Using Artificial Light to Shoot Film

Ohhh, film. You know how much I love it. It has the potential to be so soft and airy and if shot in natural light super bright and crisp. But as we all know not all weddings are outside during the coveted golden hour and as photographers we don't always have the pleasure of photographing in perfect lighting conditions. I used to consider film restrictive, only able to be used in the best of the prettiest light but with some testing, trial and error have found that with a touch of extra planning film can still be beautiful in even the seemingly darkest of scenarios. If in low light some may instinctively think "increase your ISO and shoot Portra 800 instead of 400!". Unlike this digital way of thinking, that can be useful but quite frankly isn't always the best solution as different film ISOs have colors that don't react the same in different light and, in my opinion, Portra 800 isn't the best for low all. The colors get kind of wonky. So unless you are going black and white picking up a faster ISO won't always do the trick. This is where you can either decide to 1: shoot the film you have a faster ISO and have it "pushed" later in developing (which gives a totally different look) 2. Go digital or 3: light the joint up. I do whatever I can to continue to shoot film well into the evening, so here's How I Use Artificial Light to Shoot Film:  (best part is, you need very little gear to get great results!) **Note: ALL examples below are unedited film scans and Fuhi400h


SCENARIO 1: The room without windows

Recipe: 1 Lowel light on a stand + natural reflectors + 1 video light (when needed)

Shilhi of Passion Roots asked me to photograph her beautiful Christmas inspired tablescape in her home. I brought along both digital and film, hoping to shoot all film and just before I left grabbed my giant Lowel pro light and stand just in case. When I arrived I immediately knew I would be needing it, as there wasn't a window in sight in her dining room. I opened the front door in hopes of brightening the place up but knew we'd need a lot more than that. So I got to work putting up my one light and praying for the best. Thankfully the walls surrounding the table were bright white and the mirror that lined the opposing wall from my light held a very large mirror. These natural reflectors mixed with ambient light from the chandelier and tree added all the brightness and pretty that I needed. I made sure to keep the very bright (but somewhat "spotlight") light on a stand off to my side, as a "key light" of sorts, keeping it pointed toward the white walls and mirror so it could reflect and bounce around the room.

When I changed positions and photographed the florals in the opposite direction (photo below)  you can see my light source (the light stand set up to be about 6 feet high) behind the arrangement. I then used it to back-light the tablescape, again with the white walls and mirror now behind me as a natural reflector. During this shoot I rarely moved the one light on the stand and, if needed, used an assistant holding a video light for filler light on darker corners of the table.


Scenario 2: Mixed Lighting (+ no reflectors)

Recipe: 1 Lowel pro light + 1 window

To highlight the sparkle and shimmer of the Christmas gifts in our own living room (that has windows but not a lot of natural reflectors close by) an additional light source was needed to fill in the darkness between the falling window light and the space in front of the Christmas tree. I set my one, again bright and hot as hell Lowel pro light up about 12 feet away from the scene, shining directly onto the tree and the packages, with the window light coming in from behind the presents. This time, instead of keeping my main light source (the lowel light) to the side of me reflecting off white walls (like I did in scenario 1) I kept the lowel light behind me (over my shoulder). In doing this I had to be careful not to cast shadows with my big head, and being limited on my light sources I could not shoot from all directions unless I incorporated an extra video light into the mix to fill in shadows. In the photo below of the box with the pink bow I shot with the window to my right side and the light stand to my left. Shooting the light directly falling onto the subject with no other reflectors to soften it up as I did can be tricky, you don't want it to look TOO artificially lit, so where you stand in relation to your subject matters. Also, you can see that the light I have doesn't have barn doors on it, so it acts like a spot light. This is helpful if I am showcasing cropped scenes but when shooting the entire scene from a distance this type of light can create fall-off, like in the photo below of all the packages under the stocking. See where the blue chair and teepee aren't as well lit? Barn doors on a bright light could help that.

In the photo below I cropped in tighter to eliminate parts of the scene that weren't well lit and create some great bokeh with the ambient christmas tree lights.

Scenario 3: Ballroom Reception Details

Recipe: 2 video lights

Truth be told, large, dark ballrooms are typically where I bust out my digital camera and continue to document the day. However, there are some things I just can't NOT shoot in film, so when I have a way to effectively light it, I will. It's hard to photograph very large, dark scenes in color so instead I focus on capturing the details in my favorite medium by using an assistant holding two video lights. I love love LOVE food photographed in film, so whenever dinner is served I walk around and take shots of the plates and desserts, shooting onto a bright tablecloth (at a wide aperture) and getting my assistant to hold the two small but powerful lights on either side of the subject. Usually they are standing slighly to the left of me, getting an arm workout as they hold each video light above their heads in a "v" shape, kind of like a cheerleader with pom poms (omg don't tell them I said that), with one arm slightly lower than the other, at an angle directly light onto the subject. I always look for shadows and ask them to adjust accordingly. Lots of light holding around here, they probably hate me for this. Sometimes I also directly mount the device onto the hot shoe of my camera and ask them to hold the other slightly off to one side.

Scenario 4: Sunset

Recipe: 2 video lights + a natural reflector

I find myself super excited during a shoot and as the sun is dipping below the horizon and dusk is quickly approaching I yell "just one more shot!" at least 12 times. You can't just increase your ISO to accommodate low light when shooting film, and the look of sunset with a flash just ain't my thang so when I am capitalizing on a couple having a great time well into the evening I've gotta find ways to make it work. This is when I bust out my cheap-o video lights again. Using any natural reflectors around me (usually sand) mixed with the last bits of sun I ask my clients to turn where the lighting is best and I use video lights to fill in the rest. The results can be beautiful, natural looking and super easy! Plus, it allows me to keep shooting justttttt a little bit longer. In the photo the awesome photographer helping me for the day on Maui stood off to my left, holding the video lights above her head, again, in a slight V with one arm somewhat lower than the other directly shining onto the couple. I love the shimmer and warmth it added with the last few drops of peachy sunset reflecting behind.


-Lowel Pro Light + Stand (these babies get HOT + are BRIGHT! Best for small, controlled shoots)

-Two Video lights (I use cheapos from NEWEER but Ikan makes awesome super bright, clean ones. Great for mounting on top of your camera in the hotshoe or having assistants hold them, or even on a stand if you don't have extra help)

-Reflector: Whether it be natural (sand on the beach, a white wall), one you brought with you or a DIY one using a hotel bed sheet, these tend to come in handle to bounce artificial light and make it appear more natural.

Either beach engagement shoot or a ballroom wedding I always keep these lights on hand and have more often than not pulled out my inexpensive video lights for added oomph.

Some people opt for flash but when it comes to shooting both film and digital I prefer a constant light source that I can move and adjust as I see fit.