I’ve been shooting portraits with film for a long time a long time and over that time I’ve learned some crucial lessons about getting a great portrait.
So if you want to nail portraits and stop making simple mistakes then read on!
1) Use The Right Film
Choosing the right film stock for portrait photography can be really important. When it comes to portrait photography, things like exposure latitude, grain and tone can make a big difference. This doesn’t mean there is necessarily a right or wrong kind of film to use in portrait photography but there are definitely some better ones to use.
The ideal film stock to use is something like Kodak Portra 400, Portra 160 or Kodak Tri-X 400. This doesn’t mean that portraits taken with other kinds of film will be bad and you can experiment with film stocks like Cinestill 800T, but film stocks like Portra 400 have all of the attributes to make the best portraits.
The reason why stocks like Portra are so good is that they have great exposure latitude, which means that the film is forgiving, you can bring back the highlights of an image and bring up the shadows more readily than with cheaper stocks.
Also, these stocks have fine grain so your images will be clearer. Also, Portra is the perfect stock for editing. It’s a shame that it’s so expensive now, so if you want to explore some other stocks, take a look here!
2) Use A Phone Or Another Camera Warm Up
A big thing I’ve learned after a lot of film shoots is that it pays to warm up with a digital/phone camera. The number of times I’ve wasted a bunch of film just getting into the swing of things when I could have been using a second camera.
It’s super important to warm up because often you and your subject need a little bit of time to get comfortable with one another.
Also, warming up digitally can allow you to notice issues that you won’t be able to see when you’re shooting film. You might realise that you’ll need to overexpose slightly in a certain spot, you might realise that something doesn’t actually work and you need to try something else.
Use this tip and it’ll save you a lot of film and help you to take some far better film portraits.
3) Use The Right Lens
‘The right lens’ is really the right lens for you. But typically, portrait pictures are taken on 50mm or longer focal lengths (up to about 135mm).
This is because short focal lengths like 35mm or below tend to make the face look smaller and less full and they will also produce distortion if you’re up close.
Whereas longer lenses like 50-105mm will make the subject’s face fuller. It’s important not to go too long, after around 135mm the face will become too full and the picture will feel very compressed.
Focal length isn’t the only important thing. Having a quality lens can be really important. Generally, prime lenses are the best and most sharp so if you can get a prime 50mm or 85mm lens, you’ll really reap the rewards!
4) Find Soft Light
In my experience, finding soft light has been one of the most important things when it comes to portrait photography, whether you’re using film or digital!
Soft light can be diffused light (like at golden hour when the sun is just setting), using shadows rather than harsh sunlight, shooting on an overcast day, using a diffuser or bouncing light.
Finding soft light is an art of its own and it can take a long time to understand how to utilise it. But once you understand it, you can produce beautiful portraits that have much more depth.
5) Have A Plan
Over the years I’ve discovered that one of the most important things about taking portraits is having a plan! This doesn’t mean that you don’t freestyle or take time to be creative with your subject, but it does mean you want to have at least a few locations and positions in mind.
Use things like Pinterest to create a mood board of how you’d like your shoot to look so then you have references for when you’re working with your subject.
You may think that you have a lot of things in mind but once you sit down with your subject, all of those poses or ideas can easily leave your mind.
6) Don’t Just Shoot Wide Open
Yes, portraits look great when you shoot at F 1.8, but be aware of using a variety of F stops when shooting portraits with film. This is because it can be really easy to miss your focus at F 1.8 or around that aperture.
So perhaps shooting at F 1.8 is fine but take the same shot at F4 if it’s a shot you know you really want. This’ll just give you that extra security so you’ll definitely get the shot at F4.
Also, relying on a wide aperture to provide depth in an image can make you lazy. Depth comes from so many more things than aperture, so learning those things can help you to make much better pictures.
7) Establish Rapport With Your Subject
I’ve always found that as soon as you feel comfortable and friendly with your subject, you start to take far better pictures of them.
It’s not easy to establish a rapport sometimes but a big part of it is your level of comfort. If you’re comfortable then your subject will be more comfortable!
Your subject’s level of comfort will show through when you’re taking pictures of them, so getting this right is a must.
A great lesson that I’ve learned is that if you can be completely competent with your camera then you can give much more attention to the things that matter (lighting, your subject, poses, comfort).
8) Be Comfortable With Your Camera
This is a tough lesson to learn but over the years I’ve realised how important it is. You really need to be comfortable with your camera, you need to know what you’re doing with it and not fumble around too much.
This is because you want your energy to go into the important things while you’re with a subject and worrying about how to use your camera will take you away from that.
Practice with your camera and make sure you know what you’re doing with it before it gets in the way of the important stuff!
People seem to think that film doesn’t need editing but this is far from the truth. Professional film stocks like Kodak Portra 400 were pretty much designed to be ‘flat’ so that they’re more easily edited.
People have been editing film images for years before Photoshop or Lightroom were ever a thing. Don’t make the mistake of not making basic corrections to your portraits.
Reducing the highlights, shadows and correcting small things can completely transform your images from something that looks okay but quite raw to something that looks fantastic.
I edit everything important, even if it’s just minor corrections to really get the picture to feel how I want it to. If you’re not editing your film pictures then you’re really missing a trick.
These are really important steps that I’ve learned from years of taking portraits on film. Hopefully, I’ve made the mistakes so you don’t have to!
Take these steps and go and take some exciting pictures you beauties!