What Your Film Lab Wishes You Knew: Common Struggles in Film Photography.

After thousands of phone calls and emails helping photographers just like you, we have a unique perspective on the common struggles many face when it comes to film.

Here are some of the top challenges we see, along with simple solutions for each, so you can grow in confidence, explore new skills and come into your own in your art and business now!

Exposure Isn’t Everything.

Tara Bielecki / Fuji400H / Canon EOS ELAN 7E / Frontier SP3000

We see many photographers latch onto this concept: that proper exposure is the only reason their images aren’t where they need them to be. But in reality, this just isn’t so—there are so many factors that go into making an image you love! Exposure is only one of them.

Proper Exposure Is Not a Fix-All to Your Problems.

What is, then? Good news: it’s two factors entirely in your control—experience and skill set.

@mistofmorning by @tetianaphotography / Portra400 / Contax645

Widen Your Experiences (and, Gulp, Court Failure).

Go out and try new things. Go outside your comfort zone. Remember, it is OK (even recommended!) to do it wrong first! Failure is not the death knell we think it is. Rather, failure presents us with an opportunity to explore a path we might otherwise never have found. A path that could lead to growth, discovering new tools or unearthing latent art you had within you all along. Once you turn your mind and remove the shame we tend to associate with failing, possibilities expand! And who is to say where these possibilities might lead? You really can be fearless in your art. So, experiment! Experiment with exposure. Experiment with how you talk to models and clients. Collaborate with a new artist. Experiment with film stocks, lighting, style—just experiment! And let us know what you discover—about your art and yourself.

Mason Neufeld / Cinestill800t / FrontierSP3000

Learn the Rules—Then Break Them.

Learning the technicalities of any craft goes so far in helping you feel confident! This could mean reading a book about film photography, reading our library of film tips, purchasing an online course, joining a Facebook photography group, seeking out a mentor or maybe attending a workshop.

Erich McVey / Fuji400H / Contax645 / Frontier SP3000

When it comes to finding a mentor, are there any photographers you know who are looking for a second shooter? You can learn a lot as a second shooter! Whom do you trust and admire? Are any of them offering 1:1 mentorships? Talk with other photographers and see who they trust and who they learned from.

If you want to attend a workshop, do a little research before you choose. How much of the workshop will be focused on education vs. portfolio building and “pretty shoots”? If a workshop is more focused on the latter, it might not be the best fit for you while you’re learning.

Nikki Daskalakis / Portra400 / Contax645 / Frontier SP3000

If you do attend a workshop, here are our tips for getting the most out of it:

Enter with the mindset that you’re there to absorb all you can. Don’t just snap the scenes and flatlays a designer or instructor directed or arranged for you without pausing to observe. Slow down. Take a beat. Watch how the instructor communicates and directs their models. Watch how the designer and stylist work with and arrange their materials. Ask questions. Lots of questions! Why did they do that? Why did they choose that? What’s their thought process behind it? There are no dumb questions. And there are many gracious photographers! In fact, we’re continually encouraged by how many members of the film community genuinely want to help others. If you’re new to film, we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised just how supportive this community is!

Seek out those who want to see you succeed and learn from those who want to help you grow. Then, later on, when you have your own set of experiences and knowledge base, you’ll be ready to help others learn, too.

Consistent Exposures Are Key!

Consistent exposures help you get consistent scans that draw closer to your vision (meaning you spend less time tinkering in post-processing). Sounds like a win-win! But how do you know if you have consistent exposures? We encourage every photographer to study their Exposure Reference Sheets, which are provided for every roll with Signature Scans. You can learn how to read your Exposure Reference Sheets here.

Here is what an Exposure Reference Sheet looks like for a roll of 35mm:

Emily Sweet / Kodak Portra 400 / Pentax Spotmatic

By comparing it to our Exposure Reference Sheet Guide for Porta400 below, you can see these frames are consistently overexposed at about +2 stops. This amount of overexposure is great for ensuring your shadows are properly exposed!

You can find our exposure guides for other film stocks here!

Lighting Is Everything!

So, how do you achieve consistent exposures? Simple: good lighting and smart metering!

Lighting can make or break an image, and choosing the right light for your aesthetic can help you reach your image goals.

