Shoot High Speed Films At The Beach
One Pro Tells Why

Shoot High-Speed Films At The Beach?

This photo of the two girls was taken in a shaded area around sunset when it was still too bright to shoot toward the water. Taken with a Bronica SQ-Ai, 150mm lens, Pro 4 matte box with vignetter, Kodak Portra 400VC, probably 1/30 sec at f/5.6.
Photos © 2002, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

I love doing sessions at the beach. But I also have very strict rules about what I do, when I do it, and how much income I expect to derive from it. This is because I only do one beach session per day. Why? Because I prefer using natural light and that means I have about a 30-minute window of light at the end of the day, which means that in July and August I am sometimes shooting at 8:00 at night. Since the sessions are restricted by time of day and lighting, I have a higher minimum order on beach sessions than other sessions. Make sense? It does to me and my clients, so I'm sticking with it.

Before we go too far and I get some letters stating why don't I just do them when it's cloudy, there are a couple of reasons. First, I can't predict a cloudy day, but I can predict the end of the day. Second, on a cloudy day the brightest light is usually from overhead, creating "raccoon" eyes from the overhead lighting. If I was photographing an individual up close, I could fill it in with a reflector, but most of my beach sessions are families, so I'd have to resort to flash, which, once again, is not my style.

This photo of Eric Morrow was taken just before I could shoot with the ocean in back; you can see how the light is slightly stronger behind him but filled in from the front from the open sky. (Bronica SQ-Ai, 150mm lens, Kodak Portra 400VC, probably 1/30 sec at f/5.6.)

Here's the rationale for shooting so late in the day. I'm on the East Coast (New Hampshire) and the only time I can get soft light on both the faces and the ocean background is late in the day. That's because the sun has set in the west (bright, ain't I?) and my main light source is the reflected light from the western sky. It's just beautiful. The only bad thing about it is its short duration and the fact that the best light of the day also comes when it's dark, and getting darker! There's always a catch! Many times I will get there with my clients and wait until the light is right. If I try to shoot too early, the sky over the beach is too bright. So I wait.

Film Selection
Now that we've got that settled, let's get on to the actual shooting session and talk about film choices. At this point, I am still using film but that may change once I get my Kodak 14n digital camera. That's the subject of another article, but for now I'll point out that film is my preferred method of capture because of small head sizes, interpolation issues with digital, and digital noise when using higher speeds.

This family photo was taken in a favorite area of mine. They are facing the ocean (east) and getting a nice light on their faces. There is also a nice rim light from the western sky lighting the hair. (Bronica SQ-Ai, 150mm lens, Kodak Portra 400VC, probably 1/30 sec at f/5.6.)

With that taken care of, let me also say that I take over 90 percent of my film images with film that has an ISO rating of 400. With the high quality of today's films, I just don't see any need to sacrifice film speed for quality. I have 24x30 images in my studio from medium format negatives that look great. It's pretty rare that I go above that size, and when I do it's usually predetermined. So that's why I use what I do.

I don't use tripods very often, but this is one of the cases where I do. By the time the session ends, I'm usually shooting at 1/8 sec or less! I can't hold it that still plus get accurate focus in the dim light, so a tripod is a necessity. As stated earlier, I prefer higher speed films anyway, so most of my shooting is done with ISO 400 speed films. That's what I start with. I usually like to shoot 220 film also, so I'm not changing rolls so often, but here I use 120 film so I can go to a higher speed film at once. So I start out with a 400-speed film and go to an 800-speed film when the light demands it. Keep in mind that I'm usually doing families with kids, so even though my camera isn't moving, my subjects most likely will be. Therefore, 1/8 sec is about as low as I dare go. Plus, I can't see to focus anymore--no autofocus on my medium format camera!

The results I get are worth the effort. We are known for our "beach portraits" and our sales are great from them. Even if you don't have a beach around, shooting in the twilight hours will give you spectacular lighting results once you get comfortable with it. So take your camera, tripod, high-speed film, and maybe a flashlight, and get practicing. You will be rewarded with outstanding photos.

Yes, this is a moonrise photo! I didn't plan on shooting this late but we had a nice night and after I set the Howard family up, the moon came up right in back of them! It was "very" dark. I shot this on Kodak Portra 400VC film at about 1/4 sec at f/4. Notice how the image almost looks like a flash was used. That's because the light is flat, coming right over my shoulder, and the sky in back of them is considerably darker.

A Matter Of Taste
In the article we talked about film speeds, but exactly which films should you use? Well, that all depends. I'll tell you what I use, then you go do your own testing. Don't be surprised if your tastes are not the same as mine.

First, I'll say I use both Kodak and Fuji films. I like Kodak 400VC because of its extra punch. Remember, I'm shooting in low light and my subjects are front lit (flat lighting) many times, so the extra contrast adds a little zing to the portraits. But when I go to the 800 speed, I prefer Fuji NHG or NPZ. Why? It seems I get a little tighter grain from the Fuji films, especially the NPZ. Let me just note at this time that you have to do your own tests to determine a "true" film speed, and a film's speed with flash may not be the same as its speed in existing light. With that in mind, I rate the Kodak 400 film at 320 and the Fuji films at 600. Again, do your own testing to see what suits your taste and metering style. I always use an incident meter aimed back at the camera. Since the light on my back is usually the same as the light on the subject, I can pretty much just hold my light meter out in front of me and use that reading.

Let's talk about that personal preference thing again. I was part of a group of photographers involved in a film test for Fuji when they were testing their new NPH film. What they did was have us take a set of photos of the same subject with Kodak film and the new and old versions of NPH. Then we were flown to Fuji in New Jersey to evaluate the results. Half of the shooters were Kodak users, the other half were Fuji users. We looked at the 16x20 test prints under controlled lighting and picked the ones we liked best. Most of the Kodak users picked the Kodak prints, and the Fuji users picked the Fuji prints! The biggest variable was the paper--Kodak prints on Kodak paper vs. Kodak prints on Fuji paper, and vice versa. It made a huge difference in the results. As a rule, I'd say use the same brand film and paper for best results.

As far as which one was better, that's a non-issue. Both companies make super films, it's a matter of taste and what paper your lab uses. The old rule of test, test, and test still applies. I still prefer the 400 speed films to the higher speed ones, but a little sacrifice in quality is a small price to pay for creating the shot you want.