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I'm going to be working with film later this year, for the first time, and would like to prepare beforehand to shoot with it. My question is if I use a Sekonic light meter and a DSLR with only the viewfinder and manual iso/aperture/shutter controls, would this create the same restraints as with film and be helpful for preparing/yield similar results?

Or do various film stocks and the development stuff play such a role that I can't prepare without using the film itself (shoot/negative/print) or do I need a LUT made for the film stock and my camera (5DMK2)?

Thanks a lot for any help or insights into this!

  • One important thing to consider is the lack of instant feedback. So turning of the back screen preview is probably good practice and also having the disiplin to not look at the pictures before unloading them from the card. I also concur in the tip of using realy smal cards, I have a 512mb card I got with a camera I bought. When shooting raw with my 24mpix camera with that it makes me really think about each shot. – lijat Jun 23 at 8:31
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    There are many film cameras with built-in metering and varying degrees of automatic exposure. "Working with film" doesn't mean abandoning everything that's been done since 1970. – Pete Becker Jun 23 at 13:07
  • It will be a good practice. But if your "working with film" will involve a real film camera do consider getting an old, well used one now - a Praktica, Canon AE1, the simple models - on the well know auction site. They do not cost a fortune and it will prepare you to feel & handling of an unfamiliar tool. – Jindra Lacko Jun 24 at 6:24
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Your ideas may be useful for practice, but consider these points on the basis of the particular film camera you will be using:

  • Does it have built-in metering? That is not uncommon.
  • Does it have autofocus? That is less common, but possible.
  • Will you be shooting color, monochrome (B/W)or a combination? Negative or slides?
    • B/W has the greatest exposure latitude, and the effective ISO can be changed a bit in development.
    • Color prints offer some latitude during printing.
    • Color slides are the most demanding.

BTW, one advantage of film over electronic cameras at low temperatures is that extended "low noise" (well, low reciprocity failure) shots are possible, such as capturing astronomical objects. Actually, an electronic sensor works well in the cold, but batteries, motors and other items on the digital camera may have problems.

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Your question seems to mainly focus on exposure...so let me shed some light on the topic.

Disregarding your built in meter, using a hand held meter, and full manual settings is a decent exercise regardless of whether you’re shooting digital or film - knowing more about exposure never hurts.

With film, you won’t get a histogram...So it’s best to learn how to meter a scene and set your exposure properly now.

But, this will only ensure that you’ve properly exposed your film. You also need to properly develop it and properly print it. There’s not much you can do to prep for those steps except read up on the concepts. It’s basic chemistry, not rocket science; you’ll be fine.

Other things that you can do to prep include:

  • Use small cards. Ridiculously small cards. With a roll of 35mm, you’ve got 24 or 36 frames pending the roll size. Even less if shooting 645. Even less if 6x6. Even less if 6x7. You get my point. So, practice now in really taking your time to compose and get the shot you want. Slow.Down.
  • Flip your exposure priority. With digital, you blow the highlights and they’re gone - there’s no coming back. But film (black and white and color negative) tolerates overexposure so much better. You want to “exposure for the shadows, develop for the highlights.” This is particularly true with color negs - never, ever underexpose them - and don’t worry too much about overexposure. It takes a lot to block up the highlights.
  • If you’re developing yourself, start practicing loading a reel now. Get a few rolls of cheap film to waste in your practice. You want to be able to crack a can and load a reel in complete darkness with ease.
  • Keep it simple. As you read up you’ll find the endless obsession threads on pushing/pulling/stand development/semi stand/etc/etc/etc. Shoot at box speed and develop according to the specs on the bottle/film - do what the manufacturer says to do. When you have enough film processed to predict its look, then you can experiment a bit.
  • In keeping with the above point, pick a single developer and no more than 3 films (low iso [100 or less ISO], mid range [400 or 800] and a fast film [1600 or 3200]). You want to truly get to know a process, so pick one and stick with it until you know it inside and out.
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Having started in film photography many years ago, one factor which was both a positive and a negative (no pun intended!) was the expense of the whole process. This meant one spent more time composing, thinking, evaluating a given shot. Unfortunately this caused missed opportunities at times, but also helped one learn the process. For example, as a photojournalist/street photographer I learned to pre-focus so as to take a shot as quickly as possible for a natural or "slice of life" shot. Slowing down is one of the biggest benefits to film photography in our modern digital world - try to recreate that visualization process as Ansel Adams so eloquently describes in his book "The Negative."

