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How to Push and Pull Film for Creative Effects

Updated: 4 days ago

A Primer on Tailoring Your Film Development Process


If you are a film photographer, you may have heard of the terms "pushing" and "pulling" film. But what do they mean, and how can they affect your images? In this blog post, we will explain the basics of pushing and pulling film, and give you some tips on when and how to use them.


Pushing Film

Pushing film means to intentionally underexpose your film at the time of shooting, and then compensate for it by over-developing it in the darkroom. For example, if you have a roll of ISO 400 film, you can set your camera to ISO 800 and shoot as normal. Then, when you develop the film, you increase the development time by one stop (usually about 20% more) to bring out the shadows. This typically increases the contrast and compresses the midtones.

A view through a fence to a drydock in Greenwich, London.
Fuji Neopan Acros 100 push processed 2 stops (EI 400). Thamescraft Drydocks, Greenwich Peninsula, London. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Some films are specifically formulated to be push processed. For instance, Ilford Delta 3200 and Kodak T-Max P3200 (the P standing for "Push") are actually ISO 1000 and ISO 800 films respectively, but their composition and grain structure particularly lend themselves to push processing. Similarly, in the world of colour slide film photography, Fuji used to produce Fujichrome MS100/1000 with specific first developer timings for processing at EI100, 200, 400, 800 and 1000.

Cirencester Abbey from the top of the Broad Avenue in Cirencester Park, with a blue, lightly clouded sky, a light dusting of snow on the grass and the avenue disappearing in front of the camera.
Fujichrome MS100/1000 push processed 1 stop (EI200). Cirencester Abbey from the top of the Broad Avenue in Cirencester Park. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Other slide films like Fujichrome Provia 100F and 400X (now discontinued) also lend themselves to push processing up to 2 stops.


Don't get caught in the trap of relying on push- or pull- development to be sloppy with your metering, learn about the exposure triangle and the Sunny 16 rule and even if you don't have a light meter, you can be confident your film will be exposed correctly!


Pulling Film

Pulling film means to intentionally overexpose your film at the time of shooting, and then compensate for it by under-developing it in the darkroom. For example, if you have a roll of ISO 400 film, you can set your camera to ISO 200 and shoot as normal. Then, when you develop the film, you decrease the development time by one stop (usually about 20% less) to reduce the highlights. This typically reduces the contrast and extends the midtones.


Pull processing film is incredibly useful for scenes of high contrast where you want to maintain printability or scannability - it brings the scene back into a usable dynamic range. Ansel Adams notably used these methods in the guise of the Zone System to produce some of his most famous work.


Why would you want to push or pull film?

There are several reasons, depending on your creative vision and the lighting conditions. Here are some common scenarios:

  • You want to shoot in low-light situations without using a flash or a tripod. Pushing film can help you achieve faster shutter speeds and avoid camera shake or motion blur. However, pushing film also increases the contrast and grain of your images, which may or may not be desirable.

  • You want to create a moody or dramatic look with high contrast and grain. Pushing film can enhance these effects, especially with black and white film. You can also experiment with pushing film beyond one stop, such as two or three stops, for more extreme results.

  • You want to shoot in bright sunlight or with high-contrast scenes. Pulling film can help you retain more detail in the highlights and avoid overexposure. However, pulling film also decreases the contrast and saturation of your images, which may make them look flat or dull. With a proper digital post-processing workflow, this can be quite easy to overcome.

  • You want to create a soft or dreamy look with low contrast and grain. Pulling film can achieve these effects, especially with colour film. You can also experiment with pulling film beyond one stop, such as two or three stops, for more subtle results. The difficulty with pulling film this far is that the development times become so short that achieving even and balanced development can be impossible, leading to poor negatives.


What even is the "correct" exposure of film? Learn why no single answer is correct - and how to use that to your advantage.


Limitations and Drawbacks

Pushing and pulling film can be a fun and creative way to explore different looks and styles with your film photography. However, there are some limitations and drawbacks that you should be aware of:


  • Pushing and pulling film only affects the exposure of the entire roll of film, not individual frames. This means that you have to commit to one setting for the whole roll, and adjust your exposure accordingly.

  • Pushing and pulling film requires more precise metering and exposure control. If you overexpose or underexpose too much, you may not be able to correct it in development. It is recommended that you use a light meter or a camera with manual exposure mode to ensure accurate exposure.

  • Pushing and pulling film may affect the colour balance of your images. Pushing film tends to make the colours warmer and more saturated, while pulling film tends to make them cooler and more muted. You may need to adjust the colour temperature or use filters to achieve your desired colour balance.

  • Pushing and pulling film may increase the cost and complexity of developing your film. Not all labs offer pushing and pulling services, and they may charge extra for them. If you develop your own film, you will need to adjust the development times and temperatures according to the manufacturer's instructions or your own experience.


Pushing and pulling film is not a magic solution for every situation, but it can be a useful tool for expanding your creative possibilities with film photography. By understanding how it works and when to use it, you can create images that reflect your vision and style.

 

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