I’m often asked why I shoot film? So I thought I’d write a bit about my experience of shooting digital and shooting film and explain how I came to be a hybrid wedding photographer.
I received my first ever digital camera for my 18th birthday in 2003. Before that it had been all about disposables containing a single roll of bog standard 35mm. You remember those… you’d take the flimsy plastic camera to Boots and get the set of 6×4″ prints back a few days later in a shiny paper envelope. I’m a romantic, so I still love that element of surprise with analogue photography.
I started taking photographs in earnest in the mid-2000s when digital photography had well and truly taken hold of the wedding industry. There were so many advantages to shooting digital; to many it seemed like the days were numbered for analogue photography. This new tool changed the face of wedding photography suddenly and dramatically, for better and for worse.
Perhaps the most significant practical change was that photographers could now see each image on the back of their camera moments after they’d clicked the shutter. This made mistakes less likely, or at least limited them to a handful of frames. Digital cameras also had a broader range of ISO sensitivity meaning photographers could shoot inside dark churches one minute and in bright sunshine the next with just a minor setting adjustment.
Importantly, wedding photographers could now take as many photographs as they wanted without any consideration of the cost of film. They were released from the anxiety of diminishing profit margins and were free to experiment and shoot in a more documentary style. Couples who tied the knot in the mid-nineties might have expected to receive 50 photographs from their wedding day, a decade later they would be navigating their way through hundreds. The stiff, formal wedding photography which had reigned for over a century was quickly dismissed in favour of a more natural, photojournalistic depiction of a wedding day. “Reportage” was the word of the moment.
The digital age also resulted in a massive influx of less skilled photographers into the wedding market. Many saw it as an easy way to earn a living and adopted what became termed as a “spray and pray” approach. Inexperienced wedding photographers worked hastily, shooting as much as they physically could in the hope they would capture something fantastic along the way. Technical details such as focus and exposure weren’t always a top priority, what was important was the moment captured in each frame. Black and white conversions hid a multitude of sins! This went on for some years. When I photographed my first wedding in 2009 I was very inexperienced and behaved exactly like this. I took the digital photograph above at a brilliant wedding in Cheshire in 2011 and I still like it a lot, but I have to admit it was a happy accident. I was working completely unobtrusively and shot a lot more frames than I do now, so by the law of averages there were always going to be a few gems in there.
I do consider the skills I learned in those first couple of years exceedingly valuable. I taught myself how to hunt; how to be vigilant and get myself into the best position possible to capture the important moments I know will mean something to my clients. However, there were still key skills missing. I had no idea how to pose, so my portraits were left to chance and my group photographs were poor. I lacked the confidence to intervene when I knew a slight tweak would make the difference between an alright picture and a great one. I knew I was good at telling stories through photography and my clients were more than happy with my work, but I felt like a fraud.
Film terrified me – I had no idea what to do with it, literally. So to remedy this I got myself a place on Jon Canlas’ Film Is Not Dead workshop in London. Looking back it changed the game completely for me. The experience took the mystery out of shooting film, but it also taught me to slow down and shoot every frame with purpose. I came to realise that offering light direction and posing advice did not necessarily mean stale and awkward portraits. I learned how to intervene in a way that actually made my clients feel more confident and relaxed in front of the camera.
The process of shooting film appealed to me immediately. I never much enjoyed spending day after day in front of the computer processing RAW files. I much prefer doing all the hard work during the shoot rather than at the post-processing stage and when you shoot film, you have to get it right in camera.
I also just fell in love with the soft aesthetic of film photographs. Given the option I’ll always choose grain over pixels and highlights over shadows. There is a depth and quality in film photographs which is difficult to replicate digitally; the colours are positively luminous and print so beautifully.
Learning to shoot film actually made me a more thoughtful digital photographer and I must admit that I do still find digital can be a more effective tool in certain circumstances. My portrait photo shoots always take place in good natural light and the element of control I have over the session enables me to confidently shoot 100% film. However there are certain times at any wedding when things are exceedingly fast-paced and I just find my film camera that bit too slow. So rather than fret about all the moments I’m missing, it’s at this point when I’ll revert to a documentary photographer and choose to shoot digitally.
My digital camera is also my best friend after sunset. Due to the ISO limitations of film, I’ll always choose digital in low light. When light levels are low and events are unravelling quickly I need the ability to be able to shift my ISO at a moments notice, so I can ensure all those moments are correctly exposed. I want to deliver the maximum amount of quality photographs to my clients, so I would never limit myself by choosing the wrong tool for a particular situation. As a wedding photographer my first priority is to my couples and at the end of the day it’s my eye they’ve booked me for, not my kit.
I go to great lengths to ensure my digital images are edited cleanly and consistently with my film work so that I can deliver a collection of bright, colour-correct photographs which will stand the test of time. I’ve begun to refer to my approach as “fine art documentary“, because to me that’s just what it is… honest storytelling through a series of photographs which all have that beautiful, soft look to them. I like to think this means my clients get the best of both worlds.