Film photography workflow with Simon King

Simon king is a London based photographer, photojournalist and lecturer who seeks to capture the surreal in everyday urban scenes.

In this article he talks about the merits of shooting with film—which is now his primary medium, shares some tips for beginners to analogue photography and reveals his process for digitising and retouching images captured on film.

Image captured on Cinestill BwXX film

Film offers such a subjectively special experience to so many photographers, and a new generation of artists are taking up mechanical cameras to see what the medium can offer to them. I think despite this resurgence there are many photographers who perceive different mediums as a chasm, which can be quite a leap when moving from a workflow they are comfortable with to one in which they are less familiar.

I think that all artists should explore what’s possible from the different mediums available to them, and then more often than not they’ll find a use for tools they may have never considered.

Image captured on Ilford HP5+ film

When I first started shooting on film over a year ago, I had a set of expectations, but as time went on, I allowed myself to apply it to a more diverse range of different situations. At first, I decided to stick to black and white photography only, and use it for personal images, portraits, and casual street photography. After a few dozen rolls I became more comfortable with the process, learnt the way film responded to certain conditions, and became more confident in my ability to create the aesthetic I wanted.

This brought my use of film onwards from those restricted early applications and into my mainstay—Street Photography, Photojournalism, and Fine Art. Today film is my medium of choice, with digital reserved for clients who require a fast turnaround.

I also found that film was the perfect answer to issues I was dealing with around integrity; around the time I started taking film seriously I had been accused of digitally faking one of my images, and film would offer me something physically and undeniably real/verifiable.

Image captured on Kodacolour 200 film

For beginners I recommend Ilford HP5+ as the most versatile black and white option, or Kodak Portra 400 as the do-everything colour stock. If you have access to a darkroom, I strongly encourage you to learn the different processes there, which can lead to a better appreciation of the affordances offered by digital editing software, improving the ways you might choose to interact with a digital edit in Affinity.

Image captured on Kodak T-Max 400 film

My approach to Street Photography in particular is to search for surrealism in the everyday. This means an emphasis on spontaneous scenes, and iconography within those moments. Any transformative editing would detract from the intrigue in these photographs. I want to leave the audience wondering how I discovered and captured that detail, rather than what camera/editing trick was used to achieve it.

Image captured on Kodacolour 200 film

Therefore my workflow when it comes to editing is very restrictive, and just as important to the quality of the finished piece as the medium it was made with.

Although negative film is designed for darkroom printing it is still necessary to digitise the majority of my work for sharing online; in my portfolio, on social media, and to accompany my writing. I scan using a dedicated film scanner—a PlusTek 8100, which provides wonderfully high fidelity TIFF’s. I treat these as my raw files, and as such must process them into JPGs before they can be used. The TIFF’s will often be flat; colour neutral, and very malleable for editing. Some photographers prefer to emphasise these pastel shades, while others work for the look they are used to on digital.

The darkroom is the root of many post-processing techniques, including cropping, dodging/burning, and masking—although these are achieved physically on print rather than digitally on a file. I keep my “editing” as minimal, and non-destructive as possible, and as grounded in these few techniques as possible, ensuring the integrity of my image. Manipulation like compositing is entirely out of the question for me.

Image captured on Ilford Delta 100 film

Film photographs are I think best dealt with individually rather than in batches, which makes Affinity Photo the perfect choice to handle them, for bespoke care and attention over every frame.

It’s really worth giving each frame the time it deserves in order to best do service to the inherent qualities of film—the colours, grain, and of course the image actually captured on it. Each negative will be exposed slightly differently and will require slightly different colour tweaks for accuracy against the film base.

Editing a scanned image originally captured on Cinestill 800T film in Affinity Photo

There are some differences when it comes to processing a film scan as opposed to a digital raw file. For example when colour correcting a digital raw, I am comfortable using the automatic white balance tool to select something as close to natural white as possible and adjusting the sliders from there.

However with C41 colour film you must often deal with the “orange mask” which causes colour to render incorrectly. My way of achieving correct colours in my film scans involves clipping each of the RGB values individually down until the histogram for each is an even curve. By holding alt key while moving the slider you trigger a masked view, allowing you to see what parts of the frame are being clipped in real time.

Image captured on Kodak Portra 160 film
Image captured on Kodak Portra 160 film

For black and white film I don’t find it necessary to “correct” many aspects, beyond occasionally altering the overall exposure of the image—occasionally my scanner overcompensates for certain areas of the frame. Beyond slightly altering contrast (usually a reduction) this will be the extent of my edit.

Image captured on Kodak T-Max 400 film

After this I do any necessary dust/hair removal, which is far more prevalent in the average film scan than it is in a digital photograph. A digital sensor only needs to be cleaned once to ensure dust free images for a long while, whereas a film negative can collect dust on its way from the sleeve to the scanner. Each scan is just a photo of a photo, and the likelihood of detritus finding its way into the scan is very likely, no matter how many times you use a rocket blower to clean them!

This removal in Affinity Photo can be as simple as applying a Dust & Scratches filter, which can be used non-destructively, and with instantly viewable results. It can also be tweaked to strengthen or weaken the tolerance. Personally I prefer a more localised use of the Blemish Removal Tool, which allows me to specifically target particles I find distracting in a series of clicks.

Sometimes a slight layer of grit on top of a film image can really emphasise or add to an aesthetic, which makes ignoring, removing, or even adding dust a contentious topic to some film artists. I’ve found with some of my images that leaving in “blemishes” can make a photograph seem more like a historical record than something taken recently.

Image captured on Ilford Delta 400 film

Considering I can review each and every one of those clicks in the History panel I can see each stage of dust removal and decide to allow certain levels based on my discretion and attitude towards each image. An informed decision based on step-by-step observation of how each change affects an image is an underrated tool to editors.

I don’t often dodge and burn my images, as I do my best to expose correctly in camera. When it’s necessary however Affinity Photo’s live brushes make it incredibly simple for me to see in real time exactly what effect each brushstroke will have on the image.

I’ll often take a snapshot of my film negatives on a lightbox, and then invert this for a quick and easy showcase of the original artefact. I can present this alongside my final scan to demonstrate exactly what has been done to the image between scanning and publication. I try and make these snapshots as low contrast as possible, to show the most detail in the negative.

Ilford Delta 100 film negative

Learning these aspects of film has been an incredible experience over the last year, and I have really enjoyed watching my progress unfold as I’ve put more and more work into the format. Especially in my Documentary Photography, for which the requirement of honesty and integrity exceeds Street and any other genre: film has offered a unique edge in demonstrating the veracity of my images.

Image captured on Kentmere 400 film

About the photographer

Simon

Simon King is a London based Documentary and Street Photographer. He is currently engaged in a number of long-term photography projects, all based on 35mm film. Simon also teaches the Street Photography course at UAL, where he focuses on sociology and the intricacies of photographing emotionally rich moments.

To see more of Simon’s photography check him out on Instagram.