Wedding Photographers Face The Digital Dilemma
Is Now The Time To Go Filmless

We all know film does a great job. Shot with a Bronica SQ-Ai, 150mm lens, Kodak Portra 400 VC film, natural light plus silver reflector. (Greg and Athanasia Smith.)
Photos © 2001, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

About two years ago I stated in a previous article that I thought most of photography would be "filmless" in 2005. Can I revise that statement? I think that there are not many who accurately predicted just how quickly digital photography went from being a novelty for technophiles to becoming a mainstream way of imaging for both amateurs and professionals alike. Photographers, hobbyists, film companies, and processing labs have to deal with the film vs. digital question on a daily basis.

But how does the current state of digital and film choices affect the wedding photographer? Being a very active wedding photographer, I hope my insights and my discussions with others in the field can help you make the choices that work for you.

My Wedding Workflow
First, let's look at the way I've been doing wedding photography, which is quite typical of many other photographers. For starters, I shoot the wedding on color negative film with a medium format camera. I also shoot black and white film with a couple of 35mm cameras. The black and white shots are always candid, photojournalistic style shots. The color shots are more traditional, and include the "formals," and major events like the ceremony, cake cutting, etc. The color film is sent to my lab in Massachusetts ( where they process the film, scan it, make a set of prints, set up a web site with the photos, and return to me my film, prints, and a CD with all the images. All the scans are stored at their lab and I don't have to touch the film again. I order using the CD and the Internet. It's a very good system and saves me and my staff many hours of time because I don't have to search for negatives, mask and card them, and write the order multiple times on glassines and order bags.

I love doing little detail shots, like this one of the cake. With film, I might shoot a couple, with digital, I'll shoot six or eight to get just what I'm looking for.

The black and white film is a little more trouble. I either shoot real black and white film or Kodak's C-41 processed version. The real stuff is expensive to print. The C-41 film is very inconsistent in quality, even if I use the same lab all the time. Sometimes it looks great, sometimes it looks horrid. I know it can be fixed, but I want it right the first time. Then I must ID it separately, and ordering from 35mm is more of a pain with the negative strips. Not a great system. There must be a better way.

The Third Camera
Enter digital. I have been shooting weddings this past season with three formats--medium format, 35mm, and digital. I've been testing digital to see how it can fit in my workflow and to see what kind of results I can expect. I'll tell you this: I feel like I needed another arm and sometimes another assistant (I use one). Lugging around two complete systems and a third digital option (Fujifilm S-1 Pro, Tamron 28-105 f/2.8 lens), complete with back-up gear and all the accessories is not fun. Plus, it can put quite a crimp in your shooting style. You're there to take photos, not move equipment around. It's not an option for the 2002 season. Let me tell you what I've gleaned from my experiences.

We all know that because of the intense competition between the big film companies, the consumer is the winner. Any of the film choices from the major companies will produce fabulous results. I have found, especially after a visit to Fuji in New Jersey this past winter, that the brand of paper that your lab uses will produce a drastic difference in the appearance of your prints. I'm not saying any one brand of paper is better than another, but manufacturers work hard to make sure their papers match their film. You may like the look of Fuji film on Kodak paper, or vice versa. If you like what you're getting from your lab, stick with them--it's probably because you like the look of your favorite film on their paper of choice. In any case, we know film can produce exceptional results.

With no film changes to worry about and 35mm bodies and lenses, digital is fast! I saw the bride outside the church and her flowers by the window so I shot very quickly to get this.

As far as the black and white is concerned, I think if you're going to do something, then do it right. Shoot the real stuff and find a lab who'll do a good job printing it for you. It'll probably cost you considerably more than color, but odds are if your clients request it, they are more sophisticated and will pay a premium for it. I'm one of the more expensive photographers in my area and virtually all my clients request it.

Digital Workflow
Now, what about the digital? This creates another workflow situation for me, since it must be handled differently than the other two. Since I have just been testing it up to this point and have not been charging my clients for it, here's what I do. I've been using an IBM 1GB Microdrive. At the "Fine" JPEG setting that I use, my files are about 2.3MB each, meaning I can take about 430 shots before I must download. After the wedding, I download all the files to a computer and burn two CDs--one never leaves their order envelope. I then edit, resize the files so a 72dpi 4x5" print is the highest quality they can expect to get, and give it to my client along with a copy of the viewing software that comes with the camera. (Before you call me, it's free for download at Fuji's web site ( always respect copyright.) I can then order my client's photos at my regular lab either by the Internet or by burning them to a CD, depending on how many they order.

I'm not lugging three different types of cameras around this year. Anybody who thinks digital quality "isn't there yet" can come look at the 20x24" prints in my studio, especially when only 1 or 2 percent of those photos will ever be made larger than an 8x10. But, even when faced with beautiful digital samples, some clients are still convinced "film is better." Some even ask on the phone if we're using those "new fangled digital cameras," because they're afraid of them. As I write this on a cold December day in New Hampshire, I am revising my wedding materials so that I shoot the "formals" on medium format film, and the rest of the wedding digitally. Then I'm only lugging two systems for a short time. Presentation will probably be via a web site and I will design all the albums. Six months from now, things may be different, but for now, that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Fast lenses and the ability to change film speeds at will are a big plus for digital. Not using flash creates a natural look.

Digital Weddings
No film expense
No watching roll changes
Fast shooting, 35mm style
Instant feedback
Shoot first, edit later

Initial expense
Lack of wide angle coverage
Sometimes fragile storage media
Public misconceptions
Limited exposure latitude
Shadow detail in high contrast situations

I'm not there all the way, but close!