"Two years ago, film changed everything!"
Choosing your wedding photographer is one of the most exciting and impactful decisions you’ll find yourself making while wedding planning – because every location, stylistic detail, outfit, and emotion will be captured through their eyes. When supporting couples as their wedding planner, I suggest photographers based on style alignment, personality affinity, and of course budget – I match couples to artists whose work I believe they will love trust, and respect, while totally “getting” one another. It’s truly a joy to see these relationships blossom, and it’s always an honour to be a part of that story ❤️
One of the questions I ask myself when searching for a perfect photographer for a couple is whether film photography might be a medium that aligns with their style and their ethos. The truth is, although film photographs “look” and “feel” different, it’s not just about what’s on the surface – the experience of having your wedding captured by someone who works in film will itself be different, as will the process and the outcome.
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know some fantastic film photographers in the wedding industry this year, and they’ve inspired me to shed some light on what goes on behind the scenes, why their approach is different, what the practical things to know are, and how to make the most of having booked a film photographer for your wedding or elopement. I also touch on the practical advantages and disadvantages, as well as some points about the investment needed, because I truly believe education and transparency on these issues will help photographers, couples, and even venues and suppliers, respect and understand one another.
In order to provide as comprehensive, honest, and useful a guide here as possible, I interviewed four brilliant film photographers about their work within the wedding industry – I’m so grateful to Gina Dover-Jaques, Terry Li, Flora Westbrook, and Dani Cowan for their time and patience talking me through everything! It’s thanks to their answers that this article has come together, and we really hope you enjoy the read. I highly recommend browsing through their dreamy websites and portfolios as well, so do scroll down to the bottom of this post to learn more about each of them.
"what is film photography"
Let’s start at the beginning. Unless you or your partner are photography enthusiasts, it’s very possible (and entirely normal) for you not have considered that having your wedding photographed in film would even be possible these days. Isn’t that what we used to use BEFORE digital? Well, yes – but it’s an art form still being very much enjoyed, refined, and developed by photographers and labs who choose to. The makers of film and film cameras have come a long way in the last few decades, and film is shot with more modern methods and a more contemporary approach now, all of which contribute to setting these photographs apart from what you might remember from your parents’ albums. So let’s take a step back and go over the basics of what film photography is today.
In essence, a photographer shooting your wedding in this medium will show up with a carefully chosen toolkit of analog cameras and physical rolls of film. Every camera has a plethora of manual and mechanical settings to know inside out, and every type of film has a different scope and potential – which means your photographer will have made some very important decisions before any light has hit the lens. They will then proceed to shoot your wedding from beginning to end as you would expect, though they will do so in a more “intentional” way than a digital shooter might – but we’ll touch more on this later. Once the wedding is over, the film rolls are posted to a lab who then develops and processes them, and then scans the negatives into the computer. These images are then uploaded online and sent to the photographer, who can then further edit the images if he/she wishes to. They will then be delivered to the couple as high-resolution, downloadable JPEG files; that is, the way they are delivered is the same whether they were taken on a film camera or a digital one. Many photographers may offer additional options such as fine art prints and albums, which is a wonderful way to enjoy these heirloom photographs you’ve invested in.
Dani says: “Most film wedding photographers these days shoot medium format film because the photos are larger, can handle more, and they give that full-frame camera effect with a shallow depth of field and creamy background. A lot of wedding pros also use 35mm film cameras to supplement during the day as medium format film is extremely expensive (about $2 every photo) and 35mm film allows more photos to be taken per roll. File sizes are typically smaller and there is usually quite a bit more grain, so it really just depends on the photographer’s style. When it comes to labs, wedding photographers will generally be very particular about where they send their film – primarily because working with the same lab over and over again gives our work a consistent style and color profile, which is necessary for our clients. Different labs will process film differently, which is why some of us ship our film quite far overseas to get just the right look!”