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    Many who quote Adams regarding "visualization" fail to realize that he was specifically addressing exposing/developing according to what he eventually called the "Zone System" and he was not, as many seem to believe, talking about framing, composition, perspective, etc. – Michael C Jun 24 at 9:43
  • Yes, exactly relevant to film use - I made the assumption (perhaps incorrectly!) that this was common knowledge, but you are right to make that distinction. I am an old film guy so no other meaning comes to mind! Cheers! – RevealingLight Jun 25 at 13:35
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No, it wouldn't, not even slightly. Because 'working with film' is hugely variable:

  • there are film cameras which have comprehensive autofocus and matrix metering with fully programmed exposure, and which can shoot more than 5 frames a second;
  • there are film cameras which have no meter at all, and no focussing aids whatsoever;
  • there are film cameras which you can focus only while the film which was not in the camera, and for which you have to change the film after each exposure.

I use film pretty much exclusively, and (other than the spot meter for my field camera which is in the bag with the darkslides) I'm pretty sure I don't know where my light meters are, because all the cameras I use regularly have perfectly decent meters. I shot a couple of rolls at a friend's wedding yesterday and I don't think I fiddled with exposure once: I checked what it was, but the aperture-priority exposure is just fine on the camera I was using (and this is a camera made sometime in the early 1980s).

The only thing that all versions of 'working with film' have in common is that you can't chimp: you have to actually make the picture you want to make rather than a series of successively-good approximations to it based on chimping. (Except, of course, that you can (or could) chimp for some variants: it used to be very common to make Polaroids in advance of burning expensive LF colour film for instance.)

And that, really, is the only thing they have in common. If you process & print your own films you really are doing a very different thing than if you process the film then scan and print, or get the film developed & scanned by a lab. If you work with a screw-mount Leica it's completely different than working with a Nikon F5, which is in turn completely different than working with a 5x4 field camera and sheet film.

Finally, a DSLR is a very poor simulation of a manual-focus film SLR, still less a rangefinder: these cameras, if they were decent, had viewfinders which were specifically designed to help you focus and were almost totally unlike DSLR viewfinders, which obviously are not.

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My question is if I use a Sekonic light meter and a DSLR with only the viewfinder and manual iso/aperture/shutter controls, would this create the same restraints as with film and be helpful for preparing/yield similar results?

This will probably be helpful for preparing, and help you get good results, although since it's a different medium not necessarily similar ones. Preparing a LUT (a look-up-table) or other tone-curve profile to get a color response kinda-similar to the film you're planning on using doesn't really even seem necessary at all: it won't really be the same in any case.

However, there's one thing I want to point out about your scenario that's missing, and another that I think you're glossing over.

The missing thing is that you list manual ISO, aperture, and shutter. Aperture and shutter, sure, but "ISO" isn't a flexible parameter with film. Your selected film will have a certain speed and that's that. But on the other hand, film is generally more forgiving of and reacts differently to exposure mistakes.

And the thing you're glossing over is the lack of instant response. Even if you take your film home and develop and print it that same day, this is a very different experience than taking an image and being able to review the response instantly ­— and having only a few dozen frames each of which is a non-trivial expense.

Overall, I don't think it's super useful to pretend your DSLR is a film camera. Instead, make sure you're very, very comfortable with exposure and composition and with observing light. You certainly should go out and practice with your DSLR in the meantime, but expect to also have a learning curve with the film camera that's entirely its own, separate thing.

  • To some extent, ISO is adjustable, both during development by 'pushing' the film and in printing (except for slides), compensating for the exposure. See thedarkroom.com/pushing-and-pulling-film . That said, pushing (or pulling) only gets a few f/stops difference, nothing like the range of digital cameras. – DrMoishe Pippik Jun 24 at 15:29
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    @DrMoishePippik To get that flexibility with film on a per shot basis like we have with digital, one must go all the way back to shooting with sheet film instead of roll film. – Michael C Jun 25 at 15:11
  • If I needed to push a whole roll of Tri-X at 800 ASA (now ISO), I'd compensate in the tank, getting more grainy, but darker negatives. Further compensation is on an individual basis in printing. – DrMoishe Pippik Jun 25 at 18:54
  • @DrMoishePippik I hope you can agree that this is a different experience than selecting ISO freely on the fly as you work with a digital camera. – mattdm Jun 25 at 19:08
  • Read the comment: "to some extent" – DrMoishe Pippik Jun 25 at 19:09

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