ALL images shot with Mamiya645af | 80mm F/2.8 Lens + Scans by PhotoVision
As a digital photographer trying to re-learn the art of film, I have run into multiple frustrations attempting to achieve outcomes that I am satisfied with. Like any "fine art" wedding and portrait photographer, I pay attention to the greats like Jose Villa and Elizabeth Messina, as their work is always incredible. However, all too often I see their luminous photographs (whether it be inside a French Villa or in gorgeous southern Californian fields) and am left in despair that my scans don't look at vibrant as theirs.
So, what is the problem? Well after conducting a few different tests - here are some findings that other pacific northwest photographers may find helpful. Warning: I don't always use the perfect terminology when talking photography...I've developed my own phrasing that makes sense in my head. If you read something that you see isn't the exact proper term, feel free to embarrass me in the comment section (I'll forgive you eventually).
Everything starts with a good lab. I adore the folks at PhotoVision for the quality of their processing and scans - but also the good natured and kind customer service. I am new to film and constantly screwing up my settings and struggling through pushing film and they ALWAYS treat me with kindness. Plus they are a Pacific Northwest lab and so the turnaround is really fast and they understand the culture of this area. They will work with you to develop a look that you are shooting for with sample images and discussion. This is important! They can't read your mind you have to work with them.
ADOPT A CONSISTENT METERING STYLE
This was a game-changer for me. Stephen Wood from PhotoVision asked me how I meter and I awkwardly said something like "I meter for...the shadows?"...which was more of a question than an answer. He laughed good-naturedly and said I wasn't alone, that most people can't really answer that question in the beginning. So he taught me how to meter with my Sekonic L-358, and I've used it, religiously, ever since. It has completely changed everything for me, as my scans are finally coming in with a consistent look that is getting better and better the more I shoot. Since then I have been shown other ways of metering by photographers who clearly know what they are doing, but I've stuck to Stephen's advice because it's working for me. I think there are a lot of ways to get it done, but whatever you choose, you have to be consistent.
Film won't magically correct bad light...and neither will pushing film for that matter. If the light doesn't look good as you are shooting, the scans aren't going to look good either. So find that good light...even if you have to stop everything that is happening to get it.
CHOOSING FILM STOCKS THAT WORK FOR YOU
This is where it gets controversial and everyone has a different opinion. So everything I'm about to say is just what I've found to be true, in the Pacific Northwest, for the way I shoot and like things to look.
--- Fuji 400H ---
The most common film stock I see used in the world of "fine art film" is Fuji400H. It's a gorgeous film that renders pastel greens and turns warm light into a golden softness that is beyond dreamy. It is beautiful for all skin tones, making a it a wonderful portraiture stock. My issue with it is that in the PNW we get a lot of overcast days and our greens have a lot of yellow in them. I find my results with Fuji400H to be "meh" here in Oregon, it just doesn't do what the southern california or southern U.S light effect has on it (not to mention France or Italy). So I only use it in very specific scenarios these days. The exception to that rule would be in very golden, bright, neutral reflective settings in Oregon. For example I love shooting it in on the Oregon coast or indoors if it's a really pastel, neutral setting. I am drawn to contrast and my work is evolving to include a lot more pop and depth of color...Fuji400H is very soft so it's not usually my first choice. It loves to be over-exposed and is very light hungry. Rate your film at ISO 200 and Fuji400H will be so happy with you. This makes it more of a challenge in low-light, however, so be prepared to push film a lot if you shoot in Oregon during certain seasons.
--- Kodak Portra 400 ---
I like to think of Portra 400 as the great neutralizer. It's pretty nice with skin tones, it's a little warmer a stock than Fuji and it has a wee bit more pop to it. When I'm not sure what I want to do, good ol' Kodak Portra 400 will usually leave me mostly satisfied. I say mostly because it does get a little too yellow for my taste pretty easily...which again goes back to those very yellow-greens we have here in the pacific northwest and our heavy, water-logged air. In general though, it will give me good, solid, consistent results...as it's more versatile than Fuji400H. Kodak Portra 400 is like your best friend that you hang in your pajamas with - it's just comfortable and a good choice if you aren't sure. Quick note: I think this really comes down to your lab and their processes, but in my experience Kodak Portra 400 doesn't need to be over-exposed as much as Fuji, rating your film at ISO 320 will do the trick just fine. If you start to expose it more than that, you are going to start seeing yellowy and even purple tones in your scans. It definitely wants extra light, but it's not necessary to go overboard.
--- Kodak Portra 800 ---
I love Portra 800 for color vibrancy and pop. Portra 800 turns the pacific northwest yellow greens into a beautiful emerald green that I die for, so I don't have to take it out in post (and if I do, it's minimal). For me, it has solved that green issue I've struggled with for so long. It adds an "umph" to the color that really satisfies my hunger for more pop in my images. If you shoot families a lot (like me) that higher box speed helps with catching kiddos in motion as well (but it doesn't solve focus issues, so you still gotta nail that), and also helps for low-light scenarios so you aren't necessarily having to push film all the time. Also, it's a reddish film stock (which helps neutralize the green), but if you know you'll have a lot of red in your shoot, better to choose one of the stocks above unless you want to spend some time in Lightroom later. All in all though, if I'm in overcast very green scenarios, it really saves the day. I even love to use it at golden hour to add an extra pop of color! Kodak Portra 800 seems to perform well if you rate it for an ISO 640 (so one extra stop of light). Like it's sibling, Portra 400 -- it doesn't need an excess of extra light, just a bit to make it happy.
Get a good lab. Choose a metering style and stick with it. Be thoughtful about your film stocks and how/when you use them (think about the colors around you). Always seek out good light as film or pushing film won't correct poor light. Most importantly, don't give up and give yourself time to get good at it. You will more than likely be disappointed with your very first scans - this is normal. You'll get there! Hope this helps a bit!