Kodak Portra medium format film
There is definitely a difference in approach, which I find to be a really fascinating feature of film photography. Photographers working with the medium of film need to be extra patient, vigilant and skilled at being at the right place at the right time. Film does not allow for the rapid, successive shooting that digital does, which means a film photographer will often be aiming to shoot for quality and not quantity, and in a very intentional way. In practice, this means fewer shots are fired, but a good film photographer will still generally deliver around the same number of images to a wedding client as a digital shooter would (they just delete fewer!). This more methodical approach encourages moments for slowing down and soaking in the day. Of course that’s not to say that there aren’t digital photographers out there that embrace this ethos and approach of course – but it definitely is true that film’s “limitations” impose an altogether slower and more considered shooting style on the artist, which in turn becomes a part of the art form.
Speaking to film photographers, I hear so many of them express that they actually love not being able to see the photo when they take it, as it makes them more aware. Waiting to see them means having some separation between taking the photo and viewing it, which can help appreciate and reflect on their work. They embrace even the costs, because it makes them strive to make every shot count, and every frame better than the one before. Most film shooters also say that they adore the colours that they can produce with film and that, with the right lab, there is hardly any editing or post-processing to do – they essentially arrive ready to be saved into a gallery and sent to their client. The grain of film, which could be regarded as a mark of inferior quality, can actually be a truly beautiful celebration of life’s perfect little imperfections, of being in the moment, and of creating something unique. As a client, understanding if this perspective aligns with your own is as important as assessing whether the look of film is right for you.
"what to expect from working with a film photographer"
From a practical perspective, not much will change for you, apart from what I’ve mentioned above about the change in pace. A film photographer will consider the light and composition of each frame very carefully before committing to exposing the shot, which may be different to the experience you’ve had with digital photographers in the past. A film photographer also needs to reload the camera every so often, though some will bring a dedicated film loading assistant with them. For example, there are 16 frames on every roll of medium format film – which means that, every 16 images, a film shooter would need to open their camera and add a new roll. This contributes to needing to take the day a bit more slowly, both for the photographer and the couple.
Gina says: “Whether I am creating photos on film or digital format, the only difference that my couples will see on the day, is that I will read the natural light with a ‘handheld’ light meter. Other than that, I work with purpose and consideration, in a chilled and guiding way that ensures my couples feel safe and at ease.”
Once the light fades and the party starts, film shooters may switch to black and white film or to digital cameras, though some will stick to film all day regardless of lighting changes. Photographers that work with both will often use the word “hybrid” when describing their work or wedding packages. Regardless of how your film shooter chooses to approach these after-dark hours, do make sure it’s something you’ve discussed and that you’re comfortable with. Do ask to see a few full client galleries ahead of time so you know what to expect and so you can get a sense of how their style evolves throughout the day.
Gina says: “I love to capture the drinks reception and the fast pace of the dancing in the evening with digital format as it works well for these aspects of the day. It’s important to me that I create stunning images for my couples whatever the conditions, and so I work with both film and digital formats to give my couples the best of both worlds. I always suggest locations and poses that enhance who my couples are, regardless of which camera I’m holding. One of my favourite moments is capturing a few quiet moments with my couples just prior to sunset, when the light is utterly dreamy!”
You will still receive the images digitally, as mentioned earlier, though the time it takes the photographer to get the galleries ready for you may be a bit longer. Film labs typically take anywhere from 2-3 weeks to deliver images to the photographer once processed, plus there is some editing and culling time needed after that. This will depend a lot on the photographer’s systems and processes, as well as which lab they ship their rolls to, and how busy they are at a particular time of year.
Flo says: “I always ask couples to budget a bit of extra time for their couple’s session if they want film photography. The film shots will be more intentional, but not in a posed or cheesy way! The waiting process is real though – it can take 6 to 8 weeks for couples to have the photographs back.”
As for the images themselves, it’s definitely worth investing time in getting to know a photographer’s portfolio well before moving forward with the booking. While the look of film can be quite distinctive, keep in mind that, just like with digital shooters, there is also a wide variation in the style of photographs between film shooters. You may see some portfolios rich in colour and contrast, while others favour a less saturated, more neutral palette. There will also be differences in how the photographers pose, direct, and compose images, so be sure to truly consider the work they are creating beyond their choice of format.
