Tutorial: An Introduction to Over-Exposing COLOR FILM, OR "PULLING"
I'm going to start this post with a slight disclaimer. Being new to writing these instructional posts, I am definitely aware that there is some film camera nerd compatriot out there, someone who knows much more than I do, with probably a decade of film experience & more troubleshooting skills. What I aim to offer here is a forum for discussion, a platform for convening and discussing the nature, aesthetics and technical aspects of that medium so many of us cherish most: film photography.
SETTING THE ISO ON YOUR CAMERA.
To over-expose your film, first set the ISO on your camera to half of what it is at box speed. This is called rating your ASA (ISO and ASA are virtually identical terms). So, for example, if I am shooting Kodak Portra 400 and I want to over-expose my image by at least 1 stop, I will rate the film on the camera at 200. That means that the entire roll will be over-exposed by 1 stop, and I use this as a baseline in all the film that I shoot to provide a consistent look. By doing this, I am effectively telling the camera that it is shooting a roll of 200 film (though it is really 400). Film with a higher ISO comes with increased sensitivity to light. When I rate the film lower I am effectively telling the camera that the film is less sensitive to light - and it therefore can let more light onto the film, thereby overexposing it.
A MORE SATURATED LOOK.
The camera I have most experience with is the Contax 645. Because I love everything about this camera. See THIS POST for more details on that. Depending on the film used, this look will vary, but generally over-exposing Fuji film will create a more pastel look, while Kodak will go from neutral to saturated and moody. I always pull the film that I shoot. That is, I consistently over-expose my images by at least two stops, but often it is ideally three stops. There are a number of reasons for this. First off, I want a more saturated look. Second, I want added contrast. I like look that is dense and somewhat moody. Pulling the film helps me achieve that. Generally speaking, the more you over-expose the film, the more saturated it will become. A wonderful comparison chart can be seen in THIS POST by UK Film Lab. Wait, you say, don't my images get brighter the more they are over-exposed? In digital, yes! In film, it's a different story.
Often, when starting out, film photographers will have the misguided notion that over-exposing the film will result in a brighter image. That is incorrect! When you pull negative film (ie. over-expose) you are creating a negative that is more dense. Color negative film gives photographers such latitude that over-exposing film will rarely result in losing highlight detail. If you want brighter images, make sure to relay that choice to your printing lab, where they can dial in the appropriate settings for brighter images. I use Richard Photo Lab, based in Los Angeles, for my processing and scans. I will often brighten my images in Lightroom just a tad after that.
METERING & EXPERIMENTATION.
I almost always use a handheld light meter (Sekonic produces some great meters). Clients often stare with wonderment at this contraption, as if it's a piece of alien technology that I'm setting close to their skin. It's important to be exact when metering and to experiment with it. D0n't just settle for what you see online - explore! That means setting up a weekend for yourself once a month where you shoot some test rolls in different lighting situations and metered in different ways. This is how you can hone a style - by finding lighting situations that work for the results you want and metering in a particular way. For instance, I typically will expose for the shadow of my subject's skin (which will often pull the film 2-3 stops), but I will experiment with the placement of my subjects. I often prefer a moodier frame, so I will seek out darker backgrounds which will add depth and mystery to the frame. Other times I may want a frame that is soft and luminous so I will seek out a background in the open shade that has the same exposure as the shadowy side of my subject's skin.
Kodak has some great versatility in their product range and some excellent choices for moody and vibrant photos. Though I haven't experimented as much with Kodak Ektar 100 as I would have liked, I hear it is a film that works best set at box speed. and produce embarassing red skintones. It is definitely the most vibrant in the Kodak negative color film range, and therefore over-exposing it too much might be overkill. Kodak Portra 400 is often said to produce the most pleasing skintones, though it is a tad too neutral and dull for my taste, even when pulled. My films of choice at the moment are Kodak Portra 160 and Kodak Portra 800. I find these films have just the right amount of moodiness, contrast, vibrance and saturation when pulled - and they are wonderfully versatile.