I started out in photography shooting film because, well, digital didn't exist yet. With my old and beloved Pentax K1000, I shot black and white with Ilford and I shot color with Fuji (usually grabbing whatever was offered in the expired film discount bin at the camera shop since that fit my college student budget).
That was well before I got started in wildlife photography, thank goodness. I already felt like I was spending an arm and a leg during the years when I shot film simply for personal photography. I can't even imagine how much debt I'd have gone into if I'd used it for wildlife photography as well.
Today, film for wildlife photography is simply impractical. The most obvious reasons are the expense, the space, and the speed of use. A stack of CF cards totaling thousands of gigs of memory takes the same space in my bag as a single 36-exposure roll of film - an important factor when hauling a heavy backpack into the field. I can shoot dozens of frames in moments during intense periods of animal action without having to think about filling up a card, and can swap out a new memory card in a fraction of the time it takes to load a roll of film into a camera. It's no wonder that wildlife photographers are grateful for today's digital technology and the myriad problems it solves.
But while I long ago switched entirely to digital, I have never lost the love for that beautiful look film provides. Thankfully, Lightroom makes it easier than ever to mimic the look of film for digital files, and Kirk Mastin of Mastin Labs has perfected the art.
Over the last year I've been zeroing in on my own Lightroom preset for my wildlife photography. With this preset, I've been seeking something that balances the vibrant, crisp, true-to-life look so well loved in today's wildlife photography with the soft subtleties and depth that comes with film.
I had already developed two presets for my pet portraiture and honed the film look that I love. But my pet portrait presets didn't translate well to my wildlife photography. The vibrancy I love for wildlife can get washed out with my presets and requires more clicks to adjust - something that defeats the purpose of a preset. So I worked on a new preset and eventually created a go-to preset that I could click, make any color, tone and exposure corrections, and be done.
My preset was almost perfect, almost. I wasn't sure what was lacking, so I became stuck with a nice preset that worked pretty well for the look I wanted but didn't quite hit the nail on the head. Then I found Mastin Labs film presets and busted open a whole new tool kit that gives me the look I want with the flexibility I need to get my images exactly how I want them with minimal work.
Kirk Mastin also started out in film, but unlike me, he never stopped shooting it. He became a hybrid photographer, balancing film and digital in his work. Eager to find a way to match his digital work to his film work, especially for a collection of shots from a single event, he set out to create presets that perfectly match the look of particular films. With attention to the last detail, Mastin perfected the presets using Fuji Frontier scans to emulate several favorite films used by photographers today.
Mastin also stays true to the look of these films by minimizing the selection of choices for the preset. "No bells or whistles, no options to agonize over, it’s exactly what’s needed and nothing more. Because it’s not about having more choices, it’s about making the right one." Exactly!
Mastin Labs has released a Portra package (which I've never shot with in a film camera) and packages for my old friends Ilford and Fuji.
So let's hurry up and get to some comparison shots. Here's how my own preset stacks up against two Fuji film choices:
(For easy comparison, all images in this post use presets with few or no adjustments other than the preset itself. Click on any image grid to expand the size and see more detail.)
For this photo, I really like how Fuji Pro 400H works out and, with a few more tweaks to the white balance, I would have a finished image. A couple clicks and there it is: that little added punch and special look of Fuji film. With Mastin Labs, I can essentially shoot film again.
The difference that Mastin Labs presets provide in comparison to my own preset are apparent in the image below of the phalarope. While my own preset gave me more definition and depth to the RAW file, it still requires more tweaking to truly get the look I want. The Portra 800 film preset gives the image the exactly look I hope for, bringing the richness back into the sunlight, heightening the feel of depth between the bird and the foreground and background, and bringing life to the highlights and shadows.
Though the Mastin Labs presets are the obvious winner in situations like this, there are other images where the differences between the various film presets are more subtle, and I even prefer my own preset in some circumstances. The image of the dolphin at the bow below is one such case.
When it comes to the quality of blue water in this image, finding the right balance of blue and gray to keep the ocean color as true to life as possible is extremely important for me. So too is keeping the vibrant contrast of color of the viewer’s yellow jacket against that deep blue water. So in this particular case, the film presets weren’t really hitting on the look I wanted without quite a bit of tweaking, and I’m glad I have my own film preset as a back-up for these cases.
Speaking of blues, this is one of the key aspects I pay close attention to when using the Fuji and Portra presets. Blues can get a rather dramatic treatment with these films, and finding the exact one that suits your scene and keeps it honest is important. The photo of this red-necked grebe is a telling example.
The difference between Portra 160 and Fuji Pro 400H is dramatic, and this is after I adjusted the blues in the Fuji Pro 400H preset.
The two photos below show how the grebe looked with just the Fuji Pro 400H preset, and the preset adjusted slightly for a more true-to-life blue. This film, even with an adjustment, still doesn't represent the water color quite as accurately as I'd like, but that's why it's so great to have all the film presets available, so that you can select the film type that most accurately portrays the moment you captured.
