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Pushing Film

Lesson 15 from: Introduction to Film Photography

Sandra Coan

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Lesson Info

15. Pushing Film

Next Lesson: Know Your Lab

Lesson Info

Pushing Film

We're gonna do it. We're gonna talk about pushing. So listen, by now, you should know, about proper exposure, right? How we meter for both color and black and white. We know about film stocks, how each stock is a little bit different and what they can do, and you know, how you use those differences to your advantage. So now I want to talk about push processing. Cause this is something that people talk about all the time and I think we started the class out with somebody asking about push processing. So first of all, what is it? Okay. So, pushing is a term that's talked about a lot in film circles. And like I said, it's often misunderstood. And so, when done well, pushing can be really cool. It can add some really cool effects, it can be really beautiful. But when it's not done well, it can kind of be a disaster, and I'm just speaking from experience here, because I've had some big disasters. It can make images look super saturated and bright with poppy colors. And it can make images lo...

ok really muddy and greeny and gross. So you really kind of have to know what it is and how to do it. So when people talk about pushing, they're usually talking about two different things. So people will talk about pushing in camera and people will talk about pushing in processing. And this is kind of where it can get confusing. So when people talk about pushing in camera what they are talking about is rating their film. So remember, we looked at this at the beginning when we were talking about overexposing. How you can shoot a 400 speed film at 200, or at 100, and you can overexpose it intentionally. If you're shooting a 400 speed film at 800, or 1600, then you're underexposing. And so sometimes what people will do is that they will be in a hard lighting situation. Or sometimes they just want to create a different look. And so they'll take a 400 speed film and they'll intentionally underexpose it a stop. Or underexpose it two stops. And when they do that, oftentimes they'll say that they are pushing it in camera. That they're kind of pushing the boundaries of that film. Because they need an 800 speed film. And this is where the confusion comes in, I think with pushing. Because what you see a lot of time in discussion, and honestly I made this mistake when I first started, is you think, "Okay, I know that people "push their film in camera. "And I know that they underexpose it when they do that." So if I'm in a situation, and I've accidentally underexposed my film, or I just have no light and it's really bad, I'm going to intentionally underexpose it, and I'll just push it in processing and it'll be fine. You know? And you hear people talk about this in terms of exposure. So people will say, "I was in a bad lighting situation, "so I'm rating it at 800. "I'm gonna push it to get back that stop of exposure." Alright? That's where the confusion is, you with me? But here's a thing friends. Pushing does not add exposure, okay? Okay, when you take an image, and that shutter opens and that light hits the film, that exposure is made, you've created a latent image and it's done. You can't go back and add more light. That'd be like trying to add extra baking soda to cookies when you're done cooking them. You can't do it, you can't do it. Exposure is, it happens at that time of capture and it is done. When you push processing, the only thing you're gonna do, is you're gonna take your film that's been underexposed and you're gonna leave it in the developer for extra time. So, if you've underexposed it a stop, the lab will compensate with a stop extra time in the chemicals. So they'll, what's called push it in processing. And all that does is it adds contrast and it adds grain. Okay? And so, when we think about that, like, we can think about those black and white images that we were looking at. That were underexposed two stops. And you still had detail in the highlight and those blocks were collapsed. The reason why pushing works with that is because it's gonna brighten, it's gonna add contrast, so those brights are gonna get brighter, and those blacks are gonna get a little blacker. That's what it's doing. Okay, but it's not adding exposure. So, when you push in processing, the brights are gonna get brighter, the darks are gonna get darker. Alright? And so it'll look, the overall lightness of your image, will look a little brighter. Because of that contrast, but again, it's not changing the exposure. Does that make sense? I know this is confusing. Let me just show you an example. (laughs) So, this is an example of Portra rated at 1600 and pushed two stops in processing. I was in this situation where I had low light. I was trying to shoot with natural light, and so, I thought I'd been reading about all this pushing stuff, and I was like, "I'll just push it in processing. "It'll be fine, it'll look exactly like my other work." Well, it doesn't look exactly like my other work. Like, at all. I got these back, and I was like, "Why is that baby green and orange?" Oh no. Because all I did was take a really underexposed color neg and added contrast and grain to it. Where as this image, that's my husband by the way. This is Tri-x 400 rated at 3200. So now I'm underexposing it three stops. And then pushed in processing. So left in those chemicals an additional three stops. And this looks great, right? So those light areas got brighter and the darks got darker. So you can see here, you can it's pushed, because if you look at his, the hair up here, the details in the shadows, you can't see individual hairs. Like there is no detail in those shadows part. But it looks richer because it was pushed in processing. So the question is, why can you push one image and it look awesome, and push another image and it not look awesome? Right? That's the question. And so to answer that, we need to look at what we know about film stocks. So what do we know about color film? With color film, you err on the side of overexposure. It does better up here and it tends to fall apart here. So if you're in a situation where you're underexposing your film, your color film, and you're putting it here, when you push it in processing, all you're gonna do is add contrast and grain to this exposure. Those greens, that extra grain, you're just gonna intensify that. So with the color negative, sometimes that can be like, ew. Like, not so great. Whereas with a black and white image, if you're down here, and you're adding contrast and grain to this image, those lights are gonna get lighter and those darks are gonna get darker and you're gonna have a little more grain. Which, you know, pretty. Right? Again, this is something that is a matter of taste. Some people like the look of pushed Portra or pushed Fuji. Because it does, it does change the look of it. So, I know, I have a good friend who's a brilliant photographer and she'll intentionally underexpose her color film, so by a stop of push it in camera, and then either push it in processing one or two stops. To kind of play around with that contrasting grain. And the result is, it brings out the yellows in her Kodak film, because we're underexposing it. And then it adds contrast to that, so it kind of heightens it. But it kind of creates this like vintage look. You know, this like vintage film look. So, that's the thing that she does, and she does it intentionally. It looks really cool. So it just kind of depends on your look. My look is that pastelly pretty Fuji look. So when I push film, this is not at all what I'm going for. I would never do it for my clients. But I'll do it every once in a while for personal work, for fun. This is my son, Dexter. Fuji 400, rated at 800, so intentionally underexposed, and then pushed one stop in processing. And you can see like, the colors shift a little bit. That a little bit. But it's a cool look. Again, Fuji. Rated at 800 and pushed in processing. So I love this too because, dog in highlights, everything's good. But if you look in the background where it's in the shadow, you can see it looks a little, it has that, some of those qualities, of underexposed film. And you can see the grain. And then, Portra 400 rated at and pushed one stop. So this is what I'm talking about with the Portra. Do you see how it kinda brings out the yellows? It kind of gives it a more of a like a vintagey look. It's like an Instagram filter. (laughs) Which is fun and