Ever thought shooting a wedding on film? Curious about what it takes or what goes into it?
Brian D. Smith is a wedding photographer living in Charleston, South Carolina. In addition, he takes some pretty spectacular studio and portraiture work on film — so much so that in 2019, he was named Belle Lumiere's film photographer of the year. Brian went to school for engineering and was a practicing engineer for a while before deciding to be a photographer full-time. He has a number of cameras (as most film photographers do) and a lot of experience with different films, but still has and regularly uses his Sony a7III as a backup camera when clients are not particularly comfortable with an all-film wedding.
Having lived in Charleston, SC for several years, I know first-hand that wedding photographers are a dime a dozen. On the weekends and even most weekdays, there are weddings at just about every church, and in a city known as “the holy city” because of the high number of churches in a relatively small area, that equates to a lot of weddings. As a result, the more weddings, the more wedding photographers. So, how does a photographer stand out in such a town with a relatively saturated wedding photographer market? I would have thought shooting film would make an easy way to stand out. According to Brian, it’s not that easy. In fact, most wedding photographers in the Charleston offer to shoot film. It’s considered an add-on to the packages they offer.
So, is it really that common that wedding photographers shoot film? Not in most places around the United States, but it is in Charleston, SC. What then sets a film photographer apart in the wedding industry? For one, it's shooting an entire wedding on film as opposed to just shooting through a roll in addition to all of the digital work. That itself can be quite intimidating in this digital day and age. It takes a lot of confidence, practice, and a deep portfolio that can make potential clients confident that the work will be consistently good even with a medium that can be pretty unpredictable.
After a while of talking to Brian, realizing that shooting film had become more common than I was previously aware, our conversation finally steered towards asking why he shoots film for weddings, particularly given that it isn’t all that unique as I would have thought. His answer was pretty simple: after a while of consuming wedding photography and portrait photography, you get used to seeing technically perfect photographs. In fact, you get so used to seeing them that even a stunningly beautiful, backlit photograph leaves very little impression when all is said and done. Sure, there are a lot of people that want their own technically perfect photographs of themselves from their own wedding. There are also a lot of people whose thoughts of such images are in alignment with Brian’s.
That is to say, with film, there’s an understanding that not everything will be perfect, that while some photographs may turn out just as intended, some will fall short by random chance. Embracing these eventual imperfections allows you to focus on capturing moments and concentrating on framing. Further, for Brian and many of his clients, these eventual slight and subtle imperfections give a sense that the resulting photos are truer to real life than the technical perfection that is often pursued with digital photography.
Large Format and Experimentation
S,o in a city where shooting film does not actually set wedding photography apart, what is a person to do? One way in which Brian has managed to set himself apart from other wedding photographers and even from other wedding photographers who shoot film is his experience with large format. Brian has done some limited work with his Intrepid 4x5 in the wedding space, and it is definitely striking and unique. He said that it isn’t for everyone, even for those that think they’d like to sit for a 4x5 shot. This is primarily due to the fact that potential clients often don’t realize just how much work goes into operating a large format camera. The time between setting up a shot and being able to actually take it renders most people disconnected from the session. That said, for those that are up for it, the results are truly unique from the majority of what is out there, and some people love it for that.
Another way in which Brian sets himself apart is with his pursuit of experimentation in his studio and portraiture work. A glance through his Instagram shows a great deal of diversity in style and approach. Between shooting large format and his experimental work, Brian receives some work through Instagram where clients do not want any 4x5 or studio work themselves but want a film photographer who can do much more than simply meter and shoot, even if that’s not what they need from the photographer themselves.
Gear and Film
In talking gear with Brian, he quickly mentions the Contax 645 and spoke of not just respect but also the reputation of it. Made famous by Jose Villa and Erich McVey, the Contax 645 has become the camera for a film wedding photographer. He mentioned the excellent quality of the lenses and little copy variation that has resulted in a homogenized look of all images taken with that camera, so much so that there’s little unique about it. Not to say that the camera did not earn its reputation; it’s just that the camera has become more of a status symbol than a useful tool for producing uniquely good work.
Brian’s other medium format camera for his professional work is the Hasselblad 202FA. As one of the few Hasselblad cameras that utilized a focal plane shutter design, it is capable of using faster lenses and having faster exposure speeds.
As for the film, Brian’s favorite color film is Kodak’s Portra 800, followed by Kodak Gold when he’s shooting 35mm. With that said, when consistency is needed, he often reaches for Portra 400. For black and white photography, he prefers Kodak’s TMax 400 and Tri-X.