Valerie Vaughan / Portra800 / Canon EOS1V / Noritsu S-1800

A Beautiful Image Starts at Time of Capture.⁠

When you shoot in the right light and make a proper exposure, you lay the foundation for great scans that best reflect your vision, leading to less time spent in post.⁠

Maddy Bratcher / Portra400 / Contax645 / Frontier SP3000

Learn How to Read Light.

One of the easiest ways to read light is to use your hand. When you read light using your hand, you can quickly and easily see how each lighting situation will look on your subject.

Here's how to do it: Place your hand in the same scene you plan to shoot and slowly tilt it back and forth, up and down. Notice how the light illuminates your hand differently depending on its tilt toward or away from your light source? Your hand represents how the light will fall on your subject's face, so when you go to place your subject in the scene, you know exactly how to position them for the best results.⁠ See below:

Direct Light

Portra400 / Pentax645N / Noritsu S-1800 / Ashley Loney

Fuji400H / Pentax645Nii / Frontier SP3000 / Ashley Loney

Side Light

Portra400 / Pentax645N / Noritsu S-1800 / Ashley Loney

Fuji400H / Pentax645Nii / Frontier SP3000 / Ashley Loney

Back Light

Portra400 / Pentax645N / Noritsu S-1800 / Ashley Loney

Fuji400H / Pentax645Nii / Frontier SP3000 / Ashley Loney

Use a Light Meter for Consistent Exposures.

We recommend all photographers meter their subjects. And the best, most accurate way to do this is with a handheld light meter! While in-camera meters work great in a pinch, a handheld light meter will provide the most consistent readings from frame-to-frame. And consistent readings create consistent exposures—which, again, leads to consistent scans.

Ashley Loney / Fuji400H / Pentax645Nii / Frontier SP3000

How to Properly Meter:

Meredith Jane Photo / Fuji400H rated at 200 ISO / Contax645 / Noritsu S-1800

What If You Can’t Meter Your Subject Directly? (They’re Too Far Away!)

Not a problem, as long as you and your subject are in the same light, simply reach your meter high above your head, point it bulb out away from your subjects and boop take a meter reading.

Which Handheld Light Meter Should I Buy?

We like the Sekonic L-358 or Gossen DigiPro F2.

Film Needs Light.

Ideally, you want to overexpose your film by +1–2 stops. This helps ensure your shadows receive enough exposure and helps you avoid a “muddy” look to your scans. To find the best exposure for you, you can shoot an exposure ramp of your favorite film stock.

Choose the Right Light for Your Aesthetic.

Lighting can make or break any image! You can have the best model, in a gorgeous gown, in the most beautiful setting, but if the light is harsh, your image won’t be what you are expecting. Then you must reconsider your shooting environment. Remember: we’re able to scan to many different aesthetics as long as we have a properly exposed negative shot in good light.

Light + Airy

Rachel Bond / Fuji400H / Contax645 / FrontierSP3000

Are you a fan of “light and airy” with soft tones? If so, aim to shoot in soft light where contrast is low. This type of lighting is found in open shade when the sun is low in the sky. Aim to shoot just after sunrise or close to sunset (e.g. golden hour). And don’t forget to overexpose by +1–2 stops.

Dark + Moody

Sean Smith / Portra800 / Contax645 / Frontier SP3000

Is “dark and moody” more your style? We got you—dark spaces are A-OK! Expose your film as you normally would and be careful not to underexpose. And be sure to send us reference images that show us the style you’re seeking, so we can scan to best match your vision.

Shooting in Midday Sun?

Adriana Klas / Portra400 / Mamiya645AF / Frontier SP3000

Sometimes you have to shoot at midday. When that’s the case, search for open shade where light is naturally diffused. No open shade available? Aim to keep the sun behind your client’s back!

Be Intentional.

Ballet dancer.Sarah Carpenter / Portra800 / Contax645 / Frontier SP3000

Stay Present.

Think about your shot before you release the shutter. Shooting with intention will not only save you money in film and processing, it will help you become a better photographer. This is one reason so many photographers shoot film! Film helps them slow down, stay present and become more mindful artists.

