What Your Film Lab Wishes You Knew—Common Struggles in Film Photography

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

Let’s explore 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 + business! Let's dive in:⁠

Exposure isn’t everything.

Tara Bielecki | Fujicolor PRO400H | Canon EOS ELAN 7E | 35mm film | With @wetietheknots @clairepettibone @barerootflora @lizweg @coloradoweddinghair @asos_us @denverbotanic @donnabaldwinagency @jordan_isaiah18.

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

Mylyn Wood by Anna Peters.

Widen your experiences (and, gulp, court failure!)

Nothing good comes from staying inside the everyday. Go out and try new things. Go outside your comfort zone. Remember, it is OK (even recommended!) to do it wrong first! There is no better time to fail than right here, right now. The “slow season” is the perfect time to try new things—experiment with exposure, experiment with how you talk to models/clients, experiment with your aesthetic, experiment with film stock, lighting, etc.

Mason Neufeld | Cinestill800t | FrontierSP3000

Skill Set

Learn, observe and learn some more! Learning the technicalities of any craft goes so far in helping you feel confident. Like they say in art school, you have to learn the rules first before you break them. Again, here and now is the perfect time to absorb all you can from fellow photographers. Don’t just mindlessly snap the pretty scenes at a styled shoot (scenes and flatlays that designers and instructors have pre-planned and arranged for you). Watch how those who teach the styled shoots communicate and direct their models. Watch how they shoot. Watch how the stylists fuss with and arrange the invitations, dresses, etc. Ask us or your mentors questions. Ask stupid questions. Ask lots of questions! And remember—it is OK (even preferred!) to do it wrong first. Really. Failures never bring shame—failures are learning opportunities. Failures are just the universe inviting you to grow, expand and delve deeper into yourself.

Consistent exposures are key!

Consistent exposures mean consistent scans that draw closer to your vision (meaning you spend less time tinkering in post-processing). 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 your scans.

Here is what an Exposure Reference Sheet looks like for a roll of 35mm Portra400:

Emily Sweet | Kodak Portra 400 | Pentax Spotmatic

By comparing it to our Exposure Reference Sheet Guide 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!

Learn more about how to read your Exposure Reference Sheets and download our guide here.

So, how do you achieve consistent exposures? Good lighting and smart metering!

Lighting is everything.

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

Learn how to read light.

If 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

Ashley Faiman | Fujicolor PRO400H | Pentax645Nii

Side Light

Ashley Faiman | Fujicolor PRO400H | Pentax645Nii

Back Light

Ashley Faiman | Fujicolor PRO400H | Pentax645Nii

Film needs light.

Overexpose your film by +1–2 stops. This reduces the chance of underexposing your shadows, which can create a “muddy” look.

Use a Light Meter for Consistent Exposures.

We recommend all photographers meter their subjects with a handheld light meter. While in-camera meter readings work great in a pinch, a handheld light meter provides the most consistent readings from frame-to-frame. And consistent readings create consistent exposures—which lead to consistent scans and ultimately less time in post.

Here’s how to meter properly:

Ashley Faiman | Fujicolor PRO400H | Pentax645Nii | Sara Parker

Here’s how to meter properly:

  • Bulb + Placement

    Where you place your light meter in relation to your subject is important. Place your meter directly in front of your subject, bulb out, facing directly toward where you will be standing when you shoot.⁠

  • Stretch Out Your Arm

    And stand to the side of your meter to avoid bouncing any reflective light off of yourself, which would affect the meter reading.

  • Meter Frequently

    Light changes constantly, every time your light shifts, take a new meter reading. Consistent exposure leads to consistent scans—and allows your film to move through the lab quicker!

Common Questions About Metering:

  • What if I can't meter my 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.

Be Intentional

Ballet dancer.Sarah Carpenter | Kodak Portra800 | Contax645 | Frontier SP3000

Think about your shot before you release your shutter. This not only saves you money on film and processing, it makes you a better photographer. Film forces you to slow down—this is one reason so many photographers love it! Film helps them stay present and become more mindful artists.

How can mindfulness help your art? Read on:

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 was present and mindful when she captured this gorgeous moment here.

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

Learn Composition—and Use It.

