21 Essential Tips For WAY Better Film Photographs

I’ve been a film photographer for 7 years and through trial and error, I’ve discovered how to take better pictures every time.

These are some of the best tips that I can pass on to you so that you don’t make the mistakes that I did when I first started shooting on film.

1) You Don’t Always Need To Shoot Wide Open

Yep, you heard it right, you don’t always have to shoot at F 1.8 or the lowest aperture that your lens can shoot at. This was a mistake that I made when I first started film and street photography. Believing that I should be shooting ‘wide open’ all the time definitely stopped me from being able to get all the shots I should have.

Different apertures suit different kinds of situations, a higher aperture like F 16 will allow you to take a very sharp and high-quality overall image, whereas, low apertures like F 2 will produce a shallow depth of field, the point is, you don’t always want or need this.

Choosing an aperture like F 4-5.6 while shooting will give you much more leeway while still producing a shallow depth of field. When you shoot at F 1.8 you only have a very small amount of leeway with what is and isn’t in focus. This could be the difference between getting a clean portrait or capturing a street photo or just completely getting it out of focus.

Use the appropriate aperture for the situation and you’ll get much better pictures more consistently.

2) Shoot Shadow Side For Portraits

This is a tip that I picked up from cinematography but it’s definitely transferable for photography. Taking a picture from your subjects shadow side, rather than the lit side will generally provide you with much more depth.

The picture above would be a perfect example if I had taken one step to the left. I’ve taken this picture from a fairly straight-on point of view but the subjects shadow side is still very slightly the side that is presented.

The reason why a shadow side portrait tends to create more depth is because of layers of light, here we have shadow on the left portion of the face, then light on the right, then shadow and light again in the background, this creates depth and makes your subject more three dimensional.

This is not an absolute rule but it’s certainly something to play around with, if you take a picture that is not from the shadow side, that doesn’t make it bad or not three-dimensional.

3) Use Subjects To Show Scale

Using people or other subjects in your images will help to provide scale, whether you’re a street photographer or a landscape photographer, using a subject to show scale will provide another dimension to your picture.

Of course, using a subject in your image to show scale can also provide different aspects of an image. People can help to guide a viewer’s eye around an image and provide a focal point. This takes away the feeling of an ‘aimless’ type of photograph.

4) Overexpose By One Stop

Overexposing a picture by one stop is a good way of ensuring that you always get a well exposed photograph. Because of the nature of camera film, you’re much more likely to be able to bring the highlights down and make your picture look better than if you’re trying to get information back from your shadows.

To overexpose by one stop you can either change the settings on your SLR camera to manually do this. Alternatively, you can do this yourself, when looking through the viewfinder, you can see what your light meter says and then change your settings accordingly.

On a point and shoot camera, it doesn’t matter too much but if you did want to overexpose slightly then you’d have to change your DX Code.

5) Try Different Lenses

I can’t tell you how important it is to try different lenses and focal lengths until you find the one that works for you. Different focal lengths can completely change the look and feel of an image. Using a very wide lens can show the whole scene and even start to feel quite distorted and strange. Using a long lens can make images feel really tight and compressed.

You may currently have a low-quality lens, typically zoom lenses (lenses that go from one focal length to another) are much lower quality than a prime lens (a lens that is a fixed focal length). If you can try out a fixed lens like a 50mm/35mm or 28mm then you’ll immediately see far better results.

Finding a focal length that really works for you or figuring out when a particular focal length may be best will completely up your game in terms of film photography.

6) Try Using A Flash

Trying out a flash can really add a new look and feel to your photography. A flash can make things look a bit strange or interesting. A number of photographers use a flash and this has become their signature or identity, (See photographers such as Bruce Gilden and Martin Parr).

As you can see above, the fact that I used a flash on these pictures has made the subject stand out despite the fact that he was lit from behind. This creates a completely different feel to the shot than there would have been without a flash.

Trying out a flash can really help you to create some amazing shots that you never would have been able to before.

7) Make The Most Of Your First Off The Roll Shot

This is definitely a nice tip, making the most of your ‘first off the roll’ shot will is such a nice little thing to do. What this means is that when you take your first picture from your roll of film, usually there is a strip of ‘burn’ on it, this is because part of the film was initially exposed when you first loaded your camera.

This doesn’t happen with all cameras, it doesn’t happen with point-and-shoot cameras or SLR cameras that automatically load film. This does happen with manual SLR cameras though so make the most of your first 1-2 pictures because you can really take some beautiful pictures.

8) Use Your Phone To Frame Things

These days, there’s nothing worse than wasting 35mm pictures, so I think that using your phone to frame things can often be a great way to save those valuable frames.

If you’re at a portrait shoot or you’re having a day where you’re struggling to compose a good shot, using your phone as a frame to see what works or what doesn’t is a great way to get yourself into a good zone and save those precious shots!

9) Not Everything Has To Be Golden Hour

Yeah, you heard it right, you don’t have to always be shooting at golden hour. Of course, pictures look classically beautiful at golden hour, everyone knows and loves that soft glow of diffused sunlight. This is not to say that you shouldn’t shoot at golden hour, this is to say that you can still make great pictures in different types of light and it’s a sign of a good photographer if you can do this.

