The Biggest Mistake People Make When Learning to Shoot Film


If you’re a digital photographer coming into film it’s probably terrifying for you to think about overexposing by multiple stops, especially when you’re doing it blindly (finding out a week later how things went is a bit of an adjustment, I get it). I remember my first thought was that I’d just end up with an entire roll full of blank white unusable frames, but film handles exposure differently than digital.

It makes sense when you think about it, film is an actual physical medium; inside that 35mm canister is a transparent sheet of plastic coated in a gelatin emulsion that contains tiny microscopic light sensitive crystals. Those crystals then react to the light you let into your camera - and voila, you’ve made an image. THANK YOU SCIENCE.

When you think about it that way it becomes more about shifting your mindset, it’s a completely different medium, so of course it will have different rules. With digital it’s a terrible idea to overexpose and most underexposure can be fixed in post, with film it’s the complete opposite. Overexposure is going to give you brighter color, better contrast and cleaner grain.

Below is a grid of photographs showing you just how much you can overexpose and still have plenty of information in your image. Even at seven stops of overexposure the highlights are going a bit gray but ITS NOT TOTALLY BLANK! Cue the gasps.


On the flip side underexposure and film just don’t mix, in fact they’re the worst kind of enemies. Underexposure can cause heavy grain, color shifts, color reflections in the shadows, low contrast and muddiness. It’s not pretty. If you’re one who likes a lot of bright color and light in your imagery than stay far far away from underexposure.

Below you can see that I started out rating this Portra400 by one stop (which I recommend) although even just in rating it at box speed (400) you can see that there’s already a pretty noticeable shift in color, and are we all crying when we get to four stops of underexposure?? Sad Panda. Those last images are basically unusable.


Really the film speed on the box is almost never doing you any favors, so how are you supposed to know what to set your camera/meter at? Are you ready to be best friends?? I’ve decided to help you guys out by creating a fabulous printable that will give you a great starting point for each film stock! Just sign up here for my newsletter (coming at you monthly with fun little tips/tricks/current faves/ways to be creative etc.) and download your free printable!

Print it out, keep it in your camera bag, even laminate the darn thing, it is going to save you so many tears and so much money. Keep in mind, however, that each location on the planet can have different qualities of light (more on that later?) not to mention that everyone meters just a little differently, so use these as the best kind of jumping off point and always do your own experimenting! Now get out there and shoot!

Melese MillerComment