  • Learn the Rule of Thirds.
  • Don’t "center punch" an image (e.g. place your client’s face dead center).
  • Watch horizon lines. (Are they cutting through your client’s head? Then change your angle of shooting.)
  • Watch for trees. (Are there objects "growing" out of your client's head? Consider a different angle and composition.)
  • Make a habit of checking your corners each time you frame an image (Is something sticking directly out of the corner? Is something in the way, messing up the scene?).

Contrast Ratio

Bride in window light.Anna Peters | Kodak Portra400 | Contax645

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:

  • Take a meter reading bulb out toward your light source (1) and a second-meter reading pointing away from your light source (2).⁠
  • Let’s say your highlight reading (1) gives you a shutter speed of 1/500 and your shadow reading (2) gives you a shutter speed 1/125.⁠
  • Determine how many stops there are between (1) and (2). In our example, there are 2 stops. Ergo, your contrast ratio = 2 stops (a ratio of 4:1).⁠

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

  • If you want more detail in the highlights, choose (1) and use a shutter speed of 1/500.⁠ ⁠
  • If you want more detail in the shadows, choose (2) and use a shutter speed of 1/125.⁠ ⁠
  • What if you want detail in both? Simple—split the difference and use a shutter speed of 1/250 (which is the stop between 1/500 and 1/125). ⁠ ⁠

And there you have it, folks! You now know how to measure your contrast ratio.

Tripods + Monopods are Your BFFs

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 who shy away from a tripod or monopod, worried these tools will cramp their style or (worse) hinder a client connection. 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 shoot or your connection with your 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 shutter speeds—with your tripod or monopod and you'll capture gorgeous images for your clients sans blur.⁠

Apertures Above f/2 and f/2.8 Do Exist

Callie Manion

Really—and they photograph on film beautifully!

Remember: the smaller your aperture number, the smaller your depth of field. 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 can be tack sharp, but their eyes may fall out of focus. To get a larger depth of field (and get both eyes and nose in focus), try stopping down to f/4 or f/5.6. We promise you will still see beautiful bokeh!

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

Be Smart With Your Art—Experiment Like a Scientist

Matoli Keely | Kodak Portra400 | Pentax645Nii | @kennya_ @bhldn

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? This will not help you! Instead, try adjusting your diopter (= one variable) then shoot a test roll as you do normally and analyze your scans. Did you nail focus? Great! The diopter was at play. Did you still miss focus? Hmm, then something else may be arry. 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 a depth of field. Still miss focus? Well, then it might be time to have your lens and camera inspected or serviced or start looking into the shutter speed you’re choosing. And so on.

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

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 (and this is the worst yet!) hop from film lab to film lab in a flailing and ultimately futile attempt to reach your vision.

First, try either (1) reaching out to your film lab about your vision or (2) change a single factor of your work, whether a film stock, film scanner or something else—but not all at the same time!

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

Remember, Your Clients Just Want to Look Good

Jen Dillender

We have seen many photographers become hung up on minute details that, frankly, when all is said and done, do not matter.

What are some examples? Many photographers are focused on the greens of their foliage—whether minty or emerald or somewhere in between—a factor often out of their control! (Just try shooting in the Spring without getting neon, yellow-y greens. It isn’t possible in many parts of North America!)

While your aesthetic is your own and your signature look is your decision, remember—your clients are not seeking you out for your greens (or whatever small detail you are hyper focused on). Your clients will remember the wonderful experience they had with you: how you spoke with them, how you served them, the memories you preserved for them and—most importantly—if your final images make them look good.

In the end, we all just want to look good. Your business will grow by word of mouth if (1) you treat your clients well, (2) you make them feel good and (3) you make them look good. Pretty simple, huh? And way less pressure for you!

Remember: it is OK to forgo a signature aesthetic for the good of your clients. We’ll take happy clients over minty greens any day!

Preference Images Go Far—But They Won’t Take You All the Way

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

Your scans never run on auto. Every frame is scanned and color-checked by our expert color technicians. How do they know what you want your scans to look like? They don’t—unless you submit preference images!

Preference images are 3–5 images that exemplify the skin tones, contrast, density and saturation you are striving for in your work. They can be from your own portfolio of work or from a photographer who inspires you. And, unlike other film labs, we never charge you to use them or update them.

Preference 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.⁠

Do preference images mean you will never have to touch your scans after you receive them?⁠ The short answer—No.

Many photographers who love their scans still have to make small edits (to contrast, density, etc.) to reach their end aesthetic. While some photographers love their scans just as they receive them, the majority know it is their responsibility to finalize their aesthetic in post before delivering their images to their clients.

