Film photography websites are often dominated by male-centric camera fetish articles built on claims of indestructibility and a glorious history that seems to have concluded as shelf decor with occasional use. I love reading (and writing) about vintage film cameras and certainly reference all these sites when I’m on the market for a new piece of gear. But surely film photography and not just used cameras, is still a viable medium of commerce in the 21st century.
What I love to see more than a well-written camera or lens review is a body of work by a working film photographer. While this is a niche category, I believe that there are more of us out there than most people realise. Lifestyle portrait shooter, Stephanie Bryan takes us all to task with her beautiful, real world use of film.
Stephanie specializes in family photography in Raleigh, North Carolina and I think she’s a great ambassador for film photography to those who may not have the same artsy or technical interests in it that many of us “film types” do. Stephanie’s images have a clarity and emotion that you rarely see brought together in a single shot. There’s a cleanliness to her images that isn’t sterile, emotions that don’t feel contrived and a math that doesn’t feel binary. This is everything that family portraiture SHOULD be about!
Johnny: How long have you been a photographer? When did you start photography as a business?
Stephanie: I’ve had a camera in my hands for as long as I can remember. I have memories of taking pictures of my dolls as a little girl and I was always the one with a camera snapping pictures of my friends throughout high school. My dream was to one day have my own darkroom and spend hours watching those magical images appear. Shortly after my daughter was born in 2009, the passion for photography hit me like never before. I wanted to document every single moment of every single day and kinda did just that. My son was born in 2010 and I received my very first camera (digital) and I made it my mission to learn any and everything I could about photography. After a few years of shooting and learning as much as I possibly could, I found myself lost and so unfulfilled creatively with photography, so I decided to switch gears and give film a go and it completely changed my world. Film brought back the joy of this art for me.
As for my business, I photographed clients on and off while I my babies were younger and at home, but eventually started my own photography business when my son began kindergarten in 2016. Currently, I shoot in-home family and newborn sessions and family/motherhood sessions in the studio – all film!
Johnny: What cameras/lenses/films do you use primarily? Do you experiment with others or are these tried and true?
Stephanie: I have a plethora of cameras and gear and find myself collecting more as I learn more and grow creatively. While I am a firm believer that the camera in your hand is the best camera there is, I love experimenting with focal lengths, image ratios and more. For client work, I primarily use the Pentax 645n system with the 75mm FA lens and modified Zeiss lens. For personal work, I always carry the Canon Rebel 2000 with me wherever I’m going. I keep the nifty-fifty 50mm 1.8 Canon lens on the Rebel, which makes for a super lightweight, easy to use, easy to throw in any bag, camera! The majority of my personal work has been shot on the Canon Rebel 2000.
As for film stocks, I typically prefer Fuji 400H for client work because of the beautiful, creamy skin tones. I shoot a mix of client work in homes, as well as in the studio, and I love knowing skin tones won’t be an issue with Fuji 400H. For personal work, I shoot any and everything. My go-to stock for my own work is usually Kodak ColorPlus 200. This stock is so versatile and can handle mixed light, lower light and flat light so well! And it’s also only $3 a roll, which you just can’t beat! I do find myself bored easily with film stocks, so I love to experiment and try stocks with various characteristics (fogged film, souped film, etc…). Some of my favorite experimental stocks are Psychedelic Blues, Dubble Film and film soup (either making my own or buying pre-souped film).
Johnny: Most people will say they don’t care what a photographer uses so long as the photos are good. Do you feel your equipment is key to your look and product? Do clients hire you because you shoot film?
Stephanie: I totally agree with that statement! I truly believe it’s the vision and direction of the photographer that makes a great image vs. expensive gear. But I also believe that film has a very unique look, which is often difficult to achieve with a digital camera. Film brings me so much joy and is such a timeless medium. It has an incredible way of capturing light, color and details. It’s not fast and it’s definitely not perfect, but shooting film allows me to “let go” of seeking perfection in my images and truly enjoy the process of shooting.
Johnny: That’s a really great point about film allowing you to “let go” of seeking perfection. As a full manual film shooter, I tend to miss focus or exposure in higher action moments but I feel that these imperfections bring character to my images.