It’s a challenge to get great pictures in different types of light but that’s what helps you to become a much better photographer. Finding soft light in the shadows or embracing harsh light can create a completely different look and feel to your photographs, this helps you to become better and set you apart from others.

10) Replace Your Light Seals

If you have an SLR camera then chances are you’ll need to replace your light seals to ensure that you don’t have any light leaks. Light leaks are streaks of light that show across your picture and to stop this you’ll have to replace your light seals. Luckily I made a video about how to stop this, so I’ll link that here.

Video on how to replace light seals

11) Look For Layers Of Light

This is such an important aspect of composing great photographs. Layers of light create depth and depth makes takes your photograph from good to great.

Some of the shots above are quite obvious ways of showing layers of light, the layers provide a more three dimensional feel and direct our eye through the image. Layers of light don’t need to be found in harsh daylight, they can be the softest light but it’ll always provide you with a great shot.

12) Try To Predict The Next Moment

This is definitely an aspect of photography that I’ve learned from years of street photography. Trying to predict the next moment can help you to produce some of your best photographs. Being able to understand that an interesting moment or movement is an amazing skill.

Being able to predict the next moment takes time and it takes a lot of focus, you need to be very tuned in to your surroundings and ready for what might happen next. Some of my favourite shots came from just being ready for that ‘decisive moment’.

13) Try A New Film Stock

Trying out a new film stock can bring a lot to the table. You may have been using a low quality film stock or you might have been shooting with something that just doesn’t quite suit you.

For instance, the film stock shown above, Cinestill 800T, is a great film stock but it’s best suited for tungsten light, it also produces halation (The red glow you can see around the lights). All film stocks are quite different and some are better quality than others, shop around and find one that works best for you.

14) Use Backlight

Not many people use this technique enough and it’s something that can help you to make some great portraits. Using backlight on a subject can help you to create a lot of a depth in an image with very little effort.

As you can see in the picture above, using backlight means that the subjects face has a very even, soft light. The back light also provides a sort of ‘rim light’ that goes around the back of the hair and shoulders, which creates more depth in the image overall.

If you can as this type of shot into some of your future portraits then you’ll be taking far better photos straight away!

15) Look For Patterns

This is another tip that I picked up while shooting street photography. Looking for patterns and things that look similar to one another can be a great way of telling a story with a photograph.

For instance, in the picture above, I liked the way the white umbrella looked similar to the white clouds. For you, it might be that people are wearing the same hat or they’re blending in with a building or they look similar to their dog in some way.

These can be fun ways to make an interesting picture that can often make people look twice.

16) Use The Foreground

Using the foreground in your film photographs will help you to create more interesting pictures. Often, people neglect the foreground of their image when they could be utilising it and making their photo much more three dimensional.

In the picture on the left I use the interior of the train to give a sense of perspective, also I wanted to show the orange glow on the inside of the train. In the picture on the right I wanted to have part of the ivy covered wall to provide depth and some texture to this image. These are both good ways of showing how I’ve used the foreground to add a new element to the picture.

Often people will also ensure that something at the bottom of the frame is out of focus in a landscape image to provide a sense of perspective and depth.

17) Get Stuck In

It can be far too easy to sit on the sidelines, especially if you’re a bit of an anxious type of person. The value of just getting started cannot be overstated, some days you won’t feel like going out there and getting involved but I’m here to tell you that you just need to get stuck in!

18) Sometimes The Subject Outweighs The Composition

This is yet another thing I’ve learned from street photography, sometimes just getting the shot matters more than getting the shot the way you want to and then missing it.

See the picture above, it’s not perfect, but if I’d have tried to make it perfect, I might not have made it at all.

19) Look For Soft Light

Typically, the best light to shoot portraits in is soft light, which is why most people shoot in golden hour. But that isn’t where all soft light comes from, generally, soft light is diffused light, this can be in the shadows or diffused by material of some sort.

Soft light tends to make your subject look better as there’s no harsh light/harsh shadows over their face. This is not an absolute ‘must do’ in terms of film photography but it’s definitely a good thing to practice.

20) Capture Movement

Capturing movement can be a really fun and interesting element to bring to your photography. Whether that’s capturing and showing movement via lowering your shutter speed or capturing and showing the movement by completely freezing it in time with a fast shutter speed.

Above is one of my favourite projects, The Royal Shrovetide Football, and amongst other things, the movement and energy is what makes this such an exciting thing to photograph. Of course, it’s not just in documentary photography but in all kinds of photography that trying to capture movement can help you to produce some incredible shots.

Look for movement and you’ll find interesting shots to be taken all the time.

21) Learn The Rules Then Break Them

This is the last because it’s the most important rule. You can learn all of the rules of photography that you want to but in the end the most important thing is to then take what you know and try to make your own rules.

Yes there are rules and guidelines and sometimes these are absolutely important for you to make a good photograph, but ultimately, some of the best photographs and works don’t seem to subscribe to any of the rules.

Learn the rules then break them.

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