Pushing and Pulling Film: Why and How?

Knowing when to push or pull film can be an important part of making your photographs come out well exposed. Film photography can get confusing, especially when you need to manually adjust the camera to the proper settings.

Pushing and pulling film is a two-step process involving a film camera set to a different film speed (ISO) than what the film is rated (for example, 400 ISO) to either underexpose or overexpose the film in the camera and when the film is developed a specific length of time. The most common process of the two is to push black & white or color film. This is to done to be able to take images in low light environments by allowing the photographer to increase the shutter speed or aperture. Pushing film will also increase the contrast and/or grain of your film in both black and white film and will increase the color saturation in color film.

Deciding which method is best can depend on what film you are using (color, black and white, or slide film), what you are planning to photograph, or even how the lighting is like when you are taking the image. There are a lot of variables to consider during taking an image, and it can often get confusing. However, if you know what you want to shoot, then you are able to get amazing photos using either method. Keep reading for the why, when, and how of pushing and pulling film.

What is Pushing and Pulling Film? 

Pushing and pulling film isn’t a well-known term if you haven’t been working with film photography for very long. These terms tend to be known by either other names or just by the results seen from each method. There are two steps to this process. The first steps happens in the camera and the second steps happens when you develop the film.

The main thing to be aware of is that film is rated based on how sensitive it is to light. Generally, you can buy photographic film rated between 50 – 3200 ISO. However, the typical film speed is between 100 – 800 ISO. There are different reasons why you might want to change the film rating and these are related to pushing and pulling film.

What is Pushing Film? 

When you push the film in your camera, you set the ISO of your film to be higher than the film is rated (also known as box speed). The more commonly known term for this process is underexposing because the film is receiving less light. This allows you to have a fast enough shutter (1/60th of a second) in low light so you don’t get camera shake in your images.

It will usually affect the lighting and overall quality of the photo. However, you need to make sure you do this first step properly and are aware of how to compensate during the second step of the process during the film development stage.

What Happens When You Push Film? 

When you underexpose your film by pushing film, you are trying to find the proper balance of light entering the camera, shutter speed, and the highlights and shadows. This process allows less light to enter the camera so you have to be sure to compensate by changing the camera’s shutter and/or aperture to get a good exposure (detail in both highlights and shadows).

Remember that this overall process will lighten the image overall and will often provide more contrast in the highlight areas of the image than at the film standard speed. You will find the photo will also have more film grain.

How Does Pushing Film Work? 

When you push the film, you are doubling, or pushing past, the speed of the film. This allows less light to strike the film inside the camera, but is made up for in the development process by letting the film be exposed to the developer for a longer amount of time. The film is pushed in camera by stops so pushing a 400 ISO film by one stop will make it 800 ISO. In the same vein, if you push 400 ISO film by two stops, will make it 1600 ISO.

How Does Development Change? 

The main difference with pushing film is your development time will be longer than normal to compensate for less light hitting the film. If sending film to a lab, they will know to extend the development time if you have pushed your film as long as you mark it correctly on the form. This is generally noted by a plus sign and how many stops of light you pushed the film inside the camera (for example, “+1” for pushing one stop).

What Is Pulling Film? 

Opposite to pushing film, pulling film allows for the film to see more light, which makes the image appear darker and will be compensated for during development. This technique tends to be known as overexposing instead of pulling the film.

What Happens When You Pull Film?

Pulling film will cause the film to appear with less contrast and an overall darker image. This can cause less definition in lighter areas but with more detail in the shadows, so you must be aware of the lighting in the environment you are photographing in.

How Does Pulling Film Work? 

The pulling film has a similar idea to pushing film, except instead of doubling the speed, you will half it by a specific amount of stops of light. For example, if you are pulling 400 ISO film one-stop, then one stop of light would then be 200 ISO (in other words, half of 400). When slowing down the speed, it allows the shutter to remain open longer and/or the aperture to be open larger so the film will be struck with more light. 

How Does Development Change? 

The main difference with pulling film from the standard process is the film will be exposed to the developer chemicals during the development process for a shorter amount of time. This makes up for the film being exposed to more light in the camera.

How Does Push and Pull Film Development Work? 

The developing part of pushing or pulling the film is the most important part of this process. If the photograph isn’t developed based on how many stops you used, it could affect the overall quality of a look. The biggest thing you must be aware of is notifying the lab when you drop the film off, so they properly develop it.

