Film School

Zach wearing Pop Trading Company x Carhartt WIP, shot in the new retail space on 35mm film.

Shooting on film is always something of a curious challenge. 

Having first taken up photography in the late 1990's / early 2000's, I obviously learned the basics of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed on a digital camera. 

Come 2012, I was starting my first retail project [an online consignment store], and was gifted some basic studio strobes to elevate my presentation. 

Learning the basics of three point lighting, depth of field, and the ever elusive perfect sharpness was an epic challenge. But it was a challenge which broadened my understanding of the maths of photography at large - gleaning a wider understanding of light, contrast, and the limitations of a camera sensor's dynamic range.

Keep in mind, this was circa 2012, taking strobe-lit product photos which were destined to be viewed on a myriad of disparate and different display technologies - all of which were dangerously variable. 

Presently one can expect their website's visitors to be on a variety of IPS or OLED based smartphone screens, or relatively dependable notebook computer displays - all of which will have high colour accuracy and passable contrast ratios out of the box. 

While I could never claim to have fully "mastered" strobe-based studio photography, I felt I had gotten close enough to produce photos where the subject is in sharp focus, with no perspective distortion, properly lit, with the background appearing a full f-stop brighter than the subject. 


Photo of Rick Owens FW17 from the old Calculus home-based studio.


And then, just then, I decided to abandon it all. 

You see, the sterility of digital photography was starting to bother me. 

I had the ability to create superhuman perfection, and as a result that goal crept its way into every photo I refined, exported, and touched up. 

Not only that, but the facility of releasing the tethered shutter until one's external SSD is full created a mountain of sorting work once any shoot was done. 

I would be presented with hundreds of similarly perfect photos to choose from where one or two would have sufficed. 

Combined with the need to touch-up and remove every perfectly captured imperfection - the time commitment became completely untenable. 

High contrast, soulessly perfect digital photography have become the norm - so much so that one can notice social media algorithms valuing their super-realistic histograms above those of film photographs.


Photo of Jan-Jan Van Essche FW17 from the old Calculus home-based studio.

Inspired largely by my close pals at Assignment Magazine, and in particular by my talented pal Guy Ferguson, all of whom shoot on film - I figured why not buck the status quo and explore something a little more analogue for my shop's presentation.

Much like the imperfect warmth associated with listening to music on vinyl, there's an indescribable quality to photos taken on film - imbuing every shot with soul in place of clarity and/or detail. 

It wasn't until I switched to film based photography recently that I realized just how spoiled I had been with my all-digital setup.

Adding to the challenge was the fact that I had sold all my studio lighting equipment, and was now relying 100% on a combination of [infinitely variable] natural and 4100k shop lights. 

Everything had been quite easy up until recently, when I had to shoot my first all-black collection of clothing with the release of the Pop Trading Company x Carhartt Work in Progress collaboration. 

Photo of Pop Trading Company x Carhartt Work in Progress in the new retail space.

You see, a camera's sensor, unlike the human eye, has a finite dynamic range. 

Where our eyes can see a seemingly infinite range of bright whites and dark blacks simultaneously, extremely high-contrast scenes will create a bit of an impossible situation for a camera.

As such, when shooting a stark black outfit against a crisp white retail space, it creates a situation where the camera can't expose subject and background properly - it's either one, or the other. 

In-studio, this was solved by creating separate lighting environments for the background and model through the use of cleverly constructed three-point strobe lights.

Having sold all my studio equipment to save on space in the Calculus studio, I was left with few options after this latest shoot to properly expose the deep blacks of the products against the bright whites of the shop itself. 

To solve this, I employed a little digital maneuvering to the analogue source material - exporting two version of each photo from Lightroom [one for the subject, and one for the background], and combining them in Photoshop. 

Pop Trading Company x Carhartt WIP / Work in Progress

The original photo, un-touched.

Pop Trading Company x Carhartt WIP / Work in Progress

Exposed for the subject / blacks.

Pop Trading Company x Carhartt WIP / Work in Progress

Exposed for the background.

Pop Trading Company x Carhartt WIP / Work in Progress

The final composed product photo.


Despite using spot metering, which should see the camera's sensor expose for the subject [or rather, point of focus], such a high contrast scene is still confounding to its machine-learning brain. 

Keep in mind, this challenge doesn't necessarily present itself with film-based photography alone. It is moreso a challenge associated with product photography in particular - where expectations surrounding colour accuracy, and necessities relating to aesthetics are of utmost concern and/or importance.

[There's also no reason one couldn't shoot on film with studio strobes - and if I'm able to re-acquire such gear in the future you can fully expect me to start experimenting with that process.]

Also important to note, is I'm by no means an expert. 

As someone who's completely self-taught, I'm constantly learning and refining my process - taking influence, inspiration, and education from the many [far more] talented [than me] photographers I'm lucky to be close with. 

Hopefully this gives you a bit of insight into my extant process, and I hope to share more learning with you again the next time I'm facing a particular creative challenge associated with the shop's presentation [online, in-store, digital, analogue, or otherwise]. 

I enjoyed the results of this method so much I'm eager to go through all the photos posted to the new website thus far to re-compose them - but lord knows I'm skint on time and that is a fool's errand.

As ever,



Photos - @noob.combo

Words - @noob.combo

Foolishness - @noob.combo 

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