One of our missions at Mastin Labs is to encourage photographers to shoot film. If you are new to shooting film or haven’t experimented much with film, you may not be super familiar with the concept of ‘pushing’ your film. Be sure to check out our free email course “The easiest ‘Learn to Shoot Film’ course in the world.”
Many photographers push color negative film because it adds mood and emotion to the image. When you push color negative film, contrast increases, grain increases, and some color shifts are introduced into the shadows. It’s important to know when you push film you will lose some shadow detail, which results in a high contrast look.
Pushing film has a practical application too. By pushing film, you are effectively increasing the film’s working ISO making it possible to shoot at higher shutter speeds to capture moving subjects or shoot in low light situations where you need a higher film speed. You’ll still need good light – if the subject is in deep shadow, pushing film won’t help.
Side note – during our research we came across a really interesting practical application for pushing film from Jonathan Canlas of The Find Lab and Find in a Box. Pushing expired film can create the look of fresh film! Jonathan says “A good rule of thumb is pushing 1 stop for every decade.”
How to “push” film
There are 2 parts to pushing film. The first is the way you capture the image and the second is in developing the roll at the lab. Before understanding how to push film, you must first understand ISO. In a nutshell, every roll of film is given a number that refers to the ISO of that film. This number is a unit of measurement that represents that film’s sensitivity to light. A low ISO represents a low sensitivity to light. A high ISO number represents a higher sensitivity to light. ISO 50 is a very slow film. Whereas ISO 1600 is a very fast or sensitive film.
How to shoot pushed film
When you load film into your camera, you set the camera for the ISO for that film. To push the film, you must set the ISO higher than the ISO indicated on the film. By doing this, you’re telling your camera that the film is more sensitive to light than it is, thereby underexposing the film in capture. Setting the ISO higher than the ISO of the film is called ‘pushing’ the film. It’s important to note that once you’ve set the ISO for that roll of film, you’re committed to shooting at that ISO for the entire film roll.
When we describe how much we want to push the film we call it a ‘stop.’ A stop is 1 unit of light. You can add a stop through decreasing your shutter speed by opening up your aperture (here is a handy aperture scale to help you understand what a stop is) or by shooting a faster film. For example, you load Portra 160 into your camera, you set your ISO to 320 (this is 1 stop) and then you meter for ISO 320.
How to meter when pushing film
Pushing film will not gain shadow detail. Areas where the light hit will be increased, but the true blacks on the image will remain untouched. This may result in muddy or grainy shadow areas. Meter for mid-tone areas of the image to preserve as much detail as possible in the shadows.
How to develop pushed film
If you process a pushed film normally, it will appear dark and underexposed. That’s why it’s important to process pushed film correctly by leaving the film in the developer for longer than normal. Doing this will compensate for the underexposed film, and will lighten the parts of the image that were hit by the light when the image was taken.
If you don’t develop film, it is important to let the lab know you want them to push the film in development however many stops you pushed it. If you neglect to inform the lab, your photos will be underdeveloped.
For example: if you shoot a roll of Portra 400 at ISO 800 (this would be pushing it +1 stop) you should set your meter for ISO 800, shoot normally, and then write +1 on the roll as soon as you take it out of the camera so the lab knows you want to push that roll of film +1 stop.
Knowing how to push film will make you a much more flexible photographer and help you define your style. Download our free Pushed Film Tips and Tricks Guide and get out and shoot today!