The Racist History of Film

The film that we use today in our business craft came into popularity in the 1950's and the 1960's - a time when pop culture was dominated by white people and white-centric ideologies. Thus the 35mm and 120 film that was produced for mass consumption was inherently biased towards white people, and against anyone with darker skin complexions. Many film developers of this era made use of a popularized "Shirley card" - an image of a white woman, used as a model of "perfect" skin tone and balance.

Eventually, the film giant Kodak began correcting this disparity - but not for respect of diversity. Manufacturers of food and furniture, for example, were unable to accurately capture the rich brown tones of their products with these white-focused film stocks. In recent years and during this current film photography renaissance, many companies have taken strides to create more adaptive and inclusive films for all complexions. In our shooting experience, however, film remains imperfect for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, & People of Color) and needs constant mindfulness.

An example of a "Shirley Card";

What Have We Learned?

Through a combination of research and experimentation, we have discovered which film stocks capture skin complexion most true to reality - and which films still need post-production editing to reduce white-washing. The Kodak Portra line of film is currently our favorite; it was launched in 1998 for weddings and portraiture, has since been revamped twice, and is available in three different light settings allowing for day or night use. However, this stock purposefully softens red tones - an advantage for lighter complexions, but not desirable or necessary for everyone. Of the many other film options, the next best option is a high-saturation stock such as Kodak Colormax or Fujifilm Superia. Both of these compliment dark tones, though can lean yellow or red overall because they're not specifically designed for portraits.

The moral of the story is - be conscious of your subject and know your film. Almost every film brand has it's own quirks that can be learned and compensated for to make each film photography experience magical.

Farwa & Abbas on unedited Kodak Portra 400

The Problem with Polaroids

Unfortunately, one of our favorite mediums, instant film, can be particularly problematic. Polaroids need more light than most film and often utilizes a flash for proper exposure. In our years of shooting polaroids, the flash frequently lightens almost any complexion. A digital scan of the polaroid can be edited, but the physical copy cannot. Bright, direct sunlight can also inadvertently lighten skin tone, though usually less so than flash. Using soft/diffused natural light is the best option when available - standing near a window, or under the shade of a tree. When this is not possible, flash diffusers can be utilized to prevent the exposure from being so harsh and intense.

Harsh flash, dark background

Diffuse flash, light background

Not Only Skin

Dark and curly/natural hair, if not properly illuminated, can blend into the background of photos or lose all detail entirely. For L&E, this process tends to be more individualized based on shoot location. In-studio or out in the world, lighting equipment makes a world of difference. Soft/diffused backlighting, light reflectors, and lighter backdrops are utilized whenever possible. In a pinch, digital editing can be utilized to lighten specific areas (like hair) without altering complexion.

Layla on Kodak Portra 800 - front-illuminated, light background

A Work in Progress

Our current practice for ensuring our clients love our film photos includes taking a digital photo on set and offering examples of each film stock available. This digital photo works as our personalized "Shirley card" - an image of our client, approved by our client, to match skin tone, lighting, hair texture, and more.

As white women, we realize that we will always have room to grow and more to learn when it comes to supporting and uplifting BIPOC. We come into each shoot with the intention of creating a safe space for personal expression and constructive criticism of our practice. We hope that every client feels empowered to voice concerns, critiques, suggestions, or compliments.

Sean on Cinestill 800t, unedited

Kara on Cinestill 800t, unedited - and not accurate

Kara, edited in post-production and closer to her natural complexion

Co-Photographer at L&E

Sarah Wicker

Sarah is both a psychiatric nurse and film photographer, educated in trauma-informed service.

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