital with extensive editing and film preset) Right (Film) These were also taken in really bright conditions.
Left (Digital with extensive editing and film preset) Right (Film) The soft grain of film also means that the out of focus parts of any given image look… how to describe it? Buttery and delicious! With digital it just looks out of focus. Both images were taken at F/2.0
Left (Film) Right (Digital with film preset) No matter how good the preset, you can never quite match the buttery soft texture of film. Both of these were shot at F2.0 but the film image gives us such a softer background and consequently the couple stands out from the background more and the photo looks cleaner.
I think both of these images look nice, they were both taken right before sunset, the ideal time for gorgeous back-lit portraits. However, you can see on the right her skin looks much softer and any lines on her face or shadows under her eyes (we all have them!) are almost indiscernible. Both images were taken at F/2.0 Left (Digital with film preset) Right (Film)]
What brides and grooms can really tell the difference between digital and film?
I know all this stuff gets really nitty-gritty and you may ask, “What client will really notice all those little details?” Your brides and grooms may not be able to point out exactly why they like one photo over another, but I’ve seen it time and time again that my film photos just jump out to my clients more. It seems to be a growing preference. Style Me Pretty posts a very high percentage of weddings photographed in film and their book which they selected a few favorite weddings for, is full of mostly weddings photographed in films. If you look at Pinterest boards, you’ll see most brides have their wedding board covered in film images (usually without even knowing it). I’ve heard my clients say they like the “texture” or the “timelessness” of a film images, but ultimately what I hear the most is that my clients like the way film images make them feel. Ultimately as a wedding photographer you have to choose the medium that works best for you and your brand. My brand is “Natural, Romantic, and Timeless Wedding Photography” and film is a part of my formula for achieving that kind of look.
Do you use still use digital at all?
Please, do not take this article to mean I am anti-digital photography. I really do believe digital images have their place. Digital cameras work really well for me during receptions or dark church weddings where things are really fast-paced and where black and white would be the only solution for film. Also, film cameras like the medium format Contax 645 that I use are often older and therefore a bit more sensitive to things like weather. It’s good to always have a digital camera (or in my case, two) as a back up.
How do you get film pictures online? Do the Bride and Groom still get digital files?
My lab offers film scanning which allows me to get extremely high quality digital renderings of all of my photos. All of my wedding collections include the digital files.
What type of film do you use?
I predominantly use Fuji 400h and Portra 800.
Where do you get your film developed?
Because I want to provide my clients with a luxury experience and luxury products, I use the best of the best to develop my film. Richard Photo Lab in California develops all my film a long with many of the other best wedding photographer’s in the world.
Enjoyed this article? Want tips on selecting a New York Wedding Photographer?