How can mindfulness help your art? Read on:

Katie Devaney / Portra400 / Hasselblad / Frontier SP3000

Timing Is Key.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French pioneer of street photography, coined the phrase, "The Decisive Moment," in his landmark book, Images à la Sauvette, published In 1952:

“Photography is not like painting,” Cartier-Bresson told The Washington Post in 1957. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. . . . The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”⠀

Wait for your own "Decisive Moment" and learn how to know it when you see it. How do you do this? By staying present. What is happening around you? What might happen in the next few moments? You can bet Sarah Carpenter and Katie Devaney were present and mindful when they captured these gorgeous moments above.

Had they not been present, could they still have gotten the shots? Perhaps. However, by staying present and mindful, you exponentially increase your chances of preserving your own once-in-a-lifetime moment on film.

Emily Fuselier / Fuji400H / Contax645 / Frontier SP3000

Learn Composition.

Mouna Tahar⁠ / Ilford Delta3200 / Mamiya645ProTL / 80mm f/1.9 lens / Rated at 1600 ISO and push processed +1 stop. / Frontier SP3000

Backgrounds Are Important.

If you are aiming for a lower contrast look, be sure to keep an eye on your background! If your subject is well lit but your background consists of dark shadows or scenery, the overall scene will appear high contrast. Though this can be beautiful, it might not be what you’re looking for. This point is also true when your subject is in the shade but your background is in direct light: your scene will appear harsh.

Megan Kawahara / Fuji400H / Contax645 / Frontier SP3000

Beware of Reflective Coloring.

Film will highlight reflective hues you might not otherwise notice in real life. Because of this, avoid shooting next to bright colors. Bright colors (like a brick wall, neon clothing or lots of green foliage) can cause strong color casts to appear in your client’s shadows (think under their chin). To avoid this, aim to shoot in neutrally-colored environments and, as the photographer, be sure to wear neutral or white clothing. Pro tip: When you wear white, you’re like a walking reflector for your clients! Awesome.

Know Your Contrast Ratio.

Bride in window light.Anna Peters / Portra400 / Contax645 / Frontier SP3000

Contrast is all around us and is an essential part of photography. Some scenes have higher contrast than others, it all comes down to the time of day and location. Knowing your contrast ratio is crucial for determining the best shutter speed for a scene and your aesthetic. Don’t fret—they are quick and easy to measure! ⁠

Let’s say you are shooting Fujifilm PRO400H metered at 200 ISO with an aperture of f/2.8. Here’s how to measure your contrast ratio:

Now that you know the contrast ratio of your specific scene, you have a choice to make: Where do you want the most information in your image: in the highlights or in the shadows? This will help you determine your shutter speed:

Use a Tripod or Monopod.

Mason Neufeld loves her tripod.

The best photographers know when they need to use tools, of any kind, and use them. Just like some middle schoolers forgo coats in the dead of winter to appear “cool,” we know some photographers shy away from a tripod or monopod—worried these tools will cramp their style or hinder their connection with clients. In reality, it’s quite the opposite!

Very few photographers (read: cyborgs) can shoot handheld below a 1/60 shutter speed and still achieve a crisp image. And blurry images do not happy client connections make.

Trust us—tripods, coupled with a quick-release L-Bracket, will not hamper your shooting style or your connection with clients. Rather, they’ll allow you to shoot at slow shutter speeds long after the sun has set or capture darker scenes indoors crisply, using only window light.

Monopods are a sweet deal, too, because they are relatively inexpensive and extremely lightweight. It’s super easy to clip them to your bag and haul them onsite. Pro tip: You can even find tripods with a built-in monopod (!) where one of the legs can detach.

Both tripods and monopods can be the determining factor in reducing camera shake, avoiding blurry images and nailing your focus. So wear your coat and tell the other kids to buzz off. You’ll be cool because you’re prepared—for all lighting conditions—with your tripod or monopod.

Apertures Above f/2 and f/2.8 Do Exist.

Jen Dillender

Really—and they photograph on film beautifully!

We get it: bokeh is dreamy. But stopping down (e.g. choosing a larger aperture number) can help you nail focus.

For example: when shooting at f/2 or f/2.8, your subject’s nose may be tack sharp, but their eyes may fall out of focus. To get a larger depth of field (and see both eyes and nose) try stopping down to f/4 or f/5.6. We promise you will still see beautiful bokeh!

Pro tip: Shooting a large group? Consider stopping down to f/8 for even more depth of field, so all those happy faces will be in focus.

