I started my photography career in 1990 and, as expected from a traditional film photographer, my career followed a familiar path that transitioned to shooting digital. What you might not expect is that I still embrace the traditional medium of film; in fact, it now lies at the heart of the images we create at Cooper Photography. I've encountered many milestones over the years, but what I could not have foreseen were the three notable changes that saw me move full circle:
The arrival of digital in the late 90’s. Digital had an impact on us all and has completely changed the industry forever. For me, switching to digital meant I had the freedom to be more creative and experimental without restrictions.
Becoming a wedding photographer. A huge personal change for me, switching from the commercial world in which I trained, to the social world. Photographing people and weddings is without a doubt my favorite genre of photography.
Introducing film back into my photographic life and workflow as a hybrid wedding & portrait photographer. I didn’t relish the thought of going back to film, but I couldn't ignore the amazing imagery that was beginning to emerge on the internet and in photography blogs. As it turned out, this was the easiest and most familiar change that I’ve ever made.
Way back in 2009, photography blogs had become the new voice for photographers all over the world. It was a wonderful way to get immersed in all the amazing imagery that was being created. It was so inspirational, I couldn't get enough of it. A particular photographer that captured my eye and my heart was the work of Jose Villa, a photographer from California with the most stunning portfolio. I trawled through his posts in the hope he would share his secret. I was desperate to find out what preset or actions he was using - was he doing a workshop, does he has any online courses?
Eventually, I discovered his secret... He was shooting on film!
At first, I was disheartened: I had no intention of going backward and shooting on film to replicate the beautiful images I was seeing. However, the more I investigated, the more I realized that the only way was film. Why? Because film is special. Only with film can you reproduce skin tones so beautifully with its natural skin softening properties, and when overexposed, film becomes almost luminescent. With film you can shoot with more feeling; the dynamic range and how it captures shadow detail delivers images that digital photography just can't.
So in 2010, I bought myself a film camera from eBay, a Nikon F5 35mm SLR. I thought this would be an excellent first choice as I currently shoot Nikon and I can share the lenses I already own. I highly recommend this method for anyone looking to experiment with film.
When I returned to film, I unexpectedly found joy shooting without looking at the back of the screen (chimping). It’s quite liberating to trust your instincts and let the camera do its job while you are present in the moment - with just your attention on the subject. I have come to enjoy this the most about being a film photographer.
I continued to persevere in working on film and I started to introduce one roll at each wedding. It was enjoyable but the film images didn’t really connect with the digital images that were capturing 90% of the wedding day. As I started to research more and gain more knowledge about how to shoot film I realized that the only way I was going to get the look that I wanted was to invest in a medium format camera. This is where things got interesting!
Through research, I discovered that THE camera to get was the Contax 645, the heavyweight champion of the medium format world. Even though this camera is no longer in production, it has the formula I need to achieve the look I was desperate for: the combination of the lens (the 80mm f2, made of Carl Zeiss Glass), camera body, and 120 film. At last, I was shooting weddings the way that I wanted to.
After my Contax was damaged at a wedding, I decided to use this opportunity to claim on the insurance but migrate to a new camera: the Hasselblad H2. This newer camera would be more reliable - especially with the autofocus. The viewfinder on this camera is incredible and it gives me much more confidence when shooting as I can see how beautiful the image is going to look - no chimping required!
With every wedding, engagement session, and portrait session, I was filling my portfolio with the type of imagery that I had longed for. I was thoroughly enjoying the feeling of loading film in the camera and shooting at a much slower pace; a more considered discipline. My mindset had completely changed. I had gone from overshooting on digital to a sparser more confident approach with film and I was crafting images far more than then I ever have before.
Along with creating the images that I dreamed of came the anticipation of waiting for the scans to return. From an artist's point of view, there is something magical about waiting to see the images. But I also knew that when working in low light, using on-camera flash (and off-camera flash), and for shooting from the hip, digital always wins hands down. I finally cracked it, I had become a hybrid shooter.
Being able to make the most of both formats is the most freeing feeling. You know that if you need it, you’ve got your trusty DSLR with you when the light just isn’t there (99% of churches!). But when you’re calling the shots and directing the bride and groom, you can lift the Hasselblad to your eye and know when that shutter is pressed something special is being captured. It’s an amazing feeling.
If you’re considering a return to film to enhance your digital work here are some essential tips:
Use the right camera. I use and would recommend the Hasselblad H2 but there are still a lot of excellent choices for medium format cameras: Contax 645, Mamiya 645, Pentax 645 & 67ii cameras to name but a few.
Use the right film. The two main choices are Kodak or Fuji. Fuji tends to be a bit softer and more pastel, whereas Kodak tends to be a bit more contrasty. It’s a case of experimenting and seeing what look you prefer (both are gorgeous in their own way).
Use the right lab. This is so important. Luckily, although still very niche there are quite a few very talented labs available in America, Canada and Europe that specialise in producing beautiful scans. They are skilled technicians again that understand colour and our masters at what they do.
Use the right scanner. My essential choice is the Fuji Frontier scanner. Our lab in Spain (Carmencita) has one of these and it’s essential to the look that I am creating.
The final ingredient to being a Hybrid shooter is to get your workflow right. Digital still plays a crucial role in the way we work and being able to have a consistent style is so important. We use Lightroom for all our editing, as soon as our film scans arrive from the lab we import them alongside the our NEF files and use the scans as anchor images - every time the light or location changes we adjust the digital files to look as close to the film images as we can, using almost every slider and presets from VSCO and Mastin Labs.
It’s going to be interesting to see how our business and photography progresses over the next few years. Film photography is still very niche but is gaining popularity all the time. Many of the world's top wedding coordinators and bloggers have fallen in love with the look of film. It has a visual aesthetic that speaks to the modern fine art wedding client. If you haven't before, I recommend having a play with film. It’s amazing how much it’ll take your creativity into new places and make you think about how you take pictures. My only warning, once you fall in love with film there is no going back!
In 2004, Stu Cooper teamed up with his now-wife Anna to form Cooper Photography. This is where they developed their unique style of editorial, hybrid photography. Choosing to focus on weddings and families, they have created a luxury brand with clients who truly value their work when investing in photography.
14 years later, the passion for creating wonderful imagery and delivering a five-star service hasn't faded and they are committed to treating every client like they are their first.