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First Roll Challenge: My experience shooting Fuji 400h & Portra 400 35mm film

Why Film?

When I started my business in 2009, film photography was not very common. I knew of some extremely talented, mega-star photographers (think Elizabeth Messina, Jonathan Canlas, etc.) that shot 100% film, but they were definitely in the minority. I dreamed of attending a FIND workshop (Film is Not Dead – founded by the aforementioned Jonathan Canlas) but it just wasn’t in the budget. So for years, I watched from afar as film began to trickle into the wedding photography industry. I was finding my place as a digital photographer all while dreaming of becoming a film photographer.

For a long time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I wanted this so badly. Was it because it was a new challenge? Because no one else was doing it? Or maybe because all the images I saw that were shot with film had a softness, a specific grain, and amazing detail in the highlights and shadows? All I knew was I wanted in. And I didn’t know ANYTHING about the medium. Somewhere in the hustle and bustle of life this aspiration of mine got shelved. I was so consumed with running a business, building my family, (throw in some moves, health issues, and a few rounds of IVF), that I let go of my dream. I prefer to think of it as God’s timing.

Then one day I tried out these new Lightroom presets that supposedly emulated film extremely well.

“What is this sorcery?!” I asked myself.

Oh hey, Mastin Labs. I’m going to go ahead and credit you with dusting off that little dream of mine and pulling it off the shelf. Not only did they have awesome presets, but they had an incredible amount of informative material on their blog about how to get started shooting film. The biggest thing I took away from their articles and PDFs? Wait for it…

It did NOT matter if I had a fancy medium format camera. I did NOT need a $5k Contax camera with Zeiss glass. My free, hand-me-down-from-my-father-in-law Canon RebelG with a cheap-o prime lens would do just fiiine.

I bought myself a Sekonic light meter on ebay, ordered some 35mm Kodak Portra 400 and Fuji 400h on Amazon, and got to work. My little family was headed to Philadelphia to tour the new LDS Temple and I decided it was the perfect time to practice.

It honestly felt like a total shot in the dark. I had read some tips and tricks on how to meter for the different film stocks but other than that, this was a total experiment – one that I wouldn’t know how it turned out until I got the scans back weeks later. It was quite exhilarating!

It took me awhile to fill up the second roll of film, but I eventually mailed my rolls off to The FIND Lab and waited.

Here are a few things I learned from this “First Roll Challenge”:

  1. I thought I would like Fuji 400h more than any other stock. In the end, I think I prefer Portra 400!
  2. Manually focusing is HARD. I use auto focus 98% of the time, so having to focus manually was tough. I think you can tell just from scrolling through these photos…ha! About half are out of focus or soft. And let’s just say – shooting your first roll of film with a 2-year-old as a model is probably not ideal in terms of getting sharp photos.
  3. Film makes you shoot with intention. I had one chance with each frame. I had to make sure I was ready before I could just start clicking away.
  4. DANG everyone was right – film captures SOOOO much more detail in the highlights and shadows. I overexposed a lot of the pictures in Philadelphia unintentionally and (though not super awesome) they still look pretty good – with absolutely no processing on my end. Oh yeah, these photos are 100% untouched after getting the scans back from The FIND lab. Holla.
  5. For some reason these photos feel more intimate to me. Here’s an example of what I mean: When I capture a person blinking with my digital camera, I immediately delete it. Why would I keep that? It’s an outtake. When I capture a person blinking on film, it seems more permanent. I only had 36 frames in that roll of film – and that’s one of the shots I got! That is my son, my husband, showing a facial expression that I only see in the little moments of our private life.

There’s that mid-blink facial expression I love so much!

Gettysburg National Park, Pennsylvania

Kodak Portra 400

Gettysburg National Park, Pennsylvania

Thanks random stranger for snapping this family photo so I could be in one photo from our trip. 😉

These next few photos were taken at one of my favorite portrait sessions of 2016. I was sad I couldn’t nail the focus, but that will get better with practice.

The light at this mini session was DIVINE. And this mommy/son sequence makes my heart soar.

My lovely bride from Nashville at the famous Parthenon. These were taken with heavy cloud cover and still look 10x better than my SOOC digital images.

And last but not least…my sweet son. I love how these turned out because his hair is a mess, he wouldn’t look at the camera, and basically acted like the exuberant 2 year old that he is.

I wanted to end on this photo. I just love this shot of my son, mid blink, pointing to an airplane flying overhead. I might be the only person in the world to find value in this photo, but I do. And I have film to thank for that – because if this had been digital I’m almost positive I would have deleted it instantly.

Thank you, Mastin Labs and The FIND Lab for extending this challenge, and for sharing your knowledge so freely. I can’t wait to get out there and shoot more rolls soon.

Questions? Feel free to comment below and I’ll get back to you about my experience with film!

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