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The use of film photography in e-commerce can help brands stand out from the crowd with impactful images that connect with customers and evoke emotion.

Film photography has rightfully earned its place in a digital age - you could say it never went away! Sure, it’s a little extra time, money and effort, but the results speak for themselves. This is why more and more brands are utilizing the power of film for their e-commerce campaigns.

We discussed the reasons why brands should use film photography in our previous blog, Film Isn’t Dead - Film Photography in E-Commerce. Now we’re back to shed some light on the ‘how’ (and a little more why!).

We also spoke to one of our in-house film photography experts, Eidia, to get some top tips for retouching film in the modern world.

To retouch, or not to retouch?

Retouching film photos can cause some dispute between photographers, with a few arguing that it diminishes the purity of an image. Photography is an artform in which the lines between ‘right or wrong’ and ‘good or bad’ are blurred. It’s subjective, like all art. The fact is, techniques like etching, dodging, and burning have been used by photographers and printmakers to enhance and manipulate images since the 19th century.

In the modern world of e-commerce, retouching is an essential step for brands who want images that not only look great, but are color accurate and consistent. So now that we’ve put a lid on that, let’s get into it!

Plan, plan and plan some more…

It’s important to define the look you want in advance of shooting. The film and format you shoot on will have the biggest influence on the overall aesthetic of your images. There’s a variety of films on the market, all with varying degrees of contrast, saturation and grain. Each film has its own qualities (and flaws) that you won’t want to stray too far from in post.

Will you need to push or pull the film for practical reasons or creative effect? Most films will deliver different levels of contrast, grain and color when pushed (shooting at a higher ISO than box speed) or pulled (shooting lower). It’s a technique that can be used to give images a unique look or to compensate for high or low levels of light - just be sure to let the lab know as they’ll need to compensate in the developing process. Oh, and you’ll also need to get in touch with a reliable lab if you haven’t already got one!

All this has to be considered in addition to the everyday fundamentals of a shoot, so it’s worth running tests to iron out the kinks in advance so you can nail your creative goal.

Got the shot. Now what?

You’re going to need a digital copy of your analog images before they can be retouched or edited. Things have moved on since the darkroom days and film scanning is now the most common way to digitize your images ready for retouching.

Before the exposed film can be scanned, it’ll need to be processed. This is achieved by bathing and rinsing the film with a series of chemicals. C-41 is the most popular and common color film process, so we’ll stick with it as an example. Reversal film (aka slide film) is also an option, but is typically more expensive and has less dynamic range so is best applied in situations where you have controlled or consistent light.

Feel the grain!

Feel the grain!

Once the film has been through the C-41 process, it becomes a negative and is ready to be scanned. Aside from the choice of commercial scanners available and their varying qualities, part of the scanning process is inverting the image. A negative is exactly that, a negative of your image where the brightest areas appear dark and the darkest appear light.

Software is used to invert the scanned negative from a brown mess to an image that resembles real life. During the inversion, there is a considerable amount of processing that can be done automatically by the software or calibrated manually to provide a desired interpretation of the negative.

There’s a few things to note from this:

  • There’s no such thing as a RAW file when it comes to film photography. Your image has already been digitally processed before you even start retouching. The closest thing to a RAW image you’ll get is the negative that you can hold in your hand.
  • Scans can vary. You could scan the same film twice and get different results thanks to the sensitivity of the settings or even dust getting onto the negative.
  • If you want maximum control over your images, fine-tuning the scanning process will help you achieve an aesthetic you’re happy with and a strong foundation for retouching.

Unless you have all the equipment and knowledge to do this yourself (or some clever friends), you can expect to wait anywhere between 1-3 weeks for a lab to process and scan your film. Just remember, all good things come to those who wait!

The Challenges of retouching film photography

Data (or lack of it) is what presents one of the biggest challenges when retouching film. The image files for your scans won’t be as ‘flexible’ as the RAW files you get from a digital camera, simply because there isn’t as much data packed into the image.

Scanned images will behave differently in post. Imagine a magical layer of tone and texture lying within the image, the layer that makes it look and feel like film. You need to be mindful that any changes you make will affect this ‘layer’.

Scanned film with raw edges

Scanned film with raw edges

There’s a few things to note from this:

Professional labs do a great job at scanning film well and the way you want. However, imperfections such as dust may still slip through the net, no matter how hard they try! You’ll need to keep a sharp eye and remove any spots as you go.

As we’ve mentioned, film takes time! There may be some back and forth with the lab to get the scans right or the need to get more involved in pre-production. Adapt your headspace when working with film and enjoy the process. The good news is once your film is scanned and you have your image files, they can be edited with the same tools as a digital image.

Eidia’s top tips for retouching film photography

Less is more - “If pre-production is done right; the stylist and makeup artist have done their jobs, the lighting is nailed and the photographer captures it perfectly. You want to do the lightest bits of touching up here and there, because the whole point is it’s supposed to look that way. No matter how evolved technology has become, everybody still wants that old-school film aesthetic. It looks more elevated. I think it's very classic and holds a level of elegance and mastery that you can't find in most e-commerce websites these days.”

film photography

Less is more. Small refined edits are made to clean up the image above.

Feel the grain - “The thing about film is you want to make sure you're being careful not to lose the grain. With digital, it's so easy to get carried away because the images are smooth, clean and easy to work with. Film has a texture that you need to be careful to preserve when retouching, otherwise your changes will stick out like a sore thumb.”

Don’t get above your grade - “If the colors are meant to be the way they are, don't mess with them. The film will give the image a color style and it’s hopefully been scanned the way the brand wanted. So don't get too creative and say, “I want to adjust the shadows like this'' or “I want to adjust the highlights like that”. Color grading is a very sensitive, aesthetic thing. Which leads me to my next point…”

Have a vision - “If you can, ensure you have an agreed style guide and defined brand specifications in hand before you start retouching. This is where all the work in pre-production pays off. It’s important that everyone is aligned and working towards a clear visual goal to achieve the best results and consistency across the board. Planning and preparation is key.”

The Reward

Your reward for breaking away from the modern conveniences of digital is the results - and the results speak for themselves. If done right, your images will look amazing and connect with customers in a way no digital image could. And that’s what customers want - to be able to feel a connection with the brands they love. Still not convinced? Our blog Film isn’t dead - Film photography in e-commerce goes into the reasons why in more detail.

We hope this has been a useful insight into the world of retouching film photography and you’ve gained some tips to help elevate your work. But if you’d rather leave it to the experts, contact us about our image retouching services and find out how Pixelz can support your brand’s next campaign.