On the topic of style – you may have frequently seen the term “fine art photographer” used alongside “film photographer”, especially in the wedding industry. While the two concepts can be closely linked, they aren’t interchangeable. Today, the term “fine art” is a description used by photographers to qualify the way they work and the style of their images – and can mean slightly different things to different people, of course. Generally, I would say it’s about capturing moments in a slow, authentic way – it’s thinking of photography as creative expression – it’s about shooting with beauty in mind, while still making sure every image has heart, and, thus, is meaningful. A “fine art” approach will typically lead the photographer to favour soft natural light, muted palettes, and romantic aesthetics, and while often this ethos results in the photographer choosing to also (or exclusively) shoot film, it is not a guarantee. If this is something important to you, do have that conversation with them so that you can find out more about their film-to-digital ratio.
"investing in film photography"
By and large, film photographers sit on the more expensive side of the scale. Whether it’s worth the additional investment completely depends on YOUR priorities and what is valuable to you.
One of the reasons the investment is higher is that there is a physical cost to use and develop film, which doesn’t exist for digital (the average I’ve seen is around $2.50 out of a photographer’s pocket for each image taken). My advice on this is to be aware and educated about these costs, but not be discouraged by them.
Another reason film photographers charge what they do is the commitment it takes for a film photographers to hone their skills. This is true for digital as well of course, and I am by no means claiming one is more difficult than the other! But as there is no screen that shows what photo has just been taken, film photographers in particular have to perfect their ability to see and interpret the light available to them, and be certain of how their camera, film, and lab will process it. They need to be very comfortable with the technical side, and be willing to pour over negatives if something does go awry in the processing. Mastering shooting in film is based very much on trial-and-error, and is training that fewer photographers undertake as it requires a significant investment of time and capital on the photographers’ part.
Flo says: “My expenses depend on which film I use, and can vary a lot! The one I typically use (as it has the look and grain I want) costs £60 for a pack of 5 rolls, which gives me a total of 120 colour negative frames. When shooting weddings, I usually buy 3 to 4 packs – sometimes more, depending on how long I am shooting for, and which part of the day they wish to have caught on film. I always want the flexibility to be able to shoot more rather than not enough – you can’t really take risks on a wedding day! Getting the rolls developed and scanned is another significant expense, especially if you want it at good quality. The lab I’ve chosen uses the latest state of the art film processing equipment hand-built in Germany, which gives me pin-sharp high-resolution scans that keep the full character and nuance of analogue film. I always aim to give the best quality possible to those who trust me to photograph them. The processing fees I pay are around £560+ for a typical wedding. It’s not cheap… but it’s a real investment for those who love film.”
Terry says: “It takes time and lots of practice to master film photography, and to able to produce consistent results no matter what lighting situations you find yourself at. There’s the actual cost of shooting film and also of developing them as well of course – I ship my film rolls across the continent to Canada, where a professional team develop the rolls for me. Overall, it’s a more complicated process, involving more human time and also more specialist machinery. But if you love the look of film photography, it’s worth it!”
Also worth keeping in mind is the concept of supply and demand. There are few photographers around the world who specialise and excel in the art of film photography for weddings, which means that they are exceptionally desirable to their target audience, which in turn can result in full calendars and sparse availability.
Before booking a film photographer, do take your time asking questions, and also ask to see past clients’ full wedding galleries so that you can get a real sense of what your own will look like. It’s ok to ask them about how confident they feel capturing your wedding given the venue and time of year you’ve chosen, and it’s also ok to talk about backup film equipment. While progress is being made, keep in mind that film remains an “old” technology, and film shooters might be using cameras that were released decades ago. Photographers will usually bring a back-up camera body with them, as it’s possible for film gear to have issues – though usually not as harmful as when a digital camera’s card corrupts!
This type of investment is both financial and emotional – and shouldn’t be taken lightly. This is all about making a decision that you will be proud and grateful of long after the wedding day is over.