Remember: Your Clients Just Want to Look Good.

Rachel Ashcraft / Portra400 / Contax645 / FrontierSP3000

We have seen many photographers become hung up on small details that distract them from what matters most: making their clients look good. One example we often see is an obsession with “minty greens,” often to the detriment of skin tones and other elements. But “minty greens” are rarely achievable in most settings—just try shooting in the Spring without getting neon, yellow-y greens. It isn’t possible in many parts of North America! While you can always split tone in post to adjust your greens to suit your style, we invite you to consider another option: Instead of focusing on an element outside your control (like minty greens), focus on something you can control: your clients’ happiness!

Dennis Roy Coronel / Portra400 / Pentax645nii / FrontierSP3000

Remember: Your clients are not seeking you out for your greens or any other of-the-moment trend. Your clients chose you as their photographer because they liked your overall style, they liked how you made other clients look and/or they heard great things about you from former clients. Believe us: your clients will remember the wonderful experience they had with you and the memories you captured for them, not if their greens were cooled off. Clients will remember how you spoke with them, how you served them, how you made them feel and, most importantly, if you made them look good. Because in the end, we all just want to look good, right?

Your business will grow by word of mouth if (1) you treat your clients well, (2) make them feel good and (3) make them look good. Pretty simple, huh? And way less pressure for you than trying to control the hues of a forest!

TL;DR It’s OK to forgo a signature or preferred aesthetic in order to make your clients happy. We’ll take happy clients over minty greens any day!

Reference Images Have Limits.

@maddymalloryphotography ⁠/ Portra400 rated at 200 ISO / Contax645 / Frontier SP3000

Your scans never run on auto. Every frame is scanned and color-checked by hand by our expert color technicians. How do we know what you want your scans to look like? We don’t—unless you send us reference images!

Reference images are 3–5 images that show us the skin tones, contrast, density (e.g. brightness) and saturation you are striving for in your work. They can be from anyone and anywhere.

Matoli Keely / Portra400 / Pentax645Nii / Frontier SP3000 / San Diego, California⁠

Reference images are pulled up on screen right next to your scans during scanning and color check, so our skilled color techs can get as close to your vision as possible.⁠ Learn more about reference images, how to choose them and send them here.

Do reference images mean you will never have to touch your scans after you receive them?⁠ No.

You'll Probably Still Need to Edit Your Scans.

Film photograph of a woman peering through Fall leaves by Erich McVey fine art film wedding and editorial photographer.Erich McVey

It’s way more common than you think. Just as reference images have limits, so do scanning and color correction.

The adjustment controls we have available to us at scanning and color correction are not as fine as those you have available to you in Lightroom. While we always scan as close to your vision as we can, sometimes they are smaller edits only you can make using Lightroom or Photoshop.

While some photographers love their scans just as they receive them, the majority know it is their responsibility to finalize their images in post before delivering them to their clients. This is a vital part of your artmaking process and one we can never replicate. This is what makes your art yours!

Corey Wolfenbarger / Portra400 / Mamiya7 / Noritsu S-1800

For example, some photographers request we always scan their film lower contrast, because they know they prefer to control the contrast level themselves in post.

Shoot—even PV team members who are professional film photographers and scan and color correct their own film still go home and make small edits to their final images in post! So remember, when it comes to editing film scans, (1) it’s super common and (2) you’re in good company.

Our job is to get as close as we can to your vision, with the understanding you’ll have to make a few small, final edits to reach your end aesthetic.

Remember—this is your art! And you really do have control.⁠

Confused About Pushing and Pulling Film?

You’re not alone! Push processing and pull processing are the source of much confusion. The easiest way to keep them straight is to remember that pushing and pulling only happens at time of processing (e.g. developing) film, never in camera.

Fuji400H processed normal, push-processed +1 stop, +2 stops and +3 stops.

Push Processing ("Pushing Film") means keeping film in the developing chemicals longer than normal (which compensates for underexposure).

Pull Processing ("Pulling Film") means removing film from the developing chemicals earlier than normal (which compensates for overexposure).

The amount of time your film is left in the developer controls the amount of chemical reaction that occurs with the film’s emulsion, which controls your negative’s density. Push and pull processing allows us to, in a sense, change the film’s sensitivity rating (or ISO) after shooting. While this isn’t exactly what is happening, it’s helpful to think of it this way.