Stephanie: As for clients, most of the inquiries I receive are not really aware that film photographers are still alive and kicking! I feel like my work is pretty consistent when it comes to tones and my overall look, which is what I feel like brings clients to me. Occasionally I will get an inquiry from someone who knows and understands film and is really looking for a film photographer, but for the most part, I feel like the majority of my clients really just want images similar to the work I share.
Johnny: Many film shooters reserve the medium for personal work but wouldn’t dream of doing it for paid work or only do it in combination with digital. What are some of the challenges of shooting film for paid work? What are the benefits?
Stephanie: Shooting film for client work definitely has it’s advantages and disadvantages. I don’t have the luxury of being able to chimp and double check for focusing and eye blinks. I’m not able to take an image and see if my exposure is correct as my light changes. And shooting film doesn’t allow me the opportunity to cull images immediately after a session to make sure I got all the images I needed. Instead, film allows me to “let go” of all the second guessing and double checking and actually be present during my session and engaged while I’m photographing my clients. Shooting film makes me be incredibly intentional in my work. It makes me stop and wait for a moment to unfold rather than forcing it to happen and then clicking my shutter 100 times in hopes I got something that might work. When you shoot with film, magic happens. It’s not quick, it’s not perfect, but it’s pure and real and honest. Oh – and let’s not forget about all the hours of time I save by not having to edit digital images!
Johnny: Ah yes, that’s one thing that I miss about not having a local professional lab anymore! What is your method? With so many family and newborn photographers using chalkboards and an abundance of sort of “look at the camera” posed photos, how do you get clients to come off so naturally in your images?
Stephanie: I’d love to lie and say that I get clients who just show up and love on their family without any direction whatsoever, but I can’t. I always provide my clients with education about my shooting style and how I run my sessions, but I get it – having your picture taken can just feel plain weird. I start every session by getting to know my families and clients and gaining rapport with the children of the family. I’m always on their level and probably spend more time talking to the kids than the parents, lol. I do give a ton of direction, verbal cues, visual examples and more throughout out my session and try to keep any stress or discomfort at bay. I always tell my clients – if you feel uncomfortable, you will likely look uncomfortable in the image, so let me know and we can fix it!
Johnny: Your style is very bright and evenly lit. How do you get your invigorating colors and lack of shadows with natural light? Do you use reflectors or just follow the light?
Stephanie: Searching for light is like my third job (after mom and photographer…). I am constantly looking for good quality light that does not have a super strong fall off into the shadows. I prefer softer shadows and love using flat light, soft side light and bright back lighting in both my personal and client work. I don’t typically use reflectors with my work, but I do shoot film in my studio using a strobe and reflector, which produces such beautiful light with the softest shadows.
Johnny: Well, you’re doing amazing work at that third job! Local family and newborn photography is almost a cliche side hustle for mom’s today. But it’s very unusual to see a film photographer doing it. What do you think you bring to the table that the digital shooters in your genre might not?
Stephanie: Film aside, my main goal as a photographer is to not only capture a family as they are now, but to capture all of those in-between moments of love, laughter, joy and even tears. I try to give my clients more than just a photo session, but an experience with the ones they love most. I always strive for sessions that are real, honest and raw. Most of my family and all my newborn sessions typically take place in the homes of my clients, which really allows everyone to take a deep breath and relax into the moment.
Johnny: Why do you continue to shoot film in a market so famously dominated by DSLR’s?
Stephanie: I continue to shoot film because film gave me my life back. Literally. I can’t even begin to count up how many hours I’ve spent editing personal work and client work since I started shooting back in 2010. Hours. And more hours. Years probably. For me, the joy is the PROCESS of shooting. Of actually picking up my camera, composing a shot and pushing the shutter. I know it’s so easy with the instant gratification of a digital camera, but shooting film has truly made me a better photographer, artist, creative and even a better mother.
Johnny: That’s awesome! Any new/upcoming projects we should be on the lookout for?
Stephanie: Like any creative, I always have a ton of projects in the works – and am constantly dreaming of new ideas. Right now, I am working on a personal project with my daughter and am really trying to pushing myself creatively!
Thanks so much for your time, Stephanie!
Please check out more of Stephanie’s work at the links below:
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