When you push or pull the film, make sure to also write it on the film cartridge. The exact rules for notifying the lab depends from location to location. So be sure to check with them how they prefer to be informed.

Developing Film 

The first step in developing film is to have a dark room. If you aren’t planning on sending your film to a lab, then you simply need to find a room that you can block out all light sources so you can transfer your film from the film canister to the developing tank you plan to use. I suggest using this Patterson Tank and reels set for developing your darkroom on Amazon.com. It must be done in complete darkness at this stage because the film is still sensitive to light and light can ruin it (even the normal red or amber safelights can ruin the film at this point this article I wrote about why darkrooms are red for more information about this).

The tools and steps for developing are pretty straight forward, but it varies depending on the film you are working with. This can change depending on the film type, and what kind of developer you may use. Most of these will have instructions for their specific brand included, but be sure that they are meant for your film. You don’t want to develop black and white images using colored film development chemicals and instructions or vice versa.

Pushing Film Development 

As mentioned previously, the most notable portion of the process is that the film will be in the developing chemicals longer than normal during the development process. However, you must be aware that keeping it in development longer won’t change anything if an area was overexposed. 

This isn’t a method to bring, or save, a photo detail if it is overexposed. You will often see that pushed film does have more grain due to the increase in contrast. You need to be careful to preserve any details that are in the shadowed areas, as it can easy for it to get lost using this method.

Pulling Film Development 

The development of this method is basically the reverse of push film development. As mentioned previously, with this process the film is in the development tank for a shorter amount of time than normal during the development process. Film developed by pulling tends to come out with less contrast and dark, so it isn’t recommended for color film. 

Be aware that this won’t change the image you already captured, so you aren’t able to add the contrast afterward. You are simply bringing out the image in the film you already shot in camera.

When Should You Push or Pull Film? 

Deciding which method is best for your situation takes some practice. Each one has benefits and helps with certain kinds of photography, but you don’t want to get them backward. The main thing to be aware of is that the main difference is the exposure. Be aware if you want more or less light to be hitting the film.

When Should I Push Film? 

Push film is most often used for low light. Since you are telling your camera that the film is sensitive to light, your exposure won’t be as long. This is because you want your shutter speed to be faster, resulting in less light hitting the film.

It is often recommended to push film if you feel you do not have enough light as it will bring more contrast and often correct the flat look.

Many people enjoy that it will change the overall effects you can get, specifically the contrast and grain in black and white film. The more you push the film, the more you will see each of these. Pushing also tends to bring more saturation to color film. 

When Should I Pull Film?

Pull film is best when you wish to reduce contrast or expose the film to more light. It will bring out details in shadows that may be otherwise hard to see. This is commonly used when inside a darker house, in a shaded area, or shooting old or expired color film (see this guide I wrote about how to shoot old or expired color film).

This method also adds some effects that many enjoy which are tending to mute colors and flatten the image. This is best if you want less contrast and to bring out detail in darker areas.

How to Push or Pull Film 

You must be aware that there are two main steps to this process. First, you must shoot the image, and then develop it properly in a lab. If you don’t do one of the steps properly, then your image will not come out how you intended.

Shooting Push and Pull Film 

You must first make sure you have a camera that will allow you to change your ISO manually. Many cameras are automatic, so be aware of these differences when purchasing one. Even if you aren’t sure if you want to push or pull the film, it is still recommended as you may need to manually adjust it someday.

Make sure to meter properly in the areas that you want to have detail. Metering is often used to measure the brightness of the image and helps you make sure that it is exposed correctly.

Pushing Film 

This is a great option for low light situations, or if you need to capture a quickly moving object. This can also affect the aperture or the depth of the field. You simply need to adjust the photo by moving it a stop or two. You won’t often need much more than two stops for film, but you are able to do so. 

If you do try to push a 400 ISO film three stops to make it a 3200 ISO, then you will usually end up with more grain and a darker photo. The photo tends to get darker, with less contrasting details due to the lower light exposure. This is the biggest issue people run into when trying to push their film too much.

Pulling Film 

This technique tends to be used with black and white photography. This is best when you are in high-contrast light and are wanting to bring out the details in the dark. Don’t overexpose a photo, or you may have no details left.

What Film Should Be Pushed or Pulled? 

The best way to know when to push or pull the film is by knowing what you are trying to capture. If you are taking a black and white photo, then you would want to do something different than when you take a colored photo. 

Color Film 

When shooting color film, it is most commonly recommended to push over pulling the film. By pushing a color film, you will have more depth and contrast to play with. Many people also enjoy pushing color film to add more saturation to the image overall. 