interesting. Okay, Tri-X. Tri-X pushes like a dream, by the way. So, 400 speed rated at 1600, pushed two stops. So extra, extra contrast. Extra grain. I love pushing Tri-X by the way. Again, Tri-X 400, rated at 1600, pushed two stops. But look what it does to his freckles. Cause it brings out that contrast, which I love. So I just want to go back here, cause same kid. So here you can see him, but you don't really, you know, he has freckles, you don't really seem them that much. But then with that push black and white, they just pop. Isn't that fun? So, you can push in camera, so intentionally underexpose your film, communicate to your lab, "Hey friend, I pushed this a stop, "I need it pushed in processing a stop." And they will do that. Another thing that you can do with push processing, cause again it's just about the processing, it's just about leaving it in the chemicals longer, is you can shoot your film at box speed, just normal, meter it just normal, shoot everything normal the way you would do, and just have it pushed in processing. To add extra contrast and grain. And honestly this is what I do. If I am gonna push film, and I'm not using it for examples, for like a class I'm teaching on Creative Live or something, then I will just do it this way, just to pop the colors. So leaving in the chemicals a little bit longer. It's almost like, it's almost like the equivalent of being in Photoshop, and like, upping your blacks. But isn't that pretty? It just really brings it out. And I think Fuji pushed is just beautiful. When you just shoot it box speed and then push it, you can really have a lot of fun with the colors. And Portra, pushed again, just rated at box speed, metered exactly the same, and pushed in processing. I should say, when I'm down here, and, where is it? When I'm doing these kinds of images, where I'm intentionally rating my film something other than and then pushing it. People always ask how I meter. And I meter exactly the same. The only thing I do differently is when I'm metering, if I'm setting my ISO, normally it would be at cause that's box speed. I would set it to 800. I can't see what I'm doing. Right? And then I would just meter exactly the same. So, color film in the shadows, black and white film, where I want my detail to be. All of that would be the same. And then I would push it in processing. Yeah? So I think I just, that just explained it again, but one more time, for people, this is from Alexander. Could you please explain again, rated? Yes, I know. It's a lot. Let's go back to this. Doo doo doo. Alright, so when you're rating your film, what you're doing, is you're telling your film that it is something other than what the manufacturer says it is. So you're saying, it's either more sensitive to light, or its less sensitive to light. So if you have a 400 speed film, that's kind of that mid range, right? If you want to say that it's more sensitive to light, so you can shoot it in a lower light situation, you would rate it at like 1,800 or 1,600. So a stop under or two stops under. Alright? Whereas if you're shooting a 400 speed film, and you rated it 200, you're overexposing it. So what you're doing when you're rating your film is you're just telling it, it's something that it's not. You're pretending like it's something else. You're treating a certain film stock as if it were a different kind of film stock. And so, actually a question had come in. Yeah? Would you rate one or two stops slower, so shooting a 400 at 200. And then push it? And then process it for 400. Totally. So you can totally do that. The only thing that push processing is ever gonna do, the universal truth of push processing, is that it adds contrast and grain. So anything you want to do, and you take this image, and you take this exposure, and you're like, "You know what I need? "I need more contrast and I need more grain." Then you push process it. So if you are shooting a 400 speed film, and you overexposure it a stop, that's gonna be a beautiful dense negative. Right? That's gonna be nice. And then you push it in processing? It's gonna pop those colors. So if you're shooting color film, that's gonna make your colors really vibrant, really strong. You're gonna have, gonna add a little more grain detail to it. See, is this fun? See, you can just kind of play around with things. All the time. There are no rules. It seems like that's what we're all kind of smiling and encouraged to do, is go out and do that thing. Because until you kind of see it, in your hands, that's really when the fun begins. Everybody's gonna leave here and they're gonna run for their film cameras. I do have a couple more questions. So, one is, have you ever played around with expired film? So, I have a refrigerator full of expired film. The thing about expired film is that it does tend to lose its sensitivity. So, when you're working with expired film, depending on how much, how expired it is, you just want to make sure you're giving it a lot of extra light. So just give it an extra, a little bit more overexposure. And you're fine. And know that sometimes you're gonna get color shifts, so many things. I mean, I would never use expired film, for example, on my clients. But I use it on my family all the time. Cause it's one of those fun things, it's like, "Well, let's see what happens? "This could be really interesting. "Could look totally normal." And you just don't know. You just don't know. You just don't know. It's exciting. You don't get to look at the back of the screen. You don't get to. Okay, another question, and this is from David Clark. Back to when we were looking at the videos of you actually photographing and then looking at your gear here, David says it looks like you were shooting your portraits without any filter. Do you ever use a green filter to correct skin tone to be closer to the eye and give a nicer tone? I don't. So, I used to use filters all the time back in the day. I used to love my red filter with my black and white. So what's filters do is that they can just add contrast, they can change things a little. I don't. Film does such a good job with skin tones and I'm working with a fantastic lab. And labs are always scanning for skin tones, so it's just never an issue for me. So I just shoot, just plain old camera. With the film. With the fancy. Oh, one thing I didn't mention, by the way. So, oftentimes, when you're on your lab and you go to add in, "Oh, I want these pushed." They'll say, "push, pull". So, pull processing is another way of processing that's like, the opposite of pushing. So with pushing, where they're leaving it in chemicals longer, right? With pulling, they'll take it out of chemicals before it should necessarily be ready. Basically, nobody does that anymore. I mean, what it used to be for, was if you overexposed your film. And then you wanted to reduce that contrast, you would pull it in processing. But, now, modern film does such a good job with being overexposed, like. Nobody really pulls anymore. I certainly don't. But, just to clarify that. So there's push processing and there's pull processing but push processing is something that we see more. Yeah. And did this make sense with the rating? Cause I know rating can be a little confusing. This question that had come in earlier, and I wanted, because I wasn't sure if Chris was, from Manila, was talking about what films are suitable for a specific camera with regard to the size. Oh, right. Or the type of film. So, is there a scenario where you use a certain type of film, with a particular camera of the same size? What you need to know about with your cameras is what size film it takes. Because nothing is worse, than ordering $200 worth of film and then realizing that you ordered all 35 millimeter and you own all 120, you know medium format cameras, and suddenly, you can't use your film. So really, if you have a medium format camera, you're gonna look for 120. And if you have a small format camera, you're gonna look for 35 millimeter. That's the difference. That's really all you need to know. As far as like, what film stocks look better in which cameras, it's kind of a matter of preference. I mean, I tend to always shoot my black and white on my Rolleiflex. There's no rule about that. I don't know why I do that, it's just like, when I'm shooting black and white I tend to shoot with a Rolleiflex. It's just habit. But there's no real reasons.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Discount Codes from Richard Photo Lab
Studio Gear List
Great Photo Labs
Black & White Film Stock Exposure Tests
Color Film Stock Exposure Tests
Noritsu Frontier Comparison