While the beautiful green tones added to the water in the photo of the grebe could be perfectly acceptable for someone photographing a pond at an outdoor wedding — and wedding photographers are the primary users of Mastin Labs — the change is unacceptable for me and my work. So while sometimes the presets are a three-click-wonder for my photos, there is still careful decision-making and adjustments required.
Thankfully, it's easy and fairly speedy to make color corrections that balance the colors brought out by film with the colors captured by the camera by putting your images side by side in Lightroom's Develop module. Simply make adjustments in the Hue, Saturation and Luminance sliders to find a happy medium, referring to your original for accuracy.
Though there may be an issue with the color of water in my photographs, the presets work wonders on a sky. Here’s an example of the presets in action, including an adjustment for correcting underexposure in my original image.
Among the presets, Portra 800 has become my go-to favorite for wildlife for its beautiful color saturation, gorgeous tones and overall depth. Simply put, it’s dreamy for nature photography. One thing I do watch out for with this preset is the saturation of the oranges. Sometimes it can be a little too intense, especially in an animal's fur coat, and needs to be toned down a bit - but that's simply a quick adjustment in the saturation module. Here is a selection of images processed with Portra 800, with few or no adjustments other than the preset, the lens correction option, and medium format grain option.
The best part is the flexibility the Mastin Labs suite of film presets offers to digital photographers. I don't have to stick to a single film like I would if I were actually shooting a roll. I can select the film type that keeps the look truest to the scene.
For instance, while Porta 800 works best for the bulk of my wildlife work, sometimes it is just the entirely wrong choice. After bringing home photos from a morning sunrise at the beach, I discovered that my favorite Portra 800 film preset significantly changed the colors and tones of the sunrise, but Portra 160 nailed it. With this preset, I made minor or no color corrections to the images from the morning.
With the ability to switch presets, I can edit the early morning images with Portra 160 to stay true to that scene, and then switch to Portra 800 for the photos from later in the morning, since that film hits the bright colors in a way that's more to my taste.
Before I wrap this up, I have to pay tribute to the gorgeous Ilford preset package. I used to process black and white a lot more often than I do these days, but the flexibility of the Mastin Labs presets will probably change this.
Like my color film preset, I had tweaked my own black and white film preset over the course of a couple months until I had something I was pretty much happy with. I'd been using it for about two years, and it is similar in look to the Ilford HP5 film on warm tone paper - but obviously not nearly as dead on as Mastin's. Now that I have the beautiful and accurate selection of black and white films from this preset package, I will rarely use my own preset. Instead, I'll be busy enjoying the flexibility offered in what amounts to a suite of tools for accurate black and white film photography.
Within the Ilford preset pack, you have not only presets for three Ilford films in 35mm or medium format grains, but also red, green and yellow filters, and the choice of warm, cool or neutral paper. Here is a comparison:
No matter how much I love the aesthetic of film, the fact is I'm never going to use it for wildlife photography. The expense, the added likelihood of missing a critical moment for a shot when I run out of film in the middle of an action-filled moment (perhaps the only moment I'll get with that animal after hours of waiting) the burden of carrying loads of film into the field and the tension of running out before the trip is over... this and so many other constraints will always keep me firmly in the digital world. So the idea of being able to have the look of favorite films while shooting digital is huge for me.
Mastin Labs offers invaluable tools to balance the ease and cost-effectiveness of digital photography with the timeless feel of the work of wildlife photographers who lugged bags of expensive and delicate film into the field just a couple decades ago. (And, it also means you don't spend a year making tiny tweaks to your own preset that doesn't offer the flexibility of the Mastin Labs collection. Just sayin'.)
One important issue to note is the concept of honesty and restraint in post-production. For me, using presets to create the look and feel I want for an image is fine so long as I am staying true to the natural look of the scene and not going overboard with adjustments. It's one thing to want to emulate film, and it's another to significantly alter the look of the image (which some of these film presets can do if you aren't careful).
When editing, I always keep in the back of my mind the rules for most wildlife photo contests, which typically include specifications that you can make only minor corrections to exposure and color, burn and dodge, fix sensor dust and so on. But minor changes only - and you most certainly can't add or remove objects to the image, nor significantly crop the image. While I wouldn't submit a photo edited with a film preset to most contests anyway, I still keep the rules in mind as a reminder to edit with a light hand while I enjoy my gorgeous film-emulating presets. When I compare the original and edited images side by side, I should see simply a nice "pop" to the richness of the photo and the familiar look unique to that film type, and nothing more.
After working with these presets, the craving to work with film again has bubbled up to the surface. Who knows, maybe some landscape photography with Portra and an old Pentax K1000 is in my near future.
Because I rave about this product, I will say now for clarification that nope, Mastin Labs didn't pay me to write this or even give me the presets for review. Mastin Labs pretty much doesn't know I even exist. This is a product I paid for out of pocket and simply love this much.
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