Kodak Portra400 processed normal and push-processed +1 stop.Kodak Portra400 processed normal and push-processed +1 stop.

Kodak Portra400 processed normal and push-processed +1 stop.Kodak Portra800 processed normal and push-processed +1 stop.

Push or Pull Processing Should Only Be Used as a Last Resort.

We only recommend push or pull processing when you have no other option. Each can irreversibly change your negatives and damage your final scans.

There Is No “Do Over” When It Comes to Processing Film.

Remember: Film negatives can only be processed one time. What you get is what you get.

Rebecca Arthurs / Portra160 pushed +1 stop

How Does Pushing and Pulling Affect Your Final Images?

Push processing will increase contrast, saturation and grain structure, but it will also compensate for the lack of contrast that underexposure brings when, like the example above, you rate 400 speed as if it were an 800 speed film.

Pull processing will do just the opposite, decreasing contrast and saturation, while compensating for extreme overexposure.

Sarah McCloskey / Portra400 pushed +2 stops / Pentax645N / 75mm f/2.8 lens

When Should You Push Film?

Push processing compensates for underexposure. Let’s say you only have ISO 400 film but are losing light quickly: you can rate the entire roll as though it were ISO 800 film and then have it pushed +1 stop in processing.

Is Pushing Film a Good Way to Achieve Contrast?

Sure, but it’s not the wisest way to do so. While pushing film does increase contrast, it’s not your best choice. It’s too risky! In addition to raising contrast, pushing film can adversely affect color and skin tones (read: unhappy clients). And remember, clients just want to look good!

A better strategy for increasing contrast is to either ask your film lab to give you a higher contrast scan (be sure to send a reference image of how much you want) or wait until you get your film scans back and add additional contrast yourself in post. Both of these methods are easily reversible should the contrast become too great.

However, if you push process your film and hate how much contrast it brings, there’s no going back. And no amount of editing or rescanning will help. Your images are pretty much stuck at that contrast level as your negatives are irreversibly changed. Remember: processing (developing) is a one-time thing.

Savan Phann / Ilford HP5 pushed +3 stops

Pulling Film is So Rare, We Can’t Remember the Last Time We Recommended It.

Due to film’s inherent wide exposure latitude, it is very rare you will ever need to pull process your film. Don’t believe us? Check out our exposure ramps. So many film stocks look beautiful at +3 (even +4!) stops overexposed.

However, if you ever find yourself in Extreme Overexposure Land, and you don’t know if you should pull your film or not, please give us a call first: 503-588-3686. We will walk through your shoot with you and help you determine the best processing method for your situation, film stock, lighting environment and metering method. It’s highly unlikely you’ll actually need to pull it.

Sending in Rolls That Need to Be Pushed or Pulled?

Be sure to clearly label the rolls in need of a push or pull and by how many stops (e.g. +2). Write it on the roll (Sharpies work great!) and be sure to order the push or pull online. Pro tip: A rubber band wrapped around a roll is a great way to let us know it needs a push or pull!

Be Smart With Your Art—Experiment Like a Scientist!

Matoli Keely / Kodak Portra400 / Pentax645Nii

Any good scientist will tell you that you cannot determine the source of a problem if you change too many variables at once. While there is something to be said for free, uninhibited exploration (shoot, that’s how art movements are born!), if you’re trying to figure out why something’s not working, your best bet is to change one (and only one!) variable at a time. Then, like a scientist, analyze your outcome.

Did you just try a new metering method and a new lens in an attempt to figure out why you keep missing focus? That’s too many variables. Instead, try adjusting one variable, like your diopter, then shoot a test roll as you normally do and analyze your scans. Did you nail focus? Great! The diopter was at play. Did you still miss focus? Hmm, something else must be awry. Next step? Leave your diopter as is and shoot a test roll with apertures above f/4—try f/5.6 or f/8! Then, analyze your scans. Did you nail focus? Great! You may have been dealing with too narrow of a depth of field. Still missed focus? Well, then it might be time to have your lens and camera inspected or serviced. Or maybe you want to consider the shutter speed you’re using. One step at a time. One variable at a time. And so on.