Black and White 

In the end, you are able to push or pull, depending on the outcome you are looking for. It can be trickier due to the already heavily contrasted image. So you must make sure to consider what you would like the outcome to be, and it often takes much practice to get a full understanding of which is best for which situation.

Pushing Black and White Film 

Since pushing tends to increase the contrast and grain of the image, it can often go wrong in many ways with black and white images due to the pre-existing contract. If the contrast is too extreme, then you may lose details to the shadows. Or you could have an overblown area where there were supposed to be highlighted.

Pulling Black and White Film 

Pulling is best when you are in an area with high contrast, and you need to decrease them. This method will result in the somewhat muddy coloring but will bring out details in the darker areas of the photo that pushing would most likely lose. 

Expired Film

The biggest issue when shooting with expired films is it always risky as you never know how it may have degraded. This also affects how sensitive it may be to light, or affect the silver halides. This is most important in color film since dyes break down quicker than the silver halides. 

You will often find that expired film is less sensitive to light and have a lower contrast. They also come with increased grain and color shifts, which may be subtle or extreme. 

Pushing or Pulling Expired Film 

It is often recommended to push over pull any expired film. This is to help bring contrast and color saturation back into the film. This isn’t necessarily the solution to degrading film, but it can help it more than if you were to pull or leave the image as is. 

Depending on the film was stored, a tip on how to shoot expired color film is to add one stop of light for every decade it is expired. This is done by halving the ISO (for example, if you have 400 ISO speed film and it expired about 10 years ago than shoot your film at 200 ISO and have it developed normally).

Slide Film 

Slide film, or color reversal film, is made to be able to load directly onto a projector and be displayed. This means that what you see in the film is exactly what the image will be. The film is professional-grade and has high contrast, vibrant colors, and fine grain.

Pushing or Pulling Slide Film 

The biggest issue with slide film is that it is much easier to over or underexpose the image. These will result in you losing details in the image, so you must be very aware of this. The biggest thing to note is that slide film usually has around 1.5 stops of latitude. 

You will need to be very good at metering to get a good image out of slide film. Most slide film tends to lean on the side of slower shutter speeds, so we make sure to be aware of this. Especially when considering that the film tends to have amazing color and contrast.

While you are able to either push or pull slide film, it is typically recommended to just shoot at the ISO on the film. There are exceptions, but for consistently good quality images, this is the best solution.

Best SLR Cameras for Film 

SLR cameras, or a single-lens reflex camera, are able to shoot using film. Many people have switched to using DSLR cameras since they are, as their name suggests, digital cameras. However, there are still many different SLR cameras that are popular and highly recommend for any who are interested in film photography.

Canon AE-1

The Canon AE-1 (on Amazon.com) is one of the most well-known SLR cameras to ever be made. It was made from 1976 to 1984, and it was a favorite of many professionals and even those using it as a personal camera. This is a highly robust camera that comes highly recommended and tends to be priced at around $200. 

Pentax K1000 

The Pentax K1000 (on Amazon.com) is an all-metal body that makes it heavier, but also sturdier than other cameras in the market. It is simple and has no extra buttons or switches. All of the settings are manual, which can be somewhat confusing if you aren’t sure what you are doing. 

These cameras tend to vary in price depending on the quality, from $130 to one that is over $600. The main differences in these prices usually end up being add-ons, like extra lenses, or just damage to the camera. Make sure to look at this information when deciding the best option for you.

Leica M6 

Leica makes the most popular cameras digital or film in the photography world. Specifically, the Leica M6 film camera (on Amazon.com) is highly recommended. The TTL metering makes it easy for even beginners to use; however, it is also the most expensive option. 

The biggest thing to note is that these are often considered worth the price. They can be anywhere from $900 for a lower-end model, to $4000 for a mint condition version with add-ons. The price typically falls in between the two, and it will heavily depend on where you search. 

Olympus OM-1 

The OM-1 (on Amazon.com) has amazing quality in a compact camera and is perfect for beginners who aren’t interested in professional cameras yet. These are great cameras for novices and are considered a cheaper version on the Leica. The cost tends to be around $200, and there are many of these around today.

Canonet G III QL17 

The QL17 (on Amazon.com) is the best-selling rangefinder camera of all time, selling over 1.2 million from 1972 to 1982. These were the direct competitor to the famous Leica, which helped boost its publicity among those who may not be able to afford a Leica. 

