by Paige Forden
As a film photographer, one of the most common questions I receive is, “Do you use film indoors, and what do you do when there’s not enough light?” For a short time, my answer was to reach for a digital camera, but I was never satisfied with the result (and if you shoot film, you can probably relate). With practice, online courses and a number of YouTube videos, what once felt like an impossible combination — film & artificial light — became a lovely pairing for me. I’m no longer concerned about available light in clients’ homes or having to reschedule on overcast days, relieving lots of anxiety on my end. I’m able to shoot all film, which is how I create art best, while giving my clients the most beautiful and consistent images possible.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s start with a few film fundamentals. For those familiar with the medium (and those who aren’t — I’ll explain!), exposing for film is inherently different from digital photography. Film is very light hungry, and certain stocks can be overexposed 3-4 stops (may Fuji400H rest in peace) and still look gorgeous. While I personally prefer most film stocks rated near box speed (or slightly over, depending on light quality), the bottom line is this: underexposed film isn’t pretty. It renders muddy colors and lots of grain, and these flaws are hard to fix in post.
With that in mind, walking into a dark home with your film camera poses a problem. While we’d all love to photograph in homes with sweeping windows and tremendous ambient light, it’s not always a reality. The slowest shutter speed I’m comfortable hand-holding my film camera (while still producing sharp images) is 1/60th of a second. If my meter is reading below 1/60th, I know I don’t have enough window light to properly expose my film.
In my experience, the use of flash & strobe has a bad rap. So much so that many professionals (film and otherwise) market themselves exclusively as “natural light photographers.” And listen, I know what you’re saying… traditional flash/strobe renders a specific look that can be pretty easily identified as “flashy” -- anything but light, airy, soft and romantic. However, I’m here to explain how artificial light can be made to emulate window light, and how it works alongside film. Hint: it doesn’t differ too much from digital.
At the end of the day, as professional photographers, we are experts at evaluating light. It’s our job to seek the best medium for our subject matter! While the combination of artificial light and film might seem intimidating, I’m here to provide you with some best practices to get started.
I prefer to use an off-camera light source (strobe) instead of bouncing flash from the hot shoe of my camera (although possible, my opinion is that a flash is too small to produce soft, diffused light… more on that below). This allows you to have precise control over where light is falling. Moreover, a quality strobe has greater power range than a flash. I always start with power as low as possible — which is lower than a flash could go.
If you only have flash available, or you’re not ready to invest in a strobe, the same principles apply… you just have less control.
In addition to your light source, you’ll need a diffuser (parabolic umbrella, softbox, etc). The bigger the modifier, the better! I diffuse my light twice. I shoot my strobe into the back of an 8’ white umbrella (I prefer the catchlights of an umbrella over a softbox, and I also like the portability of an umbrella). Then, I cover the umbrella with a white panel, diffusing a second time. This softens the light significantly and reduces the chance that you create any harsh light on your subject(s).
If using a flash, I recommend either bouncing the light off of a window (this will act as your diffusion method) or mount the flash onto an external light stand, and shoot into the back of an umbrella as mentioned above.
If there is one takeaway from this article, here it is: The larger your modifier is, and the closer it is to your subject, the softer the light will be! Evaluate your strobe just like you monitor light intensity coming from a window… the farther away your subject gets from the light source, the stronger the shadows become. With certain exceptions, most of the time my strobe is at a 45 degree angle in front of my subject, complimenting my ambient light source. Placing the light directly in front of my subject, or opposite the window will create flat light (which definitely works, but it is not always the most flattering).
When shooting film with a strobe, you must have an external meter. Honestly, film and a meter are synonymous, but I’ve met some photographers who go without :) with artificial light, it’s required.
After you’ve placed your light and your subject, turn on your strobe and set it to a low power. I like to start at the lowest possible setting. Power settings differ from brand to brand, (flash output is measured in watts per second, but how it’s expressed on a strobe light is not the same on a Profoto as on a Godox, for example). You’ll need a trigger on your film camera hot shoe to communicate with your strobe, and your external light meter should be in “flash” mode (lightning bolt symbol).
Once you’ve positioned your subject and light, move to your light meter and enter your preferred F stop and film ISO (how you intend to rate your film). Then, move to your subject and take a reading (I always meter bulb out, in the shadows). In flash mode, your meter will wait until you fire a test from your light (usually a “test” button on your trigger), and then deliver a shutter reading. Slowly increase/decrease the power of your strobe until you’re reading 1/60th in the shadows (no more, no less).
For example, if I’m shooting Kodak Portra 400 on my Contax 645, I set my meter to f/2, ISO 400 -- both of which are artistic preferences -- I like to rate my Kodak at box speed. I’m then adjusting strobe power up or down until my meter gives a reading of 1/60th shutter speed in the shadows.
Why 1/60th? Two reasons. All cameras have a sync speed (the highest speed in which your camera can use flash), and you never want to go above it (if you’re wondering why, just Google it). For the Contax (and most medium format film cameras), sync speed is around 1/60th - 1/90th. We also want to take advantage of the ambient light available in the room, as this helps to give us a balanced, “natural light” look. A slower shutter will allow some of that additional window light into our exposure. A faster shutter is going to overpower any ambient light (think: bright subject, dark(er) background), rendering a look that’s more “flashy.”
Monitor Your Stops
Pay close attention to how your light is falling. Because there’s no LCD on the back of your film camera, it’s important to evaluate light (natural or artificial) to make sure you’re achieving a flattering exposure with soft highlights, midtones and shadows.
Simply speaking, I try to maintain a half to one-stop difference between my highlights, midtones and shadows. The same concept applies when metering for your strobe. Ideally, a reading in the shadows of 1/60th would present 1/90th in the mid-tones and 1/125th for highlights. A situation that provided 1/60 in the shadows, but 1/500 in the highlights would be one with much higher contrast and a less airy feel. In that case, I’d probably (a) reposition my subject to angle more toward the highlights, (b) try moving my light more toward the center or opposite the window to fill shadows, or (c) find a new location.
As with any medium, practice is everything. Working with film and a strobe takes patience, in the same way learning a new film stock does. Deciphering how you position your light, how you prefer to meter, what methods you use to diffuse the light… are all a part of practice and ultimately, your taste(s) as an artist!
Profoto B10 Strobe Head
Profoto Deep White Large Umbrella 51”
Profoto Air Remote Transceiver (Note: this is a universal remote, meaning it works on my Contax, Pentax, or Fuji GFX. Some triggers are camera specific, so be sure to note brand when purchasing).
Sekonik L-358 Light Meter