I've been working with Richard Photo Lab for a little over a year at this point and I've started to dial in the final look I've been envisioning this past year. While I'm incredibly excited that all of the time, effort, learnings, failed photos and conversations with my lab have led me to a desirable outcome and more enjoyable in-the-moment shooting experience, in retrospect it's pretty simple.
One of the strange aspects of the photography community is how secretive everyone is about how they shoot and achieve their final results. Instagram, blogs, YouTube videos, and meets up are filled with questions along the line of: "What camera do you use?", "What were your settings for that shot?", "What's your post workflow look like?", "What presets do you use?", etc. These questions are rarely, if ever, truthfully answered. I've always found that to be strange in a community that is inherently collaborative and social, especially all of these Instagram photographs who aren't shooting major commercial contracts.
Of course, there are exceptions, my personal favorite being Johnny Patience, who has blogged in detail about everything from how he shoots film, works with his lab, and even allows you to use his color settings. Matt Day is another photographer who has recently provided a brief albeit insightful video to his film workflow. So, I've decided to share a detailed view of my film workflow in order to help those who may be looking for that one insightful idea that helps them refine their creative vision. In a way, I wouldn't be where I am today from a creative perspective without the help of people like Johnny Patience.
When I first decided to take photography more seriously, one of the biggest mistakes I made was the idea that I could do most of the work after I took the photo - in Lightroom, Photoshop, name your tool. The web is flooded with the benefits of shooting RAW, the power of new mirrorless cameras, digital sensor technology and creative presets. And, they're right. Modern cameras and post processing tools are incredibly powerful but they don't help me achieve the final look I'm after. If you're shooting HDR, panoramas, or more conceptual work - go for it. That said, focusing on the how rather than the why you're taking the photo was my first big mistake. Secondly, spending time after you take the photograph is time intensive and unfulfilling. In retrospect, it took me years and 1,000s of failed photographs to learn how to see light as well as learn that you need to strive for the best possible results, preferably 95% of your desired look, in camera and not rely on the technology.
With those to principles in mind, let's break them down one at a time. First, being able to see light is critical and, unfortunately, can't really be taught. I'm convinced this is a life long pursuit as I'm always learning, failing and uncovering new approaches to each situation. There are amazing tutorials, books, and videos on all the types of light and how to approach them but you ultimately need to experience them, see them, and fail to truly understand how to approach each shot. For the purposes of this post, I'll sum up an impossible lesson in a few key scenarios that I often seek out: window light indoors (no artificial lights on), shade during a intense/bright sunny day, backlit subjects, cloudy/overcast days, morning and evening golden hours.
When shooting in these situations, I always intentionally overexpose with film (rate Kodak Portra 400 at 200) or expose to the right with digital photography (usually +0.75 to +1.25, depending on the amount of available light). There are endless debates about "Film: expose for the shadows", "Digital: expose for the highlights", however my aesthetic tends to be bright, pastel-like photographs, so I always expose for the shadows, even at the cost of lightly blown highlights in digital. That's it - I take the time to view the light in the situation, typically shoot wide open with prime lenses at f/1.8, f/2.0, or f/2.8, compose the photograph in Manual or Aperture Priority, make sure I'm slightly overexposed but not losing too much detail, and take the photograph.
Once I receive my film scans or digital files, I spend about thirty seconds to a few minutes on each photograph. Those few minutes are mostly spent brightening whites, darkening blacks for both aesthetic and contrast preferences. In addition to whites and blacks, I may slightly adjust the temperature to be slightly cooler as Kodak Portra 400 can tend to create yellowish tones or make the photograph warmer than I'd like. If any additional edits are required, it's typically bringing up the shadows and adjusting the exposure to ensure I'm achieving my bright, pastel-like look. My aesthetic is very much in alignment with Kodak Portra 400 when shooting film and I do my best to achieve similar results in my digital photography. That said, even with the technology we have today, film still provides a depth and aesthetic that can't be achieved with digital. I'm hopeful that concepts like Fuji's Classic Chrome will be the answer, but I'm not convinced.
Below are examples of my workflow in practice from my recent trip to Avalon. I've provided both the original film scan (ie. straight out of the camera) on the left and the final edit on the right. In addition to before and after, each image includes the histogram and basic Lightroom edits required to achieve the final look. Since focusing on the best possible in-camera results, I've never used features outside of the Basic tab in Lightroom which allows me to spend less time behind a computer and more time enjoying photography. If you have specific questions, leave a comment.
All photographs were created with either the Hasselblad 500CM and the Carl Zeiss Planar T* f/2.8 or the Leica M6 and the Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 on Kodak Portra 400 or Kodak Tri-X 400. All images were scanned and processed by Richard Photo Lab in California.