The biggest thing to note is that their built-in light meter isn’t usually accurate. So many people found that they had to get external ones or an app on their phone. This camera can be found for around $200 and is highly popular to this day. 

Minolta X-700 

The X-700 (on Amazon.com) was Minolta’s best manual focus camera ever. It had the brightest viewfinder and had both automatic and manual modes. This meant beginners and professionals were able to enjoy this camera. The main downside is their lens selection, so it is recommended to look for deals if you are interested in purchasing one. 

The cost for an X-700 tends to vary from $120 for a camera body to over $500 for the camera and extra lenses. As I mentioned above, when purchasing a lens for this camera, you must be sure to look for deals.

Contax T2

The Contax T2 (on Amazon.com) is a popular camera that allows for manual control and an incredible lens. This camera is completely metal, which is very rare for a point and shoot camera. This camera has been rising in popularity since Kendal Jenner used it in 2017. You can now find this camera being sold for over $1000, which is more than even some of the Leica cameras.

How to Push or Pull on a Point and Shoot 

The main issue with a point and shoot style camera is it makes it difficult to adjust the ISO. These cameras will typically follow what the cartridge is labeled, but you are able to ‘hack’ the cartridge.

Changing The DX Code 

The main tools you’ll need are something to either scratch away black paint or electrical tape (black). There are specific codes on the containers that are similar to QR codes, but instead, they are called DX codes. 

Once you know what you want to change the DX code to, you simply scratch or tape off the areas so the camera will process the code correctly. Make sure to note on the cartridge what you changed it to for you and the lab.

Switching the Cartridge 

This is a simple method, especially if you have some empty cartridges. This isn’t the most recommended method, but if you have an empty cartridge with the correct ISO, then you can place your film in it to get that effect.  

What Film Should You Use? 

After deciding on a camera, you will need to locate the film. This is especially important since this will be heavily based on the images you are planning to capture, or if you want to push or pull the film. 

FujiFilm 

FujiFilm is well-known to the entire photography world. They carry popular Instax cameras and even digital cameras. Along with this, they are still producing the film for SLR cameras, and it is still some of the best quality film available. 

Velvia 50 ISO, 35mm, 36 exposures

The Velvia 50 ISO (on Amazon.com) has the most saturated and sharpest color film ever. This film has strong colors and high contrast, so it isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it is a favorite of many. The biggest con to this film is the increasing price as time goes by. Currently, the film is usually around $90 for 5 rolls, but you may be able to find it cheaper in other areas. 

Velvia 100 ISO, 35mm, 36 exposures

This film (on Amazon.com) is one f-stop faster than the Velvia 50 and is considered to be easier to use. The colors on this film tend to be more natural than the other version, but the most notable difference is the difference in speed. The cost can be cheaper than Velvia 50 ISO at $20, but both options are highly recommended. 

Kodak 

Kodak has revived much of its old film and is still a well-known company for it. The popular Kodachrome made Kodak popular when SLR cameras were first popular, but has since been beaten by the Velvia series. However, Kodak is still one of the top sellers for the film in the industry. 

Portra 400, 35mm, 36 exposures

Portra 400 (on Amazon.com) is one of the most popular films currently, especially due to its flexibility for use. Photographers like that you can use this film for multiple purposes from day-to-day. It is amazing for scanning and is highly forgiving with exposures.

The biggest con to this film is that it is one of the least expensive ones on the market for 5 rolls for around $60. However, many believe that this cost is worth it for the quality and ease of use.

Ektachrome E100, 35mm 36 exposures

This film (on Amazon.com) is the closest to the original Kodachrome, with amazing saturation. This is considered extremely similar to the Velvia 100, with less exaggerated colors and extremely fine grain. The cost is around $20 for a roll.

Ektar 100 35mm 36 exposures 

This film (on Amazon.com) is an ultra-fine grain with a high saturation film. This film is cheaper than the others at $10 a roll, or $200 for multiple rolls.

Final Thoughts 

The most important thing to note about pushing or pulling the film is that it may take practice. Learning the balance between over and underexposing an image can be confusing, especially when learning how to use a film camera in the first place.

Adding these dynamics to an image can turn out amazing and many enjoy using these features to add extra magic to their images. Keep in mind that knowing what you are shooting and what may work best for your film is highly important before beginning. 

Lee

My name is Lee and I love photography and learning. I received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography in 2010 and have worked as a university professor for the last 10 years in addition to being a working photographer. I started this website to learn more about digital and film-based photography and to provide a resource for all of my students.

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