Ratings and Reviews

a Creativelive Student

Sandra is a gifted teacher!!! I've been following her work for years and know what an incredible photographer she is - but to be able to teach the way she does is truly a rare gift! I've been shooting film on and off for years and was amazed at how much I could still learn from Sandra's class. She presented the information in a way that was so easy to follow that you couldn't wait to get started. It's wonderful to learn from someone who is clearly passionate about their craft - but who is also excited for others to succeed at what they're teaching.


Amy could not have said it better in her review of this class! I am also a film shooter (have been shooting film personally for 8 years and professionally for 4) and even as someone who understands a lot of what Sandra was talking about, I STILL found this class to be incredibly helpful and learned a lot. Sandra is such a great teacher and an inspiration to so many film photographers. Great class! Thanks Sandra and Creative Live for putting this together for us.


Sandra is not only an insanely talented photographer but she's a gifted teacher. I've been shooting film for weddings and portraits for 5 years and even studied it in photography school so I'm not new to film by any means. But I've allowed myself to be so intimated to create portraits with film using strobes for far too long. But not anymore. I'll be 100% honest when I say that the information she teaches in this course, to a seasoned COMMERCIAL photographer mind you, may be insanely simple. But that's the beauty of it!!! There is no reason to over complicate shooting film with strobes. It's the simplicity and straight forward, clear as day information that Sandra teaches that's essential to rejuvenate today's overly 'tech obsessed' world. Film is alive and well! Sandra's course is gold when it comes to getting that appreciation for our craft back! I'm jazzed and ready to slow my roll down! Thank you, Sandra and CL! The value of this class is far more than that of the strobe kit I finally invested in (HOURS after the class!). : )

Student Work