This process (AKA the time-trusted Scientific Method) can continue on indefinitely until you discover what factor is at play.

Matoli Keely / Kodak Tri-X400 / Canon EOS1V

Let’s explore another common example:

Are you unhappy with the scans you’re getting back from your film lab? Don’t swap film stocks and film scanners or—worst yet—hop from lab to lab in an attempt to reach your vision.

First, try reaching out to your film lab to talk about it. Then change one factor of your work, whether that’s your film stock, film scanner or something else (but not all 3 at the same time!).

Then, after you change one (and only one!) variable, analyze your results and draw a conclusion.

Guard Your Essence.

Kyle McClain / Portra400 / Canon EOS1V / Frontier SP3000

Social media is a strange beast. While we attribute a great deal of our own business growth to Instagram (and we are so thankful!), those tiny squares can swiftly sap your motivation and confidence. It’s been said many times, but it bears repeating: draw your worth from stable ground. And social media is not it. All you need lies within you—your essence is your art is your confidence. Read that again.

What are some ways you can guard your essence? Well, we know some photographers who refuse to scroll on social media, because they know it will adversely affect their growth and creative flow. They post to Instagram, reshare their work and interact to an extent, sure—but then they stop and step away. They refuse to actively seek out what other photographers are doing. Why? Simple—they don’t want to be influenced or tempted to compare. They know their energy and mind is precious, and extensively viewing the work and successes of others will only drain from what they have inside.

Tetiana Photography / Portra400 / Contax645

Only you are you. No one else has your mix of experiences and thoughts—no one else sees the world like you do. And no one else can bring forth what you can. This is your essence! Guard it—and refuse to play the comparison game, however that looks for you.

We know that avoiding social media (or blogs, or publications) is a big decision that doesn’t work for everyone. But we invite you to consider how your current choices might be affecting your energy and, in turn, your confidence. If you take the time to tackle even one of these questions, you are taking a step to guard your essence!

Own What’s Yours. We’ll Own What’s Ours.

Stephen Wood / Ilford Delta3200 / Pentax645N

The film lab and film photographer relationship is a collaborative one. Like it or not, when you choose a film lab, you choose to enter into a relationship. No lab is a black box, devoid of humanity, spitting out perfect scans sans communication and collaboration.

The photographer and film lab relationship is so important, and like any relationship, it requires collaborative communication to flourish. We are here for you, truly. And we invite you to consider the humanity behind your scans—no matter which film lab you use!

Your final images are the result of the entire PhotoVision Team. Nothing you see in your inbox is devoid of our touch. We, the PhotoVision Team, are heavily invested in every part of the process. Careful choices, innovative programs and years of experience all contribute toward your beautiful scans. But these choices, programs and processes are not devoid of your input. You and your choices (exposures, film stocks, lighting, environment and more) play a vital role in the quality of your scans, even when you choose not to communicate.

Collaborative Communication is Key.

We invite you to meet us as a collaborator. Keep us updated on your aesthetic and goals (so we can tweak our scans to match your vision) and tell us when something goes wrong (so we can help fix it) and ask us questions when you don’t understand (so we can help you grow).

Sol Rapson / Portra400 / Mamiya7 / Noritsu S-1800

Feeling Frustrated with Your Scans?

Don’t hop from film lab to film lab without considering your part in the process. Did your lab miss your vision? Reach out and tell them, and see what can be done. But on the flip side, don’t automatically blame yourself when something goes wrong (and something will go wrong). Remember: even highly-skilled color technicians don’t know what you want unless you show them.

In the End, No Film Lab Can Effectively Deliver Your Vision if You Don’t Actively Participate in Collaborative Communication and Self Analysis.

Please read this again.

Ginnifer Heinrichs / Fuji400H / Canon EOS1V / Frontier SP3000

Let's Work Together!

Every member of our team is happy to hop on a phone call, talk with you over email or meet with you on Zoom. We’re here to help and we want nothing more than to see you succeed.

Visiting our beautiful Pacific Northwest? Please stop by, we'd love to meet you, introduce you to the team and let you see the lab. We only ask you give us a few weeks' notice.

Now it’s your turn—how can we better serve you? Tell us. Call 503-588-3686, email info@photovisionprints.com or schedule a Zoom call.