Pushing Film: What does it mean?

You took a great roll of film at a friend’s house party only to realize that there wasn’t enough lighting and all your photos look like poo. It happens. Especially when you are working in all manual with no flash. So what do you do? There are a plethora of ways to solve this dilemma! The one I want to talk about it is “pushing”. Pushing is simply rating the ISO setting on your camera faster than what the film is designed for.

Wait, what?

The film speed, or ISO, is located in large numbers on the roll.

Film rolls have numbers on the sides of them. Most commonly 100, 400, 800 and 3200. 100 is used for shooting in bright settings such as a sunny day, while 3200 is used for shooting in lower light like a bar or a party. They can’t be used interchangeably because the ISO of the film, or the speed of the film, is designed to work alongside your aperture and shutter speed.

On a regular manual SLR, like the faithful Canon AE-1, there is a knob on the right with the ISO settings. You are supposed to make sure it is set to match whatever number your film roll says. So if you are shooting 400 speed film, which is what I normally shoot with, your knob has to be set to 400 in order for your light meter to work.

Just kidding, it’ll work if it doesn’t match. If you only have 100 speed film you can set your ISO dial to something higher, like 200 or 400 in order to capture fast movement or low light settings. Keep in mind though, once your film is pushed you cannot go back and change it in the middle of your roll. When film is pushed it is underexposed by a stop or two, so keep this in mind when developing as it will need extra time. If you are getting your film developed at a lab, I recommend professional labs only for this, tell them what speed you pushed it to and they will know how to handle it.

Pushing isn’t that hard, right? Now we can talk about Pulling!

Pulling is the opposite of pushing. Pulling is where you make the film slower than the speed it is designed at. For example, taking 400 speed film and lowering it to 200 will reduce contrast and slightly overexpose it. It’s not as common but I figured if I taught you how to pull I should also teach you how to do the opposite. I personally think the results are pretty.

Kodak Portra 400 Film pushed to 1600 by Dejan Karin

Kodak Portra 800 Film pushed to 1600 by Flickr user Andrew Young

An example of “pulled” film. Less contrast, more grain. Photo courtesy of Lomography.com

So what was the point of all of this? Well, for one thing you won’t have to worry if you have the wrong film speed because now you know how to bump it up (or tone it down!). You will have more control over your camera and the way your film looks which in my opinion is crucial in developing (haha, get it, developing?) your own personal style.

All used photos are the property and copyright of their respected owners. Please click on the images to see more of their work!

6 thoughts on “Pushing Film: What does it mean?

  1. Most important thing… don’t forget to tell whoever is doing your processing to push or pull and how many stops. 😉 A decade ago you could get competent 1 hour mini-labs to push or pull or even do in-process color correction, but that was a decade ago, I wouldn’t try it now unless you have a good personal relationship with the person manning the machines.

    • Ahh yes! It sucks that nowadays a good film processing place is so hard to come by. It seems like it takes ages to find a place that does it the way you want and then when you find it they shut down and the hunt is all over again.

      But yes, everyone read that ^ and take the advice! Don’t forget 😉

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