Fast film on a sunny day — how to open up the aperture without messing up the exposure?

So you decided to push your film to ISO 1600 and now you want to shoot wide open on a bright sunny day? You may think you’re totally screwed, but fear not! Before you reach to your digital camera, here are couple of tricks to assure you can still shoot wide open(ish) with fast films during your summer holiday on the beach. 

There’s no changing the ISO between the shots on a film camera

One of the advantages of shooting digital of course is the ability to go back and forth with the ISO settings whenever you please. As a film shooter, you are committed to a certain ISO when ever you make the decision while loading a new roll of film. There’s no changing the ISO mid-roll. Even though it might be frustrating, because let’s face it, you might need a faster ISO indoors or later in the evening, you are always fixed to the ISO you begin with. 

Slow films are beautiful, but what if you already loaded up fast one?

I personally love slow films for their smooth grain and the ability to shoot with hilariously large apertures during the day. Sunny 16 is all well and good, but following the rule will eventually restrict your creativity. I mean, just because it’s a sunny day, do you want to shoot at f16 just because of that? What if you really want a blurry background?

At least at the moment, I could shoot Ilford Pan F (50 ISO film) every day of the week and twice on sundays, but it is a very condition specific film that requires a lot of light. Safer bet is to turn to Ilford HP5+, Kodak Tri-x or any of the faster ISO 400 speed films. Especially on the darker times of the year. They are extremely versatile films, and contrary what you may have believed, not at all too fast for shooting wide open on bright days. There are just few workarounds, that you might have not figured out yet.

First things first — lens and film selection 

Before moving along, I’m assuming you already know that something like a 50mm f1.8 is a good lens choice for creating nice depth of field effects. So make sure that you snap your nifty fifty on instead of a wide angle, which would be a horrible choice in the quest for bokeh, no matter what you’d do. 

The most obvious solution for achieving bokeh friendly conditions would, of course, to shoot a very slow emulsion or to pull your film, but like I mentioned, this article will only cover the dilemma while already having a fast rated film inside the camera and changing it is out of the question. 


The first and most obvious solution of course is to use an ND filter (neutral-density filter). I have an ND filter that can reduce the light by four entire stops. Even if I’m pushing my film to, let’s say 800, while that thing slapped to the front of the lens, It’s almost like having an ISO 100 speed film. Albeit a very grainy and contrasty 100 film, but none the less. ISO 100 equivalent is plenty slow for shooting with large apertures on a bright day. A red filter is great for black and white films, but it will only reduce the light by about one stop, which might not be quite enough. 

Here’s one example using a red filter on a 35mm f2.8 lens.

Shoot backlit subjects and favour shadowy areas

If you don’t have an ND filter, you can always just shoot backlit subjects. Following the sunny 16 rule, when shooting for example a portrait with the sun behind your back, you’d shoot apertures suitable for sunny conditions, something like f11 or f16. Sunny 16 rule will tell you that the correct aperture for shadows is f4, which is actually a pretty portrait friendly and semi-bokeh-producing setting. So all you need to do is tell your model to turn 180 degrees, so that his or her face is actually on the shadow side, and shoot the photo facing your camera more or less towards the sun. Just remember to spot meter directly from the subject’s face (and realise you have a high chance of getting flares). Or if you don’t have a spot meter, go really close to take the metering and then move back again. Remember that all center weighted meters will be fooled by back light and will render a silhouette unless you know what you’re doing. An all manual camera is advised for this reason alone. 

Here are few examples of shooting from the shadow side without rendering the subjects into silhouettes.

But wait? Does f4 really give enough BOKEH? Well it certainly does not, but since film typically has so much latitude, you can secretly open the aperture up to f2.8 and you won’t even notice the difference. Any film can easily handle one of two stops of overexposure. You’re going to scan the negatives anyway and slight overexposurage can be recovered easily in post. 

And if you’re indeed shooting a portrait scenario, remember that the distance between you and subject should be much much less than the subject and the background. So get as close as you can and make sure there’s an ocean view on the background, stretching all the way to the infinity. 

A related trick is to move to a shadowy spot all together, where you’d shoot large apertures anyways. You can still, in some cases, compose a non-shadowy background to create a huge background separation with bokeh and actual tonal differences.   

High shutter speeds

While most typical film cameras can max out a shutter speed of 1/1000, some fancier ones are able to manage 1/2000 or even 1/4000. Those crazy fast shutters will enable you to open up the lens an according one or two stops. That might not be enough by itself, but in conjunction with the other tips and tricks, they can certainly increase the chances of accessing the wider apertures. 

That’s basically it! As the case often is, restrictions are actually the key to creative solutions. I never thought about these things while I was shooting only digital, because the camera offered too much liberating functions that basically offers the solution for you, without having to think. I’ll mention once again that I have nothing against digital photography, but I’m rather highlighting just how delightfully well a simple thing like not being able to chance the ISO whenever you please, might actually encourage you to get creative and learn new aspects of exposure while doing it. So is it really that restricting to stick with one ISO 36 frames at a time? Or is it enabling other things that you wouldn’t ever think before?

Some of the sample photos, by the way, in this article actually feature some slow films as well, but the techniques mentioned above, are none the less incorporated as explained.

I hope you learned something new from this post! Keep shooting! 🙂