Shoot—even PV team members who are professional film photographers and scan and color check their own film here still go home and make small tweaks to their images! So keep in mind, you are 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 final, small tweaks to reach your end aesthetic.

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

Push/Pull Processing

Fujicolor PRO400H processed normal, push-processed +1 stop, +2 stops and +3 stops.

When do you need to 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 and then have it pushed +1 stop in processing.

Push/pull processing should NOT be your first choice.

It should only be chosen in a pinch if you have no other option.

How will push processing affect your images?

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

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.

Do you (ever) need to pull film?

Due to film’s inherent wide exposure latitude, it is very rare you will ever need to pull process your film. If you find yourself in a pickle where your film is +3 or more stops overexposed, and you think you might need to pull process your film, please give us a call first before requesting it on your order form. We will walk through your shoot with you and help you determine the best processing method for your situation. In fact, pull processing is so rare that if we ever see it requested on an order form, we will always call the photographer first. Why? Because it can irreversibly damage your images.

Can I push (or pull) my roll, and if I don’t like it, try processing it again?

No. Developing (e.g. processing) film is a one-time thing. You can only develop your film roll once. There is no way to backtrack and “re-process” your film. That’s why it’s so important to become educated on normal vs. push vs. pull processing before you send in your film, so you know what your best choice might be. Still not sure? Give us a call—we’re happy to help: 503-588-3686.

Is pushing film a good way to achieve contrast?

No. While pushing film does lead to more contrast, this is NOT the best way to achieve contrast. Why? It’s too risky. Pushing can adversely affect color and skin tones (read: unhappy clients). A better strategy is to adjust contrast either at time of scanning (let us know you would like a high contrast scan!) or, have your scans done at your normal settings and then add contrast yourself in post. Both of these methods are easily undone should the contrast be too great. But if you push your film and hate how much contrast it brings, there is no real way to “dial it back”—your images are pretty much stuck at that contrast level.

Sending in rolls that need to be pushed or pulled?

Please be sure to clearly label the rolls in need of a push or pull and by how many stops. Mark it on the roll and on your order form. Pro tip: A rubber band wrapped around a roll is a great way to let us know it needs a push or pull!

Guard Your Essence

Emily Fuselier | Fujicolor PRO400H | Contax645

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 and status updates can swiftly zap 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, because they know it will (adversely) affect their growth and 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. 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:

  • Who do you follow on social media? How do these accounts make you feel?
  • How do you feel after spending time on social media?
  • Which publications do you read? How do you feel after?
  • When do you feel most like yourself? Can you do that more?
  • Which activities leave you feeling drained and discouraged? Can you do those less?
  • How much time do you spend scrolling vs. shooting + exploring your aesthetic in real-time?
  • What narratives do you attach to your work and worth? Do they serve you?
  • How might you speak gentler to yourself?
  • Could you take a short electronic sabbatical? What might that look like for you? How might it affect your energy?
  • Could you devote time to a passion project you’ve held on the backburner? Better yet, can you look within to see why you’ve held it on the backburner? What can you learn from your reasoning?
  • How can you show up for yourself and your aesthetic? What might that look like for you?
  • How might you talk to a close friend who is struggling? Could you speak to yourself the same way?
  • What’s the next right thing you can do to help yourself settle into your essence?
  • What’s one small promise you can keep to yourself each day? This goes so far in building self confidence!

If you even take the time to tackle one of these questions, you are taking a step in guarding your essence!

Own Your Sh*t, and We’ll Own Ours

Stephen Wood | Ilford Delta3200 | Pentax645N

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.

Communicate and Collaborate!

The photographer and film lab relationship is so important and, like any relationship, requires communication and collaboration 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 as a team are invested in every part of the process. Careful choices, innovative programs and time-tested processes all contribute toward your beautiful scans. But these choices, programs and processes are not devoid of your input. You play a vital role in the quality of your scans, even when you choose not to communicate.

And so, 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).

Feeling frustrated with your scans?

Don’t jump 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.

No film lab can effectively deliver your vision if you don’t actively participate in your collaborative relationship through communication and self analysis. Please read this again.

What’s the best way to communicate with us? We offer scheduled phone calls at no charge and you’re always welcome to email info@photovisionprints.com or call in 503-588-3686.

Now it’s your turn—how can we better serve you? We’re all ears.